The National Trusts of Australia have nominated a further collection of what they call Living National Treasures to add to the ho-hummery of names (everyone you'd expect, from Bart Cummings to Phillip Adams to Cathy Freeman) already on their list in that capacity. Argus looked in vain among the new nominees, most of whom he had never heard of, for one of his favourite Australian female legends, but sad to say she's been overlooked again. This is a crying shame. If anyone deserves to be in a pantheon of living national treasures it's Wyn Pendlebury, actress and gracious stage personality extraordinaire, whose professional career is like a mini-history of Australian dramatic art across the decades.
This veteran trouper, known to a whole generation of television viewers as Bev, the tough warder with a heart of gold in Channel 9's iconic series of the 1980s and '90s Cell Sisters, is still working long past what most people would regard as retirement age. She is currently appearing with Sydney's Tosser Street Theatre Company as the crone who turns out to be Joan of Arc's grandmother in Angel Girl, a ground-breaking tour de force described by its director and writer, Australian playwright David Snark, as "a postcolonial re-interpretation of a play by Brit author George Shaw".
Pendlebury's career has been an exciting one. "I'd always wanted to be an actress, that is actor as they told me to say at the ABC," she confided over a gin, lime and bitters in the Ladies' Lounge of the small pub near the theatre where we caught up. "We lived out at Cowloolaboola in western Queensland and there was no theatre there so I used to cut up copies of the Bulletin and make costumes and give shows of my own to the shearers. I'd make them pay too," she giggles.
Her early talent for acting and singing stood her in good stead when Pendlebury hitchhiked to Brisbane ("some of those truckies should keep their hands on the wheel") to appear in a radio talent quest, impersonating Gertrude Lawrence. Her prize was an audition with Frank Lightfoot for his Mulga Minstrel Show on 4BX. It was the start of her dramatic career. Before long she was appearing regularly in the weekly musical programme Merchant of Music with baritone Hector Smallhorn and Arthur Schmaltz's Old Vienna Strings.
Pendlebury was soon on nationwide radio in a run of successes. "There was The Ovaltine Hour where I played Mrs Peabody. Then I was Marj in The Persil Girls. I was co-star with Lester Smale in Hello Cocky ("Australia's version of The Goon Show but years in advance") and I was poor wheelchair-bound Nurse Goodchild in Flying Doctor's Diary with Cyril Tripe as John Flynn. So many memories," she sighs, blowing her nose into a kleenex. "A refill? Well thank you, don't mind if I do."
The list of Pendlebury's acting credits doesn't stop there. She was Tom Pervis's long-suffering wife Merle in Peeping Tom on 3DB. She was Mrs Danvers in Crawford's production of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca for the Laxette Theatre Hour. And of course many Australians of a certain age will remember her as Trixie, the zany comptometriste in Macquarie Radio's Laugh Till You Bust with Harold "Happy" Olsen. The show ran for 600 episodes until "Happy" committed suicide.
In spite of her radio popularity, she always felt drawn to the legitimate theatre."My earliest role was as one of Mo ("Roy") Scunge's 'Naughty Babes' at the old Alhambra. That taught me a lot. Another? Oh well if you twist my arm."
Melbourne identity Frank Thring recruited Pendlebury in 1953 for his one-man show Well Get You, Darling, which was closed down by the Victorian vice squad after a single performance. She has been a strong opponent of censorship ever since. "Frank was a real gentleman," she says. "A bit you know" - she flaps her wrist and inadvertently drops her kleenex into my glass of Pine O'Cleen Creek Estate Victorian chardonnay - "don't worry, I've got another one in my bag - but a true genius. To close his show was a real attack on the integrity of art, as the editorial in the Age said - not that that made much difference in those days when Australia was pretty well a dictatorship under Menzies."
In 1955 Pendlebury "as a country lass myself" auditioned for the role of Jedda, the Aboriginal girl who meets a tragic end in pioneering Australian director Charles Chauvel's film of that name. The part went instead to Ngarla Kunoth but Pendlebury won the "consolation prize" of playing Flossie, the station cook. Interestingly, she returned to an outback role in the early 1980s when she was cast as baby-snatcher Hetty Johnston in Gillian Johnston's searing portrait of backblocks country life We Danced All Night at the Progress Hall, based on the 1899 children's classic Dot and the Kangaroo by Ethel C. Pedley.
Television brought Pendlebury further fame with featured roles in landmark Australian productions such as Manslaughter Squad ("I was the Chief Commissioner's squeeze") and Wallaby Hill, where she was Miss Hotchkiss the schoolteacher ("not one of my biggest parts as Miss Hotchkiss retires with a nervous breakdown in Episode 3"). She still cherishes the dozens of letters she received when she was Wilma, the chatty tea lady in Grundy's Yawnington Street ("none of my fans were all judgmental when Wilma is revealed as a kleptomaniac," she remembers proudly). This was also a time when television drama was cuttings its teeth with some seriously thought-provoking productions. Pendlebury played Nellie West to Stuart Wagstaff's John West (code for crime boss John Wren) in ABV2's adaptation of Frank Hardy's controversial novel Power Without Glory (Buster Fiddess was Archbishop Mannix).
But the stage remained her first love and when Greta Smartacre set up her Old Soup Kitchen Company in 1973 Pendlebury signed on.
"We couldn't have done it without Gough," she recalls. "He was the shaviour of the arts in this country. I don't know where we would have been without those grants."
Smartacre directed Pendlebury in what became the actor's favourite role, Mrs Allardyce, the sadistic lady bowler, in Hannie Gallbag's biting anti-war satire Lamingtons at the RSL. "It was very intellectually challenging," she says. "It really pinpointed the underlying fascism of the Anzac myth." Other favourites? I loved playing Elma, the nosy neighbour in ABC television's award-winning Mum and Me with Ruth Cracknell - a wonderful performer, truly a grande dame of the theatre - and Gary Loser. Such witty writing."
Pendlebury believes Australia is "streets ahead" in the quality of its theatre. She went to London in the the mid-1960s but came home after a month because she felt she wasn't offered any roles that really suited her. "Our shtandards are mush higher here, and there are so many gifted people around who haven't been tempted by the lure of the so-called West End or Hollywood - you know, Ingrid Thornton, Frankie J. Holden and of course dear Geoffrey Rush, though I suppose he's a bit Betty Bothways in his loyalties since that film about George the Fifth, and Robyn Nevin, she's such a sweetie, and Reg Livermore and what's his name? - John Clark with his endless funny voices. So much talent."
Pendlebury says she has "no definite future commitments at the moment" though "just between ourselves" her name has been mentioned for her old role as Gertrude Lawrence in a possible Melbourne Theatre Company revival of Tonight at 8.30 opposite hilarious mimic Max Gillies as Noel Coward. Does she ever think of retirement? "An artist, dear, never retires," she declares, thumping the table for emphasis. Reflectively she mops up the gin with yet another kleenex. "I think, hic, I could go on forever. And what about if we have another, a double this time?"
What a larger-than-life character. Let's hope the National Trusts show more imagination next time they're nominating Living National Treasures.
11 March 2012