All Saints: articles

Life's a bitch for drama queens

Television viewers love a good bitch just as much as critics love to bitch about them. Watching bitches and bitching about them is catfight heaven. The nastier the character, the more additive the viewing.

Prime-time dramas and soap operas have been devoid of vixens of substance since the demise of the Melrose Place terrible trio, Amanda, Kimberly and Sydney.

But over the years TV has been well served by conniving, conspiring women. In the 1970s Australia had Maggie Cameron (Bettina Welch) in Number 96 and Vicki Stafford (Judy Nunn) in The Box.

Then there was Cornelia Frances, the ice maiden Sister Scott in The Young Doctors, who also forged a career in bitchiness as Barbara Armstrong Hamilton in Sons and Daughters and Morag Bellingham in Home and Away. Her latest incarnation is as the school ma'am in The Weakest Link.

In the 1980s there was a batch of nasties on the inside in Prisoner, and we are not just talking about the inmates. It was a fine line between the crooks and the "screws"—Vera "Vinegar Tits" Bennett (Fiona Spence) and Joan "The Freak" Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpatrick).

You can choose your friends but not your relatives, and no one knew this more than the Hamilton clan with "Pat the Rat" (Rowena Wallace) in Sons and Daughters.

America's most famous bitch was another 1980s icon, Alexis Carrington Colby (Joan Collins) in Dynasty. The program also ushered in TV's first black bitch, Dominique Deveraux (Diahann Carroll).

In the 1990s, Tuesdays was a bitch with Melrose Place when Amanda Woodward (Heather Locklear) moved in. Such was her might that she boosted the show's flagging ratings. She was later joined by kooky Kimberly Shaw (Marcia Cross) and fiery redheads Sydney Andrews (Laura Leighton) and Lexi Sterling (Jamie Luner).

Teen soaps also frothed with the Beverly Hills 90210 brunettes Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty) and Valerie Malone (Tiffanni-Amber Thiessen).

Then there's Rose Stevens (Joy Smithers), the physiotherapist who joined local soapy drama All Saints in 1999. She has cute dimples, an alluring smile and works in a caring profession. She's a Rose by name, but not by nature, some of the time—but it's not her fault.

Melrose shrews Kimberly and Sydney may have spent time in psychiatric hospitals, but they were not primarily people with mental illness.

Rose has bipolar disorder (manic depression) and, although she is characterised as a bitch, loony, crazy and psycho, Smithers says the labels are unfair because Rose is a misunderstood character.

Rose is married to Doctor Mitch Stevens (Erik Thomson) and they have a daughter, Lucy. But here's the problem: Mitch loves Terri (Georgie Parker), a former nun, and Terri loves Mitch. Their kiss proved it, but Rose doesn't know about that.

Rose's antics stem from her fragile emotional state and a marriage riddled with jealousy and insecurity. And because she has stopped taking her medication, she experiences mood swings.

"I feel sorry for Rose. I don't think she's a bitch," Smithers says.

It's a case of Rose scattering the petals and pondering: he loves me, he loves me not…

Smithers says Rose loves her husband and has good reason to be jealous of his friendship with Terri. Before they married, Rose told Mitch: "You're only choosing me because I'm second-best" to Terri but he reassured her: "No, I'm over her."

But she knows the flame still burns between them.

Smithers says the nature of the love triangle between Rose, Mitch and Terri is such that Rose is painted as a baddie because Terri has to be the goody.

"Rose does some nasty things, which are triggered by her insecurity, her freak-out jealousy," she says.

Mitch didn't get to see Lucy's first steps; Rose had videotaped them, but erased the film so Mitch would never see it.

Mitch was distraught when, without warning, Rose moved out with Lucy. "She took Lucy to get his attention. She took the baby and ran, hoping he would chase her and he didn't. His patients and Terri mean more to him than his wife and child do."

Rose's downward spiral culminated in Tuesday's episode when she had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to hospital after being found on a swing during a storm.

Smithers says playing a character with a mental illness has been an eye-opening experience.

"People get this blurry line between reality and TV," she says. "A lot of people think I am mentally ill. They think I am Rose, that the baby is my baby and (I should) stop hurting the nun (Terri).

Smithers is often accosted in the street by ardent fans. "People say, 'I hate you because you are nuts'. People say to me all the time, 'Psycho, psycho'.

"I think the stigma of mental illness is a horrible thing to have. Why do people hate people with mental illness? They're harmless."

Smithers says "psycho" should be classed among other discriminatory words such as nigger, wog and Chink, and should not be used.

She says filming the nervous-breakdown scene was arduous and heart-wrenching. "It was the most torturous acting experience of my life. We had a three-week production break just before it and I was extremely lucky because it gave me the time to really focus on how I was going to do this.

"I wanted to make it as accurate as possible for people who have been there."

Smithers is aware of the media's responsibility in portraying people with mental illness. "The community gets their awareness of mental illness through the media and we have to be very careful how we present it."

As an actor, Smithers finds it far more interesting playing a flawed character and someone who others react off. "I'd rather be the nemesis. I have more fun.

"I don't really think that Rose is a bitch. I think she's a tragic character, but at the same time I'd be very happy to assume the mantle of 'Pat the Rat'. If that's my legacy to the Australian television industry, I am very happy to accept it."

· SANE Australia monitors the media portrayal of mental illness on its website The national helpline is 1800 688382

All Saints screens on Tuesdays on Channel Seven at 8.30pm

By Suzanne Carbone
The Age
October 25, 2001