One of the few times I have managed to earn my parents’ respect with my work on Australian TV history is when I told them I was going to interview Noeline Brown. “Oh she’s fabulous,” they said – an opinion shared pretty much by anyone who saw her in anything, which is a lot, because Noeline Brown has been treading the boards for over fifty years.
She’s done films, TV (drama, sitcoms, game shows), theatre (revue, straight plays, musicals), and radio. I grew up seeing her on repeats of Blankety Blanks (hosted by her good friend Graham Kennedy), which for a time it seemed Channel Ten were legally obliged to show every afternoon.
She’s probably best known for TV gigs like The Naked Vicar Show and My Name’s McGooley What’s Yours?, but she’s also done a tonne of theatre, as well as films like Walkabout, and run for Parliament, and was awarded an OAM and… anyway she’s done heaps.
However, when I interviewed her recently it wasn’t about her famous credits; instead, we discussed her appearances in two Australian TV plays: The Right Thing (1963) and The Recruiting Officer (1965).
The Right Thing
This was a then-rare co-production between the ABC and a British company, Associated Rediffusion. The plot concerned a “typical” Australian family, where the daughter has fallen in love with (gasp) a Spaniard. The cast included Grant Taylor, Alister Smart and Noeline Brown.
“I don’t know how I came to be cast,” recalled Brown. “They were after some beach babes and I guess I qualified. (Laughs) We had to wear bikinis. I brought my own, as you had to then. Anna Volska, who was also in it, was the same. David Yorston and Tom Oliver [later Lou from Neighbours] were the young surfy types.
“We weren’t the family that was involved in the story. One of the sons from the family had all these friends he used to meet, and we played them.
“I remember feeling The Right Thing script was written by someone who had been away from Australia for a long time and I found some of the material a little dated.” [She was spot on, incidentally – author Raymond Bowers grew up in Perth but had spent a decade in London when he wrote the script, and it showed.]
“Alister Smart had returned from the UK and had put on a little weight so he was keen to shed a few pounds to play the lithe and sexy Spaniard. I remember having lunch with him and I was eating heartily, and he was consuming two slimming biscuits [yes, there were such things].
“I remember it was a nighttime shoot. I was working at the Music Hall in Neutral Bay at the time. It was a freezing night, my teeth were chattering so much there was all this steam coming off my lips, so they gave me some alcohol. Then, when I rushed to the Music Hall to do my first appearance, I forgot my lines. I learnt early on to not mix alcohol and work. (Laughs)
“The actual beach scenes were shot in a studio. I’ve got a photo of us on a riser in the studio reclining on the sand. It was shipped there for the day and beach umbrellas, and a lot of hot lights on us.”
The director was Ray Menmuir who Brown recalls as “a charming person who’d come out from England to do the show, but he certainly went back afterwards. He was a very good director.
“The actual scene I had to do was in the swimming pool. I was talking to the Spanish guy who was central to the script. It was an old-fashioned kind of Australian 1940s sort of family and everyone was scandalised by the foreigner.
“I was supposed to be in the pool at the family home in the evening and the Spanish guy comes along and has a chat. I was supposed to dive into the pool, swim along and chat. I couldn’t swim or dive and didn’t know I was going to have to do these things (laughs). And there were no stunt people. But you do what you have to do. I dived in the best I could, and emerged with water coming out of every orifice… I remember it being a difficult moment for me. Ray Menmuir burst into peels of laughter. I was able to do it again.
“I remember the play got notices that the cast was better than the script. That happened a lot in Australia in the early days because a lot of writers were writing for radio and hadn’t got the rhythms of writing for the screen.”
Noeline Browns’s second appearance in a TV play made a much bigger impact: The Recruiting Officer, a racy comedy based on the 1706 play by George Farquhar which was the first play ever performed in the Colony of New South Wales (on 4 June, 1789 with various First Fleet convicts in the lead roles and Governor Philip in the audience… books and plays have been written about this performance.)
The ABC decided to film The Recruiting Officer in 1964. The play had recently been revived by Laurence Oliver at the National Theatre in London, and sexy period comedies were the flavour of the month with the box office success of the film Tom Jones (1963). Noeline Brown featured in a cast that included John Meillon, Reg Livermore, Tony Ward and Anna Volska (again) with direction duties going to Ken Hannam (who a decade later would make Sunday Too Far Away).
“Ken Hannam was a charming bloke,” recalls Brown. “A delightful person and a very good person to work with. A very good director.
“I remember this production in particular as being one of the highlights of my young life. I’d only been a professional performer for a couple of years. It was a big feather in my cap to get the offer. I knew all the stuff about it being the first play performed in Australia.
“I was very fond of classical theatre. That drew me to this one to work in that stylised manner. However, the whole show was not stylised in terms of the acting. It was a bit schizophrenic in that way. Some of the cast were playing it in a naturalistic way like Meillon; with Meillon, you got Meillon, if you get what I mean – he did what he wanted to do. Tony Ward played it as if reading the news. Reg Livermore was a bit classic and I was trying to do the same. Anna Volska came from NIDA, so she was classically trained. It was all a bit strange.
“I remember during rehearsals for a show the director would normally say something like ‘we want it all to be played naturally’ so everyone was on the same page. That was never said at rehearsal for this.”
Reg Livermore wrote about the production in his memoirs, and says John Meillon – a notorious boozer – would constantly leave the rehearsal room when his character was not needed in order to have a drink.
“That was a very Australian actor radio thing to do,” confirms Brown. “To duck out to the pub, somewhere like the Shakespeare Hotel, down a couple of schooners and go back to work, they’d do that all day. I tried that once or twice, but it was too much for me. I stuck to lemon lime and bitters (laughs).”
The Recruiting Officer was filmed at the ABC studios at Gore Hill. “They had two whole studios for the production,” she recalls. “It was really expensive. They had a complete marketplace with stocks and everything set up. I had a wonderful bedroom set – it had curtains and things hanging from the bed. There were wonderful sets and costumes from Elizabethan Theatre Trust. I don’t think I’ve had any better. But the show went to air in black and white so you could’t see the lovely colours.”
Still, Brown recalls The Recruiting Officer as “a delightful play and it was great fun to be in it. With television you don’t really have an opportunity to enjoy yourself – you’re hanging around and you’re on. It’s panic stricken. But that show I remember being glorious.”
Although the production was shot in 1964, it was not shown until the following year. “There was an election for the senate and the government wanted to hold off showing it because the plot concerned conscription,” she says. The play was much acclaimed.
Noeline Brown did appear in a TV play that was shot but never went to air. “I can’t recall the name of the production but I remember the director had me looking into a mirror, then he had the mirror removed for the next shot, and I remember thinking that wasn’t going to work. And it didn’t.”
There were no other TV plays for Brown, not through lack of desire or offers, but because her dance card was full with other jobs.
“Those Australian TV plays did have an impact at the time,” she recalled. “There wasn’t much Australian content so people would say ‘oh there’s something Australian on today’.”
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