Bob Hornery spoke to Paul Galloway for MTC’s Subscriber Magazine Scenes, Summer 2007
I speak to Bob Hornery one afternoon in his flat in South Melbourne, a few weeks before he starts rehearsals for MTC’s production of Entertaining Mr Sloane. I tell him I am interested in talking about his early days in show business and, after settling me onto the sofa with a cup of tea, he rummages around for his original Equity Card and examines the date.
I joined Equity on the twenty-first of January 1953, so what is that – almost fifty-four years. I was born in 1931, so that makes me almost twenty-two. So it’s been a long time. I have had an extraordinary life in the theatre, a charmed life. I’ve always believed that I’ve been enormously lucky. I have hardly been out of work, which is an extraordinary thing to say in this business. I have been thinking about this, you see, and I think it is due to versatility and amiability. I think they are my two qualities that have carried me through.
Why do you think that is?
I am versatile so that I can do a lot of things. It comes from beginning as a song and dance man, I think. I found that a valuable background to work from. It holds you in good stead through into drama, into anything. It gives you posture, an up-front quality that I think is quite important that I think that musical comedy has. And, indeed, I have had to pare it back in more dramatic roles and particularly, of course, with television and film. Because I am a very up front personality. (he laughs)
Can you recall your first show?
My first professional show was a pantomime in 1953 with Greater Union Theatres up in Sydney before Christmas at the Capitol Cinema. I performed with wonderful performers. I remember Maggie Fitzgibbon and Dawn Lake. The only reason I got into it was because I was working in amateur musicals and the woman who was choreographing us in the amateur musical society got the job of choreographing this pantomime. So she put me in as ‘Second Comic’. And my name was Eustace Smell, the Town Cryer. I have very clear memories of that show, much clearer than almost anything since. That one sticks out.
So you started out in musicals?
Song-and-dance man, I’d call myself, though a bit too gangly and plain to be one of the lead chorus boys. I was a bit funny looking. You see, when I was a child, my mother used to play the piano for dancing classes, so to babysit me she took me along. I picked up the dancing through that – tap dancing. And we were a very musical family, all my family sang, all my family played the piano. It was that era when you sat around pianos and sang as a group. And that is what you did as an evening out. It is quite odd when you think of it.
Anyway, because of that first pantomime, I joined Equity, and I thought, ‘Here I am!” And it was twelve months before I got another job. It was another pantomime with the same people.
What did you do in the meantime?
I worked as an airline booking clerk. I just went back there. But eventually, it all sort of fell into place. The work became more regular – after a lot of auditioning, I must say. I got a job with Garnet Carroll from the Princess Theatre, and he was doing Salad Days, which was enormously successful. I got into the second company. There was a first company that was so successful in Melbourne and came to Sydney, which is where I was. They auditioned for a second company to perform one night stands around the country, mainly New South Wales and Victoria. But I just loved it and I thought: ‘I am a pro at last!’ We toured to Tasmania and the only capital city we played was Brisbane, which in those days was a big country town. From then on I stayed with Garnet Carroll and did numerous shows with him at the Princess Theatre.
I must say that I am all a bit foggy about it all and I am terrible with dates and all that. You know it’s an old cliché, but you don’t ever feel your age, not mentally. So often, when you work out when things were, it all comes as a bit of a shock. Anyway, at some point, George Ogilvie asked me to join the Union Theatre Repertory Company to do a musical version of Sweeney Todd at Russell Street. This was the melodrama, not the Sondheim version. They needed a song-and-dance man. So George brought me into the Union Theatre and John Sumner, thank god, took me into the fold.
John taught me everything I know. He taught me the discipline, which I think is the most important thing, the history and the traditions, you know, silly things such as you didn’t whistle back stage, which I find now terribly important. And which, of course, the young actors now couldn’t care less about. But I think all that history and tradition is so wonderful, and makes a lot of sense when you think about it, because what they are really saying is don’t make a lot of noise backstage. Through John Sumner I went into straight plays.
You went legit?
Yes, I went legit, it was through him. The song-and-dance man went legit. I did Shaw’s Man and Superman, these sorts of things, The Lady’s Not for Burning, astonishing. Plays that I was astonished that anyone would ever cast me in. I absolutely loved it.
You worked for the Union Rep for a full season, I think.
I got called back to JC Williamson’s, [about 1961], which was the peak of the theatrical firmament in Australia in those days, to play the undertaker in Oliver! Then I did A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for Williamson’s, playing Lycus. I did long tours of both of those plays. And by then I thought that I was ready to go overseas. Because in those days that is what you did, you went over to England. You never even thought of going over to America, you always went to England.
And how did that go?
I did well. I was terribly lucky again. You see, I’ve led a charmed life. I got over there, [in 1965] and an actress that I had worked with over here had married an English actor. He was doing a musical version of Dracula for the Dublin Theatre Festival. I got a role in that through him. So my first job over there was actually in Dublin. The extraordinary thing was that the director of the Regents Park Open Air Theatre saw my performance in Dublin and offered me a role as Starveling in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Open Air. I’d never done any Shakespeare before then. So it was a nice little role to begin on.
And now Frank Hauser was a very big director at the Oxford Playhouse. Well, we actors congregated at the wine tent after the show and this Frank Hauser introduced himself to me and said that he was doing a production of Volpone at the Oxford Playhouse and would I be interested? And I said no thank-you. I don’t want to go out of town. How grand of me! When he left, one of the English actors in the play said to me. That was Frank Hauser, you must be mad! Oxford Playhouse is THE place for theatre at the moment. Whatever they do will probably come into the West End. So I rang him back the next day and I said, “Well, I wouldn’t mind auditioning.” So it indeed did come into London, at the Garrick Theatre, I think it was. My first West End show. A wonderful production with Leo McKern and Leonard Rossiter. I had fifth billing above the title – just above. I just scraped in. I played Voltore.
On that Opening Night – imagine it, to this little boy from Randwick in my first West End play, it seemed to have reached one’s great ambition. I had done it. I looked at my name on the sign outside the theatre, the big sign, in lights and all that, my name above the title in a West End Show, and I remember thinking, ‘So what?’ At that moment I realised that wasn’t really what I was after.
Really? You weren’t after success?
What I am trying to say is: fame wasn’t what I was after. I just wanted to work happily in the business. Because I saw what it could do to you, fame. I saw that I wasn’t that sort of character. Perhaps I didn’t have that sort of ambition, the driving ambition that you need. I thought, I didn’t want that thing where you couldn’t walk down the street. I wouldn’t want to lose my privacy. I just wanted to enjoy myself.
So I’d say that was a big decision in my life. I thought, ‘No, I’m not going to push any more, or try anymore for a big career. I think I am just going to take it as it comes.’ And that’s what I have done, accept any offer that comes my way and enjoy myself. If I’ve been offered a job, I do it. I have done pantomime, musical comedy and drama, and repertory and repertoire; I have done television and film, both as acting and song-and-dance. So I have really had a go at everything, you know. And it has been marvellous. And it has held me in good stead, as I said before, because I have rarely been out of work since.
Bob Hornery’s funeral will be held at Southbank Theatre on Sunday 31 May at 11am.