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Ginette McDonald’s life in TV (Design: Tina Tiller)
Ginette McDonald’s life in TV (Design: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureMay 11, 2024

‘A curse and a blessing’: Ginette McDonald on how Lyn of Tawa changed her life

Ginette McDonald’s life in TV (Design: Tina Tiller)
Ginette McDonald’s life in TV (Design: Tina Tiller)

The New Zealand comedy legend takes us through her life in television, including the time she hugged Elton John and the unshakeable legacy of a girl named Lyn.  

In 1981, Ginette McDonald stood on the stage of Auckland’s St James Theatre and directly addressed Queen Elizabeth II. It was a glitzy, glamorous Royal Variety Performance and McDonald was appearing as her comedic alter ego Lyn of Tawa, a suburban housewife with a thick New Zealand accent who had burst onto our TV screens a few years earlier. “It’d be really neat if you could visit us in Tawa sometime,” Lyn told Her Royal Highness, chewing gum earnestly. “As a matter of fact, you were supposed to come this Sunday and open the Tawa memorial paddling pool, but Mrs Crosbie down the Town Hall got the envelopes mixed up.” 

This is just one of the dozens of moments immortalised in the new Ginette McDonald Collection at NZ On Screen, which celebrates the career of one of our most prolific creative talents. The collection includes McDonald’s breakthrough comedy role as Lyn of Tawa, early drama roles in Close to Home and Pukemanu, documentaries like P.A. For a Day and Funny As, and behind-the-scenes work on shows like Gliding On, The Fire Raiser and Peppermint Twist. It’s a treasure trove that pays tribute to McDonald’s diverse talents, as well as her enduring influence on New Zealand popular culture. 

With such an impressive and varied career to look back on, McDonald took us on a delightful trip down TV memory lane, including the time she got stage fright with Bruno Lawrence, the TV crush that turned into an unexpected friendship, and the joy of embracing Elton John. 

Ginette McDonald (Photo: Supplied)

My earliest TV memory is… My brother Michael telling me that Stan Dallas the Radio Doctor had a TV in his shop, and us both racing up to Hataitai Village to join about 50 kids sitting on the floor to see this new miracle of communication. We watched black and white footage of flying geese. Grainy, a bit boring, but so extraordinary to not be in a cinema where we had to stand up when a picture of the Queen came on. We all stayed till Stan Dallas chucked us out. 

Soon after, two American girls from school whose dad was a rep for Rosco ice cream invited me to their swanky house, where we watched the news footage of the Kennedy assassination while their mother wept inconsolably. The power of that moment and the potential of television to entertain, educate and inform in real time has never left me.  

My earliest TV crush was… That would be Peter Sinclair. Host of Happen Inn, C’mon and  numerous other shows that required an attractive, cheerful presenter. Years later, when I  produced the 60s tribute show Peppermint Twist, Peter played a guest role as himself. To our mutual surprise, we became friends. He was so much more than his public persona – highly  intelligent, extremely complicated and sometimes sad. But he is the best broadcaster we’ve ever had. A consummate professional who valued his audience and never talked down to them.  

The first TV show I was obsessed with was… I loved the Patty Duke Show where she played  identical cousins who were very different. It was entrancing to watch one performer creating two different characters and the special effects photography that enabled the show. All very new and groundbreaking, at the time. 

The TV moment that haunts me is… The year Bruno Lawrence and I introduced the acting category at the TV awards, live to air. We had already done two seasons together of a sitcom that went out live from Avalon, which was a bit nerve wracking as Bruno could be somewhat, um, unpredictable. So for the awards I forced him to rehearse our part until it resembled cheerful, casual conversation. It was a long, tiring day with no food or water, but we were ready as we’d ever be. Howard Morrison (who always suffered terribly from nerves) was pacing backstage when we stepped out into the spotlight. I smiled radiantly – and froze like a possum in the headlights. I was dimly aware of Bruno valiantly doing our entire rehearsed conversation by himself. I kept grinning like an idiot till mercifully we finished. Maybe nobody noticed. Hopefully… 

My most-watched TV show of all time is… Probably Friends. Like everybody else. What a great cast. 

The TV ad I can’t stop thinking about is… The one I did for Social Welfare delivering not-so-good-news to seniors about the pension. Not a large fee, as the ad agency said it was a government department. We were shooting in a mall and my starting point to walk towards the camera was outside a TV shop. They called “action” but I called “cut”, because there on the 20 TV screens I could see prime minister David Lange resigning. What a moment. 

My TV guilty pleasure is… Watching ancient 20-year-old reruns of CSI: Vegas with the lead lady cop bringing her backstory as an ex stripper to the world of forensics. The science around  identifying mouldering corpses is fascinating. More recent episodes are not quite as effective. 

The most stylish person on TV is… Moana Maniopoto. Stylish with a good brain.  

My favourite TV moment from my own career is… So many, but producing The Champion and The Fire-Raiser series with my trusty director Peter Sharp are highlights and make me proud. Also ambushing/interviewing Elton John. He rolled with it and had such warmth I spontaneously hugged him and I usually avoid that sort of thing. 

The TV show I wish I was involved in is… Any show that has need of a cranky old boiler to say a few lines, so I can keep the wolf from the door.

My favourite TV character of all time is… Too many to list, but someone who can make me laugh out loud is David Hyde Pierce playing Frasier’s foppish brother Niles in the original series. His timing is perfect and his physical comedy a joy. Probably not everyone’s cuppa tea but I love all the theatre training behind his work. 

My favourite TV project I’ve ever been involved in is… Everything. It’s all a learning curve.  

The thing I wish people knew about being an actor/comedian is… Acting all breezy and organic and devil may care is very hard work. Acting sad is a walk in the park. 

My most defining onscreen role was… That would have to be a girl called Lyn. Light entertainment boss Malcolm Kemp (already a highly skilled multi-camera director of big events and who went on to the BBC to direct the camera coverage of Princess Diana’s funeral) spotted me trotting out Lyn on Judith Fyfe’s comedy roast for the Good Day TV show, and inserted me into an entertainment series he was doing. Every week my brother Michael wrote a monologue and I performed it. We were very bemused by all the attention it got and went on being bemused for years afterwards. 

The character seemed to strike a chord with many people, and seriously pissed off others. Suddenly I was deemed a “celebrity”, which was a bit odd as we certainly weren’t into having a brand and in any case social media didn’t exist. All sorts of offers flooded in and being fawned over and given special treatment and paid a bit of money to flounce about is quite intoxicating. I was called a “comedienne” when I just saw myself as an actress with comedy as a normal part of the creative toolbox.

Now 40 years on random strangers still say “gidday Lyn”, which is odd as I am officially old.

These days when doing self-tape auditions, I get more positive affirmations from international companies than homegrown ones who may have Lyn in their heads. In any case, they always put me in a wig to mark the distance between the character and Lyn. A few old boomers still think I actually am Lyn, and far too common for polite society. I choose to take this as a compliment to the gentle satire of Michael’s writing and the organic nature of the performance. So she has been a curse and a blessing.

My most controversial TV opinion is… Cancelling investigative TV journalism like Sunday and Fair Go is an affront to democracy.  

A show I will never watch, no matter how many people say I should is… Never say never, but I do glaze over a bit at sport. 

The last thing I watched on TV was… 1News… while it’s still there.

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