All Saints: articles

Talking to Judith McGrath

All Saints has many strengths— great scriptwriting and outstanding production values to name two. But few would dispute that the show's cast are perhaps its greatest strength. And one of the cast's most popular members is Judith McGrath, who plays nurse Von Ryan. Von is one of the old school, a no-nonsense nurse who has seen many doctors and nurses come and go but who has remained her steadfast, professional self and maintained through it all a wickedly dry sense of humour.

In fact, it is Von's sense of humour that is, if anything, her trademark. But viewers may be surprised to learn that Judith is nowhere near as acerbic as Von! She does have a good sense of humour, but she doesn't use it in quite the same way as her character does. Judith is one of the most accomplished actors on Australian television, with a distinguished pedigree that includes Prisoner and A Country Practice.

Judith McGrath

Your character, Von Ryan, is definitely one of the most popular in All Saints. Her dry sense of humour obviously has a lot of appeal for people, and she's basically a very well-drawn character… is there any of you in her?

In any part you play there's a little bit of you in it. No, I don't think I'm quite as lonely as poor old Von and she is so… I'm fairly practical, I'm a practical person, but not in the same sense. What I like about Von, she is just straight down the line. Whereas I can digress very easily. I think she's got a good heart, she just can't bear anything she thinks is less than best, especially for youth. Because a nurse like that has worked in a hospital for 30 years, she's seen them all come and go, hasn't she? So everybody is like a new influx to her and it's like 'here we go again'… I suppose there's a bit of Von's humour in there but I would never use it, my god.

She's pretty caustic.
Yes, she can be. That sort of relates back to, you know, 'here we go again'.

Do you think she's very tough on herself?
Yes, yes I do.

She keeps everyone on the wards on their toes, especially Mitch [Dr Mitch Stevens, played by Erik Thomson], and there's often a very nice interplay between those two.
I think it's a good relationship, because she knew him way back then, when he and Terri were sort of together and he's also slightly removed from that gap, he's the middle gap, you know, from her to Mitch to the younger ones, and I think she likes him.

Do you think it's a bit of relief for her to have someone there to be that bridge?
Yes, I really do, because she actually can say whatever she likes. Well, she says whatever she likes to anybody, but he answers back.

And he gives as good as she gets.
And she enjoys that.

As you would. But she's also the calm eye in the storm and the voice of reason a lot, especially with Terri. What sort of things do you think make her lose her cool? Because she's only lost her cool a couple of times.
Yes, I don't think she loses her cool much at all. Incompetence drives her mental. And she's very hot and cold, I mean, doesn't ask anybody to do anything that she wouldn't do and she gets them to sort of do the same. [She] doesn't handle fools very well, what she considers fools. She's a bit stringent in that area too.

And she's a bit of a softie as well, with some of the patients.
After all, she's a basic nurse. You know, she just goes into nursing mode and somebody said to me once, 'She doesn't like to be touched, and yet she touches all of the patients', and that was interesting; it's like basic nursing, but if anyone comes near her, it's like 'hands off'.

Maybe she gives so much of herself that she wants to keep to herself what's left.
And some of the patients really give her heaps, you know.

Some of them are nightmarish. And all of the characters, including the guest roles, are very realistic and strong, which is what makes it such a good show.
Well, that's right, not everybody's Pollyannna.

Judith McGrath

No, far from it. Well, even Bron, who has a lot of appeal, definitely has an Achilles heel.
Oh yes, it's just that I think the difference is they reveal theirs and Von doesn't. Most things that happen with the character more or less happen either at home or anything that she feels happens at home.

At work she's the consummate professional, which is admirable. These days a lot of people tend to blur the line, but she's very old school.
She's old school… my aunt was. When I was little she was a nurse and I used to think 'you're not very nice'. Gorgeous woman, but it was like if you scratched yourself, you started laughing.

How have you found the experience of working on a show since it started?
Oh, lovely. To start ground floor on a project is good, because they give you a screen test for the character, but you haven't evolved yet, so that is a relationship, a working relationship, and you know they take from what you give, and that's nice. That's like creating, where often when you come into a show later you're picked directly for what they want the character to be, but it has to slot in and it's not the same as everybody finding their feet. And that's nice.

Were those weeks when you were making those first few episodes exciting or more nerve-racking?
Oh no, it was exciting. Well, you wonder how the show is going to go but at the end of the day you've really just got to get on with creating it. Because there are no guarantees.

No, not even with successful shows.
No, that's right. I mean, you can sort of think it's the most fabulous thing on earth that we've seen and boo-boom.

But All Saints is doing very nicely, and it's a very well-constructed, tight, well put-together show.
And the good thing that I like about it as well is that it is character-based, so we don't rely… mind you, that's evolved a bit too, you know, with the ambulance stories coming in and that, but when audiences are asked to meet people and they find that there's not a lot happening but the characters are there happening…

And interacting with each other — a lot of those exchanges are very interesting and it's what work is about…
Well, it's a workplace, isn't it.

Absolutely. Are you aware of viewers reacting to the show favourably? Does the cast get feedback from the public of the scale that you know that it's doing well?
Well, yes, and that's nice. You either get personal feedback, and people are very firm in their likes and dislikes, you know. It's amazing, people come up to you and say, 'Look, I don't like this, this, this, this'. You think, 'Right, I didn't write that actually'… But that's good, because they're there with it, with you, they know the people.

Have you picked up any medical knowledge since you've been on the show?
I've got to say there's been some times on the floor where I just stand there and say, 'No, I'm sorry, I don't do medical'.

All the language and getting it all together would be very confusing.
We've got beaut medical advisers and I suppose you do pick it up, but because it's not your actual profession, you don't really retain it. But then again that could be my sort of brain, not concentrating. You do pick up bits and pieces… that I keep forgetting.

Which is probably just as well, or you'd have people coming up to you all the time going 'Can you just tell me how to…'
I'm only really good on the blood pressures.

You've been involved in some shows that have set benchmarks in Australian television, like Prisoner and A Country Practice. Do you think much has changed in the industry since you first started working in it?
Oh this is an in-depth one. There have been lots of changes — we were just sort of mentioning this morning, which is also why I think All Saints is pretty good, I mean, demographically I think there's a viewer age group and it's been a little let down.. Prisoner was a benchmark, and that was really fabulous, because everybody in that was theatre actors.

Judith McGrath

That would be somewhat rare, one imagines, a lot of people go straight into television…
They go straight into television and suddenly you're in a show and because you're older, suddenly you're in a show where you've got actresses.

Did you like playing a prison guard or would you rather have been a prisoner?
No. I don't know. Prisoner guard was fine, yes.

So you didn't look at the prisoners and think 'That's not a bad gig'?
Well, yes, for the prisoners the show was more high profile, but no — at least [the guards] got out of prison.

Prisoneris still going around in American cable TV as Cell Block H. Do you get any mail?
Still, and people in the streets who must be on cable or something, and you think, 'What a lifetime ago'.

What has been the highlight of your TV career so far?
I always find it very difficult to answer these questions because highlights, you have many, and it's usually the thing you're in at… When I'm sorting my favourite shows I think, well, I'm quite eclectic in my viewing and it changes. I'd say the highlight would have to be the people — a lot of people, you know.

Has it been difficult maintaining a career as an actor in this country?
Look, I'm still here.

You've been having a lot of work.
But it's not that easy and my training's theatre. The ideal is to do a bit and I did a bit of radio too.

A great medium.
Yeah, it's marvellous. And I think at the moment [acting is] very difficult.

So you wouldn't necessarily recommend it as a job for someone with stars in their eyes or something.
Well, you see, I taught at Ballarat University, so how dare I teach uni drama and say to them, 'Sorry, it's a useless career, don't do it'. But I do feel it's getting harder and harder. And I could go into more things about government and all of that and, you know, cuts to the arts. It's not getting easier.

No, absolutely not. What was the teaching experience like?
I actually loved it… I was asked to do a semester and I thought, 'Do it'. And got to Ballarat and thought, 'What have I done?'. I think in the first month I spent every night in the library till 10 staying ahead, you know, for the next ones. It was good, because once again you're dealing with people and that's exciting. I think it was exciting because they were all just so keen and they want to do it and it means so much, and that's what's sad, because you think, 'I just hope you can make a living in the profession.'

It's very tough.
It's shocking out there.

You grew up in Brisbane, and started your career up there. Did you get a good grounding?
Oh, it was wonderful. I went there when I was seven, actually, Junior Twelfth Night Theatre and I'm sure it was a bit like babysitting and getting Jude looked after, after school. We did everything, it was wonderful training. So you learnt lights, props, costumes, all of that; it was just wonderful. It was very exciting. I can still remember enthusiasm and doing all the make-up…

Where do you think you learnt the most about acting?
I learnt the most by doing it. It's on the job. And you can actually see that by the young ones that have been in drama school for three years. Not until they're really in those jobs. Because the security net of the drama school is fabulous, to have around you tutors and so on, but on the job the real world's going to kick in.

It's not just acting — you're dealing with writers and directors and producers and fans and a whole ensemble. Do you think theatre is the biggest buzz for an actor?
A buzz it is, because you're taking something all the way through. Every night. Television — I mean, it is exciting, but it's up to an editor. Your responsibility in theatre is yours.

And is it difficult in a way not to have that immediate response with an audience when you're acting on television?
Initially it would be… but you adapt very easily after you've been doing it . It's also very nice to have a change.

Do you like having that audience interaction when you're on stage?
I love it.

It's the ultimate pat on the back.
And it's also the guidelines when you're doing it, I mean, you can feel an audience, you sense an audience.

Do you adapt performances on stage depending what you feel from the audience? Do you sort of alter little things?
Well, you can only alter within your characterisation and then have the director come down on you like a tonne of bricks, but you do because every performance is different, it's got to be… not different, but I think it's got to have a freshness.

And that's a real challenge, it would be like being on a highwire, a balancing act every night.
Well it is. It's like I've done a fair bit of theatre like Shakespeare. Doing a drama, doing a King Lear or a Macbeth, you come off on a real high. Doing a part that's a real slog you come off just thinking, 'Oh, should I bother?'. It is an energy surge.

There's a lot of work in Shakespeare — if it's not action, it's soliloquies and sort of beating of breasts. The comedies are a lot of characters running around doing silly things and everyone enjoys it.
Fantastic, and hopefully it has an audience.

Do you still do theatre with All Saints, or are you far too busy?
No I don't, it's sort of full-time, really.

As you've lived in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney…
And London.

And as Australians are very teritorial about their cities, one has to ask which of those cities you've preferred so far?
I'm very fond of Brisbane when I go back now and I think that's really sort of developed into a great lifestyle. I loved Melbourne, absolutely adored it, I think because it's a little bit like London, you know, and I was there for so long that even lots of friends — like family-type friends, who become your family — were there. So I do miss Melbourne very strongly. I love it, but Sydney is aesthetically beautiful.

And you design and make clothes?
I haven't for an awfully long time.

So you don't have a little sideline running up running up frocks for the Logies?
I haven't actually! I like doing that. I like it, it's a good… I'm in my own zone.

Was the interest initially sparked because you just thought it was a creative outlet?
No, it was actually because Mum was a fabulous designer, and I was sent out of domestic science class — you know when you have to learn how to sew. I was expelled. And I didn't know anything. I was in London, broke, and I started to sew, so I obviously had picked up something from her, and I enjoyed it actually.

It's also a very handy skill to have, because anything you see you like, you can run up for yourself.
Well, I'm still like that, and I loathe shopping, loathe it. I'll shop for shoes, but not for clothes. I'd rather go home, and sometimes you can make it faster than trying to find something that you like.

Are you still playing tennis?
Yes. Do you know how hard it is to get someone to play with? I begged people for about two weeks and then I thought, 'Damn the lot of you'… I enjoy it but I'm not crash hot.

And one final question… It would take a bit of an emotional toll working on a show like this. There are a lot of harrowing storylines — do you take it home with you, or can you leave it at work and walk away?
You've sort of got to leave it. I mean, one does a fair bit of homework but that's in preparation. There are days where you absolutely crawl away from here and if it has been intense all day, it stays with you, but you've got to let it go. Because you've got to be in the next day.

And you don't want to be just tossing and turning all night.
No, no. I think the hardest thing is waking up before the alarm. And all you can hear in my neighbourhood is me screaming, 'Oh no, not again!'.

So what sort of hours do they have you waking up at?
Oh it's not too bad. Prisoner was worse.

You don't have much location shooting, do you?
Not much, but I have… I'll probably have one scene one day, one the next, you know. Love it when they do it on the same day. Anything that requires a cigarette.

You're there.
I think, 'Why am I in…? Ah, we've got a smoker'.

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