> Shaunna O'Grady
Many Neighbours viewers nearly choked on their cuppa back in 1989 when Jim Robinson’s wife Dr. Beverly Marshall went away to a medical conference in Perth and returned six weeks later looking completely different. Of course, the reason for this was because Lisa Armytage, who had played Beverly for the previous two years, had left the series and it fell to Shaunna O’Grady to don Bev’s stethoscope and white coat. We recently caught up with Shaunna not long after she relocated to a new life in the countryside and reminisced about her days on Ramsay Street…
Can you tell us a bit about your career prior to joining Neighbours?
I got my Equity card in 1978 after a couple of years at drama school in Sydney, worked, like all jobbing actors, in theatre, TV, radio (and a couple of terrible films) in Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne until I dropped into Grundys when passing through Melbourne and was offered a screen test.
How did it feel stepping into another actor's shoes when you took over the role of Beverly Marshall from Lisa Armytage in 1989?
It was very strange. At that point there was no Bible (at least, if there was, I never saw it) so I was reduced to asking other actors what they knew about me! Reading Bev's biog on this website was quite illuminating - wish it’d been available in 1989!
Did you watch any of Lisa's episodes in preparation?
I had not been a Neighbours viewer prior to getting the job, so started watching after I was booked (not long before I started) and tried to work out who I was replacing. I do remember making a conscious decision not to try and 'copy' Lisa in any way. I decided to let the writing guide me and make Bev mine.
How would you describe the character of Beverly?
Stitched up, contained, straight jacket-ed. Bev’s idea of relaxing was to not wear her pantyhose.
Can you describe the experience of joining the cast of Neighbours at its peak in the late 1980s?
It really was fun, as I recall. Cast and crew were friendly, and we laughed a LOT.
Who did you most enjoy working with on the show?
Alan Dale (Jim) and I worked together a lot of course, and eventually became good mates. Anne Haddy (Helen) was most helpful with Adelaide pronunciations (she and Beverley were both from Adelaide). She didn't suffer fools or slackers, and I really loved that about her. She taught me the wonderful phrase “if you’re on time, you’re late”, which I must admit I have passed on to people younger than me! There really was a family dynamic in the Robinson household - I recollect shooting a breakfast scene, and between takes Al saw Kristian Schmid (Todd) scoop some vegemite out of the jar with his finger and told him off, quickly backed up by me. I saw Kristian at the 20 year party (he’s now 30 and married) and he remembered the moment! Linda Hartley (Kerry) and I always got on well (both Pisces), and discovered we were both good criers. We went on to both become first time parents within a couple of years of each other, and try to keep in touch. Maggie Dence (Dorothy) is a stunningly sharp and funny person - I knew her slightly before Neighbours, and we didn’t work together much, but I thoroughly enjoyed her keen wit and energy. Anne Scott-Pendlebury (Hilary) and I also got on well, though we’re such very different people – she’s a truly good person, kind and self-less, and I’m just not! The glamour department (hair and make up), were good fun too – Willy, who’s a Neighbours institution, was especially kind to me during some difficult personal moments. The crew were great - our senior cameraman at that time, Peter Hind, was best man at our wedding ...
Speaking of which, your husband Chris Adshead has worked on Neighbours as a director for many years. Did you actually meet on the show?
Yes, Chris and I met on Neighbours. It was ‘love across a crowded studio’. I was technically married to someone else at the time, though that relationship was in it’s death throes and we were living in different states. Our 'affaire' certainly made going to work at that time particularly exciting. We kept it quiet at first (though Alan knew and quietly ribbed me mercilessly), but after the day I accidentally deadlocked Chris in my flat and he had to ring the production office, then the make up van (I was on location) to get my keys sent back in a taxi, everyone knew about it! An embarrassing day, but very funny. No point in pretending after that!
What were your highs and lows in terms of storylines as Beverly?
When I first joined the series, after an initial storyline about jealousy, I spent several months (seemed like forever) as mobile wallpaper - I was bored to sobs. It was explained to me that they were letting the audience get used to the changeover. Hmm. But eventually it passed, and didn't recur. I really enjoyed the story with Beverley and Rhys (the baby), though I was disappointed that the writers never developed the thread that started with just one scene where Bev pretended to a mother in the park that Rhys was hers. I thought that could have been really interesting, seeing Bev become a bit unhinged. She'd already slapped Rhys’ birth mother and got entangled in blackmail, so she was veering off the path. And being a mother would have rattled her cage a bit, made her open up. Sadly, she stayed on the rails. All the way to Perth. Some of the marriage unravelling scenes with Jim were good fun too. I don’t know which writer of that period had endured marriage counselling, but the scenes were very easy to play! It was never spelled out whether Bev ran off to Perth WITH Ewan O’Brien, or just ran away from Jim. I quite liked that ambivalence, and I think it made it easier for an audience to see both sides of the argument. You have to make an acting choice of course, and I chose that she was never unfaithful - just in despair about the breakdown of her and Jim’s trust and communication.
What led to your decision to leave the series?
My contract came up for renewal, and it wasn't. I’d probably still be there now if it’d been up to me. I was told off the record that a new family was coming in, and that room on the payroll had to be made, but maybe that was to soften the blow. Perhaps Bev was just too dull. C'est la vie. It's a tough business.
Where has your career taken you since playing Beverly?
Directly after Neighbours came a UK tour of Caravan, an Australian farce full of soapie queens that we opened in Bromley and toured around a little (I remember Edinburgh well, a city I've always loved). Later came Out of Order, a Ray Cooney farce with Donald Sindon and Ronnie Corbett and an Australian tour. Memory’s a bit hazy here, and with things still packed away in boxes I can't find a biog to prompt me, but there were various TV guest roles, corporate stuff, voice overs, the usual ... Then pregnancy, followed by a bit more of the 'usual', then the relief of retirement in 1996, when our small daughter and our small business (supplying crew & production support to the video scoreboards at the MCG, Stadium Australia and Docklands Stadium) were both growing rapidly. I occasionally do a bit here and there if it falls into my lap, but that intense all-consuming career part of my life is a bit more tempered these days. I follow my other passions more now, including a few years singing in an a cappella jazz quartet, gardening, parenting and now that we live in the bush, a whole new learning curve to do with land care and horse and cattle management. Life’s never dull. I'm currently involved in the drama component of a little advertising/promotional project for a friend's business, playing Gran to a very cute 8 year old girl – keeps my hand in a bit!
Of course, last year we got a brief glimpse of the 2005 Beverly Marshall as part of the 20th Anniversary celebrations on Neighbours. What was it like reprising the role for the special episode?
I was delighted to be asked, but it was a bizarre day. Apart from a few guest spots in soaps friends had asked me to do, I hadn't had to ‘walk and talk at once’ for a while and wasn't sure if I still could! We shot it in the Global Studios corridor, where we did most of the hospital stuff, it took about 10 minutes, so I didn’t even make it into the studio! Tony Osicka, who was there in my day, directed and many of the crew were still there, or had gone away to do other things and returned. Because nothing much has changed physically, other than the location of make-up and a better green room, it was like being thrown back in time. It was lovely to catch up with some of the other actors, some of whom I'd seen in the intervening years and some not. I haven't seen that episode or any of the ones leading up to it - must do something about that, I expect it’s good fun.
Are you still recognised from your Neighbours role?
There isn’t a week goes by that someone doesn’t say, at the very least, “Don't I know you???”
Do you keep in touch with any of your former co-stars?
Some via email, some via the odd industry function I might attend with Chris, and a few for lunch from time to time.
Do you ever watch Neighbours now? If so, what do you think of it? Do you think it has changed?
Because Chris is back working on Neighbours, I do keep in touch, though as we live in the country our TV reception comes out of Alice Springs (it's a long story), and it's on at 5.30pm, by which time we don't usually have the generator on yet (another long story), so it's a bit of an effort. I'm sure it has changed, it has to, the times change – but the essential myth of people interacting so closely with the folk next door is still going strong. We'd all like to be that connected. It's kind of comforting - you know what you're likely to get with Neighbours, and there are some very good actors working long term on the series. For the most part, you know you can park you kids in front of it and not have to deal with awkward questions!
How do you look back on your time on Neighbours?
With enormous fondness and some gratitude - apart from all the fun I had and friends I made, it brought me Chris and our (now 11 year old) daughter Savannah, and consequently my current life in the country with my family, my adored horses and a very, very different world.
Interview by Moe. Added on 11th March 2006