TEN star Colette Mann appears twice on Family Feud on Tuesday: once in All Star Family Feud: Prisoner v Wentworth, and also as Sheila Canning joining her on screen family in a show-within-show Neighbours storyline.
“Grant Denyer was just an absolute, consummate professional,” Mann recalls of the Neighbours episode. “He had lines to say, a scene with Gary (Damien Richardson) on his own and he was just wonderful.
“We got 7 scenes shot in 2 hours and said ‘Don’t tell anybody or they will want to shoot everything like this!’”
For her Prisoner battle Mann is team captain, joined by Val Lehman, Fiona Spence and Ian Smith. The two iconic soaps are not far apart for the veteran star. Neighbours is filmed in the same Nunawading studio as Prisoner, where its exterior walls doubled as the prison building.
“You can’t separate the two of us. We’re joined at the hip! Except for the wall outside it’s all very different now. Studio B where the Canning house set sits is where we shot Prisoner.”
Mann finally left Prisoner in 1983 but in the interim decades before joining Neighbours (2011), she had numerous roles with Melbourne, Queensland and Sydney Theatre Companies, The Flying Doctors, Blue Heelers, The Dish, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Radio 3AW and MTR, plus writing two books and columns for New Idea, and numerous personality appearances on Good Morning Australia, The Circle, The Don Lane Show, Hey Hey it’s Saturday, What’s Cooking and Saturday Kitchen.
“It nearly killed me but it taught me a lot about life.”
In 1996 she even walked the Kokoda trail for A Current Affair with Dermott Brereton, Grant Kenny, Daryl Braithwaite, Angry Anderson and Dr. Kerryn Phelps.
“It was really the first reality programme,” she recalls. “They took all these celebrities onto this trail expecting one or two of them to make it to the end. It’s 110 kilometres up and down and we had to shoot it in 9 days.
“I think they thought I’d be the first one to drop off and be slightly amusing while I was doing it. They were wrong. I made it all the way to the end! It nearly killed me but it taught me a lot about life.”
On the trail she also befriended her PNG porter Donald, a friendship which has continued to this day. He was even brought to Australia by producers of This Is Your Life to surprise her on TV.
“I’m still in contact with him and I look after his family in New Guinea. Daryl Braithwaite’s porter Eddie was his cousin and for a while we used to fly them down at Christmas,” she explains.
“I still get Mother’s Day cards from him and send him money about 3 times a year.”
“They said, ‘We need you to come to Neighbours!’”
Die-hard Neighbours fans will recall Mann played ‘Cheryl Stark’ replacing an ill Caroline Gillmer for 8 weeks in 1995.
She was wrapping up at 3AW when she was approached by executive producer Ian Bradley and casting director Jan Russ.
“When I came off air they said, ‘What are you doing on Monday?’ and I said ‘Nothing,’ because I was finishing my shift and going into unemployment,” she remembers.
“They said, ‘We need you to come to Neighbours!’
“I did 63 scenes in my first week! Now a really busy week is about 23 scenes.”
Fast forward to 2011 and Mann was cast in a role pitched as the “new Mrs. Mangle” (the late Vivean Gray), Sheila Canning.
“(Producer) Alan Hardy said, ‘It’s really important that she has warmth and that the audience likes her and she has humour. That’s why we’ve asked you to do it.’ So I’ve always remembered those words.
“I decided her overall objective is loving her family and keeping them together. So anything she does that’s a little bit in the grey area I use that as a motivation. She’s constantly interfering in Gary’s lovelife –but it’s because she wants her son to be happy.
“They are very kind to let me put in jokes that are not there, or to change the dialogue. And they’ve been extremely kind in bringing Damien (Richardson) back.”
“The young writers do tend to think I was born in 1910”
Mann has based much of Sheila on her own mother, but concedes some of the show’s younger writers ‘over’ age her, giving her archaic reference points, with dialogue sometimes dating back to “before the war.”
“The young writers do tend to think I was born in 1910 so I sometimes have to drag her up into the later part of last century!
“I said to them one time ‘What war are you talking about? WWII? I wasn’t born until 1950!’
“Sheila’s not Susan Kennedy (Jackie Woodburne), and definitely not Helen Daniels (Anne Haddy), but she’s the mother hen of her family and even some of the others.
“But life imitates art. I’m quite active with the younger members of the company. I coach 2 or 3 of them and they come to Damien and I if they want to re-write a scene, before they ask the directors.”
Whether acting, writing, hosting radio, or appearing as a media personality -or even walking the Kokoda trail- Mann has managed to adapt and sustain an entertainment career for over 40 years and is seemingly happiest when she is busiest.
“I enjoy acting better. What I was trained to do is act. I’m lucky enough that I can do the other stuff, or write and teach, but acting is what I prefer to do,” she reveals.
“I was a great panic merchant, but the Kokoda trail teaches you to walk 20 steps and worry about the next 20 steps after that.
“That’s how I live my life now.”
Neighbours airs 6:30pm weeknights on ELEVEN
All Star Family Feud: Prisoner v Wentworth 7:30pm Tuesday on TEN.