by A. Charles Smith
Paula Duncan AM has floored me. I ready for the interview and my first thoughts of actresses and TV stars follow a familiar path: wow, yawn, evocative, self-absorbed, gushing, conceited, beautiful, sexy, artistic, expressive, bimbo, incoherent, intelligent, tragic, fragile, exceptional and dysfunctional. At the finish of our long talk, thanks to this warm, intriguing woman, I swing to the beat of a different tune. What a dame!
When we finally get to speak, she apologises, sensing impatience, not one of my more attractive traits, has overtaken me. Our phone interview, scheduled for Friday afternoon cannot go ahead and her regret at my inconvenience sounds unassumingly genuine. A bad start morphed into a better one.
Early Saturday morning, Paula is husky-voiced and welcoming. Nearly two hours later has me frantically searching for scrap paper as she fires off a barrage of information in the denouement.
It is not long before I am gently chided for missing a joke she says breaks the room up each time it is told. Pleading in mitigation that my note-taking is several leagues astern and ashamed to admit my uptake is not all that it could be, she cuts in like a barrister on a roll, “Don’t you possess a tape?” I think she is satisfied with my lame explanation about technological discomfort, for Paula tears on again like the Flying Scotsman halfway to Edinburgh and running late.
In some respects the analogy is apt. When her mind is set on a task, there is an unstoppable, purposeful freneticism about her. As Margaret Thatcher once famously quipped when it was suggested that a political U-turn was needed, “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”
So I listen as Paula describes a life lived like a roller-coaster, save that the thrills were found reaching the apex of the arc rather than on descent.
“That is the way my life has always been; incredible highs, followed inexorably by deep lows.”
Still, there is no hint of hopping off for she has an uncanny knack of bouncing back. Over the years, there are many souls who have been thankful for her constancy.
Paula is well-known as an actress. The credits are prodigious. Seven Logies announce her achievements in the entertainment industry. But for her they are secondary to the Order of Australia. “But more of that later,” my query cut short, a prisoner to the former “Prisoner” star.
There is profound substance to her life surpassing mere stardom. She has stepped up to a level beyond which the stage fears to trespass. The many professional years before a live audience or in front of a camera have equipped her with tenacity and drive. At times down, yes, but Paula never stayed there for long as if undaunted by hardship, inequity or tragedy.
Unique about this likeable, engaging woman is an indefatigable commitment to people born with profound disabilities, as well as to those who through illness and misadventure have been pushed aside.
All of these, she infers, are the ungainly, unloved and hidden ones that society should be extolling for their abilities rather than being invited to feel sorry for rent-seekers represented by unctuous, high-priced lawyers of the Uriah Heep genre.
She has trodden the boards to the untraveled areas of human disadvantage providing a fine example to many a thespian. ‘Oh that more would do it’ I intone from her words.
Whilst at heart perhaps the little girl from the country pub, Paula sure fills that pub every time she walks in. From the age of four she was singing and dancing and wanting to be noticed. Like her mother, Paula played the piano, studied music and was prominent in school plays and concerts.
At seventeen, she auditioned for National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) but was deemed too immature. A holiday in London with her parents soon followed and, opportunistically, Paula auditioned at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). Acceptance was a great coup, but Rita and Bob Duncan’s views held sway, and they promptly repatriated her to Australia. With the LADA ticket in her back pocket, NIDA could not say, ‘no’.
She spent two years at NIDA amongst some very famous names including Belinda Giblin, John Jarratt, Angela Punch-McGregor and Andrew McFarlane.
Her father, very influential in Paula’s life, stepped in to send her to secretarial school when she parted with NIDA. He was not then a fan of showbiz and thought his daughter needed practical tools for a working life.
She quickly tired of this and went to work at Angus and Coote as a sales girl. A passion for innovation linked to artistic traits saw her achieve top salesperson status in the diamond department.
“I suggested a piano, red roses and champagne once a week and it worked!”
But theatre ever lurked in the background and she was successful in her audition for a part in, “The Pirates of Penzance”.
What followed were a succession of roles including a stint at “Number 96”, “Richmond Hill”, “Neighbours” and all the while in and out of live theatre. Her star was rising significantly when she joined the cast in the Channel Nine soapie, “Young Doctors”.
“It was a marvellous experience, especially working alongside Cornelia Frances, a wonderful mentor.”
But the role that propelled her into household-name stardom was that of Danni Francis in “Cop Shop”, where she spent six years.
While this was a fantastic break for her, a long-term satisfying consequence was involvement with the police family in fundraising and charity events. Her television profile as a plain clothes police officer seemed to open doors for aspiring women detectives in real life.
“I accepted invitations to speak at the Police Widows Association. It was a terrific experience to be part of a support network for those left behind. Certainly my role gave me the credibility to venture into topics that were often swept from view.”
First-hand exposure to disability came with her move to Sydney where she lived next door to a Sunshine establishment. What Paula saw there moved her beyond anything she had ever experienced. More importantly, she became pro-active about changing desultory lives hitherto hidden from public view.
“People were here because they were an embarrassment to the outside world. These beautiful individuals hardly ever saw daylight, experienced no privacy and little dignity. They deserved to live amongst us and be recognised as important members of the community.”
It was 1989 and her eyes fell upon a world of which she did not shy from being a part. Paula became heavily involved with Sunshine an organisation of enormous repute Australia-wide.
From that beginning, doors opened for children, women and men within this cohort to a diverse range of activities. Being part of these developments was enriching.
“Take the Special Olympics. It is a wonderful example of how folk with intellectual disabilities can be recognised for their abilities. They get so much out of feeling that they can make a contribution to the well-being of society. It is their inclusion that really counts.”
Secretarial School may have left her less than enthusiastic about pursuing such a career, but a little learning always helps and Paula became adept at compiling business proposals to encourage financial commitment to charity.
Considerable first-up success with Coca Cola embossed the template for ongoing endeavours of that kind. Close to ten million dollars raised since then tells the story better.
Television, film and theatre engagements exacted their own demands upon her. By this time she and co-star from Cop Shop, John Orcsik were married and had a daughter. But the marriage was considered to be over when she went to the Gold Coast to star in Paradise Beach.
“Would you believe that they wanted me to have a lover? And you don’t have to ask who they chose for me.”
Art followed life and vice versa, when they resumed their relationship, but it remained tempestuous. It was a time when she was riding high again and enjoying every minute of it.
“John was the love of my life,” then adds wistfully, “Still is” but they could not live together.
“Throughout these highs and the depths of you know what, my one constant was helping the vulnerable. That didn’t stop and never has to this day.”
Paradise Beach proved to be something less than that as the relationship, “smashed against the wall” when a third party became involved. She was hurt and angry, but professionalism conquered the pain and they continued to work together until the series finished.
The down-phase had well and truly set in. She was forty-three, feeling it, and less than keen to participate with Richard Wilkins as co-host of a 1996 charity ball despite the urgings of family and friends.
“Mum was at the forefront, begging me to stay involved despite the heartache of what had happened with my husband.” She resolved that there would be no going anywhere near a ball with John. Then her mother had a fall and was admitted to a Sydney hospital.
“I flew down to be with her, more determined than ever that this ‘bloody ball thing’ could do without me!”
Preliminary medical assessment suggested the fall was not serious. She contacted her brothers and tried to phone famous sister Carmen Duncan about her mother’s hospitalisation.
A seemingly unconcerned attitude pervading each sibling’s response to calls from Paula was not just puzzling, but bizarre. Warren, her accountant brother pleaded that he was too busy, it being the end of the financial year.
“I thought Carmen was in New York. My nephew answered the phone and told me she had gone to Bermuda and was uncontactable.”
Unknown to her, an elaborate conspiracy was in full swing. While she was phoning about from her mother’s bedside, other than Carmen, the family were all assembled in the next room waiting for her to leave so they could visit.
“Well, I was determined to cancel my involvement in the ball, but Mum would not hear a word of it saying, ‘you must go.’ I couldn’t get over it. ‘Why’, I asked?” Her mother could act a bit too!
So Paula put on the finery and looked stunning, steeling herself for the inevitable encounter with her estranged husband. As she arrived at the entrance, Paula’s effusive welcome from Richard Wilkins was overtaken by the presence of Mike Munro: “Paula Duncan,” he said to her absolute astonishment, “This is your life!”
For some months until her fall, Rita Duncan had been working with the producer of that program, the fictitious ball being the cover for the surprise to be sprung when she arrived at the venue.
“It was unbelievable. To see all those who Mum had brought together, only she could not be there.”
The Downs’ Syndrome children beamed in satisfaction. The parade of actors, actresses, friends and family applauded and the biggest surprise of all crowned her night when Carmen came on stage.
“And what a high it was but then Mum was much more ill than any of us realised and she passed away the following morning. Without Mum, this would not have happened.”
Following the death of her mother, Paula’s father was absolutely devastated. She was looking after him because his eye sight was deteriorating.
“They were extremely close and Dad was never the same after Mum was gone. He died of a broken heart.”
At this juncture her narrative eases to one of almost serene deliberation with Paula describing her parents individually and collectively as a couple.
“In the truest sense, Dad was a wonderful man, humble, gorgeous, a quiet achiever; Mum outgoing, ambitious and glamorous; and together, they harmonised like a beautiful duet.”
Thereafter, Paula entered another charity sphere, this time working with the Wesley Mission, part voluntary and part employed in corporate funding.
“Although I thought I knew a little about the craft, these undertakings taught me so much more about corporate fundraising.”
Suicide prevention was a further challenge that captured her energies. Paula travelled widely around rural Australia seeing the tragedy wrought by this hidden scourge and the grief of those left behind.
Whilst with Wesley, she was head-hunted by the Royal Hospital for Women. Paula engaged in fundraising for pre-natal, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and the debilitating endometriosis. She remained in her role there for seven years. It was an exceptional experience and the long-standing relationship remains.
Throughout this time, despite their travails in the early nineties, she still loved ex-husband John. The constant link between the couple was always going to be daughter Jessica. Yet somewhat quirkily, there was also his son by a previous relationship. At his mother’s request, she treated and regarded him as her own child. Paula and his mother, who suffered terribly from rheumatoid arthritis, became friends and collaborated to write a book of their individual experiences.
Meanwhile there were other friendships, but Paula had never wanted to re-marry.
“Then, along came this handsome man who pursued me relentlessly. I became deliriously in love and overwhelmed by him.”
Five years on, disaster struck whilst she was filming Strange Bedfellows with Paul Hogan and Michael Caton in 2003.
“Paul took me to one side and said it would not be wise for me to read the Sunday papers. I did of course, and there was my husband telling everyone in the world bar me that he had found his true love in Belinda Green.”
The media went into a frenzy of speculation and rumour. It was a cataclysmic rejection for Paula leading her to bouts of severe depression and finally a nervous breakdown.
“I had suffered from episodic depression for a long time. But of all things, I have struggled most with rejection. It is something I cannot handle and an emotional wringer had me in its vice-like grip.”
But then an unexpected honour arrived in the midst of the lowest of lows, when it took a supreme effort to muster the will to even answer a knock at the door.
“A letter came from the Queen announcing that I had been made a Member of the Order of Australia.”
The joy of it could not be realised at the time. “I was on anti-depressants, crying my eyes out and simply not well enough to celebrate.”
The matter-of-factness with which Paula relates the pain she experienced speaks more of the person having come through it than anything else. The isolation passed and she leapt back into helping others much less fortunate than her. This was her best antidote to depression.
She has stayed heavily involved with Special Olympics and is an Ambassador for Nova Employment, the organisation geared to finding work for disabled people.
Paula brightens when any opportunity arises to speak of those she has come to love dearly.
“They simply want to be known as people who can work and be like the rest of us.”
It is more recent times and another dreadful accident. A cupboard overbalanced at home and saw her leg broken in six places. She was in the cast of Neighbours at the time. Spending six weeks in hospital and told she would never walk again, spurred her to defy the prognosis.
“These days I’m a little less physically active and a pin keeps my ankle and leg attached, but here I am out and about as busy as ever.”
Paula has never wanted to be a burden to anyone or worry those she loves. But she maintains that problems should not be internalised.
“When I need help, I seek out those qualified to provide it and this has always worked for me.”
Paula is a fierce defender of the arts as a motivator for more engagement between the wider community and people with disabilities craving room for acceptance. Grandiloquent at first blush, her take on this becomes singularly compelling on more considered reflection.
“The arts need the community and look to it for support. The community needs people like me to provide another link. If there were no high-profile people, where would those less fortunate find a voice?”
She furnishes an example of the very successful, “Focus on Ability” short film festival that is in its seventh year and sponsored by the Nova Employment organisation. The festival showcases winning entries in short films. Last year there were 180 films entered and this year another record number. Focus has spawned interest and involvement by 165 countries.
The festival involves a series of five minute films. The theme requires prospective filmmakers to, “Focus on the Ability” of people with a disability.
“So successful has it become that in March next year, the short film festival will be launched in New York.”
Although working with people having physical and intellectual disabilities consumes much of Paula’s waking hours, she has managed to find time to work on the forthcoming event, “Centenary of the Woolloomooloo Wharf”.
“This was the first landing point in this country for many new Australians, as they were then quaintly called, and the event will run on 6, 7 and 8 November, just a short time away.”
In 1996, “This is Your Life” told Australians a little about Paula Duncan, darling of television and theatre, mother and an unfaltering promoter of the cause of people with disabilities. She has experienced the slings and arrows of several more lives since.
Paula relives the joy of helping others with her every word. Listening to her is inspirational.
And accolades and achievements aside, there remains within her soul, a simplicity, evinced by that little girl who used to sing and dance in her parents’ country pub.