After playing Summer Bay’s most short-tempered resident for more than two decades, Ray Meagher has built up a sizeable fan base in the UK. But this unassuming actor isn’t one to blow his own trumpet, finds Caroline Bishop.
When I encounter Ray Meagher in his dressing room at the Palace theatre, he couldn’t be looking more Australian if he tried. It is a nippy 12 degrees outside, yet Meagher is wearing shorts. This, coupled with a matching blue workman’s shirt, chunky socks and walking shoes, means he looks every bit the outback mechanic he is currently playing in Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical. To be fair, that’s because he is in costume, having just filmed a segment for the BBC’s The One Show.
“There’s been a lot more of this than I thought there might be,” says Meagher (pronounced Marr), referring to the press attention that has met his West End debut. He is pretty popular over here, I suggest. “That’s lovely and very flattering,” he says, laughing self-consciously. This modest, appreciative yet mildly embarrassed attitude to his fame is something that pervades the rest of our conversation. Unlike his hot-headed character in Home And Away, Meagher has a gentle, warm demeanour; where Alf Stewart would no doubt have chased the media away with a red-faced tirade, Meagher is friendly and accommodating.
It is strange being face to face with Alf Stewart. Like many of a certain generation, I watched more episodes of the Sydney-set soap during my school and university days than I should willingly admit to; sometimes, when work-avoidance was high on the agenda, watching both the lunchtime show and the early evening repeat (I know, I know).
I am obviously not alone. “The reception is absolutely amazing,” he says of the four weeks he has already spent on stage at the Palace theatre. “Afterwards people want to know about the show, autographs and things. I guess that’s just a symptom of having crashed into their lounge rooms uninvited twice a day for the last 22 years.” He need not be so humble; the soap’s presence in my living room was most definitely invited.
“To do something in the West End was just the icing on the cake”
The 66-year-old has taken a break from his record-breaking stint in Home And Away – he is the longest serving member of any Australian TV show – to take on a six month contract in Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical, the show based on the 1994 film of the same name in which three outlandish performers take a road trip from Sydney to Alice Springs. Meagher has swapped one quintessential Australian male for another to play Bob the mechanic, who falls for the unusual charms of transsexual Bernadette when she and her drag queen companions break down in Bob’s outback hometown, Coober Pedy.
“Bob’s a really nice, down-to-earth human being,” he says. “He’s got a heart of gold and he’s in naïve awe of what these three people do for a living. His world is the outback and the bush and motors and whatever. They can make you laugh and entertain you and do all these wonderful things. And then there’s a respect for them, it’s not ‘oh they’re a bunch of poofs, a bunch of drag queens’, there’s absolute respect for what they do.”
“The first time I saw the stage show I thought, God, it’s just fantastic,” he adds. He had been told to see it by the producer of the original Australian production, who was trying to persuade him to play Bob in Sydney, an offer Meagher had declined. “He said ‘just do me one favour. Have a look at it before you say no’. I went to see it and I was just blown away. I thought it was an absolutely amazing night out, and my opinion hasn’t changed since. It’s a fabulous show.”
So three years ago he donned Bob’s blue shorts in Sydney for just two weeks, covering for an actor friend of his, Michael Caton. He was subsequently offered a three-month stint when the show toured to Melbourne, but turned it down. The London production had already been touted and it was this that Meagher had set his sights on. “I said to them, ‘look, thank you, but if there’s still even a remote chance of doing it in London I would rather keep that three months, because I can’t keep asking the Home And Away producers to let me out’.”
Despite his busy filming schedule, Meagher has worked in the UK previously. In fact, of the past 20 Christmas filming breaks – they get four weeks contractually – he has spent 17 of them in pantomime all over the UK “and loved it. But to do something in the West End was just the icing on the cake.”
I would think Meagher’s status as Home And Away’s longest serving cast member would give him license to dictate longer breaks from the show whenever he wants. But not so. “I’ve never made a meal of that, so when I did ask this time [for six months off] they had no hesitation whatsoever in saying ‘yeah, go and enjoy it’.”
“If you’d said to me three or four years ago ‘would you like to do a musical in the West End?’: come on, ask a sensible question!”
Meagher is not one to throw his status in people’s faces. When new actors join the soap he will never offer acting advice unless asked to do so, or parade his experience in front of them. “There are people that do that,” he says. “You’ve only got to see them to think, ‘I’m glad I don’t.” Likewise, he will never go to a writer “and say ‘I’ve got this big storyline I need for me’. People do. I’m happy to take the cards as they come.” The only influence he does freely wield, he says, is on the nuances of the script. “What I do change is the way the character speaks. Because not all writers write accurately for my character. I just change little words and expressions, not the intent of the line.”
If there is one distinctive thing about Alf Stewart, it is his turn of phrase; ‘strewth’ and ‘flamin’ galah’ abound in any Alf-orientated episode. What is his own personal favourite ockerism, I wonder? “There’s a lot of them but I think it’s hard to go past ‘stone the flamin’ crows’,” he laughs. He nicked the expression from a man he encountered in his youth. “He was what we’d call a stock and station agent. He was like a real estate agent, and he sold properties and cattle and sheep. He used to drink rum at a fairly rapid rate. Just a beautiful man. But he would manage to stick ‘stone the flamin’ crows’ five times into one sentence. It’s funny how you remember things from all that time ago.”
That was long before Alf Stewart was even a twinkle in a writer’s eye and years before Meagher started his acting career. He grew up in rural Queensland and attended boarding school, where acting vied with rugby for his attention. “When I left school I meandered round a bit, I didn’t go to university, I worked for insurance companies; I worked for a local radio station and wrote jingles and sold air time.”
Around that time he started to take on roles in pantomimes and classic plays such as Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Gogol’s The Government Inspector. “The director at the theatre I did those at in Brisbane, not too long after that became the head acting coach at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney. So little did I know at that time, just doing it because it seemed like fun, I was getting acting lessons from one of the best teachers in the country. He was quite happy that there were a few butcher blokes from a non-theatrical background around the place that he could cast in certain roles in some of those classic plays.”
It stood him in good stead. He spent the first 20 years of his professional acting career working all over Australia on stage and on screen, with recurring roles in A Country Practice and Prisoner: Cell Block H. He was in the middle of filming a mini-series alongside Sir John Mills when he was asked to do the Home And Away pilot in 1988. “There was a three-week break and my agent said ‘you might as well do it, it will never get up anyway’,” he smiles. “They wanted everyone to sign for two years when they decided to go to series. I was fairly busy doing bits and pieces and so I wouldn’t agree to two years, and I wouldn’t agree to one year, and then they said ‘well will you do six months?’”
Six months turned into a year; 22 years later, Meagher is still there. However much he likes it – “90 per cent of the time I’ve been there I’ve thoroughly loved it” – I am curious as to why any actor would want to play the same role for so long. “For the previous 20 years roughly as a freelancer, [I was] all over the country,” he explains. “Having experienced six months of solid work, sleeping in your own bed each night, sub-consciously I think that had an impact. Then it became a bit of a habit. And coupled with that, the crew on Home And Away are some of the nicest people in the world, it’s just like a family. A lot of them have been there for the whole time.”
“I think the prize, if you like, is employment for 22 years straight”
As such, for the past two decades Meagher has come as close to having a nine to five job as an actor can, which appears to suit him just fine. He talks of the familiarity of routine, of knowing your schedule a week in advance and being able to socialise with friends at the end of the week. He is a regular guy with a regular life, albeit one lived in people’s sitting rooms day after day. It doesn’t seem a lifestyle conducive to ever returning to stage work permanently. But then again, “if you’d said to me three or four years ago ‘would you like to do a musical in the West End?’” he laughs. “That would have been my reaction: come on, ask a sensible question! So I really don’t know.”
He celebrated another first recently: winning the 2010 Gold Logie, Australia’s prize for Most Popular Television Personality. In his witty acceptance speech he joked that the Logie Awards had never meant much to him before, because he had never won one. Now, they suddenly seemed very important. “Look, I think the prize, if you like, is employment for 22 years straight,” he says now. Like the attention he has received from the British press over his West End debut, Meagher was flattered and surprised by the reaction to his award win. “To have viewers say ‘there you go, we appreciate what you’ve done’, and then to have the sort of acceptance from your peers in the room on the night that I got, that was pretty overwhelming, because half the time you think they wouldn’t know who you were anyway, or care. That reaction in the room that night was just mind-boggling.”
However pleased he was, it strikes me he would have been a little embarrassed by all the fuss, too. Left to his own devices, Meagher is distinctly fuss-free. He recently got married to his long-term partner Gilly. “We decided to do it very quietly, her and I and a couple of witnesses and a celebrant out of the yellow pages.”
It is not surprising then, that Meagher will be having an uncomplicated Christmas. With his wife back in Australia, he will spend it on his own in the central London flat Priscilla’s producers found for him. It’s not that he hasn’t had invitations. “There’s a lot of friends and acquaintances here and the big challenge for me is to tactfully get out of the invitations,” he smiles. “From doing pantos over the last however many years, [I know] it’s great just to relax and do nothing for a day or two if you’ve got it.” Meagher’s fuss-free, straight-forward attitude to life suddenly seems very appealing indeed.