Lynne: I'd love Irene to meet someone
Two decades on from her debut as Irene Roberts, Lynne McGranger reveals her Home and Away highlights - and why her alter ego is still holding out for Mr Right.
Fierce, fiery but with a heart of gold, Irene Roberts has been a fixture in Summer Bay for nearly 20 years, and during that time has seen her character overcome a battle with the bottle to become doting carer to a who's who of waifs and strays. As her character recovers from cancer and the effects of her treatment, arguably her biggest challenge yet, star Lynne McGranger reflects on her personal Home and Away highlights - and reveals how she thinks it's time for her alter ego to finally meet her Mr Right.
You've been with Home and Away for the best part of two decades now. What do you enjoy most about the work?
I love the fact that every week is different because my character is living out a life, so I never have to do the same thing twice, unless of course I stuff up scenes. I love that each week is a surprise. I love the people I work with. I share a room with Ada Nicodemou (we’re great mates), Emily Symons, Ray Meagher, the kids (Melissa, Rhiannon), the boys (Steven, Dan), everyone.
I love them all; they’re fabulous. Sonia, I love Sonia Todd – she plays Gina – and Shane Withington, who plays John. They’re all a great bunch of people. It’s like any workplace, but we’re a fairly jerk-free zone – unless of course I’m the jerk, which I don’t know about! It’s just a great place to work; I feel so blessed that still after all these years they want me back and that my character is obviously popular.
How do you think the show has changed over the years?
I think the show has become so much more filmic. The look of the show is extraordinary... We don’t have people who do lighting; we have DOPs, like they do on film crews, and everything about it is so much more slick. I remember we were told, ‘We’re going to go from the old three camera, the tri camera, to two cameras, but it’ll be quicker.' We’re still doing 13-hour days, for five days, but it’s worth it when you see the results. The show has changed a lot like that. Even the storylines, which of course in any soap you have to rehash in some form or another over 25 years to keep it real, but we try and represent social issues – teen pregnancies, racism. We try and bring in cancer. We try to represent, as well as you can in a family time slot, real social issues. Perhaps the show has changed more. Some may think for the worse because initially it was much more a beachside community with more personal issues; now we try to be a bit more global with the issues. Personally, I love that. I think you’ve got further to go with it, and you’re more likely to embrace a bigger audience.
And how would you say your character has changed?
Irene, when she came on the scene, was rough as guts for want of a better term, just getting over her addiction to alcohol. I think [she was] very much more self-centred, more focused on trying to win the kids back; she’d been such a horrible mother.
I think she’s always had a heart of gold, but over the years she’s learned to love herself more, because she has seen that [living in] the community of Summer Bay, probably for the first time in her life, she’s been embraced and accepted and loved, and I think that changes people. That makes people. She’ll always be the rough diamond, and I like to think she’s like the rough diamond with a heart of gold who shoots first and asks questions later. She also takes on board criticism, so if someone says ‘Oh Irene, you’re a fool’, she’ll go away and think about that, whereas Lynne will go, ‘No, I’m not! You’re the fool.’ I like to think that I’ve been able to bring more depth to her as a character, and that she is real and she is round and she does have her faults, but she also has an enormous number of good qualities, and I think that with the help of the writers and everyone else that the long-term characters like Alf, like Irene, like Leah, like Marilyn are very rounded, so they’re allowed to make mistakes; they don’t have to lead these perfect lives, and that’s why people love them.
With Irene's cancer diagnosis, the last year has been a particularly poignant one for your character. Were you ever worried about doing the storyline justice?
Sometimes we’ll traipse up to the office and go, ‘Look, I’m sick of making cups of tea for people and saying "There, there, darl. You’ll be fine." I want a storyline...' When they told me about the cancer, [my] initial thought [was], ‘They’re going to write me out.’ They said, ‘No, we’re not going to kill you off. We just think there have been a few characters that have dealt with the cancer storyline – Flynn, Martha, Colleen and Marilyn – but we’ve never really dealt with it in depth. So Irene will be fighting this for quite a few months, and it’ll be an ongoing thing.’
At that particular time a friend of mind in England, Nicky Howard, who lives in York, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had gone through this terrible situation where the chemicals she was having played up with her heart, and she had to stop chemotherapy and go straight onto radiotherapy. She’s doing very well, and is fit and healthy, but I spoke to the producers about it and I said, ‘I’d really like Irene to deal with not the cancer but also the side effects.’ They were really interested in that.
We have a medical advisor at work, Wendy O’Donnell, and Nicky was e-mailing Wendy, sending letters from her doctor that Wendy was able to use and advise the script writers with. So that was a wonderful thing to do, and it was great to be able to pay homage to darling Nicky who’s doing really well. I was thrilled to be able to have the time to research and do the storyline justice for all the women and indeed all the people out there who have to deal with this every day.
During her recovery, Irene has also managed to enjoy some lighter moments, including indulging in her passion for karaoke. Will we be seeing more?
I always fancied myself as a bit of a rock star! I have in the past belted out a rock tune in a comedy rock band. I certainly could learn a lot of lessons about pitch and technique. I just love to sing. My mum and dad were always singing; I always sing. But singing on television’s a whole different thing. Being honest we tweaked it a bit in audio, in post. It was still me singing; it wasn’t anyone else doing it, because people would tweet me and go, ‘Was that really you singing?’
It's also led to Irene meeting Eddie. He might not have proved himself to be marriage material, but do you think there's hope for Irene romantically?
I really want Irene to get married. People always say to me, ‘Why can’t she find someone and be happy?’ She’s had a shocking run of luck. I would just love it, and just to have a proper wedding day and for it all to go amazingly well and for her to be blissfully happy…and then he turns out to be…an escaped convict or… gets killed or something obviously has to go wrong. That’s the nature of soap: you build them up, and then you throw them down, because you can’t keep them up for too long; [viewers] lose interest! [Irene’s] probably sworn off men, but I think after the whole cancer thing she was a lot more vulnerable, and I think when Eddie came on the scene and showed an interest she was flattered. She just needed that building up.
Are there any other hints you can give us about what's coming up for Irene?
Coming up, Irene is just going to be very much embroiled in the girls’ lives, so what’s going on in Bianca’s life, which is pretty major; and what’s going on in April’s life, which is also pretty major. So she goes back to being what she’s supposed to be in the show, which is the caregiver, the bouncing board for people around her. So that’s at the moment. As far as her personal life goes I think she’s happy for that to be the case because she’s had such a big year.
As an actress, how would you like to see your character develop?
I’ve never said this to the writers, but given what Irene’s been through – and she’s always had a vague Catholic religious way – I thought I would like her to become a little bit more involved in that side of things, and maybe do a theology course or something and become a local pastor. Maybe a little bit of Vicar of Dibley. I think she already is a little bit like that. I don’t think she’s really sure about what her beliefs are.
She certainly has been known to send up a prayer in times of trouble, maybe something like that, something a bit more on the pastoral care side. But I would love her to meet someone, fall madly in love, for everything to be perfect, to walk down the aisle, get married, live happily ever after, but no. That’s soapland!
2012 marks 25 years of Home and Away. What do you think is the secret of the show's success?
I think obviously in England, and in Scotland and Ireland and Wales, where it’s very big, the appeal of the lifestyle is very alluring. That sleepy beachy side, where you just nip down for a surf, people walking around with no shirts on – Brax wandering into your house with no shirt on! I guess generally the appeal of the show and its success has to be the characters and the likeability and the accessibility of the characters, the believability – everybody knows somebody like Irene, like Colleen.
I guess on top of that, certainly on an equal par with that, is the writers and their ability to rehash believable stories. I guess in life that’s what happens anyway. I guess it has to be on an equal par with the characters, which I guess comes down again to the writers and the actors playing them, and the chance to run with your character and make them more 3-Dimensional. And also the producers’ ability to be brave and go, ‘We’re going to change the look of the show. We’re going to make it a bit more filmic. We’re going to make it a bit more epic; a little less coastal, country town and a little bit more global, moving with the times.’
One of our favourite moments from the last 25 years was your debut as Irene. How much do you remember about your first scenes?
I remember being terrified. I shook for six months. I was like Katherine Hepburn without the acting talent. I was late 30s; I’d never done the three-camera thing. I’d done very little television. I’d done heaps of theatre, and I’d even done stand-up comedy. I’d made a complete galah of myself, but not in front of 1.5 million people and then x number of million people over here. I think my first time on set – this was when I came in as a guest star – Finn had nearly drowned and I was in the hospital to see Finn, and I think Blake was there. When [Irene] came back, that was when she got picked up by some women who ripped her off on the side of the road and she had a bottle of champagne and no shoes. It looked like she’d been hitting the grog, but she hadn’t!
You recently came to London for the British Soap Awards. Do you watch any of the UK soaps, and would you ever consider a cameo?
When I come over and do panto at Christmas time I watch them. I watch things like EastEnders – I can’t visit any of my friends without them being on – Coronation Street, Hollyoaks… Shameless isn’t soap, but I love Shameless. I think I should play a character that moves in next door to Mimi! I forget I’m watching a show; that’s how good it is.