Water Rats: articles

Toni Scanlan and Liz Burch


Respected actress and Water Rats star Toni Scanlan doesn't know what all the fuss is about. After all, a kiss is just a kiss—a show of affection she frequently shares with her boyfriend, Gabriel Freeman.

Even when it's scripted with another woman, it's a fair cop, because Toni knew when she accepted the role of lesbian police officer Sergeant Helen Blakemore the character's sexuality would one day be explored.

But Toni succumbs to an attack of the giggles when she talks about Helen's upcoming affair with lawyer Gillian Swain, played by Liz Burch of Flying Doctors fame.

"There's lots of kissing and cuddling and Liz is just gorgeous," says Toni, laughing uproariously.

"We didn't really know each other, but we've become very good friends! We had a bit of a laugh about the whole thing. We did a scene in the bedroom and we had a glass of red wine each, but truly, its no more uncomfortable than kissing a man you don't know on television.

"That has happened and it's always uncomfortable when you have to be intimate with someone you hardly know, but I find women are very good at talking things through.

"Liz and I had a great rapport as actors, and we found out things about each other very quickly. That actually helps when you have to do something of this nature."

Toni, who is slender and infinitely more feminine than her on-screen persona, curls up on a couch in the airy inner-Sydney terrace she shares with Gabriel, her partner of 13 years. He smiles at her and declares, "I feel safe—after all, she's just kissing a woman on television, not another man, so why should I worry?"

At nine years her junior, the 33-year-old student of traditional Chinese medicine does lots of his own impromptu kissing and cuddling with Toni. With a mutual love of food, good wine and each other, they're obviously devoted—although Toni faces spending the next three months alone as Gabriel works in a Chinese hospital, finishing off his degree.

But they have endured separation before. "I was going to Europe and we met two days before I took off, then I came back and continued the relationship," explains Toni.

"It started off as something very casual, but it has turned into 13 years!

"Gabriel's been a student, so I've been the breadwinner for a while, Water Rats has enabled us to make that possible."

Acknowledging the age gap with Gabriel, Toni concedes, without regret, she will probably never have children. "Well, Gab is a lot younger than I am.

"Since he decided to do this course, I've gotten older and he's gotten busier and it's just like, 'Oh, my God, I forgot to have children!' Toni says with a laugh.

"But I like life on the streets—I like to be amongst it, close to the action. If we had kids we'd probably move out to the suburbs and have a backyard and the whole catastrophe."

Playing a gay character is television's predominantly heterosexual landscape was a calculated gamble for Toni which appears to have paid off. There;s been no backlash to her character—indeed, only positive feedback.

"When my agent said they were interested in me, I said, 'Great." Then he said, 'There's one thing—she's gay.'

"I wondered why he said that. It's like saying, 'And the person's got a sore leg, or blonde hair.' It just didn't worry me at all," Toni shrugs.

"But from what I gather, the gay community is happy there are gay people represented on prime-time television, so that's been really positive.

"And I've had no negative response from straight people. All the people in my neighbourhood—they all know me. They're all family people and they're all very jolly about the whole thing.

"The fact that I'm on television, in a show they love, is the talking point—not the gay issue."

This year, Toni will use her character's sexual profile to be part of Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. "Everyone can celebrate diversity and tolerance and, as far as AIDS go, compassion. I don't know how you can knock an event that combines those three elements."

By Di Stanley
February 22, 1999
Woman's Day