JULIA BLAKE sits gracefully in her armchair, legs crossed demurely at the ankle, hands fluttering around her expressive face, recalling how she first learnt about orgasm. She says she was such an innocent, even after leaving university, that when the word cropped up in conversation she had to ask what it meant.“People fell about when I asked. I remember flushing and somebody saying, `You can’t be for real!’ But this bloke said, `You don’t know, do you?’ And he put on a scats vocal of Ella Fitzgerald and he said, `That is a musical orgasm.’
“And once I discovered what an orgasm was,” she says with amusement, “I then understood. It’s an incredible thing, where Ella almost goes into a sort of moaning” – the actress in her takes over, and Blake moves into soft, sensual cries of “aah, aaah, AAAH …”
Then she snaps back to herself. “It’s an incredible piece of music,” she says crisply. “I’m sure it’s still available, but at my time of life it would be more than I could bear to hear it, probably.” And she throws back her head and laughs.
Most actors are charming – they live by their ability to cast a spell – but Blake is utterly beguiling. Artlessly open, she lays her life out for this interview like a generous but distracted hostess preparing a sumptuous tea tray for a guest. The preparation may not be orderly, as she flits from one story to the next, but the result is a feast.
Blake, 64, grew up and trained as an actress in Britain but came to live in Australia in 1963 after marrying the then actor (and later state MP) Terry Norris. She arrived knowing little of the country but what she had learnt in Chips Rafferty films and Patrick White novels.
Now she is to play four roles in the world premiere of a play based on the The Aunt’s Story, White’s favorite among his own works. The tale of a spinster’s emotionally deprived life and slide into madness will star Helen Morse as Theodora Goodman (the aunt) and has been adapted and directed for the stage by Adam Cook for this year’s Melbourne Festival.
Blake met White once, under circumstances that still cause her to rail at her ability to fumble a big moment. It was 1988 and she was acting in a play called Ghosts in Sydney. White, who was just out of hospital and very frail, asked to see her after the show to congratulate her on her performance.
An awed Blake found herself stranded in the dressing room part in and part out of a corset, unable to free her arm from its strings and with no one to help untangle her. “So I grabbed something and flung it round my shoulders and ran through in my underclothing with my breasts hanging out and he was walking out and I called `Mr White! Please Mr White!’
“And he stopped and he turned around and he looked me up and down and he just got this little twinkle. And I said, `I’m so sorry, as you can see I’m sort of …’ And he said, `Excellent work.’ And walked off. He died not terribly long after, but he had this incredible face, with piercing eyes, blazing intelligence and the look of a disapproving eagle.
“I felt terrible, and I still do now. I thought, `What is it about me that always messes things up? What is it about me that always has an accident?’ My great moment, and this writer whom I’d admired for years and years and of whom I was terrified, and I’d got my bloody arms in the strings of a corset!”
This view of herself as a tragi-comic incompetent is not shared by others. In Australian film and theatre, she is seen as highly professional and accomplished: director Richard Franklin dubbed her “One-take Blake”, and her cultured British accents and luminous delivery keep her in steady demand.
Paul Cox has directed her in several movies including Man of Flowers and his latest film, Innocence, the tale of two elderly lovers who meet again after many years apart and resume their affair. He says: “She’s one of our finest actresses. She’s always played minor parts in the past but now she’s finally being seen in the light she deserves.”
Her strengths? “She’s real. She feels what she says, she breathes it, it becomes part of her skin. She’s like a very delicate Stradivarius violin, something so deep and perfect, it’s a delight to work with her. She has dignity and pride. She really carries (Innocence); without her it wouldn’t have had the same impact.”
Blake lives in just the kind of house one imagines she would have; a pretty timber home that has a verandah complete with pots of lacy flowers, an old cane couch and a snoozing cat.
Terry Norris, tall and gravelly-voiced, appears briefly with an offer of tea. “You’re a darling,” Blake tells him. Then she explains: “I gave up my career for years and looked after the (three) kids and just as I was about to come back to the industry, in 1980, he was preselected for Parliament. So that was quite difficult, but he’s made up for it since.
“In the last few years, he does most of the cooking and a lot of the cleaning. I just swan around and read” – she giggles with delight – “and I’ve taken to handpainting little boxes and things.”
There are stories behind those little boxes; the first about her childhood, and the second – perhaps linked to the first – about the nervous breakdown that kept Blake out of the industry for three years from 1991 and almost saw her permanently retired.
“I started (painting boxes) as therapy because of depression. My father died. He was an artist and I wanted to be an artist when I was young, but because my father used to pick holes in my work the whole time, I swore that I would not paint any more. So at the age of 14, I stopped.
“I had this urge to do it in the last couple of years of my father’s life and bought paints and just could not do anything. It was an absolute block. I was even nervous about unscrewing the tops off the paint tubes. I would hyperventilate.”
Then her father died in England, and a week later she found herself smearing ultramarine paint with her fingers, like a child, along the side of a box that was to hold a present for a friend.
“I thought, `Oh, that’s lovely, the color itself is so pleasurable!’ And then I thought it was a bit Matissey so I did a little mock Matisse on it. Then I did a Japanese hiroshiga thing and then I did a Van Gogh self-portrait on the other side, and so on.”
And now she has bright stacks of small hand-painted boxes sitting on shelves in her living room.
This happened as she dropped out of the theatre, unable to cope emotionally partly, she thinks, as a result of the stress of rarely having Norris home during his years in Parliament (he finally retired in 1992). “It was a combination of things,” says Blake, looking back. “I’d done so much work I was burnt out.
“Also … I didn’t like being so well known. I would go to work and see my photograph in the theatre in Sydney and – I dunno, it was my own stupid fault. I’d allowed myself to get trapped by worrying about people’s expectations.
“I worried that I wasn’t going to give them value for money or that I wasn’t going to be able to do the performance. I just felt exposed.
“I became very unhealthy. It was all totally negative thinking, all the hangovers from my childhood of my father being a perfectionist and wanting me to come top of the class.”
She says she had been feeling for a long time before this that she was on the edge of a precipice, “And in fact I was: the precipice was the breakdown. And when I was ill, I think my body was saying, `Rest’. But I made the fatal mistake of thinking I didn’t want to act any more.
“I didn’t want the exposure, I didn’t want to be up there in front of people. But when I dropped out, it actually got worse because I had nothing to channel my energies into … and I suppose I started to think of myself as filling in time before the grave, `Well, these are my final years, and there aren’t going to be many roles anyway.”‘
She was pulled out of it by a canny Scotsman, Alan Madden, who was determined to cast her in his first film, Mushrooms. “He was Scottish enough to be entirely obdurate,” she says fondly.
When she insisted she had left the industry, he insisted on sending her the script for critique. She thought the role wonderful and hasn’t looked back since.
Blake, the oldest of three children, has been acting in one form or another since she was three. Her parents were church-minded and she remembers being given the chance to preach a sermon when she was so small that she had to stand on a box to reach the lectern. “I loved it,” she says. “I think what I liked most was the sense of power it gave you.
“I used to sing sometimes and I used to register myself for talent competitions and win books. And I would organise – God help me, I must have been a terrible child – performances in the backyard and force my brothers to sit and listen.”
Her mother died last year, “still struggling with mental health problems; chronic depression, manic depressive, although I don’t know what her formal diagnosis was”.
“She would swing from one extreme to the other; she either wouldn’t go anywhere, or we’d hear her running up the street with heavy shopping, everything in a rush. And I have that in me as well, so I understand her; just exuberant, then exhausted. A lot of actors are like that.”
Blake would skive off from school to catch French movies at the local cinema and later studied drama at university, but says she never would have become an actor had the Bristol Old Vic theatre and its troupers, not been a big part of the city’s life.
“The Bristol Old Vic theatre was the best theatre outside London, so people from the theatre would come up and see me. Peter O’Toole came up to see me, though he wasn’t a star then.” Did he hit on her? “He did, he did! And I said no,” she says with amused regret. “I was so nervous of him. I was really conditioned by my religious background at the time.”
Theatre is still her first love; she has a more ambivalent relationship with film. “I’m passionately addicted to theatre, and I don’t care if I never do another screen thing. (It’s) the lack of creative control. People cut your performance to ribbons, and once it’s there it can never be altered. “In theatre, it’s re-lived every night, and you still have that … relationship with a given audience.”
BUT she is full of excitement about her roles in The Aunt’s Story and brings out the exercise books in which she has scrawled notes from White’s novel to help her characterisations. She will play Theodora’s mother, “that dreadful, damaging mother”; the schoolteacher, Miss Spofforth – “She’s intellectual, she’s astute”; an American country woman; and a vulgar American tourist called Elsie Rapallo.
“I’m just so excited. What a lovely thing to be able to do. It’s sort of a mystery, theatre. People will pay a lot of money to go along and see a group of grown-up people dressing up, pretending to be somebody else. “It’s an ancient ritual that appears to be necessary for society.”
It is clearly necessary to Blake. “The work sort of eats me up and I give myself up to it willingly and I get burnt out and I worry over it and I will sometimes fling myself on the floor and weep because I think I’m not getting it right. But I love the sort of pain/pleasure of the artistic process. I really do.”
The Aunt’s Story is at the Playhouse from October 25 to November 10.
Julia Blake, actor
Born: England, 1937
Educated: Bristol University and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
Career Highlights: “(The film) Innocence, because it broke down all those perceptions about age and love affairs. In the theatre, Ghosts for Neil Armfield, and Hannie Rayson’s Life After George.”
Lives: Kensington, with husband Terry Norris.
First published in The Age.