Summer reading: Compelling biography of Australia’s first female TV executive Carol Raye

Carol Raye

After a career onstage and screen in UK, Raye moved to Australia and produced and starred in ground-breaking shows

Carol Raye was best known to a generation of Australians for her work as the creator and star of the ground-breaking TV show that Seven screened in the 1960s, The Mavis Bramston Show.

Author, theatre historian and theatre designer John Senczuk didn’t get to meet actress and producer Raye until mid-2021, shortly before she turned 99.

Sadly Raye didn’t get to make it to 100, passing away in June of 2022. In meetings in those few months Senczuk had with Raye he managed to spend 40 hours interviewing her about her career in England and then Australia.

During that time she shared details of her years in theatre, film and television which have been faithfully reproduced into this important book – Carol Raye: Funny Business.

Carol Raye

Carol Raye book launch

The book was recently published by Arcadia and a function at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre saw actress Sigrid Thornton launch the work. Also speaking at the event was one of Raye’s daughters, Sally Jane Ayre-Smith, who was also one of the producers of the first three seasons of SeaChange.

Actor and Mavis Bramston colleague Barry Creyton sent a message from the US, sad that he couldn’t be on hand to celebrate Raye’s life. Guests who did make it included former Mavis Bramston writer Richard Walsh, and actor Lex Marinos who first appeared onstage with Raye in 1980.

Other actors celebrating the life at Carol Raye at the event included Diana McLean, Cecily Polson, Mark Lee, Maggie Dence, Nancye Hayes, Noel Hodda and Lorna Lesley.

While the author notes Raye was his primary source for the book, he was able to tap into her network of colleagues and friends who shared anecdotes and information.

One important point Senczuk makes in his preface to Carol Raye: Funny Business is “this book doesn’t tell Carol’s full story: her family, her marriage, her children all belong to a private life that she safeguards. This, rather, is a chronicle of her public life, her business of ‘being funny’.”

One of those people whom Raye was often very funny with was a co-star from The Mavis Bramston Show, Barry Creyton, who contributed a foreword for the book. Creyton writes that despite relocating to the US in the late 1980s, he managed to spend time with Raye when she visited the US, and on every trip he made back to Australia.

Carol Raye

Author John Senczuk, Carol Raye’s daughter Sally Jane Ayre-Smith and publisher Nigel Giles

From London to Sydney via Kenya

Carol Raye was born Kathleen Mary Corkrey in the London Docklands in 1923 and first appeared onstage at the age of 15, later changing her name.

More acting work followed and she appeared in her first movie in the year World War II ended, 1945. She met her future husband Robert Ayre-Smith in 1948, marrying three years later in the US.

A period of 12 years in Africa followed where Raye raised three children and also became one of the first faces on British East Africa television. She later moved the family to Australia in 1964 when her husband accepted a position with the CSIRO.

The first half of the book details her successful career in the UK, her time with her new husband in the US and then their years in Kenya.

Raye’s first sighting of Australia was outside of Fremantle from the deck of the SS Oriana in 1964. The family settled near Robert’s work in the Sydney suburb of Beecroft.

A ratings smash hit for Seven in the 1960s

It didn’t take Raye long to explore work opportunities and Senczuk writes that within three weeks of arriving in Sydney, she was offered a role at ATN-7 with a brief “to watch local television and come up with new programs”.

ATN-7 was then owned by John Fairfax Ltd and managing director Rupert “Rags” Henderson and his Channel Seven GM James Oswin agreed to invest £1,200 in a pilot for what would eventually become The Mavis Bramston Show. “Australians aren’t ready to laugh at themselves,” Oswin feared.

The detail Senczuk provides about how this first Australian female television executive went about building the production and finding her cast – which included Gordon Chater and Barry Creyton – makes for fascinating reading.

When the pilot was finished, the ATN-7 executives ordered six one-hour episodes. As the series entered production, Raye expanded the writers’ room and early contributors included David Sale, and three satirists who had a recent run-in with the law over Oz magazine – Richard Neville, Martin Sharp and Richard Walsh.

The first episode was screened in Sydney only, with Senczuk reporting after transmission the switchboard “lit up like a Christmas tree”.

The series returned in 1965 with Ampol spending £150,000 to sponsor, equal to the production cost for six months. Mavis Bramston ran for five years on ATN-7 and other stations around Australia.

This was just the start of Raye’s prolific career in Australia. Other projects included Number 96 playing Baroness Amanda von Pappenburg in a series devised by her former Mavis Bramston colleague David Sale.

Other TV appearances included the Frankie Howard Australian comedy Up the Convicts and The Young Doctors. Her final TV appearance was as the mother of Sigrid Thornton’s character in SeaChange in 2000. Other TV work over the years included regular work alongside host Graham Kennedy on Blankety Blanks.

Her movie roles included The Journalist with Jack Thompson and Sam Neil in 1979.

Sigrid Thornton launching the Carol Raye biography

Special Event: Celebrating Australia’s mother of all comedy

Pushing the Boundaries: The Mavis Bramston Show documentary screening followed by a Q&A Event. One chance only!

Sunday December 17 at 3pm (Doors 2:30pm)
Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace | 380 Military Road, Cremorne in Sydney
Tickets here for $25

This special event screening will be followed by a Q&A after the film featuring the below panel of guests.

Andrew Mercado (Moderator) – Film and TV historian
Maggie Dence AM – revered actress of stage and screen across seven decades and was Mavis Bramston (1965-1968)
Richard Walsh – Co-founder of Oz magazine and writer on The Mavis Bramston Show
Anthony Ackroyd – comedian, writer, musician and actor – a regular on The Big Gig and many other television programs
Bob Fitzgerald (Editor and Executive Producer) – Pushing The Boundaries: The Mavis Bramston Show
Stephan Wellink (Writer/Producer/Director) – Pushing The Boundaries; The Mavis Bramston Show

TV Gold podcast hosts Andrew Mercado and James Manning with Sigrid Thornton

About Mavis Bramston

In 1964, Carol Raye became the first female television executive in Australia when she created the mother of all Australian television comedy, The Mavis Bramston Show, which boldly tackled subjects such as sexuality, politics, religion, women’s rights and racism. Nothing was sacred.

The Mavis Bramston Show, a ground-breaking show on ATN Channel 7 which achieved record-breaking ratings.

Noeline Brown was the original face – and voice – of the show’s fictitious “Mavis Bramston”. In 1965, Maggie Dence became Mavis Bramston #2 and others joined the cast including June Salter, but they seldom numbered more than five or six. The original music for the show was written by Maestro Tommy Tycho who was the musical director of the ATN Network.

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