Born in 1944, actor, novelist, and playwright 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. Like an earlier Wellington writer and Day's Bay documenter, Katherine Mansfield, Ewing departed as a young woman for an OE in the mother country. Having begun acting at university, she won a NZ Government scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London.
Told she had a funny accent, Ewing "watched in disbelief as my toothbrush froze in the bathroom in my rented accommodation". Despite frigid digs and plans to return home, Ewing won the RADA gold medal for top student, and was offered parts in Tennessee Williams plays and a lead in 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 a redheaded 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, 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 70s to act in Keith Aberdein-scripted TV series Rachel. The drama followed an expatriate New Zealander (Ewing) returning home after her father’s death, to deal with his remote farm estate. The performance won Ewing a 1979 Feltex Award for Best Actress.
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 tale for drama series Loose Enz. Ewing continued to win work in the UK on 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 (1983 - 1990) series 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 UK TV mainstays from Eastenders, Boon, Casualty, and Peak Practice to The Sweeney, The Bill, and Lovejoy.
She regularly returned to the stage, playing lead roles in plays from John Osborne, Shaw, 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."
On her website she bemoans a lack of roles for mature women: "But 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."
Ewing determined to tackle the issue head-on, and wrote her 1989 one-person-show, Alexandra Kollontai, about the only woman in Lenin's 1917 cabinet. The play found success in London, and at the Edinburgh and Sydney Festivals.
Her positive spin on scant acting roles for older women is that it has afforded her time to pursue writing, which Ewing has done full-time since the mid-90s, resulting in a successful career as a novelist. Her first novel The Strangers was published in 1978; it was almost 20 years before follow-up The Actresses (1997).
Subjects of her novels range from hypnotism in the Victorian London theatre world (best-selling The Mesmerist, which The Independent called a "masterly performance") to a revisting of the 1950s Godzone of her childhood (Orange Prize long-listed A Dangerous Vine).
"Lucky me: two careers and two countries", Ewing has reflected on her acting and literary paths. None of her eight books has (of 2019) been adapted for screen, but Ewing has prepared for the possibility of marrying careers: "Luckily, in my last three novels, there are several magnificent old ladies."
Profile updated on 15 October 2019
Barbara Ewing website. Accessed 15 October 2019
'Barbara Ewing' IMDB website. Accessed 15 October 2019
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