Alf Stewart on stage
On Tuesday night, Ray Meagher will carry his toolbox on stage in Priscilla Queen of the Desert and, as Bob the Mechanic, he and Tony Sheldon (Bernadette) will slowly and sweetly fall in love.
For Meagher, star of Seven's long-running soapie Home and Away, it's a busman's holiday engagement (while Michael Caton is taking a break) and one he has been looking forward to for weeks. Not least because it means a working reunion with Sheldon after a 35 year gap.
"We were at the Adelaide Festival," recalls Meagher, "In the Peter Kenna trilogy." (An experimental marathon then known as The Cassidy Album consisting of A Hard God, Furtive Love and An Eager Hope.)
"It would be difficult to forget," says Meagher, now a household face and name through his recording breaking TV run - since 1988 - as Alf Stewart. "We opened the first play on Monday, the second on Tuesday, the third at ten-o'clock on Wednesday, the second at 2pm and the third right after that. Then we started all over again for the run of the season and then at the Seymour Centre."
He twinkles at the memory. Ray Meagher does a lot of twinkling, which probably accounts for his amazing fan base: from 14-year-old girls to their grandmothers, plus the rest.
"They do come in young," says Meagher, grinning. "I suppose the ones who are the mothers now were the 14-year-olds back then and the mothers back then are the grandmothers now and so on."
Perhaps Alf Stewart represents a solid continuing male presence - the dad or uncle who might be a bit scary but is always there and always comes good in the end?
"The character does go off from time to time," says Meagher. "He goes off at people and doesn't let the facts get in the way of a good rant. And what you have to remember is that although the rant and abuse might go on for weeks, when he eventually says sorry, it's over in one scene. But he's a decent bloke underneath and it's always for the good of the victim!"
Playing Bob the Mechanic, the avuncular outback toughie-with-a-heart-of-gold who falls for glamorous trany Bernadette, isn't something Meagher ever thought he'd do.
"At first I said no," says Meagher, "Because the Home and Away schedule is pretty full on. I was very flattered to be asked, but I didn't see how I could do it. Then they said - but have you seen the show? And I hadn't, so I went along and that was it. I knew I couldn't pass it up. And the Home and Away producers were very helpful and enthusiastic."[page]
As Meagher outlines the weekly shooting schedule it becomes apparent why Alf Stewart is a full time job: two and a half hours screen time is shot every week. If that doesn't sound like much, just imagine shooting a couple of feature movies, back to back, in a week.
"The Australians have shown the world how to do this kind of television," says Meagher. "It's a very well run sausage factory. We normally work on ten scripts at a time shooting five eps in the studio this week while doing location work for next week's eps."
He looks remarkably relaxed, but how on earth does he know where he is, who he is and what he's doing?
"Basically, if you're in the right frock and you know where you're coming from and you play honestly what's on the page, you can't really go wrong," he grins.
A few years ago, Meagher says, the late lamented Vic Rooney told him a story of working on the Ten soapie E Street. "Vic said he was petrified. He'd been given scripts for 17 scenes and didn't know what to do, but the director said - Mate, just concentrate on this scene. Don't worry about the rest."
Priscilla is a different deal altogether. "I'm loving the prospect," says Meagher. "It's such a fabulous show. It's an original and it makes you proud to be Australian. Tony (Sheldon) is fantastic and although I've done panto in England for years, there's never been anything as big as this."
Pantomime is what Meagher does when Home and Away isn't shooting. The English Christmas theatre tradition laps up Australian soapie stars and Meagher is a regular in the role of the Major Baddie of the piece - Baron Hardup and his AKAs.
"It's great fun," says Meagher. "A very seasonal thing, it goes with Christmas and winter." (This in answer to why Australia has never taken to the form.) "It's also about the tradition of family entertainment where there's a theatre on every corner. I mean, there are 200 professional pantos every Christmas in the UK and it's great to see three generations at the same show. Which is what happens."
Back to Bob the Mechanic: is the part a stretch? Does he tinker in a shed or under a car in his spare time? Meagher laughs.
"Bob the Mechanic is definitely acting," he says. "I"m not really handy. My biggest contribution would be to get on the phone to the NRMA and hope someone shows up to fix it."
The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert: the Musical, Lyric Theatre, Sydney, www.priscillathemusical.com or ph: 02 9657 8500.
Home and Away 7pm weeknights on Seven, www.seven.com.au/homeandaway