When television was first introduced in Australia up to 97% of the shows that made it to air were imported from America or Britain. It was only after quotas, the advent of pre-recording technology and a lot of hard work from Australian creatives that good quality Aussie content started to be produced in the mid 1960s, and every step of the way Maggie Dence was there.
Maggie is a veteran of Australian stage and screen. After making her stage debut at sixteen she quickly found herself working in television where she adopted the role of Mavis Bramston, an outrageous and overrated English actress and recurring punch-line of the highly successful satire, the Mavis Bramston Show, which aired on Australian TV from 1964 to 1968. She’s also appeared in a plethora of iconic Aussie dramas including the Sullivans, A Country Practice, Neighbours, All Saints, Prisoner and Homicide.
In 2011 she was also presented with the Equity Lifetime Achievement Award by Foxtel and Actors Equity. The award recognised her career spanning over forty years, as well as her position as a board member of the Actors Benevolent Fund, a charity devoted to supporting actors who are unable to work as a result of injuries, sickness or disability.
This year we had the privilege of working with Maggie for a photoshoot in which she sports one of Shaun McGrath’s dazzling wigs. We spoke to Maggie about her theatre beginnings, her time in some of Australia’s most iconic roles, and the changing face of arts and culture in Sydney.
You first made your break with the Independent Theatre in North Sydney, what was it that attracted you to the stage?
I’d been going to the Theatre since I was a child and just loved the whole atmosphere of stage shows, also my sister was about ten years older than me and did a couple of amateur shows so I knew there were possibilities of doing shows even living in a conservative world – so I joined the Independent’s Drama School when I was sixteen – that was IT!!
What were some of your favourite roles from your early days in theatre?
I did a musical called “The Glass Slipper” which was a charming version of Cinderella and I played one of the Ugly Sisters – always a good role! Then I did the Wicked Witch in “Snow White etc” – but I also played one of the ‘bewitched’ girls in “The Crucible” – a fabulous play to be involved in.
You’ve been featured as a prominent character in some of Australia’s most iconic comedies and dramas. Did you find that people found it difficult to separate you from the characters you played?
Not really, I think I was lucky enough that “Rose” in “The Sullivans” and “Merle” in “Kingswood Country” were very different – also I didn’t really play those characters for a very long time, I moved on pretty quickly.
In the past you’ve spoken about the difficulty of finding work after your stint as Mavis on the Mavis Bramston show. These days how do you feel about that role that slingshot you into nationwide fame?
I was very spoilt really – to be connected to a show that really was a milestone in TV History is rare and it is remembered with such strong affection, and whilst it did ‘linger’ for me initially I was back working in the theatre during that time – it just meant I had a bit of a lull re working on television, but that did pass.
Recently you starred as the tiger in the Old Fitz’ production of Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. What was it like for you playing such a high energy, abrasive character?
I loved it! It’s such a wonderful play and Claudia Barrie was so the right director – she had such a command of the material and I had such a stimulating time working with her, and I thought the rest of the cast were remarkable – all in all, I couldn’t believe my luck in getting such a role and in such a powerful play.
You’ve worked across so many different mediums throughout your career, do you have a favourite?
No, so much depends on what the role is and who you are working with – I do love doing film and television, there’s something wonderful about the cameras, crew etc – particularly I think in this country where we are famous for regarding the crew and cast as pretty well equal. Of course theatre is thrilling when the all the ingredients are right and the audience gets exactly what you are aiming for – if you are lucky enough to do a play like “Noises Off” – the reaction is enormously rewarding and obliterates the tough work that it requires!
In what ways have Australian TV and theatre changed since you first started working as an actress?
On the ‘up side’ I think the standard of our actors is fantastic, and that’s now being noticed throughout the world. But as regards tv and theatre - I’d say both are currently suffering from being reduced – we’ve lost so many theatres – literally pulling them down and not building another in their place and the output of both the ABC and commercial stations has dramatically scaled down – ‘reality tv’ has a lot to answer for – it is much harder for actors to earn a regular income, hence the rise of the “Indy” productions, remarkable though they are, it is regrettable that all concerned do such a lot of fine work and virtually end up with zilch in pay, I find it depressing that so many wonderful actors have other jobs just so they can exist and pay the rent.
What would you like to see more of in the Australian arts?
More diversity in casting, reflecting the various races that have now been in our population for some generations – plus more honesty regarding some ages – stop casting ten years under what the age is meant to be (well, I would say that wouldn’t I!!!!) and I think there is neglect with characters in the 50 to 65 age group – in tv series – we should look more to where America and Great Britain balance these roles – both male and female. And run more risks! The Americans have opened up their themes for television – really doing edgy, daring scripts – we should too – give the writers/directors a lot more scope to be creative and don’t censor them!
Written by Michael Kennedy