*contains strong course language
Sean Scully (1947-) is an actor who was born in Sydney. The son of award-winning actress Margaret Christensen (1921-2009) and orchestra leader Dan Scully (no info), he moved to London at the age of eleven with his mother where he was enrolled at the Arts Education Schools. He had already learnt acting through his mother and after success appearing on tv in England, he was then chosen to star in the dual role for the Walt Disney movie The Prince and the Pauper (1961), essentially for American tv. He followed this quickly with two more Disney movies: Born to Sing (1962) aka Almost Angels and semi-cult item, Dr. Syn, alias The Scarecrow (1963), which featured many famous British actors. He appeared on stage in Treasure Island with Spike Milligan (1918-2002 kidney failure) and John Woodvine (1929-) in late 1961. Woodvine, as Long John Silver, called Sean: “that fucking boy” once during the production and the teen had no idea what he’d done. While still only fifteen, Sean went on to Broadway to appear in The Girl Who Came To Supper and became well acquainted with famed playwright Noel Coward who also wrote the music and knew Sean’s mother. Returning to Australia in 1966, he did much television over the ensuing decades, including hundreds of episodes of Aussie tv serial Bellbird and a role in cult show Prisoner aka Prisoner: Cell Block H. His performance in the micro-budget cult film Phobia (1988), which is about the spectre of agoraphobia, earned him a Best Actor nomination from the AFI. He was briefly married to actress Wendy Hughes. Here Sean Scully talks about his career on the stage as well as the small and big screen.
Does showbusiness go back far in your family or does it start with your mother and father?
My father, as you know, was a fiddle player and mum was an actress.
No, no they were not connected… It’s, you know, one generation.
Your father was quite successful…
He was from New South Wales… he was with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in his later career… and he was with the Elizabethan Trust Orchestra in Melbourne… I think he died in 1978… I think my mum was born in Adelaide but she moved to Sydney very young… She was always a go-getter, she got into the business very young… her brother Chris Christensen was a sort of multitalented musician and so forth and he had a radio programme up in Brisbane in the late 1930s, early 40s and it was up there that she met Dan Scully my father… I think Chris introduced them…
Your mum was a hit as an actress on radio among other things. What are your first memories of the theatre or the radio studio?
Well, I wasn’t really familiar with the radio studio but, occasionally, we would go to the theatre… I was very much on the periphery. I was certainly not taken by the hand as she trotted off to work.
You weren’t taken backstage?
No, I don’t think so, I have no memory of it… It wasn’t an early childhood steeped in theatre… Woman’s Weekly got in touch with her about 1957 and they wanted to do a series of photographs of medical matters pertaining to children for some sort of special series they were doing on how to deal with burns and how to deal with grazes etc. and she said: You’re going to do this… And she saw me backstage… and said I had some sort of ability that I could do what they required like fall over or look pained… So that was when radio folded because telly came in a little later after that and a lot of Australian actors went over to England and I was one of them and she took me with her, basically, because no-one else would have me…
It must have been her dream to go to England because it had been stopped earlier by World War Two?…
Yes, but I think she would have been happy to stay in Australia had the world of radio continued… It was that new world of television and there wasn’t a lot of dramas on television in those days and suddenly a lot of actors who were employed 365 days a year were suddenly out of work and ones that had that sort of ambition went to England… Heaps went to England, some went earlier like Leo McKern and Peter Finch… but the radio people, it was a rather large migration 1958-59-60. We went late 1959. I think mum had tried to make Uncle Chris take me on but he was unwilling… So, she took me with her and as it turned out we were a very successful team. We got on well together… we had a sort of… I don’t know… it was a mother I hadn’t known before. She had always been a busy mother in her early life… I didn’t really get to know mum really till I got to England… we got on really well.
Did you fly over or catch the boat?
Oh, God no. (laughs) We went over by ship, mate! It was clear sky. It was six weeks. It was a good, relaxed way to go.
Where did you live in London?
…After the first sort of fairly chaotic, however long it was, we lived in Seymour Place which was in Marble Arch… it was West-ish…
Were you enrolled at a public school?
When I first went there, I went to a similar school I went to in New South Wales, which was a Christian Scientist school called Fan Court down in Surrey… I went there for a term but mum could no longer afford to keep me there and so took me out and I went to a school in Buckingham Gate, which was half a mile as the crow flies from Buckingham Palace… The social difference was enormous, it was a pretty rough school…
Was it a culture shock?
No, it was lucky the education system in those days allowed myself to be put in a class a year ahead … the education system must have been good in Australia as I didn’t have to listen to all the lessons… Not that I was instinctively a know it all (laughs)… but I’d done my lessons before… Then she took me out of there and put me in a school very close by, quite a famous school in London at the time called the Arts Educational Schools which was very similar to a number of theatrical children’s schools… but the Arts Educational Schools was one of the better-known ones. I was enrolled half a day doing traditional reading, writing and arithmetic and the other half were jazz ballet lessons, ballet lessons, drama lessons etc.
So, you learnt acting there?
…No, I don’t really remember the acting classes… most of the sort of acting I learnt from mum…
She was a voice coach among other things…
Indeed, she was.
So, you more or less grew up naturally to be an actor…
Umm, I guess so, yeah.
Your mum did the play Sail Away with Noel Coward (1899-1973 heart attack) which also starred Elaine Stritch… Did you get to know him?
I worked for him. I did a show with him on Broadway…
How was he?
How do you think he was? (laughs) He was a fantastic pro… He was called The Master and it was for very good reasons… It was a very interesting experience… It was a play called The Girl Who Came to Supper… it was based on The Sleeping Prince, a Terence Rattigan (1911-77 bone cancer) piece and Herman Levin (1907-1990), the producer of My Fair Lady… and they got Harry Kurnitz (1908-68 heart attack) to do the script and they got Mr Coward to do the music and so it was a terrific experience … we were in Philadelphia as part of the out of town tour…
You were only a teenager at this point…
I had my sixteenth birthday on opening night in Boston which was the first stop on our road trip… When we got to Philadelphia, President Kennedy was shot… there was a song in the show about the assassination of Archdukes which had to be cut… I don’t think there was a theatre show in the United States on that particular night, things were pretty dark over there then as you can imagine… and Mr Coward had a song he had up his sleeve for many years called My Shady Family Tree and he put that in… he was a terrific man to work with.
Was he funny?
No. (laughs) He wasn’t walking around making quips… He was an absolute professional, no bullshit about him.
So, were you chaperoned to go to America?
My mother chaperoned me which was great. She’d been in the musical Sail Away in London, so she knew him… I think she understood him.
We’ve jumped ahead here, let’s go back to The Prince and the Pauper… Can you tell me how you got involved and the auditioning?
You bet! There was an Australian writer who lived in a block of flats on Edgware Road which was just around the corner where mum and I lived and she knew Mike. Mike Noonan (1921-2000) his name was and he was most famous for a book he wrote called The Patchwork Hero… and Mike did a lot of television writing and so forth… I’d done a couple of six-week serials for ATV, the second one was written because the character from the first one was so popular… It was shot in Paris which was great…
ATV were doing a series of dramas at the time called Armchair Theatre (ed. possibly known as Theatre 70), a weekly drama and then commissioned Mike to write a vehicle for me to be made into an Armchair Theatre for the Christmas Special called Boy on the Telephone… Interesting enough Christopher Morahan (1929-2017) directed it and part of his career was he was Peter Hall’s (1930-2017 pneumonia) assistant on the National Theatre. He directed it and Dorothy Alison (1925-92), interestingly enough, she was an actress who died recently, she played my mother… It went to air Christmas… It happened so quickly this career stuff and it wasn’t mum pushing… It was quite amazing and, um… and Don Chaffey who was directing for Disney at the time in England…
…He’d done Greyfriars Bobby (1961) …
Yes, he did. And he also did One Million Years B.C. for his sins… and he was watching Armchair Theatre and he was looking for a boy to do The Prince and the Pauper for a couple of years now and he said: I’ll test that boy… and I was, by that stage, going to the Arts Educational Schools and they rang the school and I did the audition and I waited six weeks, although it wasn’t agony for me because I had done the audition… I was only twelve or thirteen, I don’t think you sweat over much then… but I got the part…
I bet your mother was pleased…
I bet was she was! I think so… I think she was very proud.
When did shooting begin?
We began in early ’61. The day we wrapped on The Prince and the Pauper I had to fly to Austria to do Born to Sing (ed. also known as Almost Angels) with the Vienna Boys Choir… The film had two titles, one for tv… basically, the films Disney made in Europe were made for The Wonderful World of Disney, which was a Sunday night show which showed the movies in two or three part-ers …
Back to The Prince and the Pauper and that troublesome mirror scene. Is it true there were 347 takes?!
It wasn’t 347 takes. It was less than a hundred…
Can you remember the day or days doing that scene?
I don’t have particular memories of that day… It was just that the reason it was… because me and me were looking into the mirror at me and me which had been shot some weeks prior and I had to remember all my gesturing and I remember on the day we shot the reflection which was being projected on the back of the mirror to screens so we could see it… I remember Don saying: Look, keep your gesturing to a minimum during this because… And I didn’t quite understand it and I didn’t wave my hands all over the place all the time, but I could have kept it simpler for myself by just being stiller… so I didn’t have so many gestures and actions which is why it took so long because the over the shoulder shots and the physicality of the boys from the back had to match the boys in the mirror…
So, it was you that was mucking up each time?
Oh God, yes! I think they were scheduled… I don’t think that anyone was getting pissed off, it was just a difficult thing to do even for a much more experienced actor.
I’ve only seen scenes from Almost Angels. You and Vincent Winter seem to have real chemistry. Was there a real camaraderie there?
Umm, not so much… I liked Vincent. He had also screen-tested for The Prince and the Pauper and so his mother who chaperoned him, hated me… (laughs) that’s all right. I thought Vincent was really good in the film. I liked him a lot.
Was it quickly shot?
No, it was shot in about 10 or 12 weeks and it was a good exposure to (culture and palaces), it was a bit of an education and meeting the Vienna Boys Choir, and I’ll tell you this unbelievable story… They had these food guys who would deliver the food supply in vans and the Vienna Boys Choir had these guys absolutely tamed and bringing cigarettes in for them … (laughs).
That was a question I was going to ask you. When did you have your first cigarette?
Oh God, long before I left Australia… aged seven or eight.
But you weren’t smoking on or behind the Disney set?
Oh, no, no… not at all.
You finished your Disney films on a hat-trick with Dr. Syn, alias The Scarecrow (1963) … There were a host of British actors in that, including Patrick McGoohan (1928-2009 brief illness) …
Oh, yes. I had a movie camera and I had fabulous shots of Patrick McGoohan and all the actors coming out of a very famous pub in Rye in Sussex and Queen Elizabeth the First had stayed there and you walk through all the doors and you had to stoop because they were built for the scale of the people at the time. There must have been a lot of short people back then… (ed. Sean is well over sit foot tall) I aimed the camera at the door at the time and all the actors came out … you’d recognise them all. (ed. the cast included George Cole (1925-2015 short illness), Michael Hordern (1911-95 kidney disease), Patrick Wymark (1926-70 heart attack), Tony Britton (1924-2019) and Geoffrey Keen (1916-2005).).
Did any of them take you under their wing?
Not really. I was about fifteen or sixteen and, generally, actors don’t take other actors under their wing… I do remember one of them winding me up for a bit of a trap, sitting in a canvas chair they have for actors on the set… I think it was an actor by the name of Robert Brown (1921-2003), I can’t remember now… He turned to me and said: Did you know that George Cole – who was one of the leads in the film – Did you know that George Cole was President of the Fuck of the Month Club? (laughs)… And I’m there: What is the Fuck of the Month Club?… And he says: They meet every month and they think who are the really sexy actresses in town that month from the Continent or America and they draw straws and by the end of that month you’ve got to have bedded her… And I said: My God… I couldn’t believe it!… And I found myself sitting next to George Cole (laughs) and I said: Mr Cole, is it true that you’re the head of the Fuck of the Month Club?… (laughs) You should have seen the slow turn of the head to me and the expression on his face! (hearty laughter). Oh, man, I wish I had it on camera!
You were still a naïve young thing, obviously…
Oh, I was. Is it true you are a member of the Fuck of the Month Club?! Can you imagine?!
Did you ever go to a premiere of The Prince and the Pauper and see yourself on the big screen?
No, I don’t think films that were made for The Wonderful World of Disney had that kind of thing. Possibly if they had been released in the cinema in America that might have happened but no, no… Sometime during the run I went down to a cinema on Oxford Street… in Oxford Circus. There used to be a cinema there and that’s where all the Disney films were shown. I saw The Prince and the Pauper there and I saw Born to Sing.
Patrick McGoohan. Any stories about him?
Not really. I was a fan and I loved his Danger Man show and whenever we had a shooting day, we would spend the entire day playing chess between set-ups… I think he liked people well enough.
Who won the chess games?
I didn’t have a chance… and I wasn’t bad!
You went to Broadway. But you didn’t stay long. You didn’t take to it?
I went over specifically for that job and in those days you needed a H-2B visa which Mr Coward himself had to go to the American embassy and sign a form saying I was the only one in the world who could play the part, which was not necessarily true, but they’re the difficult little hurdles you had to go through to acquire the H-2B visa. It wasn’t a question of I wanted to stay in America… It never occurred to me… we were going back to England and it was mooted we might go to Canada but it didn’t transpire and we returned to England and assumed life.
How long were you in London for? It wouldn’t be long before you returned to Australia?
It was October ’59 to April ’66.
Were you tempted to stay by yourself in London?
No, I mean mum was never a business woman in a more developed sense… I mean that she was smart, she did what she could… She went to the accountants before she went to America because she knew about the outrageous double tax thing which I think the English government still does… Point was that when we got to London… I was staying with some friends renting on Old Marylebone Road and I was at that stage working in a wood yard as a labourer and I was called into the tax office one day and I was making about fifteen or sixteen quid a week and they said you’ve been double taxed on your American money… It wasn’t very much, it was less than two thousand pounds and when you’re earning fifteen quid a week, you’ve got Buckley’s… So, I came back to avoid double tax and that’s the way it goes.
Why weren’t you getting work in the industry. Was it because you were a teenager?
I think that every single actor goes through unemployment… you have to go out and break a leg… In those days I went to Japan in 1965, sponsored by (a department store and others) … mum hadn’t been able to interest the agent. I mean things that happened outside the jurisdiction of London didn’t matter so much in those days. It was about the time of The Beatles… but for a brief time, I was a Beatle in Japan. There were like 20,000 fans at the airport when I arrived…
Yes, and it was an opportunity make a hell of a lot of money… but, of course, I couldn’t get the agent interested because they weren’t interested in that kind of deal then… Anyway, it was interesting to see Japan… (laughs).
That would have been a big moment for you, greeted by all those fans!
Wow, oh yeah…. Mum and I were looking out of the window and seeing all these posters being dangled over the balustrades by all these thousands of girls…
…You were a teenage idol!
I was. And people were asking how does it feel to be a teenage idol? … Yeah, and I was a teenage idol for about a week!
Did you find work straight away upon returning to Australia?
I was working at The Independent…
Just to interrupt… Did you know actor Robert McDarra? He worked at The Independent among other places?
Robert McDarra. I saw Bob a couple of times in a bus because he was a great friend of mum’s before she went to England and he and his wife Lil, I think her name was – Bob and Lil McDarra…
He was a great drinker I understand…
He always looked pissed to me when I saw him and I wasn’t going to say: Hey Bob, remember me when I was five…
A City’s Child (1971) came along. How did you get involved with that?
I honestly can’t remember.
It was only a short shoot and very low budget, so I’m not surprised…
But that’s most of the films I’ve done, unfortunately.
Do you remember meeting director Brian Kavanagh (1935-)?
I remember Brian as a young man… I was also in his Departure (1987)… I remember the story of A City’s Child very vaguely. I haven’t seen it in 45 years, so that’s a while… The only memory I have of it and having seen it was I should have bunged on the Aussie a bit more. I was a bit sort of British there, but anyway…
I’ll jump to the film Phobia (1988). I understand you were cast at the last minute…
Yeah, I can’t remember exactly what the situation was but, vaguely, they were working with this guy on the script and suddenly they had a schedule and he was suddenly unavailable and so they were looking for people to audition and I auditioned and just got it.
How long before filming started?
Were there rehearsals?
Yeah, I think there was a kind of a week’s rehearsals and it was shot in two weeks… it was hugely low budget.
Was there much improvisation?
No, it was the script.
I thought you deserved the award nomination for Best Actor for just humming and setting the table! Do you remember that?
There wasn’t a lot known about agoraphobia back then let alone the agoraphobic’s partner…
As a matter of fact, it was actually used for some time as an educational process in mental health facilities for people who have agoraphobic partners and they used to show it and talk to them.
It looked like a tough role to play. What did you think?
I really enjoyed myself. It was shot in sequence. It was just in-house but I think John (ed. director John Dingwall 1940-2004) and his lady friend… I think they lived there… it was a beautiful place toward Palm Beach. It was on the water and it was great working a two-hander and it was one of those scripts that you just read and you knew how to play it.
Was it your best performance?
It was all right. I think there’s things that don’t work about it… but it was two weeks shooting without the ability to do it again, because there was no money. For its limitations I’m reasonably happy with it, I guess.
Did Dingwall have a connection with agoraphobia?
No, he didn’t but he loved the film. He thought it was his best work. He was so protective of it that he never sold it because he never felt the offers were fair, which is shame, but there you go: that’s showbiz.
Do you remember if you got paid at all?
I think, sort of some months after the film, he sent me $500. We were all on: if it makes money, we’ll get money… and that’s the crew and the cast and that was the deal… It’s just one of those works that’s not seen very widely. It was shown at the London Film Festival – didn’t win anything… and a friend of mine… who was living in London at the time… lent me money to go to London. So, I went to the London Film Festival. But I tell you, the Australian Film Institute or whatever the fuck it’s called – they were down in Piccadilly Circus – and I dropped in just to acquaint myself and the fact that I was there and that the film was showing and they were just not interested… they were probably more concerned with their next holiday in Devon in a week’s time… I don’t know.
You were married to actress Wendy Hughes (1952-2014) in the early 70s. When did you meet her?
I met her when we did a touring show of Butterflies are Free and Wendy played the girl… We had fun, we toured Western Australia and various other places and we came to Sydney… We spent a lot of time together… We lived together for two years before we got married and the marriage lasted a very short time… I mean we were 24 going on eleven (laughs)… But that’s all right.
It was a tragedy she died so young. Were you friends to the end?
Umm, we were very rarely in touch but we caught up at Gosia Dobrowolska and her partner’s place one night… She invited Wendy and me and we had a good night. She was always fun was Wendy, she had no tickets on herself at all… but you know, smoking gets you like that… I think it was lung cancer.
I read in an interview when you were seventeen that you hoped to play Hamlet. Did you ever get close?
(laughs heartily) I don’t know, it was probably a throw-away line in an interview… If it had come along, I would have done it, but I’m too old for it now.
You’d done Romeo and Juliet…
I have… I’ve enjoyed doing Shakespeare… but Hamlet isn’t done on a regular basis in Australia.
Will theatre always be your first love?
Yes, I’m more interested in doing theatre than anything else simply because the older I get I’m finding myself really not interested in current films. I think the television is appalling… mostly… everything is violent and I’m just not interested in it. I guess I was educated and, in a sense, spoilt by the fact that living in those early crucial days in the 1960s… English theatre was extremely alive and interesting. One of the stories that pertains to that which springs to mind, there was this book called The Kitchen (ed. a 1957 play by Arnold Wesker 1932-2016 Parkinson’s disease)… You’ve got to remember that Noel Coward became hot in the 1920s and there we are in the 1960s… And The Vortex (1924) was a revolutionary piece of theatre that he wrote, about a drug addled young man, so he was taking on the issues that were to become part of the fabric of the theatre in the early 1960s… and so, he saw this play by this guy, so he writes him a fan letter and this guy wrote back and they started a correspondence that lasted for some time… Mr Coward died in ’73… and there was a documentary done on early 60s theatre and it was all about The Kitchen: sort of this not very classy restaurant… and it was this scene between two people and the guy that ran the restaurant came in and there’s a very, very mean scene between the two guys…
Interestingly enough, the playwright said: Right, we’re going to cast Noel Coward as the owner of this restaurant… which is a very interesting piece of casting. I mean talk about on the money. Coward could do anything and he came on and he absolutely nailed this mean, awful character and my admiration came up even higher (ed. Sean is talking about Adam Low’s 1998 film for Arena: The Sir Noel Coward Trilogy which features footage of Coward in a Royal Court Fundraising Gala performance of The Kitchen.) … I’ll tell you, the opening night of The Girl who Came To Supper in New York, there was a party afterwards and it was at the Plaza and, naturally, I was there. I met Joan Sutherland (1926-2010 heart failure) and (husband) Richard Bonynge (1930-)… I mean everybody who was anybody was there and I went: ‘Hello Mrs Sutherland. Hello Mr Sutherland’. (laughs) But it wasn’t irony, it was ignorance for saying it, but they understood, they smiled. Later on, as is common in these large opening night bashes, there’s a later party and we’re waiting for the critics to come out and we go down to this nightclub on Broadway, quite near the Broadway Theatre and there’s a few cast and Mr Coward and the critics came out and Walter Kerr (1913-96 heart failure) (in the New York Times) was particularly cruel and Mr Coward was sitting on a stool looking quite dejected and I went up to him and I said: ‘Don’t worry, Mr Coward, he’s just jealous’… And he said: ‘Dear boy, of course, he’s jealous. He put all his money into a play in 1953 called Goldilocks and it was the biggest fucker to hit Broadway! Of course, he’s jealous!’ (laughs) … And you know what? Elaine Stritch was in Goldilocks! … I remember that particularly.
(ed. Sean was given a painting which was painted by Coward himself on the opening night of The Girl Who Came to Supper which still hangs in his home.)
For an article about the cult movie A City’s Child which starred Sean Scully PRESS HERE.