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BLACK RIVER, BRIGHT STAR

This entertaining autobiography traces the early days of Australian Television and Theatre and captures the colourful and dramatic story of an amazing woman with a passionate zest for life!

 

Hazel Phillips has appeared on television since its inception. Her many credits include the original Beauty and the Beast and The Bramston Show. Her own talk show, Girl Talk, was the first midday show on television and ran daily for four years making her the most popular female in the country, during which time she won gold and bronze Logies.

 

Since then, she has appeared in every branch of the media – TV, films, theatre, cabaret, radio and journalism.

 

Hazel has written, starred and appeared in three musicals of her own, as well as thirty other musicals and several movies. In the year 2000 she wrote a one-woman show that ran for two hours, tracing the life and times of Marilyn Monroe, entitled Marilyn and Me, which she performed in numerous venues.

 

She has appeared in several plays for Queensland Theatre Company, including leads in The Circle, Pride and Prejudice, Shakespeare’s Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor directed by Geoffrey Rush.

 

Hazel was awarded the OAM in the 2005 Queen’s Birthday Honours for her contribution to television and the entertainment industry. She continues to entertain. 

In Store Price: $AU33.95 
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ISBN: 978-1-921406-17-1   
Format: B5 Paperback
Number of pages:314
Genre: Non Fiction
Autobiography

Cover: Clive Dalkins

 


Hazel Phillips

Author: Hazel Phillips
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2008
Language: English


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FOREWORD

Too, too many years ago to pinpoint, I met Hazel at the Seven Network in Sydney. We were there to appear in a new panel show called Beauty and the Beast, and the rest is history! Both Hazel and I went onto the show as regular panellists, she, a seasoned professional who certainly knew her way around television (singer, dancer, comedienne), me, as green as Ireland with absolutely NO experience in the media.

And we became mates! Although our lives at that time had little in common, one bond we soon discovered was that as solo mums we were both bringing up our kids very much on our own. Hazel with her two boys, yours truly with two girls.

Our problems, and at times struggles, were parallel – paying the bloody rent, finding precious dollars for the new school shoes – at times it got us down. Hazel though, I soon learnt, had the most wonderful sunny nature and attitude. Through thick and thin, she was a true optimist. I loved that about her, and still do.

I haven’t as yet read this book, but I know it will be a most honest insight into her life. A life that has certainly had its good times and bad, its ups and downs, its joys and disappointments. I’ve seen Hazel the madcap with the crazy red or blonde hair, the huge false eyelashes and the hot-pink feather boa! I’ve seen Hazel the compassionate, fighting back her tears to comfort a crippled child, or spend time with an elderly fan. I’ve seen Hazel the brave, racing off to learn how to fly! Getting her licence gave her enormous satisfaction. As for the rest of the old Beauties – well, we were gobsmacked!

Nowadays we see little of each other. She, in her country retreat in Queensland and me by the beach in New South Wales, but the email keeps us connected and for that I am grateful. She is a special friend, but she is also a special woman – generous to a fault, compassionate to all. A bit loopy about alternative medicine, living and health regimes and, back then, notoriously LATE for everything!

I love her, and I’m betting you will too.

Maggie Tabberer AM

 

Here's an article just out - May 2011
hazel story 

PROLOGUE

P

erhaps we should never look back.

Perhaps the dark recesses of the soul demand that we move forward into the future, bright with the star of hope, ignoring the black river of doubt, fear and indecision.

Now that the years are catching up, it doesn’t seem as important to record a life which may well be running on its last legs, but as I’ve already launched into this account on more than one occasion, perhaps I need to finish. I’ve wanted to write a completely honest account of my life, even as atonement. But memory is misleading. Facts, crumpled in the fist of time, are difficult to straighten out. Some events are magnified beyond their value, others, hidden in the subconscious, wait to be dug up, only to reappear completely changed. It’s also dangerous to take oneself too seriously – a sense of humour is essential to get through the maze.

In the last analysis, all the escapes I might devise can’t obliterate the fact that in the end I inevitably face myself and my actions for what they are. Whatever faults I have, it remains that I have not loved enough. If we love enough, all things become true and all things become possible.

So, with apologies in advance for any point of view of mine that colours others with my own shortcomings, I start a journey of the past, littered with the skeletons of dead friendships, coloured with equal parts of love and hate, rescued at last by the joy of creativity and all else will have to fly. 

PART ONE  

 

 

Happy, even in agony, is the man to whom God

has granted a soul worthy of love and misfortune!

He who has not seen the things of this world

and the heart of man in this double light,

has seen nothing of the truth and knows nothing

for the soul that loves and suffers is in a sublime state.  

Victor Hugo: LES MISERABLES 

CHAPTER ONE

L

ong after the death of my mother I learned the secret she had carried through the years, that she was illegitimate. My father also said that her ancestors were gypsies. Difficult for me to believe as she certainly had nothing of the gypsy in her appearance, being just under five feet tall with a perfect figure, soft brown hair which she wore wavy over sparkling blue eyes and a dazzling smile.

Her mother had four daughters, all of whom were sent to different foster homes. My mother was sent to a woman she called ‘Aunt’ who apparently used her as an unpaid servant, presumably for the privilege of being fed and clothed. The word back then in the early 1900s was ‘slavvy’. And slave she was, rising at 5 to clean the brass, clear out the fireplaces, wash the front steps, all before going to school. She would take up her chores on returning, falling into bed at around 10. Her hands were rough, like leather. I remember their tender touch with sadness. She had a loveless early life and lost her first baby. The second child survived – me.

If my mother’s life was hard, my father’s early life was positively Dickensian.

His mother, a genuine cockney born within the sound of Bow Bells, had ten children. Dad was one of the younger and so frail at birth that he had to be carried around on a pillow. When he was seven his father died leaving my grandmother to fend off the workhouse, a last resort for the poor, where death and disease were commonplace and conditions unimaginably horrible. To avoid this fate for her children Gran worked day and night, scrubbing floors, taking in washing and ironing for perhaps two shillings a week. Disaster struck one terrible winter.

Five children died in two weeks from diphtheria. First one then another and another developed the sore throat and raging fever. A favourite baby daughter was first to go, followed by four others. Nursing sick children through the night Gran felt a sore throat coming on. She gargled with salt and water, warding off the symptoms with a will of iron. Five children survived and the fight to stave off starvation began again.

While adversity can sometimes bring out a certain nobility in some characters, this was not the case in Dad’s family. It was survival of the fittest in Gran’s house. Steve, the eldest, was a bully and beat the younger ones up. The consequence was that the only way Dad ever dealt with a problem was to lose his temper. A trait which was to colour my own life to this day and which my mother died to escape.

Of the five remaining children, Gran, who nagged and quarrelled until she died, kept her youngest girl, Daisy, with her. A raven-haired beauty, she had only one real love affair that I know of and I doubt she even slept with him, an American serviceman during WWII. She would take boyfriends home and Gran would rubbish them until they fled or Daisy dropped them. She eventually perished with breast cancer in the fifties after refusing treatment.

Steve, who had a downtrodden wife, Lou, sent his son Stevie for boxing lessons. Joe Louis was his God and he named his second son Louis Joe. His daughters were Lou-Lou and Connie and when I knew them they lived in a noisome block of council flats in Clapham Junction called Peabody buildings. I was thirteen when I went to Lou-Lou’s wedding. She married at sixteen and I rather fancied her sixteen-year-old husband, whose favourite song was Blues in the Night the lyrics of which, for me, were prophetic.

Connie and Stevie I met again when I was performing in Adelaide. Later, when they visited me on my farm, Stevie and his wife gave me a precious white topaz they had dug up from a stream and had faceted. I had it made into a ring which I wear today.

Harry was the second of Gran’s sons. I only met him a few times and remember him as a poor shell of a man, much given to bursting into tears. Dad had nothing but contempt for him. No wonder that both Harry and Daisy had nervous breakdowns as adults. I only dimly remember Auntie Doll, Gran’s eldest daughter, dressed in purple satin, screeching ‘’asn’t she grown!’ as she came through the front door. The visit would invariably end in a blazing row and by the time I was six or so Dad had broken with all of his siblings but Steve and Daisy.

Of Mum’s sisters, Min, the eldest, she hardly knew and only met again years later. Britannia, called variously Brit or Ann, was the aunt I knew best. She was as round as my mother was slim and tough as nails. I used to amuse myself thinking of them as Laurel and Hardy. Mum could do a killing impression of Stan Laurel.

Brit married a returned serviceman who had been gassed in the trenches. It left George with a soft husky voice I found most attractive after the yelling matches I was used to on our Lovegrove side.

They had two daughters who were my closest cousins, Joan, two years older and Audrey a year younger than me and my special friend.

Nonnie, Mum’s youngest sister, was also the richest. Childless, she and her husband Bert built a house in Kent after the war – unheard of post WWII.

My mother was christened Rainee Ward. Whether Ward was her surname or she adopted it when she became a ward of the state, I have never discovered. She hated her Christian name with a passion. The kids teased her when she cried in school and she changed it to Rene or Irene and scraped the name off her birth certificate, pouring black ink over it to obscure it forever. By the time she was eighteen, her term with ‘Aunt’ apparently served, she went into service as a live-in-between maid, a ‘tweeny’, earning about ten shillings a week with a half day off if she was lucky.

She met her nemesis in 1922 in the shape of Daisy, who was also in service and a little younger than Mum. If anyone could have been said to have gypsy blood it should have been the Lovegroves. Daisy had black curly hair like my father and a decidedly oriental slant to her dark eyes. Dad swore that his mother’s side, the Bennetts, had been the first breeders of Hereford cattle in England. If that were so, they had certainly come down in the world. Daisy introduced Jim to Rene and for Dad, six months younger than Mum, that was apparently that. Mum avoided him for months. Dad was good looking in a Humphrey Bogart kind of way except for projecting teeth from years of thumb sucking, I suppose, which, in a rage, gave him a look of unmitigated ferocity.

Later when he took her to meet his family, they made fun of her ladylike ways. My mother’s reluctance simply made him all the keener. She had suffered rheumatic fever as a child which left her with the scarred heart that ultimately killed her and which gave her a kind of fragile charm. No doubt beauty and fragility were an imposing combination in an era when women were possessions rather than people. Finally, when she was twenty, he bought her a little diamond ring for a pound, an enormous sum for them in those days and when he wouldn’t go away, she became officially engaged.

No doubt there was a bonus in marriage for Mum. She could escape the endless drudgery of cleaning for others and have her own domain. Not that there was much chance of that at first. After their white wedding, they moved in with testy old Gran to her malignant little tenement house in Smedley Street, Battersea. I can still remember the atmosphere when I was taken there as a child. A loudly ticking clock on the mantelpiece, the smell of rising damp and tomcats, a whiff of congealed fat from the scullery, an annex too small to be called a kitchen and Gran, a toothless Queen Mary.

My mother was pregnant for the first time, with no idea how it had happened. She had endured the lovemaking which at first she found painful and humiliating, not connecting it with the fact of conceiving a child. She also thought babies popped out of the stomach, so she was totally unprepared for the torture that followed. She was in labour for days, too slim hipped to have the baby normally. Finally when she was worn out and lying close to death, the matron of the public hospital was sufficiently concerned to waltz into the ward, resplendent in white flowing headdress, to give her encouragement with the words, ‘Now come along Mrs Lovegrove, pull yourself together. If you die we get fined!’ The little girl, stillborn, was carried to an unmarked grave by my father, wrapped in brown paper. They had named her June.

Although the Depression didn’t officially start until after the Wall Street crash of 1929, my parents had hard times well before that. They regularly cried themselves to sleep having had nothing to eat that day. Dad had been laid off and Mum made crepe paper flowers which Dad sold door to door. The dole was a source of shame and when it came was five shillings a week.

Mum was pregnant again at twenty-four. A second pregnancy could hardly have been welcome, but Mum used to tell me that from then on everything began to improve.

Dad had been to night school to become a toolmaker. He found a job and they moved into an old three-storeyed Georgian House which had been turned into separate flats. Number 66 Union Grove, Wandsworth, later wiped out in the blitz. As far as I can remember, three families shared the house. Our flat was on the second floor. There was a cheerless garden, which appeared large to my two-year-old eyes, flanked by high brick walls with paths between flowerless beds. Mrs Verncomb, the landlady, vast and broad-bosomed and with a booming voice, collected the rent each week.

My mother’s pregnancy came to term and this time, with hindsight no doubt, the doctors gave her a Caesarean, so she was mercifully put to sleep. Although to see the scar which scoured her stomach from top to bottom as if a tiger had torn the baby from her, was to wonder what they had used to sew her up again. My father insisted her tubes be tied. There would be no more babies.

Mum used to tell me that the sun came out on the foggy November day when they put me into her arms. She loved the name Hazel, gave me the middle name ‘Julia’ after the Caesarean and although the stock market had crashed only a month before, she said their luck changed permanently for the better. I believed her of course. She taught me poetry and long speeches from The Merchant of Venice which I apparently parroted from the age of eighteen months. One poem I still recall – ‘In my cupboard are many toys, Dolls and books and sailor boys,’ ending, ‘But the greatest of all is my teddy bear.’ I loved having her all to myself and was happy not to have to share her with siblings, but she worried about her solitary chick and was fanatical about airing clothes. Understandable, I guess, in a climate where damp clothes could result in all sorts of terminal ills.

From early in their marriage my mother was scared of my father’s temper. To live with him was to live with a simmering volcano, never knowing when he would blow up. I grew up in fear of his inconsistent moods and resentment at the injustice of his rages. I was always petrified, sure at times that he would kill me. I had walked at a year and Dad smacked my bottom hard when I was two. Mum told me I was off my feet for months and had to go back to a pram. No doubt my spine had been put out of alignment by the beating. Painful years later, I had to have chiropractic treatment.

Also at two I bit into an apple and a maggot crawled out of it. I screamed the place down. Dad tried to cure my fear by forcing me to hold a squirming earthworm. After that I had nightmares of worms crawling up walls and I sleepwalked. Another time I wheeled my doll’s pram around the garden and found a blob of lipstick stuck on the side. I smeared it on my lips and went in to show my parents I was wearing lipstick just like mummy. From the yelling and hitting that went on you’d have thought I’d committed murder.

The worst memory of those times was when I was just starting nursery school, so I must have been about three years old. Mum was sitting on a high stool in the stone-floored kitchen we shared with other tenants. Raised voices sent my stomach into spasms and a blow sent my mother falling onto the flagstones. A huge lump appeared on her forehead which rapidly turned black and blue. As she lay there half conscious my only thought was escape. Screaming, I ran on rubbery legs towards the door and down the passage. The giant steps of my father gaining on me made me feel as if my stomach was dropping through my legs. In abject fear I was grabbed from behind and hauled back, where my memory fails me.

I know that the next day I tried to make everything right in my own mind by telling the teacher. I hoped she would brush it off so that I’d know this kind of thing was normal. She was shocked and murmured commiserations to Mum when she came to pick me up, the bump on her forehead too obvious to hide. I knew then that my fears were well founded.

Mum told Dad that I’d told the teacher, perhaps to shame him. It only gave him another excuse to rant and rave. In those days no-one interfered with a man and his family. A wife and children were his property and he could more or less get away with anything. Of course Dad had his good moments. When he was pleased with me he called me Bill, so perhaps he’d have preferred a son.

For one so dominated my mother was a happy soul and when Dad wasn’t around we had great times together. She taught me the Charleston and we’d shimmy up the passage with dusters under our feet to bring the required sheen to the patterned lino. She taught me songs in her sweet voice and I would be put on a table to perform for visitors. Dad liked to show off my various talents, usually, it seemed to me, when he could take credit for them.

A big setback came when I developed scarlet fever at age three. Carted off in an ambulance, temperature raging, terrified without my mother, I was put in a glassed-off infection ward where visitors, including Mum, could only wave to me. The formidable English hospital, where nurses dressed in crackling white-starched uniforms, black shoes and stockings and bustled about with no time for toddlers missing their mothers, was depressing in the extreme.

I had chicken pox along with the fever and my hands were bound to prevent scratching and scarring. I narrowly missed a double mastoid operation which would have involved the cutting away of bone behind the ears and permanent disfigurement. I also held my bowels as long as possible. This resulted in a nurse holding me down while another shoved a rubber tube up my behind warning me not to let go until the hot soapy water did its job. I really dreaded those episodes.

Mum told me that after thirteen weeks of this misery it was at the insistence of Dad that I was finally released. Pale, thin, with weakened ears, I suffered winter recurrence of abscesses in my middle ear until my teens. It’s impossible to imagine now, but there were virtually no painkillers, no antibiotics and stoicism was the only thing to get you through.

I didn’t pass the stoicism test when I went to the school dentist though.

I had baby teeth which needed extraction. I was hauled off, screaming my lungs out, by a couple of male attendants who closed the door on my white-faced mother and held me down in a huge dentist’s chair while the dentist suffocated me with a rubber mask which emitted an evil-smelling gas. I’ve learned since that some children suffered brain damage from deprivation of oxygen. I believe it.

I eventually blacked out and on coming to tried to run away, was slapped and shoved into a room. My first sight was of a dozen white-faced kids spitting blood into white enamel bowls. My wails finally brought my mother bursting into the room in spite of efforts to stop her and she sat with me as I sobbed and spat, while the kindly attendants told her how naughty I’d been.

Other lovely times with the ancient drill and scant worries about hitting the occasional nerve hardly endeared me to dentists. I currently have a dentist whose gentleness has finally made it possible to have my teeth attended to without my going into cardiac arrest.

Following the trauma of scarlet fever, my mother took me by train to the seaside to convalesce. I can still remember the thrill of the first glimpse of the sea between green hills after leaving the dingy back streets of London. Those rare times I had with my mother remain the happiest of my young life and the holiday must have healed soul as well as body after the long hospital stay.

When I was about five years old I asked my mother if I could learn to play the piano. She immediately began a softening-up campaign with Dad to buy a second-hand piano on the never-never. How she managed it I don’t know, but eventually a beautiful shiny black Barnes was delivered, to be paid off at two and six a week and I was sent to a teenage girl for lessons at sixpence a half hour. I wasn’t any prodigy but I made steady progress and could soon play Won’t You Buy My Pretty Flowers and similar Victorian ditties out of Smallwoods Pianoforte Tutor.

Dad was proud of my playing and would sometimes ‘help’ my practice by standing over me with a rolled-up newspaper, hitting me over the head and yelling ‘Look at the music!’ when I made a mistake, which didn’t exactly fill me with confidence when playing in front of anyone. Other than that I had a lot of pleasure playing that piano and it must be said that without his insistence on practice I might not have continued.

It was around this time that my mother’s father turned up at the front door with a bunch of flowers. She told me years later that she refused to see him and she never mentioned her mother. I wondered if he was the gypsy, or, as my cousins have told me recently, that our grandfather was a Pearly King. And what became of her mother? Hidden in the mists of time, these are secrets I will never know.

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