Packed To The Rafters: articles

Rebecca Gibney, Michael Caton

Rebecca Gibney at the Logies.

The mother lode

At 44, Rebecca Gibney is the radiant mother off screen and on, playing the wildly popular, pregnant TV mum Julie Rafter, who is the same age; a plastic stomach has been strapped around her waist for all scenes for interminable weeks now.

On location during a beautiful winter morning at Dee Why beach, she must squabble with her on-screen husband, Dave, played by Erik Thomson, who throws some fishing rods in the back of the family Mitsubishi Lancer while Gibney's character defends a character who — plot spoiler — has HIV and gave their teenage son drugs.

"You're both as bad as each other," drawls Michael Caton in character as Gibney's on-screen dad. "Someone should pick you up and knock your heads together."

After the fourth take — there will be eight more — she breaks into a broad smile as her real-life sister Stella brings Gibney's son, five-year-old Zachary Edison Bell, onto the set.

"Hi darling," she coos, running her hand through his mop of light brown hair, "Mummy's just got to do some filming."

It's Zach's second time on set, so he has questions sitting in a director's chair: How do they put mummy on the TV? And what's with her tummy? "I had way too much breakfast, didn't I?" answers Gibney, patting her prosthesis.

"What are they filming?" a curious beachgoer approaches and asks, "Home and Away?"

"Packed to the Rafters," this journalist responds.


"Packed to the Rafters."

"Packed to?"

"Packed to the Rafters!"

"Is that a film?"

Clearly, the beachgoer is not among the average 1.94 million viewers nationally — occasionally more than 2 million — who tune in to this hit comedy-drama, nor aware Gibney carried the popular vote to Gold Logie glory this year.

The New Zealand-born actress has been on Australian screens now through the '80s, '90s and noughties, from The Flying Doctors and Come In Spinner to Halifax f.p. and this show. Why is she a success? "I think it's partly to do with familiarity," suggests Thomson.

"She's been around 25 years now, since Zoo Family or The Young Doctors or whatever the first thing was she did. This role has pulled her previous roles together. She exudes warmth and trust."

Thomson's flub about his co-star's CV is a common error: Gibney later laughs about the research-free journalist from Townsville who also insisted wrongly she had starred in The Young Doctors and inquired: what crime show was she in again?

Forensic psychiatrist Jane Halifax in Halifax f.p was created especially for Gibney and lasted for 21 "telemovies" between 1994 and 2001. And she's not dead yet, Gibney insists — perhaps the much-mooted death of TV drama has been exaggerated.

Her good nature in the face of fools is coupled with a very Kiwi understatement about her own abilities, plus a disarming openness: Gibney talks with candour about growing up with an alcoholic father who would beat her mother and how after the failure of her first, three-year marriage to Irwin Thomas — better known as Jack Jones, the frontman of Australian band Southern Sons — she slid into depression, agoraphobia and panic attacks.

She conquered her fears and the worst thing to befall her since was the discovery in 2005 when watching her appearance on the crime drama Stingers that too much Botox can be deathly to drama: the injections had erased her frown and hampered her ability to display emotion.

"Yes, I'd done far too much," she says over lunch at a beachside Dee Why cafe. "That was stupid. I learned my lesson there. Having said that, I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to maintain your appearance.

"And yes, I still use Botox injections — I've just learned to use a lot less! When it comes to anything surgical, I don't want to stop the clock. I don't want to look 35 again. I'm nearly 45. But if I can slow [the signs of ageing] down a little, if I can maintain what I have to the best of my ability, then I'm going to do it.

"There are more and more treatments available these days — there are lasers and skin resurfacing and all that, and, yeah, I'll give stuff a go. I want to look a bit fresh. People shouldn't be judged for what they want to do with their own body and their own time ...

"I don't want to not look my age. I'm getting more work now than when I was 35. I guess I'm free enough to have lines around my eyes, to have a roll around my tummy. That's OK. That's part of ageing."

The youngest of six children, Gibney was born on December 14, 1964 in the town of Levin, 90 kilometres north of Wellington on New Zealand's north island.

The family never owned a home and moved a few times because her father couldn't stick at a job — from dry cleaner to gardener — renting homes in Hastings, in the country's fruit bowl orchard centre, and later in the capital city.

Gibney wasn't so much funny as "a bit odd" as a kid. "I was a bit like Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family," she recalls. "I walked around with this headless doll that I took everywhere.

"People would say, 'What happened to the head?' and I'd say, 'I don't know, I can just pretend what she looks like.' I think I was a bit weird.

"My next sister up [Stella] is five years older than me and they were all very much closer together in age — Stella and Diana and Patrick and Theresa and Michael, they were all a year apart. I spent quite a bit of time by myself when I was little with my imaginary friends."

At 13 and 14, Gibney morphed into a self-described "nasty brat". What was she rebelling against? "I grew up in a fairly dysfunctional household," she says. "My father was a fairly violent alcoholic and so I witnessed lots of things I shouldn't have witnessed.

"Fortunately Mum protected us from most of it but the family situation gave me an uneven view of the world.

"My dad — through no fault of his own, he suffered a disease [alcoholism] — didn't have a lot of time, particularly for me when I was 12 or 13, when you really need your father's influence. I'd come home from school with good report cards but Mum was so busy and Dad couldn't have really given a toss. So I thought, 'What's the point?'"

Gibney dropped out of school at 15 and found work as a receptionist, in a fruit shop, at a radio station and modelling for knitwear and dress catalogues. She was employed as a dancer on Ready to Roll, a Countdown-like New Zealand pop music show.

When she was 17, her father — one of 13 children born to an alcoholic mother — died of alcohol-related disease, aged 51: "He just gave up." Her mother, now 71, is in "great" health and living in Brisbane near two of her children.

Gibney came to Sydney for a holiday at 18 and "stumbled" into acting when she met an agent in Melbourne. She auditioned for a new show called Neighbours, turning down the pivotal role of coffee shop manager Daphne and the opportunity of British fame because she had already been offered a role in Nine's children's show Zoo Family.

Gibney's subsequent role as mechanic Emma Plimpton in The Flying Doctors made her a star not only in Australia but also in New Zealand. She fell in love with singer Thomas but the marriage didn't last — with disastrous consequences for Gibney.

"My divorce was probably the trigger [for the depression]," she says. "A divorce is like a death, really. It brings up all the issues of failure and for me it brought up a lot of self-loathing; stuff that I'd buried about myself all through my 20s.

"I've never felt very comfortable being in the public eye. I always felt I was a bit of a fake because I never had acting lessons and it wasn't something I'd wanted to do. Whenever I was out in public and people recognised me, I felt the image wasn't good enough. I didn't feel dressed up enough. I never felt pretty enough.

"It was a turning point for me. I had to deal with those fears or I probably would have run away somewhere and died. I was in a bad way."

A female psychologist encouraged Gibney to confront her self-loathing and phobias during two years of intensive therapy: "She didn't pull any punches. I had to recognise why I was acting the way I was .. what the negative patterns were from, and then let them go."

In 2001 she married Richard Bell — a painter and production designer who had lived on the same street in Hastings in New Zealand when Gibney was five — and gave birth to Zach in 2004.

The couple settled on a six-hectare property in Tasmania's Tamar Valley — rolling hills plus "four sheep and a goat" — after Gibney had spent 20 years living in inner-Melbourne. "I'm not a city girl at all," she says. "I loved Melbourne but as I get older I need more air and space."

More recently, the family of three has bought an additional property on Sydney's northern beaches because of work commitments and a desire for Zach, who is soon to start school, to be safe and secure. The little boy, who has a Steve Irwin-sized obsession with crocodiles, hasn't been happy about his mum's fame and work commitments.

"I went home after the Logies and said, 'Did you watch Mummy on the telly?' and he said 'No.' His grandma said he kept turning the TV off every time I came on the news.

"I said, 'Darling, why aren't you happy that Mummy won the Logie?' and he said, 'Because it means that you aren't with me.'" She laughs ruefully. "So that broke my heart in about 50,000 pieces."

And Bell, with whom she shares a love of music and sailing — why is he the one? "Soul mate's probably an overused description," she says. "He's my best friend. He's the person that I want to wake up with in the morning. He's the one I want to grow old with.

"He's the person who accepts me completely for who I am and he's not interested in me as anything other than an individual — not what I do for a living. We get each other. He just gets me, on all levels."

By Steve Dow
August 03, 2009
The Age