(Image: Brian Geach)
Lorraine Bayly, 78, is sitting on a chair at the side of the ABC’s rehearsal room, her head held high as the ensemble of Benedictine nuns come out singing a chorus. The music is captivating and we get the sense that she is lost in the melody.
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Soon she will be called up to rehearse scenes for her character Frau Schmidt – “Not a very big role,” she admits, “but a nice role” – and a landmark one for her in this 50th stage production.
The musical is the London Palladium production of The Sound of Music starring Amy Lehpamer as Maria, Cameron Daddo as Captain Von Trapp and Marina Prior as Baroness Schraeder.
The cast of The Sound of Music
It’s an opportunity for the veteran actress to work on a story that she adores.
“I love the lyrics, I love everything about it,” Bayly beams. “I think it’s a musical that’s got everything in it. It’s certainly got drama, romance, comedy and such a good story going through it.”
Bayly, who is best known for her roles as Grace in The Sullivans, Jennifer Carson from Carson’s Law and as host on ABC’s Play School, first saw The Sound of Music in her teens.
At the time, she was working as an usherette by night and in a bank by day and saving up to buy a car to get to acting lessons.
Like most people who saw this musical, the songs stuck in her head and she could often be found singing them around the house.
“My favourites were ‘Do-Re-Mi’ and ‘Something Good’,” she remembers. But it wasn’t until she watched the film again in preparation for her part that she became truly spellbound by the magic of Julie Andrews.
Watch some behind the scenes footage of The Sound of Music rehearsals
“I just thought how wonderful she was. She was so open and fresh and responsive to everything. It was a beautiful performance, let alone the singing or the music.”
Bayly has her own character Frau Schmidt the Von Trapp’s housekeeper well worked out. It’s a character that she says is open to a number of interpretations.
“The way I’m looking at it is she has been with this family for a long time and she knows her place, but she’s also got that attitude where she can have her own say too,” says Bayly.
“She’s never out of line. . . well maybe a little bit, but there’s fun in her too, so she’s good fun to play,” she says.
Bayly’s Frau Schmidt has a softness as well as strength and it’s this ability to evoke different aspects of characters that has been a strongpoint throughout her career.
In the 70s television series The Sullivans, Bayly liked the freedom the producers gave her to develop Grace as the caring but strong-willed matriarch of a wartime family.
“I loved how she wasn’t just a clichéd mum. I was able to give her different facets to her personality,” says Bayly. “There were times when she was cranky and even a bit nasty but she was always sorry afterwards and that makes her a good person,” she points out.
Lorraine Bayly won a Logie Award for her role in The Sullivans
In 80s television series Carson’s Law on the Ten Network Bayly played a progressive solicitor Jennifer Carson, a part that she says made her into a role model for young women.
“I used to get lots of letters from young girls saying that they wanted to be a lawyer when they grew up,” she adds.
Carson’s Law was set in 1920s Australia and Jennifer was very much a woman before her time; a wife, mother and lawyer she often had to confront issues such as drug abuse and stand up for the rights of others. Bayly remembers fondly her simple but effective technique to delivering the part.
“I used to have an image in my head of a puppy trying to assert its authority as it was growing older, in the early scenes. In the later scenes once she’d done a lot I made her a little bit more controlled. So there was a journey she went on,” explains Bayly.
Bayly played the lead role of progressive solicitor Jennifer Carson in the television drama (Photo: YouTube)
To her credit, Bayly has always been conscious of the influence her characters might be having on society. “I remember being taught in acting class that with whatever you do it’s good to be able to contribute to the betterment of society. I mean, you can play a nasty character – which is great fun – but as long as the show itself is showing good values,” she says.
Bayly’s list of achievements is quite an honour list. She had her start in theatre and that remains her “first love” but she has also starred in mini-series such as 1915, The Challenge as Eileen Bond, and TV movie Through My Eyes as Lindy Chamberlain’s mother.
She has also starred in her fair share of films including The Man from Snowy River alongside Kirk Douglass, and Fatty Finn for which she received an AFI nomination.
Remember Aunt Rosemary from The Man from Snowy River? (Photo: Turning Point Films)
One particular highlight for Bayly was when she appeared on UK talk show Parkinson using her skills as a ventriloquist to make host Michael Parkinson her talking dummy.
As host of Play School, Bayly recalls she had many fun and interesting experiences but none more memorable than when her co-host was an elephant named Abu. In that episode Bayly can be seen edging herself away from the elephant towards the other side of the room, obviously nervous.
“Some years later I found out he went berserk on the Opera House steps, so I had good reason,” adds Bayly.
Bayly has won 10 awards from 14 nominations and in 2001 she was appointed a member of the Order of Australia (AM)
On staying so youthful Bayly has a straightforward philosophy. “I like to do something new every decade,” she declares. So far she has had remarkable success with this philosophy.
At 60, she took up the saxophone and played two concerts at Taronga Zoo Prom nights with the Australian Army band. At 70 she took up tennis and at 72 played at the World Masters Games.
“I lost every game,” admits Bayly good naturedly, but she likes her chances for the 2017 World Masters Games in New Zealand stating, “I’m much better than I was when I was 72, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed that I’ll do ok.”
Bayly is also fairly careful about what she eats, “as long as there are plenty of cakes thrown in,” she laughs.
She’s not currently married and never had children, but she has had dogs and thinks, “It’s good to have a rescue dog if you possibly can.”
She’s also a huge supporter of organ donation.
So to what does Bayly attribute her success as an actress? “You have to work hard and be observant,” she explains. “I love people watching and wondering what their life is like. I like to make a mental history of the people that go by so that I can draw on that history to make a different character each time,” says Bayly.
We think she’s a pretty interesting character study herself.
The Sound of Music Australian Tour is playing at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne now and will continue at the Crown Theatre in Perth from September 14 2016. To book tickets visit www.ticketmaster.com.au.
What are your favourite memories of Lorraine Bayly on screen?