Noeline Brown is an Australian comedy legend. She was the star of the nation’s ground-breaking sketch comedy program The Mavis Bramston Show and the sitcom My Name’s McGooley, What’s Yours? in the '60s, a regular cast member on the legendary radio/TV series The Naked Vicar Show, and spent most of the '80s being the best thing about Graham Kennedy’s game show Blankety Blanks.
She’s also 75 years old, which is historically when people have been enjoying their retirement (well, not any more, obviously…) but she’s busier than ever. For one thing, she’s the Department of Health’s Ambassador for Ageing. For another, she’s playing the iconic character of Maggie Beare in the upcoming theatre production of Mother & Son, written specifically for the stage by Geoffrey Atherden, the creator and writer of the original series.
“Well, of course, I’m not going to be Ruth Cracknell,” Brown says of the late actress who first immortalised the titular mother on television. “I’ll be playing Maggie Beare. Everyone remembers Ruth so fondly in that role, which she made her own.”
She’s keen to point out that this is “a whole new play with a whole new cast – and it’s very 2014, because we’ve got a lot of mobile phones and we’re using Skype and computers,” she chuckles. “There’s a lot of things to confuse Maggie even more.”
So it’s not set during the period of the show? “No, those shows were on in the '80s to '90s, so a whole lot of stuff has happened,” she says dryly. “Fax machines have gone, you know?”
Brown is clearly deeply fond of Maggie. “She’s a very rich character – and I’m sure a lot of her forgetfulness was when it suited her. I think she was just plain naughty! I think Maggie’s problem was that she didn’t have enough friends and didn’t have enough interests. So all of her energy went into playing her boys against each other and making life really difficult for Arthur!”
In fact, Beare almost serves as a cautionary tale about how to do old age badly. “It’s a beautiful fit, as the ambassador for healthy and active aging, to go out and play this character,” she laughs. “She does everything that you shouldn’t do: she’s at home all the time, she’s so dependent on Arthur. And she was clearly very dependent on her husband as well and did the thing that a lot of women do, let him do everything. Maggie could have had a rich life living on her own if only she’d done the right things!”
It’s an area that Brown is intimately familiar with. “All you hear is that in 40 years time one in four of the population is going to be 65 or over so the sky’s going to fall in. And retirement is not a death sentence.”
So what’s the key? “Getting out of the house, having a meal, meeting new people. You need new ideas, you need to keep learning. These things are good for you! My aunt retired at 65 and I think she really didn’t fill in her time usefully: she just sort of waited. And she died in her nineties, so she had a bloody long wait!”
So Brown is what Maggie could have been if she had made better decisions?
“Oh, indeed, yes,” she laughs. “Instead of just being naughty.”