Annette Andre: My Brilliant Early Australian Career

August 29, 2020
Years before Kylie Minogue, Isla Fisher and Cate Blanchett came along, another Australian female actor conquered London.

Annette Andre, born and raised in Sydney, lit up British screens in the 1960s and 1970s on shows such as Randall and Hopkins (Deceased), The Saint and Crossroads, as well as films like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and He Who Rides a Tiger – matters she’s discussed in her excellent memoir Where Have I Been All My Life?

Ms Andre is less well known for her considerable contribution to the early years of Australian TV drama – the really, really early period no one talks about much, the 1950s and 1960s.

Stephen Vagg, who is currently obsessed with this era, decided to rectify this and got in touch to ask Ms Andre some questions about her early Australian career.

How did you get into acting?

I started in ballet as a child when I was four years old. My mother put me in ballet classes, little knowing that I would be totally obsessed. Through childhood I wanted to be a ballet dancer. At age 15, I was chosen for the Australian Ballet Company and then they discovered I was underage – I was only 15 and it wasn’t legal for me to be professional. I was chucked out. I could have waited another year, but I just thought “no, anything can happen between now and then, I’m not going to just wait around”, so I gave up ballet.

I knew I would go on the stage. I left school and did some theatre work as a dancer, not ballet, just as a dancer. Then I thought ‘Okay, let’s get further into it and start acting’. Radio was a big thing in Australia then. I started in radio just a little bit before television. I was 17 when I got my first radio job. Then with all the radio work I was [also] doing some theatre. Then television opened up. They were just doing strange things then, little programs for five hours a day, that sort of thing until drama finally started.

The first thing I did on television was this religious program [The House on the Corner (1957) a drama produced by the Christian Television Association which aired on ATN-7] – a quarter hour show. I think it was 4 eps in total, and I was in the four.

I played a young Hungarian girl, and I didn’t know any Hungarians. I went around the shops and eventually found one girl serving behind a counter who was Hungarian. I got into conversation with her and explained that I had to acquire a Hungarian accent. She was very helpful and spent some time talking with me. The director was quite happy with the accent – but I really don’t think he knew what a Hungarian accent sounded like either.

She then appeared in If It’s a Rose (1957), a TV play produced at the ABC by Ray Menmuir based on a play by Italian Dario Niccodemi. (Australian producers were reluctant to present Australian material at the time.)

I did the second play to be done on ABC TV – If It’s a Rose [1957, produced by Ray Menmuir based on a play by Italian Dario Niccodemi. Producers were reluctant to present Australian material at the time.] It was a two hander, just Don Pascoe and myself. It was all done live. The sets weren’t too steady, I remember they shook a bit when you opened a door (laughs).

It was a period play set in Italy with the appropriate costumes of the time, long skirts and frilled bodices etc. I had two quick changes, which were done at the side of the set with a woman dresser. With the second change I ran off the set where the dresser was waiting and she got me out of my costume and into the new one in record time but the zip at the back got stuck and, poor woman, could not fix it. We started the new scene and I had to turn my back on Don, and when he saw the dress open, got such a shock and called me “Annette” instead of “Maria.” (laughs) How I restrained from laughing out loud I don’t know. It was all a bit hit and miss in those days.

Ray Menmuir was a lovely man, small with a little round face, a good director, knew what he was doing. He was one of the ABC directors at the time.

Don Pascoe was one of the leading actors of the time. We’d worked together on radio. He was a lovely man, quite a good actor – but a bit stiff.

What was it like performing live?

I got used to it. We all did ‘live’ TV then. When you’re on television you have to hit marks, which are specified, rehearsed positions, because the cameras were large and heavy and couldn’t move about quickly to follow you. And back then, we hadn’t had any experience, not many people to learn from, so you had to be a quick self-learner in those days.

Also, if you do forget a line you can see it in your face as the camera picks up everything. Your face freezes a bit, or you look like a deer caught in the headlights. If you start moving around, you move away from where the camera is used to seeing you. Of course, being ‘live’ does set the adrenalin going but because you had to be so precise for the cameras it was a bit nerve-wracking.

Things did go wrong. On stage, if something goes wrong you can actually ‘fake’ it a bit, by moving around, or picking something up, little bits of ‘business’, or hoping one of the actors will help you out. But you can’t do that on television. Eventually, ‘taping’ or ‘recording’ the shows replaced a lot of the ‘live’ stuff. Most of the dramas I did after that were taped.

Wuthering Heights (1959), an adaptation of the famous novel by Emily Bronte, produced at the ABC by Alan Burke.

I was Isabelle, Lew Luton was Heathcliffe, Delia Williams was Cathy – I liked her and we worked together several times. Lew was strange but we got on well. I remember my hair was very blonde. I’d had to colour it for a TV drama I’d just done in Melbourne.

We rehearsed up in Kings Cross – there were ABC rehearsal rooms up there I believe. Lew and I went off for lunch one day just at the time when the police were looking for a man who was attacking and killing women. Lew looked somewhat like him and also, he apparently had a blonde girlfriend. People would look at us when we were walking together and somehow, we came to the attention of the police, because Lew had to be interviewed. It was rather scary, but it all turned out OK. It did make us a bit nervous though for a while.

I knew Alan Burke very well and liked working with him. I was thrilled to be playing that role, although I would’ve loved to have played Cathy. But Wuthering Heights had been a favourite of mine for years. We worked very hard on it and I enjoyed playing in period costume.

Annette then went into The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day (1960), under the direction of Alan Burke. This was one of the few times she appeared in a play by an Australian writer – in this case Peter Kenna, based on his play.

I remember that quite well – it was with Neva Carr Glynn. I became friendly with her son Nick Tate [an actor, later famous for Space 1999 among other shows] but that was in England. I had worked with Neva on radio and television. She was a wonderful actress – I was always terrified of her, she was a really tough lady, but very professional and experienced. I have to say I learned a lot from her. I was actually quite shy. And in order to cover my shyness I became a bit stand offish, a bit cold. Not overly-friendly I suppose. But I was scared stiff. Neva never really talked to me a lot until we did Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day and she said “my God I was terrified of you.” I said “What? I’m terrified of you.” We both laughed and became quite friendly after that.

That was a good play. It gave me an opportunity to play a significant role in a modern drama with a good cast and a very good script, and addressing a real life situation. I guess it was the beginning of the “kitchen sink” dramas.

Another member of the cast was Walter Sullivan. I believe I worked with him when I was 8 years old and I was cast in a professional theatre production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Theatre Royal in Sydney and I played the fairy, Cobweb. I think Walter Sullivan was in that production and I “fell in love“ with him. Love at 8 !!! However, in later years in Slaughter of St. Theresa’s Day, he tries to seduce me!!

In Sydney, there was a group of actors that I was lucky enough to be part of – we were offered some of the better roles.  Gordon Glenwright, John Tate, John Meillon and Charles Tingwell, Madge Ryan, Dorothy Allison, Lewis Fiander, Kevin Brennan and Barry Creyton. We all ended up in England at some point. It’s strange remembering all these actors, and all were really well-known in Australia at the time.

She guest starred in several episodes of Whiplash (1960-61) – a “meat pie Western” starring American actor Peter Graves as the owner of a coach line.

Whiplash was the first filmed TV series in Australia. I had done a bit of filming, just as an extra, but none of us had done much filming except for a few actors who’d gone to England. In Whiplash, we were all at sixes and sevens – never done something like that before. The directors were English and American, they were experienced. But most of the crew and cast had never filmed a series.

As an example, in one of the episodes, I was working with an actor called Joe McCormick. It was a scene where we were being threatened by the ‘bad guy’ with a shotgun. The bad guy pulls the trigger and Joe falls to the ground, shot. Thing is, he was really shot. Luckily, it was blanks that were fired but because it was so close they caused quite a bad injury, which sent Joe to hospital for about two weeks. Obviously, whoever was in charge of “props” didn’t check it out correctly. That was inexperience!

I can’t swim. But in one of my episodes, I was on a canoe with Peter Graves and I have to fall overboard. Well, I told the director I couldn’t swim, which was true, I couldn’t, but he reassured me that I’d have a double to do the stunt. When we went to shoot it and I asked where the double was, they said “we haven’t got one.” I said, “I can’t swim I really mean it.” But I was told it was shallow and I’d be able to stand up. So, when the moment came, I took a deep breath and threw myself into the water. I went down and down and down and then I did come up but went down again!! When I came up the second time Peter was ashen, he grabbed me by the dress and yanked me up into the boat – it wasn’t very elegant – but they kept that shot in.

We took a lot of chances in those days, it would never get past the insurance now, but back then, I doubt there was any insurance for the actors. We were all learning, it was early days. We had to find our own way through it – there was no one to teach us.

I think it was an excellent time for people like me, because I was young, and we had to cope with a lot of things that were beyond our experience. But it was a truly good grounding for actors, I’ve always been grateful for that.

Peter Graves was such a lovely man. And very helpful to us, because he was a very experienced American actor. He was one of the few at the time that we could learn from. Sometimes there were problems on set with the odd argument or disagreement or upset or just nerves, but Peter always calmed things down. He was a bit like Roger Moore in that way.

The other thing I remember about Whiplash was the actor Robert Tudawali – he was in one episode with another Aboriginal man called “Nose Pecker.” Robert was a gorgeous looking man. Nose Pecker was the sweetest person and I enjoyed talking to him, in Pigeon English. When I grew up in Australia, I never saw a black person, everyone was white.

There was another episode where I acted with Reg Lye. I later did an episode of The Saint with him, which was set in Australia. In my Whiplash episode, we were caged with two emus. I love animals but emus are a bit scary. They have sharp beaks and they peck you. Poor Reg was bald, and they loved to peck at his head, it was not amusing to him. The emus were eventually taken out of the cage. There were a lot of odd things that went on in Whiplash.

Another one of my co-stars was Guy Doleman – I worked with him a few times, in radio quite a lot and in a theatre production of The Reluctant Debutante – I was understudy for Rona Newton John, elder sister of Olivia. In those days, you worked at everything you could. I’d do that at night and radio in the day, and even piked up the occasional TV commercial. I remember being paid £6 for a commercial, which I thought was a gift from heaven.

John Meredyth Lucas, one of the directors on Whiplash, was a bit difficult. He wasn’t easy to get on with.

Another actor I worked with on the show was Grant Taylor. I worked with him a lot of times, in television, and certainly a lot of radio.

I think he had a role in Kid Grayson Rides the Range – that was a radio series I was in. One day, we came in and the tape wasn’t working – so we had to record it on a record (vinyl) and you can’t make a mistake. If so, you had to go right back to the beginning and start all over. Well, we were all crowded around the microphone and halfway through, one of us made a terrible mistake, I don’t remember exactly what happened, but we all started laughing, hysterically, we couldn’t stop, so we had to go right back to the beginning again. And we didn’t even get overtime!!!!!

Annette had a small role in Stormy Petrel (1960), directed by Colin Dean – the first Australian historical miniseries ever made, about the Rum Rebellion.

I played one of the daughters of Captain Bligh (played by Brian James). I remember we had the 18th century dresses with bonnets and high waistlines. I remember being on board the ship with Brian James. I don’t remember much else about that production.

She was in an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1961), directed by Alan Burke.

I played Jessica, Barry Creyton played Lorenzo. He became famous on Australian TV with The Mavis Brampston Show I think in the ‘60s. He now lives in Los Angeles. One of my friends, Tanya Haylesworth played Portia – she was a TV presenter but also did some acting. And here I was, a nice Catholic girl – God! I’m a long way from that now – playing Jessica, daughter of Shylock. I would’ve loved to play Portia, but Tanya gave a wonderful performance

Martine (1961) directed by Chris Muir, based on a play by Jean-Jacques Bernard

That was directed by Chris Muir. I loved him as a director, he was very intelligent and more experienced. He wasn’t easy, but he could get a performance out of an actor. I really enjoyed working in Martine. We did that down in Melbourne. I played a mute girl, a very different role for me but an interesting one. I think I got some reasonable reviews.

Boy Round the Corner (1962), directed by Chris Muir was an original TV play by Australian Greg Bunbury.

I think it was the last thing I did before going to England. I have no recall of it except I know I liked working with Chris.

Annette Andre also appeared in a number of TV variety shows at the time, such as In Melbourne Tonight.

I did a lot of those. I won a contest, and became a co-host on a TV early evening show. And then from that, I think I started working with comedians on the Tonight Show in Sydney. The early days of Australian TV seemed to attract quite a few of the English and American variety stars. That’s where I first met Benny Hill. He loved working in Australia and was very popular. In Melbourne, I worked on the Graham Kennedy Show. From those two TV variety shows, I had the pleasure of working with people like Bob Crosby,  Paul Desmond, Bobby Limb, Dorothy Squires, Digby Wolfe and a teenage guest called Liza Minelli, who at that time was a dancer, and she was sweet, we talked for quite a while.

Andre moved to England in 1962 and was soon very busy appearing in plays, films and television. Some of her roles had an Australian link, such as the episode of The Saint that was set in Australia, “The Loving Brothers”.

Leslie Norman, the director, kept stopping me in the middle of a scene and shouting “for god’s sake, speak Australian will you?” (laughs). He was good fun, though. I liked Leslie very much.

She also appeared in Up Jumped a Swagman (1965), which tried to make a film star out of Australian singer Frank Ifield.

A very strange film. Good cast. Frank was nice, I was just never a fan of his singing. But he was pleasant. I was young enough to have fun with it. At the time, it was good work and I was thrilled to be doing it.

These earlier television performances were just one chapter of a many-storied life. To find out more, see Ms Andre’s website at https://annetteandreofficial.wordpress.com/2018/06/18/welcome/ or buy a copy of her memoir, Where Have I Been All My LIfe at http://www.quoitmedia.co.uk/annetteandre.htm

Share:

Comments

    1. Stephen

      Thanks Nicholas – she was very approachable. I think people have more spare time in Covid!

  1. David Donaldson

    What happened to Rosemary Miller after Emergency Ward 10? Charles Tingwell went on to many further episodes, but she did a lot in the early stage.

  2. Pingback: Barry Creyton Live! | FilmInk

  3. Chris Keating

    As a minor point of order, “Whiplash” wasn’t the first filmed series made in Australia – that was 1955’s “The Adventures Of Long John Silver”.

    “House On The Corner” ran for something like 24 episodes from May 1957 to January 1958 – a simple 10 minute live drama based around the lives of a small Sydney family and their male Hungarian boarder. Presumably, Annette would have played the boarder’s sister or girlfriend.

    It was supposed to be replaced by a program called “A Man Called David”, starring Ben Gabriel. The debut episode is listed in guides in January 1958, but there’s no other reference anywhere – so whether or not it actually happened is a mystery!

Leave a Comment