Tom Oliver

  • Obituary: Carol Raye

    Carol Raye, 1923–2022

    I was well established in Sydney theatre by 1964, thanks to my series of villains at the legendary Music Hall Theatre and one revue at the Phillip Theatre which brought me to the attention of Gordon Chater, already a widely known and popular actor and revue performer.

    At around the same time, Carol and her husband Robert Ayre-Smith had moved to Australia. With a BBC course of television production under her belt, Carol approached ATN with an idea for a program of topical satire in the vein of the BBC’s hugely successful That Was The Week That Was. She was fortunate that the man to whom she outlined her idea was the then general manager, James Oswin who, in the early days of Australian television, was an imaginative man open to new ideas.

    One night in the spring of 1964, the paths of the above dramatis personae would cross mine. I was playing The Evil Men Do at the Music Hall for which I’d written my own part, and was aware of Gordon’s bawdy laugh echoing over all others in the audience. A surreptitious glance beyond the footlights confirmed he was indeed present, surrounded by Channel 7 chiefs and the glamorous Carol Raye. The following day I was approached to be part of a pilot for a new TV series of satirical comedy.

    The pilot was a success and the ground-breaking Mavis Bramston Show was born. Gordon, Carol and I were the core stars, and a great deal of the success of the show depended on the chemistry between the three of us. The sanity of this disparate casting was at Carol's instigation and made sense—we three exuded establishment sensibilities, yet were playing anti-establishment material. The shock value was far greater than if three undergrads performed the same material.

    Over the time we spent together in Bramston, we became a family. But as well as being a star and producer of the show, Carol had a family of her own to take care of. I enjoyed the company of her husband Robert Ayre-Smith and her three children, Sally, Mark and Harriet.

    After the slog of two years on Bramston and a year doing my own show in Melbourne, In 1968 I relocated to London for ten years. By coincidence, Carol and Gordon happened to be there too in the late ’sixties. I did a revue at London’s Mayfair theatre with Gordon in 1969 (Ten Years Hard) and another with Carol in 1970 (This, That and the Other) produced by the celebrated Ray Cooney.

    When I returned to Australia, in the early ’80s, Carol suggested I might write a comedy spot for us to perform on the Mike Walsh Show. I wrote a sketch in which Carol played Margaret Thatcher about to wage war on the Falklands. It was a great success and the producers asked for more. I thought my grab bag of gags might run to about six sketches, but ultimately, we did about eighty over a two year period.

    With minimal in-person rehearsal, usually in a dressing room on the morning of the show, the spots worked in great part because Carol and I knew each other so well, and were intuitively aware of what we would bring to a sketch in terms of character and timing.

    At this time we also performed together in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. Michael Blakemore came to Sydney to direct. He left the casting to the London Stage Manager who conferred with Stuart Wagstaff and producer Wilton Morley to put the actors together. It seemed like the perfect cast: Daniel Abineri, Frank Wilson, Anne Charleston, Carol, Stuart and I were all well known to audiences, and well suited to the characters. I’d worked with Michael in a play in which he directed me at the Royal Court in London so it was a happy reunion for me.

    However, until we started rehearsing in earnest, I don’t think Carol fully understood how unglamorous the part of Dotty was. We played Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide with enormous success, but Carol tired of playing the character by then and decided to drop out of the rest of the tour. She was replaced by Jill Perryman who did the rest of the long and successful run.

    In spite of the changes to Noises Off, I was still working with Carol weekly. She and I were still appearing every Monday on the Mike Walsh Show in sketches I wrote for us. I’d fax the sketches to her and then, Monday mornings, I’d fly into Sydney from wherever I was playing, we’d do the sketch live, and I’d return to Noises Off that night. It says a great deal for the rapport we had that we could rehearse for half an hour in a Channel 9 dressing room, then do the sketch live and never mistime a laugh. That kind of empathic relationship between actors is hard to come by and is treasure when it happens.

    In the late ’80s I relocated to the United States where I’ve lived for thirty-five years. I saw Carol and Robert on every return to Australia, and she, Gordon and I were briefly reunited for a press pic in the late 1990s. This was the last time the three of us were together.

    In 2004, Carol came to stay at my house in the Hollywood Hills. We spent a happy week touring the sights of LA. Carol’s energy and curiosity were unflagging and generally, she managed to walk me and my partner Vaughan Edwards off our feet as we inspected the city.

    My trips to my homeland have become less frequent as I continue to live and work in the US, but my correspondence with Carol was regular over the years and more like that between family members than friends.

    I’m greatly in her debt for pronouncing favorably on me on that night she and the Channel 7 team came to the Music Hall to give me the once over. I’m fortunate to have known Carol as a colleague, but much more than that, I’m blessed that we were good friends for much of my adult life. Her extraordinary talent alone set her apart from and above her peers, and endorsed her ‘star quality’; but her warmth, her sense of humor, her capacity for making friends of family and family of friends was a rare thing and to be treasured.

    How lucky I am she entered my life fifty-eight years ago, and luckier still that she was a major part of my life since that night.

    The Mavis Bramston Show

    I heartily recommend Stephan Wellink’s splendid documentary, Pushing the Boundaries. Meticulously researched, and brilliantly constructed, it details the national social and political climates of the time, and how we changed them. We did indeed push boundaries. Australia was a deeply conservative country in the mid 60s—movies were censored, books were banned, Australia was ‘white’ and England was ‘home’ whether one had been there or not. Carol’s visionary idea was that Australians were ready to loosen up and laugh at themselves. And indeed we were.

    As stated by the historians in the documentary, Bramston changed the way Australians thought about ourselves and our politics. It helped us move beyond the cultural cringe, the feeling my generation was bludgeoned with since birth, that Australia was a poor relation to the United Kingdom. It proved that we had a unique national personality, and one to be proud of.

    Australian TV owes Carol an immense debt, as do many of the comedy shows which came in Bramston’s wake. She not only opened the way for female executives in the business, but was a multi-talented, glamorous performer to boot!



    Further resources

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