At 78 years of age, the irrepressible MAGGIE KIRKPATRICK is telling her life story. The actress spoke candidly with the Star Observer‘s arts and entertainment editor PETER HACKNEY about all things Prisoner, Wicked, her harrowing legal ordeal and her autobiography, The Gloves Are Off.
The last time screen and stage doyenne Maggie Kirkpatrick had much to do with the Star Observer, things didn’t go well.
Kirkpatrick was appearing in her one-woman autobiographical stage show The Screw Is Loose—part of the 1997 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival—and, well, how about we let the lady herself tell the story?
From page 128 of her new autobiography, The Gloves Are Off: “We opened the show to very flattering and generous reviews from the mainstream critics.
“One small blot came from the local gay newspaper, the Sydney Star Observer. It seems the reviewer was offended by the fact that I was not gay. Apparently, he found my banter about gardens, grandchildren and domestic life quite tedious.
“Although a very small part of the show, it was nevertheless my life and that, after all, was what the damn show was supposed to be about.”
To add insult to injury, the Daily Telegraph picked up on the Star’s story, spinning it into a damning piece on how Kirkpatrick had allegedly “passed herself off as a lesbian in order to gain an audience”.
Ita Buttrose advised her to sue.
So it was with a little trepidation that I phoned Kirkpatrick at her home on the NSW north coast, to chat about said autobiography.
I need not have worried.
Kirkpatrick, 78, is a warm and welcoming woman. She’s a celebrity, yes, and a highly accomplished performer—but this grande dame is down-to-earth, grounded and doesn’t bear grudges (more on that later).
“Oh, you just caught me, darling, I was about to duck out to the shops,” she says when I call.
“I’ve just finished my crossword puzzle and was going to the travel agent to book my trip to the UK. But don’t worry, I’m not in any rush to get out.”
Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson, the sadistic lesbian prison warder she played on Prisoner, seems far removed indeed from crossword puzzles and ducking out to the shops.
The reason Kirkpatrick is going to the UK is to promote The Gloves Are Off in December. Her fame there is assured, thanks to her star turn in Prisoner (or Prisoner: Cell Block H as it’s known in Britain) which saw her play the role of Ferguson for four-and-a-half years.
Prisoner has been shown in its entirety twice in Britain, first from 1988 to 1995 on ITV, and then from 1997 to 2001 on Channel 5. It’s been referenced in a slew of British TV shows including Absolutely Fabulous, Birds of a Feather, Brookside, Coronation Street, EastEnders, and was the subject of a Hale and Pace sketch.
It’s a role Kirkpatrick cherishes but one that perhaps looms a little too large in her life, considering her many other achievements both on screen and off.
“I’m very proud of that role. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d play a corrupt bulldyke screw for nearly 500 episodes,” she laughs today.
“I think the show was groundbreaking and ahead of its time, and I’m thrilled to have been part of it. But for me, it was just a few years out of my life, and in my head I’m all the roles I’ve played, not just Joan Ferguson,” she explains.
“I don’t think any of us ever expected Prisoner to enter the realm of cult television. It can be a double-edged sword but mostly, I’m thankful. It’s one of the reasons the [autobiography] has been so successful. We’ve got enormous orders from overseas: from Canada and the USA and Sweden, and of course all over the United Kingdom.”
While roles in other Australian soaps such as Richmond Hill and Home and Away cemented her star status, so large did Prisoner loom in the Old Dart that in a tabloid poll of greatest 1980s screen villains, Kirkpatrick’s portrayal of Joan Ferguson thoroughly beat the competition.
Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing in Dallas and Joan Collins’ Alexis Carrington from Dynasty proved no match for The Freak.
Paul O’Grady (AKA celebrity drag queen Lily Savage) even mounted a Prisoner-themed stage musical in the 1990s, in which Kirkpatrick reprised her role of Joan Ferguson. It toured the UK and had a successful season on the West End.
In Australia, Kirkpatrick is probably just as well known for her role as Madame Morrible in the stage musical Wicked as she is for Prisoner. She played the part for seven years and 1600 performances, taking her all over Australia as well as New Zealand, the Philippines and South Korea between 2008 and 2015.
Wicked wasn’t her first experience with big-ticket musicals, having toured Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore in 2002 playing Dora Baily in Singin’ in the Rain.
“Our interpretation of those big American musicals is top-notch,” Kirkpatrick says with pride.
“Certainly far better than the British and possibly on par with the Broadway productions.”
Conviction and exoneration
But sadly, in the last several years, Kirkpatrick’s name has been largely associated with a tawdry ordeal which saw her charged and even (briefly) convicted for the alleged sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl in the 1980s.
Despite a complete lack of evidence beyond the word of the accuser (a Prisoner fan who was custodian of a psychiatric facility at the time of the alleged offences) Kirkpatrick was found guilty on 20 August 2015 of two counts of indecent assault and one count of gross indecency against a person under the age of sixteen.
She was sentenced to an 18-month community corrections order including 100 hours of community service—only to be exonerated four months later on appeal by Judge Geoffrey Chettle, who dismissed the conviction and all charges.
The prosecutor even apologised afterwards, Kirkpatrick writes in The Gloves Are Off, telling her the case should never have gone to trial.
“It’s all just too awful, really,” Kirkpatrick says quietly, when I broach the subject.
“At the time of the alleged offense, the accuser was a very disturbed teenager … her psychiatrist, who was brought in to be her witness in court, actually did me a great service by explaining her problems at the time.”
Asked how she feels about her accuser now, Kirkpatrick responds: “I don’t know her. I don’t feel anything for her personally. I don’t feel anger, animosity or anything. The whole experience hurts me but as for personal thoughts about the accuser, I try not to think about her because I don’t know her.”
Trial by media
Kirkpatrick’s feelings on the media are a different story.
“The media was just disgusting,” she maintains.
“In nearly every instance of reporting, I really felt that it was Joan Ferguson on trial, that the media did not separate the character from me. Even on the ABC, which really broke my heart,” she says.
“I feel it’s grossly unfair that an accuser remains anonymous, and the accused is not, and therefore even before any trial it’s really trial by media.”
Kirkpatrick says the support of family, friends and fans got her through the ordeal, particularly her daughter Caitlin, of whom she says: “She’s a great woman. If ever I’ve done anything right in my life, it’s giving birth to her.”
Support from her many LGBT friends also helped enormously, she says, in a nice turn of the tables after Kirkpatrick’s years of support for the LGBT community.
The term ‘gay icon’ is bandied about willy nilly these days, and many performers try to cultivate a relationship with the community, knowing how loyal LGBT fans can be. But in Kirkpatrick’s case, her gay icon status is well deserved. Her association with the community started years before her Prisoner fame, remained steadfast throughout the AIDS epidemic and continues to this day.
Her first major interactions with the community date back to the days of the Dawn O’Donnell nightclub Capriccio’s in Sydney. In the mid-1970s, Kirkpatrick recorded voice-overs to be mimed by drag queens in one of the club’s drag productions, Which Witch is Which?
She subsequently appeared in the venue’s Cinderella show herself, alongside friends such as the legendary Carlotta, who had only recently recovered from her sex change operation.
Fundraising efforts for HIV/AIDS charities the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation and the AIDS Trust of Australia feature heavily in Kirkpatrick’s history. In 1994, she was bestowed a DIVA Award for her efforts, which to this day takes pride of place on her living room mantlepiece.
“My gay and lesbian friends have been one of the great joys of my life,” she tells the Star.
The Gloves Are Off
It’s clear the feeling is mutual, judging by the crowds that descended on The Bookshop Darlinghurst, on the Oxford Street gay strip, to meet Kirkpatrick and get their copies of The Gloves Are Off signed at an in-store appearance last month.
“I was overwhelmed,” she says. “I had no idea I’d get that sort of response. I was incredibly chuffed and I know the boys at The Bookshop were very pleased too.”
And on that note, it’s time to let Kirkpatrick get to the travel agent to book her UK trip for similar publicity appearances there. But not before she graciously extends an olive branch to the Star after her previous unpleasant experience.
“It’s been lovely chatting with you, and I’m very glad to mend the fences with your publication,” she offers.
“I don’t know what that terrible review was all about but this interaction has been very pleasant and it’s been lovely to speak. Maybe we’ll catch up again sometime?”
The Gloves Are Off by Maggie Kirkpatrick is published by New Holland Publishers, RRP $32.99, and is available from all good book retailers and online at www.newhollandpublishers.com.
The Bookshop Darlinghurst (207 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst NSW) has a limited number of autographed copies available for purchase. The Bookshop ships nationally and overseas, and can be found online at www.thebookshop.com.au or contacted on (02) 9331 1103.