Home and Away stalwart Ray Meagher talks to Dina Behrman about achieving longevity as a soap star, swapping the screen for the stage, and why he’ll never do reality television
He’s become something of a TV icon after spending 23 years starring in one of the most popular Australian soaps, so it was only a matter of time before acting legend Ray Meagher bagged a role in one of the most iconic Aussie stage shows.
The 66 year old, who plays Home and Away’s perpetually grumpy Alf Stewart, is appearing as Bob in the London production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical and says he’s thrilled, if slightly surprised, to be treading the boards.
“I feel so fortunate to have a West End role,” he says. “I’m loving this, and it’s a box that I’d never thought I’d tick in my wildest dreams. I grew up in the bush in Australia, I can’t sing, I can’t dance and here I am in a West End musical. It’s pretty amazing.”
Meagher, who has earned himself a Guinness record citation in recognition of his status as the longest serving actor in an Australian serial, began his acting career with roles in TV shows including Prisoner Cell Block H, but his previous stage experience has been mostly limited to stints doing pantomime in the UK.
He says: “I couldn’t say whether I preferred being on stage to being on screen, it’s just different. I think when you do one then that’s where you are, that’s what you enjoy, that’s what you throw yourself into. As far as stage has gone over the last 20 years, I haven’t done much because of Home and Away. I’ve done 16 or 17 pantomimes in this country over that period, and that’s a little bit of stage relief each Christmas. I love that too.”
Meagher is one in a long line of Aussie soap stars who have put in appearances in British pantomimes, and he says that, far from stealing roles from British stars, the Aussies are helping to promote the tradition of panto in this country.
British actors, he says, have also gone to Australia for work: “There’s been cross pollination for 100 years. We’ve had many, many British actors over a very long period of time – going back to people like Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davies – coming over and touring in Australia, and vice versa,” he says. “I don’t know what’s right or wrong about those things, whether you should or you shouldn’t. Pantomime producers in this country, for at least the 20-odd years I’m aware of, have given a go to anybody with a profile to help keep pantomime vibrant.”
He adds: “I’m not suggesting they wouldn’t work without an infusion of people from outside – and some of those are not just people from Australia, some are the fourth runner up from Big Brother. I have a bit of trouble with that, I’d rather an Australian soap person doing panto than the fourth runner up of Big Brother be pushed into something they’ve never done before.”
On the subject of reality TV, Meagher is unrepentant in his dislike of such shows. He describes Big Brother as “the most inane, boring load of rot” he has ever seen on television.
“A bunch of people being locked in a room to talk to one another about nothing for endless periods,” he says. “I thought it was absolute garbage.”
He’s less critical however of shows like Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor, saying he thinks they are more worthwhile because there is some actual talent involved. But he reveals he would never get involved himself, despite having been asked to appear on Dancing with the Stars for the past eight years.
He says: “I said to the boss at the time ‘I don’t know how to say this, but listen very carefully. The heads of both the major TV channels in Australia combined haven’t got enough money [to persuade me to do it]‘. I just don’t think it’s for me, not that the show isn’t great.”
Despite his reluctance to don sequins and take to the dance floor, Meagher says he’s very much enjoying being part of one of the campest musicals around.
“When it was first announced that I was doing Priscilla, a few people asked me if I had to get into drag, and how I felt about that,” he says. “But I haven’t even been tempted to put on a pair of heels. I don’t know how women do it, I honestly don’t. Ben Richards [who plays Tick] said he loves the part and playing that role, but he hates the heels. It hurts the back and the ankles and the feet.”
Meagher will be starring in the show until March, meaning a prolonged break from Summer Bay. So how have the Home and Away scriptwriters managed to write him out of the show for such a long period?
“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” he says laughing. “It hasn’t gone to air here or there yet. There is a suggestion that Alf murdered somebody but that’s not true and he does get off that. But being in jail and held on the bar for a little while gets him thinking what he’d like to do before he gives up the ghost – like a wish-list kind of thing.”
In the meantime, Meagher, who picked up the prestigious Gold Logie Award for the Most Popular Personality on Australian Television earlier this year, says he’s happy to continue playing Alf for the foreseeable future, and reveals that when he signed up for the job all those years ago he didn’t think he’d be doing it for more than a few months.
“When we did the pilot for it, I thought we might get three months work out of it and now that’s 23 years ago,” he says. “They wanted all the actors that were in the pilot to sign for two years, and at that time I was busy freelancing doing movies and mini-series and other stuff. I was thinking ‘I don’t know if I want to be tied to the one thing for two years’, so I argued with them for a while and they agreed to six months.”
But almost a quarter of a century later he concedes: “I’ve enjoyed it, and I still do enjoy it.”
Ray Meagher stars in Priscilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical at the Palace Theatre, Cambridge Circus, London. See www.priscillathemusical.com