Ginette McDonald grew up Irish-Catholic, the third child of seven in a family dominated by brothers. The family house in Wellington had holes in the bathroom floor, but also a ballroom where her doctor father sometimes played violin. She fell in love with television as a child, after first spying a TV in a radio store.
As a teen, McDonald was invited along to a drama course run by Nola Millar. Some of the youngsters in the group persuaded Downstage Theatre to let them perform a comedy sketch. The legendary character Lynn of Tawa was born soon after. Her father's medical practice was shared by Dr Diana Mason, wife of playwright Bruce Mason. "He really encouraged me" says McDonald. Keen to see more Kiwi accents on stage, Mason suggested she invent a character for Downstage's late night show Knickers.
At 16 she came up with Lynn of Tawa, inspired by callers on talkback radio with "flat, monotonous voices and were always asking things like how to get snot stains out of a pink twin-set". McDonald talks in detail about Lynn in this video interview shot for TV series Funny As. She suspects Lynn's accent was partly born out of an adolescent desire to puncture the bubble of the liberal audience she imagined visited Downstage. Together Mason, McDonald and playwright Roger Hall cooked up successful sketches for the gormless character from an outer Wellington suburb. (A second late night revue, Knackers, teamed McDonald with Paul Holmes and John Banas.)
Soon after, she exited for England on a path to certain fame, blissfully unaware that the acting competition in London was somewhat fiercer than hometown Wellington. In-between waitressing work, she won an early part as a maid in a BBC version of Katherine Mansfield story At the Bay (Vanessa Redgrave played Mansfield). McDonald got gigs — "I played Yorkshire miners' daughters and Cockney girls" — just not enough important ones. After seven call backs she lost a prize role in nursing series Angels at the last moment, after the producers discovered she was from elsewhere. Impressed by her stage work, veteran director Ken Hannam gave her a lead role in TV play Sweeping Plains.
Wearied by five years in London, and fearing she might live out her acting days "in a tiny flat in Finchley Road", McDonald returned to New Zealand in 1976, where she spied a new soap opera called Close to Home, and was appalled. But when Close to Home producer and mentor Ross Jennings offered her a part as "a 38-year-old nymphomaniac housewife from Te Puke", she said yes, and did not regret it.
Lynn of Tawa was reborn when McDonald was asked at short notice to contribute to a celebrity roast for Fair Go presenter Judith Fyfe, on live show Good Day. When TVNZ entertainment head Malcolm Kemp saw the results, he asked if the character might do some spots on variety shows. McDonald's brother Michael got busy writing scripts, even though Tawa meant little to him. Lynn proved so successful that a one-off special followed, then her own series.
There were also a terrifying but triumphant appearance at this Royal Variety Performance (she dared to address the Queen directly "God Bless You. We all love you, eh". Lynn also appeared in a TV anniversary special, where McDonald was wheelchaired in while heavily pregnant. Lynn's spelling has caused confusion over the years: her TV series spelt it Lynn, but a 1994 special was titled Lyn of Tawa in Search of the Great New Zealand Male.
Whatever the spelling, Lynn would become "a curse and a privilege". She provided a distinctive calling card, but became a millstone around McDonald's neck, thanks to constant demands for her return, and the many people who were unable to seperate actor from her alter ego. As Listener writer Noel O'Hare later put it in 1989, "no matter how much recognition McDonald gets as a producer, it is those brief sporadic performances as Lynn of Tawa that people remember her for".
Beyond Tawa, McDonald was winning attention for other roles. Rosemary McLeod wrote her a starring role in gender satire All Things Being Equal, and she was allowed to play it after agreeing to lose roughly 15 kilograms (McDonald talks in her Funny As interview about the stress of acting live, opposite an unpredictable Bruno Lawrence). She won a Feltex Award for playing a pragmatic woman married to a compulsive worrier in 1979's It's Your Child Norman Allenby. Another followed, for her Pioneer Women portrait of Hera Ngoungou, a Pākehā brought up Māori.
McDonald's time in London had spawned the desire to get behind the cameras. With the support of Ross Jennings, she won a place on a TVNZ training course for producers and directors. At the course's end she was told she was "gifted but warped". She debuted as a producer and director on the last series of Gliding On (she had originally played Beryl in Glide Time, TV's first adaptation of the Roger Hall play). She went on to direct for Close to Home, Open House and Country GP — McDonald is especially proud of helming an episode of the latter, in which Simon O'Connor's character grows increasingly paranoid. But McDonald soon decided she was more suited to producing.
Maurice Gee drama The Fire-Raiser (1986) marked the start of "a beautiful professional partnership" between McDonald, as producer, and director Peter Sharp. McDonald calls him "unquestionably one of the best drama directors we have ever had for television. Together we brought out each others strengths." Both Sharp and McDonald had the idea of giving Fire-Raiser's main role of arsonist to ballet dancer Jon Trimmer. The Fire-Raiser won awards in Australia and America, plus GOFTAs back home for director, best drama, best children's programme, and Gee's script.
McDonald then "poured her energy and passion" into the ambitious Peppermint Twist, a light-hearted portrait of teens in a 60s era small town. The show incorporated music, colourful sets and graphics. It performed solidly among its teen target audience, but McDonald was surprised it got given a prime time slot. Peppermint Twist was axed long before the planned 50 episodes had been produced.
Dreams hopes of maturing into "a raddled, chain-smoking 57-year-old senior drama producer in a structured television company" faced setbacks after Television New Zealand closed its in-house drama department. McDonald was working with Peter Sharp on Maurice Gee kidult series The Champion at the time. McDonald and Sharp travelled to Hollywood to audition actors for the show's central role, a black WW2 serviceman stranded downunder. The pair narrowly turned down then-unknown actor Cuba Gooding Jr for the part.
Lynn of Tawa was reborn in one-off documentary In Search of the Great New Zealand Male and travel show Visual Symphonies. The 1990s also saw McDonald continuing to act and produce. She produced TV adaptations of Riwia Brown pregnancy play Ngā Wahine, and Robert Lord's decade-spanning Joyful and Triumphant. McDonald also co-starred opposite Rawiri Paratene in TV gambling tale Dead Certs, and produced Face Value, a trilogy of solo pieces; she took centre stage in one of them, Her New Life, which was a finalist at both the Banff and New York TV Festivals.
There was also an extended run as presenter of gardening show Ground Force. In 2007 McDonald was made an ONZM (Officer of the Order of New Zealand) for services to entertainment. Soon after she returned to Downstage Theatre, to star in one woman play My Brilliant Divorce. She continues to act, including in tele-movie Rage, based on the 1981 tour, and 2018 Tom Scott stageplay Joan. McDonald's daughter Kate McGill was part of the cast.
Profile updated on 30 October 2020
'Ginette McDonald - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 6 September 2019. Accessed 20 December 2019
'Fires, nymphomaniacs and Lynn of Tawa' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen Website. Director Ian Pryor. Loaded 18 February 2010. Accessed 24 July 2019
Amy Jackman, 'The woman behind Lynn of Tawa' - The Wellingtonian, 27 February 2014, page 12
Noel O'Hare, 'A Long Way From Tawa' (Interview) - The Listener, 16 September 1989, page 20
The Champion press kit