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Yvonne Lawley


Joyce Yvonne Lawley began acting in her teens, but her screen career really began to take off in her 60s.

Lawley was born in North London. When she was around seven, her father moved to Auckland. She began acting while at school, and had hopes of studying at England's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. But life took an abrupt turn in her 20s on a ship to England, when she met an engineer named Bert. As she later told The Listener, "I was fortunate to marry the right man." She spent ten years in Calcutta, after her husband was posted to India during World War ll.

In the 60s Lawley added radio and television to her CV. In 1967 she acted in murder mystery Slipknot (see photos), one of five dramas made as part of a series of workshops aimed at training actors for television. During this period acting continued to play second fiddle to her husband and three children, She didn't contemplate an ongoing role like the one she had in Gloss until Bert's passing in the early 1980s.

In 1976 Lawley played one of the Catholic teachers in classic TV movie The God Boy. A few weeks later she was starring in Blues for Miss Laverty. Based on a short story by Maurice Duggan, it featured on anthology TV series Winners & Losers. Lawley starred as a lonely music teacher trying to hold her life together.

Middle Age Spread (1979) was the first of a host of small roles on the big screen. Sam Pillsbury's The Scarecrow and the ill-fated Among the Cinders were among those that followed.

Lawley began to devote more time to acting after the death of her husband, in the early 1980s. In off the wall teleplay Graham's Mum and the Golden Tour, she played mother of a dodgy tour operator. But arguably her choicest role in a decade was Alison MacLean's 25-minute short Rud's Wife (1986). The part was based partly on interviews with real life widows; Lawley stars as a woman stretching her wings after her husband's death. Author Deborah Shepard praises the film's dinner scene and a satisfyingly rebellious final scene. Rud's Wife screened on television in the About Face slot, devoted to one-off dramas.

In her 70s Lawley was busier than ever. In 1984 she began one of her favourite screen roles: playing family matriarch Olivia Redfern on Gloss. The show revolved around a wealthy family and a high fashion magazine; "it was lovely pretending to be rich." Directly after completing the third and final season, Lawley began work on her first and only starring role in a feature film. 

Ruby and Rata is a serio-comic tale of a battle of wills between elderly landlord Ruby, and the young solo mother who moves in downstairs. Lawley described her character as "a realist with her eye forever on the main chance. She's manipulative, knows she's getting older and is planning for what future she has left". Tthe thought of being dependent on others "frightens her. It does so many women — yours truly included." Director Gaylene Preston, on the other hand, described the character as "manipulative, nasty,  totally selfish, a bit mad, a dreadful liar".

For a nude scene where her character gets stuck in the bath, Lawley wanted to wear a flesh-coloured body suit. "They worked on it for weeks. Then it took ages to get it stuck on ...When I got into the bath of warm water liberally filled with bubbles, the glue started to dissolve. I had to hold the suit on. I felt I was holding on to my honour."

After staying up all hours finishing the bath scene, Lawley flew to Sydney the next day to to do a memorable turn in black comedy Death in Brunswick, as Sam Neill's nagging mother. 

Lawley's performance in Ruby and Rata would win praise from VarietyThe ListenerThe Evening Post ("an outstanding turn") and The Dominion Sunday Times ("the star of the show"). 

In the 1990s Lawley acted in award-winning Front Lawn short Linda's Body, oddball Australian soap Chances, and Ray Bradbury Theatre episode 'Some Live Like Lazarus'. She also played many scenes as a disembodied head in 'Fortitude', an award-winning episode of anthology show Monkey House.

In Jessica Hobb' first short Stealing Home (1991), she starred as a woman desperately trying to create a new past for herself. For the next eight years Lawley worked mainly in television, including appearances on Shortland Street and the Xena/Hercules franchise.

In 1995 she became an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), for 'services to the performing arts'. Lawley was still taking on new roles in her final year; she died on 21 May 1999, at age 85. Arts show Backch@t paid tribute in the eighth episode of their second season.

Profile updated on 24 November 2022

Sources include
Sheridan Keith, 'Acting the right age' (Interview) - The Listener, 25 June 1990, page 106
Sheridan Keith, 'Evenly matched' - The Listener, 25 June 1990, page 106
Deborah Shepard, Reframing Women - A History of New Zealand film (Auckland: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2000)
Phil Wakefield, Review of Ruby and Rata, 17 July 1990
'Interview with Yvonne Lawley' National Library website. Accessed 10 November 2022
Unknown writer, 'Popular With Festival Audiences' - NZ Film 44, September 1991, page 7
Ruby and Rata press kit