The material on this page is available to AustLit subscribers. If you are a subscriber or are from a subscribing organisation, please log in to gain full access. To explore options for subscribing to this unique teaching, research, and publishing resource for Australian culture and storytelling, please contact us or find out more.
Elspeth Ballantyne grew up in a household that revolved around theatre, with both her parents involved in amateur theatre groups. At meal times her father, Colin, would lecture his small children on Jonson, Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg and Shakespeare. Colin was away for the first three years of Elspeth’s life. When he came back from his war service, he resumed his day job as a photographer and his evenings in the theatre. He hoped that each of his three children would also share his passion for drama and for the classics. At this time there was no permanent professional theatre in Adelaide and the Ballantynes put all their energy into developing theatre in their home state in amateur companies. Later Colin Ballantyne founded the State Theatre Company of South Australia. Elspeth’s mother Gwenneth (Richmond) was a drama teacher and amateur theatre actor and like Colin devoted much of her time to theatrical ventures.
As soon as they were old enough Elspeth and her brother, Guy, performed as extras in their parents’ productions, sometimes touring for weeks around the country regions of South Australia. ‘And we got into trouble if we got in the way’, Elspeth stated matter of factly to me in our interview. She played an apparition in Macbeth with her mother, heavily pregnant, playing Lady Macduff. Elspeth can still recite the lines she had to deliver: ‘Macbeth be bloody bold and resolute; laugh to scorn the power of man, for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth’. She was shocked when she realised that because her voice did not project, an adult man spoke those powerful lines over her. Elspeth was eight years of age when her sister Jane was born: ‘It slowed down the touring a little. But it didn’t stop the Adelaide productions and the flow of theatricals to the family home’, she recalls. The focus of family life in the North Adelaide home was on theatre throughout Elspeth’s childhood and adolescence, with the house regularly full of artists and theatre people, and Colin Ballantyne out every night rehearsing. Elspeth played competition tennis throughout high school, rode horses and enjoyed the outdoor life. Sport became an important release for her and a means of escaping from the engulfing world of the theatre.
Elspeth attended the Wilderness School run by four sisters, the Misses Brown, who Colin admired for their progressive views on all manner of subjects and their non-denominational Christianity. He encouraged Elspeth to audition for the new national actor training academy in Sydney, and she accepted a place in the first class at the new National Institute for Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 1958. Elspeth enjoyed the independence of living away from home in Sydney, the excitement of the fencing classes and the literary dimensions of the course. But at the end of the two years she did not feel ready to work in the theatre. Apart from Margaret Barr’s classes there was little movement training or tuition in dancing and singing. Elspeth felt she had not learned much in the way of voice training either, even though the thrust of the training was on speech and delivering lines rather than anything more holistic.
Starting Out as an Actress
When she completed her course of study at NIDA Elspeth was offered a place in the Young Elizabethans. This was Colin’s preferred destination for Elspeth. Against her father’s advice she chose instead to work with the English actors Raymond Westwell and Joan Macarthur who were setting up a professional theatre company in Perth called the National Theatre Company. With these two slightly eccentric older actors Elspeth learned the practicalities of the theatre in her work as Assistant Stage Manager (ASM) and very much admired the principals.
A year later John Sumner invited Elspeth to join the Union Theatre Repertory Company (UTRC) in Melbourne. She found her feet working with Sumner and the two of them got on well. In fact Sumner was a major influence on Elspeth as an actor: ‘He gave me the discipline, the courage to do it… He was not only a firm disciplinarian, he was inventive and he would just throw an idea into the air and you’d know where you were going’, she told me. The relationship with Sumner as director at the UTRC was formative and highly significant for Elspeth: ‘It was a gift to have worked with him’, she said. She appeared in many plays including the ground breaking new comedy by Alan Hopgood And the Big Men Fly in 1963 and the premiere production of Patrick White’s A Cheery Soul in the same year.
And the Big Men Fly ran for twelve weeks through the winter football season, and sold out every night. Elspeth played Acky’s girlfriend Lil, ‘from over the hill’, opposite Dennis Miller, the man she went on to marry. She was perfect in the role of the naïve young woman, with a boyish energy and refreshing charm. For Elspeth it was pure pleasure to be in this new and hilarious satire on football in Melbourne. It was not only the fun of the play and its ridiculous lines, but the glories of Australian slang and the way the play celebrated Aussie Rules and its feverish hold on the city that delighted her. Elspeth was also given the job of releasing huge rat-traps off stage to simulate gunshots.
For the English director John Sumner, Australian Rules football was a complete mystery. Sumner invited Ron Barassi and Ron Clarke from the Essenden Football Club to talk to the cast in the rehearsal period about the game. And the playwright Alan Hopgood took Sumner to a match in order to show him how the crowd behaved. Sumner’s jaw dropped. He never forgot seeing this match: ‘18 giants came frisking and kicking like stallions into the large arena, quickly followed by another 18, then proceeded to run round the enormous ground before the game. The whole occasion, with spectators screaming, cheering, booing, waving flags and throwing streamers, made me think of the Christians and the lions. From then on it was all amazement’.(1) But Elspeth and Dennis were keen football fans themselves – there was no mystery for them. They lapped up the chance to appear in a play that captured the atmosphere that was so familiar and yet so farcical.
The ‘footie play’ as Elspeth fondly calls it, And the Big Men Fly, felt like a window opening and letting in a rush of fresh air on a spring day. It was a breath of life in Australian theatre, which was stale with British drawing room fare and tired productions of the classics. It allowed the actors to play Australians, and to approach the performance with vigour and authenticity. In reality the play was ahead of its time, pre-figuring the comedies of David Williamson that appeared in the 1970s: it was ten years before Hopgood’s comic play was adapted for television.
Elspeth Ballantyne as Lil in Alan Hopgood's And the Big Men Fly, Russell Street Theatre, Melbourne, 1963. Photograph by Fanfare Films. MTC copyright.
Dancing with Patrick White
The next production Sumner directed was also significant. It was comic in parts, but it was a blackly comic satire. The play was the premiere of Patrick White’s A Cheery Soul. The year was 1963. White’s humour was caustic. There were moments of comic savagery and dark menacing scenes of human misery and loneliness. White experimented in the play, making it a blend of satire, tragicomedy and expressionist contemplation of religious questions. The universal ideas in A Cheery Soul transcend the social satire that infuses the play. Elspeth remembers being desperate to be in it, and was given two small roles (Baby Porteous and the maid). White came to Melbourne for the rehearsal period and sat quietly watching. He never interrupted or addressed the cast at all, but would talk to John Sumner for long stretches when the rehearsals finished and would occasionally correct a line in the notes sessions, if an actor had delivered it wrongly in rehearsal. One night Elspeth danced with White in a circle of Greek dancers in the back yard of a house in Carlton. He wrote every cast member a letter thanking each of them for their performance when the season concluded.
The Australian vernacular in both plays struck a chord with Elspeth. She admired the way it was used by Hopgood and White in different ways and with completely different effects in the two plays; she found it easy to access as an actor as it was familiar and real to her. Elspeth also particularly liked the comic flourishes of both these very different plays. A Cheery Soul was particularly demanding for the actors as it required a style of acting that was unusual and needed to change abruptly during the play: presentational and expressionistic at times but naturalistic in other scenes. For Elspeth, at 22 years of age, this new Australian humour (comic, anarchic and light in the case of And the Big Men Fly, and dark and expressionistic in the case of A Cheery Soul) opened up a discovery of her own taste and sense of purpose in the theatre too. The styles of acting required in the two plays were completely different to all of her earlier work in the theatre and the experience was liberating.
Elspeth and Dennis Miller married in 1967. That year she accepted a role in the new ABC television drama Bellbird, playing opposite Robyn Ramsey. The series, set in a country town, went on to become one of the most popular and long-running television dramas (lasting ten years), and was the first major Australian soap opera. Ballantyne seized the opportunities of the emerging medium of television early in her career, leaving other actors ‘green with envy’, according to Alan Hopgood. Television suited her and she seemed to slot into roles easily. Working with Robyn Ramsey was ‘a dream’, she told me, remembering that first year on Bellbird. The attention she received was a shock to her however, after working on stage, and having so little contact with the audience: suddenly everyone recognised her in the street.
Elspeth withdrew from Bellbird after the birth of her second child. She had been in the series for three years. The baby had been written in, specifically so that Elspeth could continue in her role but it proved to be an impractical compromise. Even more worrying, the marriage began to founder and Elspeth and Dennis separated in 1969. For Elspeth it was a frightening time. She wondered how she would earn enough money to look after two small children and how she would care for them, given the long evenings away from home required in the theatre. Television roles offered a life saving prospect for Elspeth at the time, as the schedules were more forgiving than those of the theatre. She appeared in the landmark television series Marion written by Cliff Green, which was broadcast on the ABC in 1974 alongside Helen Morse who played the young schoolteacher in the title role.
Ballantyne continued to work on stage in spite of the attractions of television. She appeared in the Australian premiere of Harold Pinter’s Old Times in 1973, directed by the Englishman Peter James, who sported long hair, white trousers and long muslin shirts. She played in Much Ado About Nothing and in a series of plays at the Russell Street Theatre in Melbourne. In spite of her difficulties as a single parent of two young boys Elspeth appeared as Olive in Ray Lawler’s Kid Stakes (1975), the play that is set 17 years earlier than Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, in 1937. It was a challenge to play a character already known to audiences but at a completely different stage of that character’s life. Elspeth also appeared in a confronting play by Jim McNeil called How Does Your Garden Grow (1975) for the Melbourne Theatre Company. Malcolm Robertson directed the play and agreed to stage a performance at Pentridge Prison in Melbourne. The playwright himself was a convicted criminal and had written the play in Bathurst jail. It presented a snapshot of the lives of prisoners. Elspeth was the only woman in the play, and the only woman in the room at the prison on the day of the performance for the inmates. She played a woman visiting her husband in prison referred to simply and provocatively as ‘Woman’.
Working on Television: Prisoner
Elspeth’s major career decision came about in 1979: she accepted a role in a new television series about the inmates of a women’s prison. When she joined the cast of Prisoner, no one anticipated the immense popularity that the drama would achieve, or that it would continue for eight years and 692 episodes. For Elspeth it was a turning point in her career: playing Meg in Prisoner suddenly brought her security and stability in her income and her weekly schedule. The series was not only an unprecedented success, the characters and the actors who played them developed a cult following that continues today in the UK and in Australia. Working in the series gave Elspeth income security, something unknown to many actors then and now. There were many other advantages besides the income security of working in such a successful drama series on television. The hours of work were far more family friendly. In addition Elspeth met almost every actress in Australia as so many appeared in the program over those eight years: Julia Blake, Maggie Dence, Sandy Gore, Maggie Kirkpatrick, Judith McGrath and dozens of others. When Prisoner was first broadcast Elpseth articulated her sense of what the series represented: ‘it proved that women can handle a show on their own’.(2) The argument has been made that Prisoner struck out for feminism.(3) It certainly gave dozens of women roles over a long period. Moreover the series has been praised by a diverse range of critics such as Ann Curthoys and John Docker, and Elizabeth Jacka and Lesley Johnson.(4) It is one of the most successful Australian television series ever made. Some of the content of the program was challenging. For example in one episode (Episode 483) Meg (Elspeth’s character) is raped by two men and refuses to go to the police. The drama tackles the problem of the victimisation of victims in the judicial system with considerable power and insight.
Elspeth continued her stage and television career after Prisoner although she did not find the transition back to stage acting straight forward. She appeared in the world premiere of Jill Shearer’s Shimada in 1987 and Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento in 1990, and in many television series, including Pugwall (1989-1991) and Neighbours (1992-3), as well as in guest roles in a number of other popular dramas such as Sea Change (2000). She also appeared in several feature films including Three Dollars (2005), Boronia Boys (2009) and Red Hill (2010).
(1) John Sumner, Recollections at Play : a Life in Australian Theatre (Melbourne: MUP 1993) 141.
(2) Elspeth Ballantyne quoted in the TV Times, 14 July 1979, 10-11.
(3) Alan McKee, Australian Television: A Genealogy of Great Moments (Melbourne: Oxford University Press 2001) 186-7.
(4) Elizabeth Jacka and Lesley Johnson, ‘Australia’, in Television: an International History (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1998), and John Docker and Ann Curthoys, ‘Prisoner’ in Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of Television (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers 1997).