Bed of Roses: articles

Julia Blake's career blossoms in ABC's Bed of Roses

AFTER a career lasting more than half a century, Julia Blake’s resume is formidable. In ABC drama Bed of Roses, she leans back on her original drama school education.

What is good acting? If anyone knows the answer, it should be Julia Blake.

In a stage-and-screen career spanning 50 years, Blake’s dramatic range has been remarkable.

Her TV resume alone runs to Eden’s Lost, The Magistrate, The Dunera Boys and The Society Murders.

Add formidable theatre roles, critically acclaimed appearances in films such as Travelling North and Father and you have an actor of rare grace and authority.

And yet, over pots of tea at her home in Melbourne’s southeast, Blake struggles to explain the secret to her success.

“If I told you, everybody would know how to do it,” she laughs, her voice brittle and light.

“But truly, I don’t know… the older I get, the more I realise how little I understand.”

Last seen on our screens in City Homicide, Blake is playing Kerry Armstrong’s curmudgeonly mother in the ABC’s Bed of Roses.

Her character, Minna Franklyn, is in her 80s -- a no-nonsense, Left-leaning environmentalist whose spirited agitation puts her at loggerheads with daughter Louisa.

“Not the most tactful person,” Blake says drily. “Minna thinks everybody should think the way she does.”

But Bed of Roses, a tale of grief and renewal, creates thorny dilemmas that reveal Minna’s vulnerable side.

Blake says: “I can normally give or take a role… but I was so thrilled when I got this one. It seemed to me there were so many ways you could go with it.”

How did she get to the heart of Minna?

“I still follow the technique I learnt at drama school and that is: try to find something about the rhythm of the character or something that can be your anchor.”

In Bed of Roses, Blake has a tremor in her voice that suggests both defiance and delicacy.

“There was a time,” she says, “when I would even take on the rhythms in my own life. If she was serene, I was serene; if she was an untidy person, I would look untidy. I hope I’ve got to an age where I don’t do that now.”

British-born Blake learnt her craft in English repertory theatre. Inspecting dog-eared press clippings from the time, she says with a laugh: “The lovely thing about the passage of time is, you look at these things and it’s like seeing somebody else.”

Blake married husband and fellow actor Terry Norris between a matinee and evening performance in York. But in the early ‘60s, they decided to build their respective acting careers in Australian television.

Bellbird, Division 4, Twenty Good Years -- Blake brought a touch of class to every home-grown drama there was, all the while raising three children.

She even did duty on Prisoner, playing a herbalist with poisonous intentions, but an award-winning performance in the Neil Armfield-directed mini-series Eden’s Lost in 1988 secured her reputation as one of our finest actors.

Her aristocratic character, Eve, was described in the script as “sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, other times thin and haggard”.

“Well, that was me to a tee,” she recalls. “Shoot me one way and I really could look very good. Shoot me another way and I looked quite awful.”

Blake, 71, still looks striking, her cheekbones finely chiselled, her eyes wide and alert. But she remains “absolutely paranoid” about watching herself in rushes.

“I always think, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that again’,” she says.

What about viewing the final cut?

“I remember with Travelling North (which earned her an AFI Best Actress nomination), I’d done so much work on becoming someone else but all I could see up on the screen were bits of myself that I didn’t think were there in the character.

“You just have to accept the fact that when you’ve done it, it’s there forever. So, be responsible in the way you do it, I say.”

A debilitating eye condition took Blake away from the cameras in the early ‘90s. As she told director Paul Cox: “If I’m going to be worried about this eye all the time, how can I be unselfconscious as an actor?”

But Cox coaxed her back to the big screen in 2000 with Innocence, an affecting romance about two ageing lovers.

“Paul left the script by the front door,” she recalls, “and an actor can never resist that.”

Blake has not been immune to star power, either. In 2004, she signed on for a Stephen King thriller, Salem’s Lot, starring Donald Sutherland.

“A terribly attractive man, I have to say. Very, very charismatic. And great fun. The first thing he said to me was, ‘I’m Canadian. Don’t blame me for Bush’.”

What did she learn from working with him?

“Being able to switch off from being sociable and immediately focus on what you were doing next,” she says. “Just snap into the mindset.

“As you get older, you must be careful not to let the technique get in the way. Instinct is the thing that feeds the life of a role.”

So, good acting comes down to what you feel, I suggest.

“Yes,” she says firmly. “And truth. Absolute truth.”

By Simon Plant
May 21, 2008
Herald Sun