After a career spanning four decades, actress Maggie Dence was honoured with the 2011 Equity Lifetime Achievement Award.
Best known for her roles in Prisoner, Neighbours, The Sullivans and classic comedy series Kingswood Country, Dence accepted the award late-last year where it all began – the Independent Theatre in Miller Street, North Sydney.
Growing up in Killara, NSW with her parents, three siblings and a dog on a quarter-acre block, Dence became interested in acting and started working backstage at the Independent Theatre at age 16. She was at the theatre for four years before being cast in her first professional role – The Wicked Witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
In later years – in the mid-90s – after playing school teacher Dorothy Burke on Channel Ten soap Neighbours, she would reprise the role on stage in the UK.
“It was fantastic…but as the Wicked Witch I could not get a word out,” she laughs. “Because they just roar at the villain. It wouldn’t matter who it was, they just absolutely roared. I remember thinking ‘I don’t know what to do’. I had done a panto before, but I’d never done the Wicked Witch and so, they didn’t warn me…I just had to stand there.”
It’s evident from talking with Dence that acting will always be in her blood – she still has a great fondness for the artform. She’s not ready to retire.
“It’s interesting and you get to explore emotions that sometimes are not part of your sort of world,” says Dence, who turns 70 this year.
After appearing in influential sketch comedy show The Mavis Bramston Show in the mid-60s, she proved her worth in several series including drama The Sullivans.
Dence had fun playing the ‘sweet’ Rose Sullivan, but says it was often quiet. “I look back on The Sullivans with affection. I didn’t do it for all that long and it was a funny sort of job in a way – I loved Auntie Rose but she didn’t actually have a lot to do ya know,” she says.
Then she would appear in the cult comedy, Kingswood Country.
Starring Ross Higgins as the infamous Ted Bullpitt, Kingswood Country was one of this country’s finest comedies, netting a Logie Award for Best Comedy Series during its run between 1979 and 1984.
Dence played snobby, ex-flight attendant Merle Bullpitt, sister-in-law of Ted after marrying Datsun-dealer Bob (played by Colin McEwan).
“I did love doing Kingswood Country because it was great fun; Merle Bullpitt was a great character,” the 175 cm actress says.
“[Producers] Tony Sattler and Gary Reilly had such a good time creating those people and I was fortunate enough to get Merle and I loved working with Col McEwan.”
Dence spoke fondly of working with the team – especially the late McEwan, who sadly passed away from cancer in 2005.
“He was extraordinary Col, he had this habit – he wouldn’t read the script until the first read through,” she says with a laugh.
“I’d never worked with him before and the first day when I met Col I thought ‘My Crikey!’ because it was all this energy coming into this room and he hadn’t read the script so he’d be almost rolling on the floor with laughter, I mean just his presence was huge.
“…He would learn the script – he was always on the money with the script – and he was terrific to work with. He always gave it 100 per cent and that’s lovely. You think ‘off we go’ and [he was] totally reliable.”
The cast used to rehearse at a church in Balmain before shooting two episodes back-to-back at Seven's Epping studio on a Saturday.
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Maggie Dence as Merle Bullpitt. Picture: Maggie Dence Private Collection
Maggie Dence (right) with Sheila Kennelly on Kingswood Country.
Picture: Maggie Dence Private Collection
She was also a board member of the Actors Benevolent Fund (ABF) for almost a quarter of a century. The fund provides assistance to performers who, due to injury, illness or disability are unable to work.
“It’s a really decent charity and I’m very proud to have had that time. And I learnt a lot."
After such a career, it’s only fitting that Dence received the 2011 Equity Lifetime Achievement Award – the third (and first female) recipient.
She spoke to IF three days later and was still buzzing with excitement about the recognition from her peers.
“It was overwhelming…it was a really special night for me; I never expected to have anything like that in my life,” the humble Dence says.
The night, which was attended by more than 200 people, was hosted by Equity president Simon Burke and presented by Foxtel.
An emotional Kim Williams – Foxtel's outgoing chief executive – said "they don’t make them like Maggie Dence anymore".
Appearing on the night included everyone from Garry McDonald and Judy Nunn to Kingswood Country's Judi Farr, Lex Marinos, Sheila Kennelly and Kevin Golsby.
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Maggie Dence with Foxtel chief executive Kim Williams.
Picture: Adam Hollingsworth
Celebrating the achievements of Maggie Dence (second from the right).
Picture: Adam Hollingsworth
Animal Kingdom’s Jacki Weaver, who was nominated for an Oscar last year, appeared via video (click here to watch) as did Tony Sheldon and Barry Creyton.
Dence and Weaver have been friends since 16. “What’s happened with Jacki is just fantastic and so well-deserved, she is very special. And I think America will be gobsmacked by her,” she says of Weaver who most recently landed the part of Bradley Cooper's mother in The Silver Linings Playbook.
Drew Forsythe, Jonathan Biggins, Phil Scott and Amanda Bishop from Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Revue performed a sketch in front of the packed crowd on the night in Dence’s honour while Michael Craig, Out of the Blue co-star Katherine Hicks and Kristian Schmid (Neighbours, Sea Patrol) announced their respect.
What now for the talented Sydney actress?
Dence is currently scheduled – funding permitted – to appear in Shelly Hatton’s Dirt Cheap.
“I think it has potential to be a really lovely film that people will laugh at and enjoy. It’s a family film and it’s clever,” says Dence, the wife of actor/director Graham Rouse.
“Everybody who has had contact with it believes in it, but in this country it's hard. It's hard everywhere I know that, but here we struggle all the time.”
Any tips for young actors today?
“Work hard,” she says without hesitation. “I think that is why a lot of our young ones are getting that opportunity because they are focused.”
To watch the other tribute clips shown on the night, click here.