EXCLUSIVE: Lorraine Bayly was at the top of her game when she suddenly, shockingly quit The Sullivans.
As matriarch Grace Sullivan, Bayly was adored across the country, still regarded as one of Australia’s quintessential TV mums.
But when she quit the show after just 3 years it sent pioneering producer Hector Crawford into a spin.
“Hector was not very happy! I was taken to lunch and virtually told that I could ask for whatever I wanted. But I didn’t realise what he was saying at the time!” she recalls.
“But I still wouldn’t have changed my mind. The 3 years on air explored so many things in family life with the kids and Dave & Grace, I was fearful –as happens sometimes- it would wander away. It didn’t but I thought it was time for me to leave.
“We signed for 13 weeks so I thought 2.5 years was enough and I wanted to get back to theatre.
“I think I did the right thing. Every now and again I think ‘Should I have stayed on?’ But if I did I would never have got to do The Man from Snowy River, Fatty Finn, 1915, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and a lot of plays before I started Carson’s Law.”
The wartime soap ran from 1976-1983 on Nine topping the ratings, winning Logies and a devoted fan base both here and internationally.
Grace was shockingly written out as the victim of a German V-1 flying bomb in London, but in reality Bayly had departed the show 6 months earlier.
“I was thrilled when I got the role because the scripts I had to learn for the screen test I knew it looked good. It looked like it was going to be a good show.
“I didn’t get to see much of it at the time because I was working such long hours, but I’ve seen more since,” she explains.
“It really was a good show, when you look at it now. Particularly when you realise we were shooting the equivalent of a full-length movie every week.
“Crawfords were just fantastic with their research”
“Crawfords were just fantastic with their research. A lot of the clothes we had were clothes people had kept from the war. The fabrics were so beautiful because it was before polyester and nylon.
“The Vegemite jars were white and the cigarette packets were right for the time.”
Bayly was doing a guest role as an elderly woman on Class of ’74 when she got the call to fly to Melbourne to audition for Grace Sullivan.
“We finished shooting late so I still had my old make-up on with my hair greyed. When I got to the hotel I had to go up in a lift, and I hate lifts, so I asked the lady on the desk to come up with me,” she says.
“The next morning I rang the desk again to see if someone would take me down and it was the same lady. When she came up she said ‘Oh I’m supposed to pick up the lady who came in last night, because she’s elderly and doesn’t like the lift.’ I said ‘No that’s me,’ and I couldn’t resist myself, I said, ‘It’s amazing what a good night’s sleep does for you!’”
Interiors were filmed in Abbotsford and later at GTV whilst wartime scenes were shot in the Dandenongs. But it was the Camberwell house exterior that drew fans from far and wide.
“I can’t remember the real street but it was 7 Gordon Street Camberwell. Mrs Jessup lived next door. But it’s all gone now. We did a photo together a few years ago and there’s a lovely big house there now.”
“Wonderful memories! I’m still so close to them all”
Bayly’s warmth and strength in Grace rippled throughout the Sullivans family, headed by actor Paul Cronin as Dave and her on-screen children played by Andrew McFarlane, Steven Tandy, Richard Morgan and Susan Hannaford. They are memories still dear to her today.
“Wonderful memories! I’m still so close to them all, particularly Paul Cronin and all his family. Andrew McFarlane doesn’t live far from me so we keep in touch, fairly regularly. Steven Tandy works continuously up north. We meet half way and have a big lunch.
“I’m not sure where Susan is or if she is even in the country.”
Sadly Richard Morgan was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2005, and died in 2006.
“It broke my heart, I can’t tell you. I really felt as if I was losing a child,” she reveals.
“I used to talk to him regularly on the phone and over the time you could hear the difference. He was only 47 with a beautiful wife and 2 little daughters.”
“I would charge threepence in and a penny for a cake at interval.”
Bayly was raised in Batlow, in southern NSW as the daughter of a policeman who dabbled in ventriloquism and magic. At the age of 9 Lorraine has a ventriloquist doll with which she would perform in the local jail.
“He was a big doll named Gerry and he had strings for everything,” she recalls.
“I can only ever remember one man being put in the jail because he had nowhere to stay. My mother gave him a meal. But I was able to use it as a little theatre, writing plays and putting them on. Mostly I was in them as well, but sometimes I wasn’t. Or I would do concerts and my ventriloquist act. I would charge threepence in and a penny for a cake at interval.
“My father made me give the money to Batlow hospital, so I didn’t make a lot of money, but it was fun to do!
“When I was interviewed on the Michael Parkinson show in 1974 he got me to do a little bit. So I said ‘I will do it if you be the dummy!’”
By 11 she was playing classical piano on 2UE.
“I got my first paying gig through that. A woman rang up and asked if I could play at her daughter’s wedding in Alexandria. I played Jerusalem and Pedro the Fisherman.”
She trained at the Ensemble Theatre and regards 1958 as the start of her professional career, now tallying 51 theatre productions.
Her first TV role came via two ABC series in 1966. Be Our Guest featured Jackie Weaver, Gordon Glenwright, Jack Allen and Sean Scully.
“It was set in a motel and I was an air hostess and I used to bring performers from the aeroplane to stay at this motel. It wasn’t really the best! But they would burst into song. We had the Bee Gees, Normie Rowe, Johhny Young and all the singers at the time.
“We were one of the first (sci-fi shows)”
Concurrently she appeared in ABC sci-fi series The Interpretaris.
“I played Vera Balovna, an astronaut in a slinky black outfit and a cape, for 6 weeks,” she remembers.
“We were one of the first (sci-fi shows) and it was before computers. But on the spaceship we had 2 computers: Alice and Henry and they fell in love!
“I have a couple (of episodes) on tape but I can’t say they were brilliant!
“Be Our Guest was on Monday – Thursday and quite accidentally The Interpretaris was on too, so I was on every night!”
There were numerous guest roles before The Sullivans came along, including for Homicide, Division 4, Hunter, The Rovers, Spyforce, Ride a Wild Pony, and an ongoing presenter role on the legendary Play School.
“I had to leave Play School to do Sullivans because it was based in Sydney. They kept ringing me to ask ‘Could I come up on weekends and do something?’ But I was working 7 days a week.
“When Noni Hazlehurst was leaving Sullivans for Sydney I said ‘Go to Play School! They will stop ringing me!’ And she stayed a long, long time.”
“It was written for me….I was very flattered”
Period legal drama Carson’s Law which ran on TEN from 1982 – 1984 was another big hit with Bayly starring as progressive solicitor Jennifer Carson.
“It was written for me. Ian Crawford told me. I was very flattered,” she admits.
“I really enjoyed doing it. A lot of the courtcases were paralleled in society…. drugs, rape… and I remember being shocked that homosexuality was a crime, and I defended a character who was gay and I remember being dumbfounded he was found guilty and got 10 years hard labour. And it was based on truth.
“It was hellishly difficult to do, because I had long closing and opening speeches.
“I loved working with Kevin Myles (as short-tempered father-in-law Godfrey Carson), working off each other. They were such strong characters.
“I ring him on his birthday every year.”
“I’m sorry I can’t do this role.”
Other TV credits over a six-decade career include 1915, The Challenge (as Eileen Bond), A Country Practice, G.P., Pizza and Through My Eyes. In 1991 she agreed to step into Neighbours as Faye Hudson, sister of Doug (Terence Donovan).
“I was told it was going to be an Alexis Carrington-type role. A glamorous role who is a real bitch. And I thought that would be fun!” she continues.
“But when we were shooting I thought ‘This doesn’t sound like the character I was asked to play.’ It was more of a Mrs. Jessup-type role. So I went to the producer and said ‘I’m sorry I can’t do this role.’
“I said I was happy to leave without any money but they wanted me to stay. So I chatted with the script editor Ray Kolle, who was a wonderful guy. I had an idea to make her a pain in the neck, but a fun-type.
“But it takes 7 weeks to get the scripts right, so they changed some of the dialogue in between.”
I can’t let our conversation end without asking what advice she would give to younger actors, looking to make their mark. The answer seemingly harks back to her training at the Ensemble Theatre.
“Work hard at your classes, and work on your voice so it can be flexible. And do body movement classes so that if you are playing a character you can isolate different parts of your body,” she advises.
“And keep it up when you are not working.”
“From now on I will be thinking about (retirement)”
After countless performances in television, film, theatre and radio, Lorraine Bayly reveals that after turning 81 this month she is now contemplating retirement. But she’s also just updated her Showcast listing with a new photo (“and no touch-ups!”), so never say never.
“I’m not saying I’m retiring because I did retire when I was 60-something, because I was having dreadful trouble with my blood pressure,” she says.
“But after a year another doctor changed my medications and so I went back. I’ve only retired once, lots of people have retired more than that.
“From now on I will be thinking about it. I’ve worked so hard. I live about 3 minutes from Mike Walsh’s beautiful Orpheum Cinema and I’ve seen 2 movies in the last 4 years. I want to see more and meet people for lunches!”
And maybe even catch up on some classic Sullivans episodes?
“They sent me a case of them so I have got them to watch when I get around to it.”