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Profile image for Barbara Ewing

Barbara Ewing

Actor, Writer

Born in Carterton in 1939, actor and writer Barbara Ewing was raised and educated in New Zealand. She wrote from a young age. In a February 1951 diary entry, she described a Wellington summer’s day in the shadow of Empire: "I was having a wash this morning when Mum came in with a funny look on her face. Today is a day that will go down in history. King George VI is dead. There was no school. We went swimming at Days Bay and Vivian Hibberd smoked!!!" 

Her father was a Ministry of Education official, whose responsibilities including reviewing books for their suitability to go on school reading lists. Many were brought home for a young Barbara. "I was always a great reader. I read everything (from Captain Marvel to Chekhov). Dad’s job was very lucky for me". 

Ewing completed a BA at Victoria University, majoring in English and — exceptionally for a Pākehā at the time — Māori. In 1966 she would release an album in te reo, Māori Songs I Love (see picture on this page).

Like an earlier Wellington writer and chronicler of Day's Bay, Katherine Mansfield, Ewing departed as a young woman for an OE in the mother country. Having begun acting at university, she won a New Zealand Government scholarship to study at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).

In London, Ewing "watched in disbelief as my toothbrush froze in the bathroom in my rented accommodation". Despite plans to go home, and being told she had a funny accent, Ewing won a RADA Gold Medal for top student, and was offered a Tennessee Williams plays and a horror film, "so I thought I’d stay for a few months."

The film was 1967 fairground horror anthology Torture Garden, with Ewing playing opposite a possessed piano. It was followed by Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) where Ewing was the barmaid victim of Christopher Lee’s Dracula. "I was rather thin and wispy, not big and brassy which is what they wanted. But the director, Freddie Francis, and the producer, Aida Young, just laughed: they taught me how to stuff a bra with cotton wool and found a big red wig and Zena the barmaid appeared." 

Ewing's drama study sojourn was set to turn into a decades-long career on English stage and screen. Many Granada TV roles followed: Emmy-nominated HE Bates tale The Little Farm, northern mining serial Sam, Charles Dickens adaptation Hard Times; and work with directors from future Oscar-winner Freddie Francis to cinema provocateur Ken Russell.  

Ewing returned to New Zealand in the late 1970s to star in Keith Aberdein-scripted TV drama Rachel. The series followed an expatriate New Zealander returning home after her father’s death, to deal with his remote farm estate. The performance won Ewing a Feltex Award for Best Actress in 1979. 

Occasional NZ screen roles followed in the 80s: she starred as Nurse Sibylla Maude, the founder of South Island district nursing in a Pioneer Women episode, and was a journalist in a Tom Scott-penned press gallery comedy, which screened on anthology series Loose Enz. Ewing continued to win work on English television, as well as in 1989 feature When the Whales Came, alongside Paul Scofield and Helen Mirren.

With experience acting in gritty northern dramas (and in stuffing bras) Ewing was an ideal candidate for a lead role in writers John Stevenson's and Julian Roach’s send-up of the genre: Brass. The long-running series (1983 - 1990) is recognised as a classic of English comedy, and made Ewing a household name as buxom Agnes Fairchild, mistress of Bradley Hardacre.

Ewing has also appeared in a slate of English television mainstays from Eastenders, Boon, Casualty, and Peak Practice to The Bill, and Lovejoy. In 2001 she guested in an episode of Kiwi-shot fantasy Dark Knight, as a seer who warns Ivanhoe of a terrifying beast.

She regularly returned to the stage, playing lead roles in plays by Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams and Shakespeare. "And just occasionally I have felt it: that magical energy between actors, or between actors and audience, a kind of electricity that sets the stage on fire. It is thrilling when it happens, and worth everything."

In 1988 Bob Parker flew to London and managed to persuade her to feature in an episode of This is Your Life. Ewing has also been interviewed for Kaleidoscope and chat show Talk Talk.

On her website she bemoans a lack of roles for mature women. "...as most actresses of my age have found: older male actors go on, are in their prime, but older actresses are simply old, and fall by the wayside." Determined to tackle the issue head-on, Ewing wrote one-person show Alexandra Kollontai (1998), about the only woman in Lenin's 1917 cabinet. The play had success in London, and she performed it in Edinburgh, Sydney and the Soviet Union.

Her positive spin on the lack of roles for older women is that it has given her time to pursue writing, which Ewing has done full-time since the mid-90s. Her first novel The Strangers was published in 1978; it was almost 20 years before follow-up The Actresses (1997). The later tale of a drama school reunion and a rape accusation was republished in 2018, having gained added resonance in the age of #MeToo.  

The subjects of her novels range from hypnotism in Victorian London's theatre world (2007 bestseller The Mesmerist, which The Independent called a "masterly performance") to a revisiting of the 1950s Godzone of her childhood (Orange Prize long-listed A Dangerous Vine). Her 2020 memoir One Minute Crying Time covers the period before she left for England in 1962. Writing it required her to "wade through literally thousands" of old diary entries that she'd written as a teen.

Ewing has reflected on her acting and literary paths. "Lucky me: two careers and two countries". As of 2023, none of her nine novels has been adapted for screen, but Ewing has prepared for the possibility of marrying careers: her recent novels include "several magnificent old ladies."

Profile updated on 9 December 2022 

Sources include
Barbara Ewing
Barbara Ewing
website. Accessed 9 December 2022  
Dionne Christian, 'Barbara Ewing on the perils actresses face' (Interview) - The NZ Herald , 11 March 2018 
'Barbara Ewing' IMDB website. Accessed 9 December 2022
Barbara Ewing' New Zealand Book Council website. Accessed 15 October 2019
Mike Crean, 'Versatile and Multiskilled' (Interview) - The Dominion Post (Good Weekend pullout), 3 March 2012, page 33
Unknown writer, '10 Questions with Barbara Ewing' (Interview) Massey University Press website. Loaded 3 December 2019. Accessed 9 December 2022