When did you first decide that you wanted to work as an entertainer?
When I worked in factories as a young man. I hated factory work. I was going to be an agricultural fitter in Sunshine in Victoria, Australia and when I saw what work conditions were like and how bad it was and how people were treated I felt that I had to contribute something better in my life than just being on an assembly line. So I decided then that I would pursue the things that I loved. I loved singing and I loved performing in some sort of way but that was in a very amateur way, just, you know, getting up and singing in a pub or something like that. So ultimately all those things have helped me to become an actor because I have touched on a great many things that have hurt me and given me a great deal of experience in life, you know, and that’s where it started.
You first appeared on Australian television as a singer, how did you move into this area?
I was doing other work and there were opportunities of getting onto musical programmes on television and I auditioned, like everybody did, I sang for them and they said ‘Oh yes, would you like to have a spot here?’ so I occasionally got into television that way and one thing built into another and occasionally I got a bit of work. But that was on a semi-professional basis, I was still working doing other work being a salesman or whatever work I had to do and that’s virtually how it all happened. So then I auditioned like I did eventually for theatre production and that launched me.
In the UK you have appeared in classic television programmes such as Man In A Suitcase, The Champions and the cult classic The Prisoner. What are your memories of these shows?
Well they were fleeting memories mainly because I did not play the ultimate lead in them. I’d gone over to England in ’63 to foster my career; though I was born in England I’d sewn my career in Australia. So many Australians got out of Australia because there was no production being done and the way they could explore their possibilities of work and exercise their skills and give them better opportunities in show business generally was to get out of Australia at the time. The governments at that time didn’t think anybody in showbusiness was very productive, of course we were, and they just didn’t see it. They felt the only place you could possibly make your name was the UK or in the United States. So, so many went over and I did myself and I decided that I would really explore the possibilities. When I got there I got an agent and I had small bits and pieces. I always remember when I was in The Prisoner and it was only a small part but I went to Wales and I got out of the train and they were all speaking Welsh, and I think ‘What you doing boyo?” (Terence speaks in a Welsh accent) and I couldn’t understand a word they were talking about but they were lovely people and it was just a pleasure. Portmeirion it was as I recall, and I went there and did my little bit and every little bit that an actor does combines to adding to your career so that you eventually get bigger and better things to do.
It’s a great show, very well known in the UK.
Yeah and I’m very proud to have been just a little part of that and meeting up with Pat McGoohan and those sort of people who I treasured thoughts with, a few drunken moments. I’m sure that he wouldn’t remember me at all but it’s a nice pleasurable memory in my mind. So that was about it and the other ones too were just snippets of scenes and little character parts that I played. But when you’re starting off in your career the most important thing is to get as many credits as you can and that’s what I did. So that’s how it worked out.
Division 4 is a classic television series you have been involved in that promoted Australian content in the media, what are your favourite moments from the series?
My favourite moments were that I was a leading player in a television series so I had a continuity of work - that is a very privileged position wherever you may be in the world, because at least you’re not fighting to get every little job - you, in actual fact, have got something that goes on. That went on for six and a half years for me, so I stayed with the series and I was able to have a normal life. I think all actors want to do it but have normal lives, but when you are living on a knifes edge of trying to pay bills or rents or mortgages and have a family life as well that takes its toll sometimes unless you have enormous financial backing and not many actors are in that position. So I was in a privileged position to get that part and it gave me that sort of normality of life because it’s a hard one being an actor living off your wits!
You were actively involved in the Make it Australian Campaign, can you tell me about this?
Yeah, my whole life had been cultivated with British or American culture, film and television and theatre and I adored it, I loved it. The American thing was enormous because that was the big thing in the whole world so I felt that I would gain from that to learn from that. In doing that every country and every state within that country has a right I feel to be recognised. Australia wasn’t smothered under the British culture because we were all sort of British in some way, most of the people, or European in the main at that time, but the American culture really suffocates everything because it’s everywhere and though I do adore it I always felt there should be a better balance. The balance of cultures is that one doesn’t overtake or smother the other one. So what I did was I was equity deputy in the union which I had been many, many times, an unenviable task that most actors don’t want to do but they always say “oh you do it, you do it” so I did it. I helped start a thing called TV: Make it Australian and the whole idea was to get more Australian productions on television, force the commercial television stations to, in actual fact, do what they promised to do which was to do more productions, to balance it out with overseas productions, not to take over but just to balance it out so that they put more money back into an industry from which they gained so much from. And so that happened and I was very proud of that because it snowballed - because Australians or New Zealanders, or British people, Scots, Irish, Welsh, English, don’t want to have to go to another country to gain employment. They want a culture that they can have so that British actors and American actors can come here and work and we can go there, you know, but there was nothing being done here. The skills were here and the actors and technicians were here but they were not getting the opportunity. We have now fallen back into that unfortunately. So that’s the reason I did it and I was very proud of that. It did start a national sort of wave flagging situation which never got really out of hand but was showing that we need to have a better balance. So that was good.
Breaker Morant is a classic story that you have been involved in presenting in different mediums. You have been involved in the theatre production, the film and narrating the Breaker for Bolinda Audio Books. Can you tell me about your different experiences working in these different mediums?
Yeah, I think the first thing is that Breaker Morant was a character in the Boer War, he was a historical character, he and a fella called Hancock actually got a load of Boer prisoners and they were shot. These guys were convicted, the orders from the British at the time, Kitchener, was to shoot these people and so they did what they were told but to make them an example they shot them. The British military courts shot them. So it’s a great piece of Australian history and it was written by a fella called Kenneth Ross as a play, and I played Breaker Morant in that so we did that at the Melbourne Theatre Company. And I really feel that there is so much history in this country and other countries too that should be shown and that it is really most important that we do it. So I was really excited about that and from that the film people came and they said this will make a great film and they made promises about the fact that, you know, I might play Breaker Morant and all this but I don’t believe it till I’ve done it and finished it. So anyway I didn’t end up doing that, I didn’t end up actually playing Breaker Morant, a very fine actor who I got to know very well, a lovely man, Edward Woodward played the part and I played Captain Hunt his best friend who gets killed in it so I only had a small part in the film, and that was great to do and it was nice and at least I had the credit up there that I was part of that as well. Then I was asked to do the audio book for the whole book with all the characters and all the accents. And that was a (Terence laughs) it was a labour of love but it was a really hard thing to do, because I had to do Welsh accents with English accents and then get one character talking against the other in different accents which was really hard to do and took a little bit of time, more than I thought. But it was done and it won the Chicago award for the best audio, which at that time there were two, Lolita which Jeremy Irons was reading, and Breaker Morant were the two finalists. And I won it for Breaker Morant and Jeremy did a fantastic job with his other thing - but that was really nice. Not that you would have known that because I still was looking for work after that and I’m sure Jeremy wasn't! (Terence laughs.)
It’s a fantastic book.
Yeah it was a great book and I’m very proud to be a part of that and it’s a great piece of Australian history. So I have worked in the theatre, with the film and with the audio book as well.
Playing Billy Flynn in Chicago allowed you to combine your acting, singing and dancing skills. Is it more rewarding to be involved in productions that allow you to do this?
Well I enjoy them mainly because I have those skills. I think I have some things that are inherent in me. I didn’t work so hard to be a singer. I did work hard to be an actor, that’s an acquiring skill that you can have and you’ve got to work at. Now dancing, I was not a dancer but I can move, bit different today, but then I could really move. So yeah that was a great thing. I wanted to try to see if I could bring with Billy Flynn a hard, tough sort of guy but with a flair and that’s what I brought on that. A six-week stint at the Opera House in Sydney turned into a year and everybody came to see it, people came even from overseas to have a look at this show and they said ‘Oh Jesus, this is great.’ So I’d like to do it again, as a matter of fact, but I don’t think they’re going to think that a guy in his sixties, you know, that he’s too old (Terence laughs) but I would love to try to do it again as myself now but I don’t think anyone is going to give me the opportunity.
It’s great that the soundtrack is available.
Yeah it’s a great soundtrack and that was the first time Chicago had been done in this country and I was in the original cast, as much I was in the original cast of other shows too so it was just a wonderful plus. And I think everybody didn’t think – when I was cast people said ‘Terence Donovan, Terry Donovan, Jesus Christ, he’ll never be able to do that’. And when everybody says you can’t do it I go out like you believe… I do fifty push ups every minute to try to make myself and keep myself and get myself fit to prove them wrong and that’s what we’ve all got to do in life I think.
Throughout your career you have played a large number of comedy roles. How much have you been able to incorporate your own ideas into these parts?
The comedy side of things – I really honestly believe that every actor, it is really important for actors to have a comic part of them. I think life is all about this; it’s not about hardness all the time. I think what really makes things interesting with a performer like the great American actors, Jack Nicholson, you know, they’ve all got a little funny way about them and that makes them interesting as human beings but it makes them really interesting as actors if you can do that. I’ve tried to do that. I played Billy Liar in the first production here many years ago in the 60s and that was just – ‘there’s trouble at mill you know’ (Terence speaks in a Yorkshire accent) this kid wandering off in these dreams and of course the incredible actors like Albie Finney and Tom Courtenay they played it and I just adored what they did and I went to everything I could see for them because they were just measures of excellence, you know. And of course they came from a real working class background and our business was not always like that ‘you always had to have a very polished voice you know or something like this’ (Terence puts on a posh accent) and that’s really bullshit (Terence laughs) and those guys came from working class backgrounds and they were just blokes on the street showing they could cut the mustard and that’s fantastic. So I try to use it as much as I can and every script and everything I do I try to find little gleams of humour. That’s where Mannix, my present production - he has a great wit but an intellectual wit - I’m not too sure if I’m intellectual enough, I think I’m a real dumb arse sometimes! (Terence laughs) But I use the humour as much as I can; it’s really interesting to do.
You first impersonated Mannix at his house, what first attracted you to the role?
Well the fact that somebody asked me to do something I was really pleased and it wasn’t so much that, it was the fact that they asked me and I didn’t know much about the man and of course he has disappeared in the archives of history a bit. So researching him I thought, oh this is fun, but it was a gig which was - not a send up but they have a Mannix dinner every year here at his old home, Raheen, which is in Kew in Melbourne. So I dressed up as he and the writer wrote a bit and I added stuff too and sang some of the Irish songs and it went down a treat so I felt that there was more to the man than people realised so I have explored that now, and it was lovely to do, lovely to do. But I didn’t go in there thinking, ah well I would do this, and every job I do – there’s a dear old friend of mine called Charles Bud Tingwell and Bud has got a great history and he’s a super mate and he said ‘Terry, take everything, just say yes to everything!’ (Terence laughs). And that’s what I’ve tried to do so everything comes along I say ‘Yeah, I’ll do it!’ and then we work it out afterwards whether it works out or not. That’s happened with Mannix and I’m so pleased because it led to other things.
What are your future plans for Mannix?
My future plans are that I feel that there’s a wonderful, superb piece of history, Australian history and Irish history and British history that is waiting to be told. There are so many great stories out of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales and Australia too but as I say Australia and other countries seemed to be swamped by this tsunami of culture that comes from everywhere else, it doesn’t give it time to even digest it’s own attributes. So my aim is to try to build it into a bigger production and get it to a wider audience. And when I say a wider audience if it’s Timbuktu I’ll go and do it. I need to have technical things there to do it but I hopefully will maybe be able to get it to country areas in Victoria, showing a piece of Australian history and the archival footage which is available. Unfortunately it all costs money to do it now you can’t just do it, it costs money to do it so that’s what I’m hoping to do and if by chance we can get it into a great stage of development we might just do some of the festivals out of the country. I’d like to go to all the states of Australia showing them the history of this man and the history of the times. I think it would be really lovely and maybe I might just take it further afield beyond the shores of Australia. Somebody might want to have a look. So we hopefully keep our fingers crossed that that will happen.
Throughout your career you have played a diverse number of roles. Which roles have you particularly enjoyed?
Well I must say that I got into show business through musicals so I have a great love of music and that led me to wanting to be a dramatic actor and having been more complete as an actor performer. And I think that, to me, to have a consistency and an enormous fun and interest in your life you’ve got to explore not just one avenue. Even if I was a Shakespearean actor I would adapt my singing ability into that and I think any Shakespearean actor should be able to move well and keep oneself fit so that – to be an actor is about being many things and combining them all together to suit the purpose of the part you’re playing. So if an actor just sits there and doesn’t move it’s pretty bloody boring. But if he can move and he can develop something which has many strings to it, then I think that that makes him a better sort of actor. And that’s what I aim for, I don’t know whether I achieve it all the time, but I do try to strive to try to get there. And I absolutely learn from these superb British actors who have that skill and the great American actors. We learn from each other, we observe and we see and we say ‘Oh look, I wish I could do that, maybe I could do it a bit like that, maybe that accent, I’ll try this’ you know, that’s what you try to do. Maybe I’ll get better as I go on, before I fall off the twig! (Terence laughs) I’m going to set a barrel up, we’re going to have a keg, ‘I knew him well’ they say.
You’ve achieved fantastic things throughout your career and have done some brilliant parts.
It’s been good, it’s been very varied, it’s been very frustrating and it’s been annoying sometimes when things haven’t worked out the way you would have liked them to work out but you mustn’t let that get you down, you mustn’t. As Breaker Morant said, before he was shot, ‘Live every day as though it’s going to be your last because one day you’re sure to be right.’
What current projects are you working on at the moment?
Well the only project that really has my undivided attention is Mannix. So I’m not jumping on other things. I’ve got a few ideas for a movie that I’d love to do but that’s in the embryo stage and, you know, it’s nice to have those ideas, it’s nice to constantly be working to try to make things happen because if you try then maybe one thing out of ten will work. So that’s what I’m doing, Mannix is my main thing at the moment.
That’s lovely, thank you very much.
It’s a pleasure.
This interview took place in Melbourne, Australia on 10th August 2006.
Many thanks to Terence Donovan for his time and co-operation.
Transcript produced and owned by Caroline Willis.
We ask that you do not reproduce this interview, in part or full, without prior permission.