Ray Barrett: Craggy-faced star of 'Mogul' and 'The Troubleshooters'
Monday 14 September 2009
When the Australian actor Ray Barrett joined the cast of Britain's first hospital soap opera, Emergency – Ward 10, he soon became known as "the actor with holes in his face". The holes were pockmarks left by teenage acne, but they did nothing to stop Barrett's career from soaring. On joining the serial as the fictional Oxbridge General Hospital's new casualty officer, Dr Don Nolan (1960-61), Barrett made an immediate impact – with his character getting off to a bad start. First, he misdiagnosed a malingering old woman with abdominal problems, then he was undiplomatic enough to voice his opinions on the "antediluvian" institution that paid his salary.
But Barrett achieved his greatest fame in Britain as the globetrotting Peter Thornton, a go-getting Australian field agent for an oil conglomerate, in the 13-part drama series Mogul (1965), which was then retitled The Troubleshooters (1966-72) and ran for a further 123 episodes. The programme was sold by the BBC to more than 60 countries, including the United States and Australia.
At a time when North Sea oil drilling was just beginning, it was a topical drama. Filming of Thornton's exploits for Mogul Oil took Barrett around the world, from Africa and Venezuela to New Zealand and Antarctica. As well as shooting scenes on oil rigs, he was winched down from a helicopter into a jungle in Singapore and thrown into a tropical river in Ceylon when a canoe overturned – but the tough-guy actor had no fear of water, having enjoyed ocean-racing in his homeland and sailing on the Channel.
However, it was not just Barrett's craggy face that became familiar to television viewers. His was the voice that launched each episode of the futuristic, Gerry Anderson-produced puppet series Stingray (1964-65). As the wheelchair-bound Commander Shore, he dramatically announced: "Stand by for action! We are about to launch... Stingray! Anything can happen in the next half-hour."
Barrett also contributed other voices to the series, as he did for Anderson's most popular production, Thunderbirds (1965-66), and its film spin-off Thunderbirds are Go (1966), in which his main characters were John Tracy – the astronaut on the space station Thunderbird 5, monitoring calls for help – and the villain The Hood.
Appearing on the London stage as the obnoxious charmer Cooley in Don's Party (Royal Court Theatre, 1975) led to a watershed in his career. The Australian playwright David Williamson's story of an acrimonious gathering on the night of his country's 1969 general election, with many of the guests' hopes for a Labor Party victory slowly dashed and their behaviour becoming more boorish and reprehensible, was turned into a 1976 film. The director, Buce Beresford, invited Barrett to appear in it, but this time as the foul-mouthed intellectual and womaniser Mal. The stereotypical, beer-swilling, sexist image of Australians was not universally welcomed back in Barrett's home country, but it proved a critical and commercial success.
Barrett was then offered the role of the racist police officer in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), based on Thomas Kenneally's novel about a rebellious, mixed-race Aborigine. His performance won him the Australian Film Institute's Best Supporting Actor Award and, recognising the resurgence of the country's film industry – acknowledged internationally with the success of pictures such as Picnic at Hanging Rock – he decided to stay.
Born in the Brisbane suburb of Wooloowin in 1927, of an English mother and an Australian father, a travelling hardware salesman, Barrett won a talent competition on the Brisbane radio station 4BH in 1939 and acted in the medium for several years. On leaving school in 1942 he was employed in the station's record library and, by the age of 16, was an announcer and breakfast-show presenter.
In 1954, he moved to Sydney to find more acting work with ABC radio. The experience proved invaluable for his later television voice work. "We had to go from serial to serial and, of course, play any part, any accent," he said.
The actor also joined the city's Phillip Street Theatre, appearing in plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest and Kind Hearts and Coronets. Switching to the Elizabethan Theatre in 1957, he took his first major dramatic role, as John Osborne's angry young man, Jimmy Porter, in Look Back in Anger. Back on radio, he played Tarzan and was heard alongside Spike Milligan in The Idiot Weekly (1958), an Australian version of the comedian's British television show.
Barrett made his small-screen début with a role in a 1957 episode of The Adventures of Long John Silver. Also a talented singer who had previously performed with dance bands in Brisbane, he was contracted to Philips and had several records released.
In 1958, he moved to Britain, later explaining: "I was getting to the age when I had to find out if I was any good or not, and to do that you have to come to a world market." The actor quickly found a screen role as a sub-lieutnant in the Second World War drama-documentary film For Valour (1958). Then, in 1959, he was among the cast in the television version of the radio comedy Educating Archie and appeared on stage in the revue One to Another, alongside Beryl Reid, Patrick Wymark and Sheila Hancock.
His first feature film role, uncredited, was in The Sundowners (1960), starring Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum, a drama about an Australian sheep-herding family. He appeared only in scenes filmed in a British studio after location shooting had been completed in his homeland.
He followed Emergency – Ward 10 with a string of television roles, in popular series such as The Avengers (1963), Z Cars (1963, as a blind former detective) and The Saint (1964), various plays and adaptations that included The Brothers Karamazov (1964-65, as Mitya Karamazov).
Barrett also acted Peter Clarke, the undercover Scotland Yard agent with an aversion to violence, in the drama series G.S.5 (a 1964 sequel to Ghost Squad) and took the dual role of Bennett and Koquillion in the Doctor Who story "The Rescue" (1965).
Fame in Mogul and The Troubleshooters brought him the money to buy a farmhouse on the Spanish island of Formentera. He also released two albums on which he sang chart hits.
The actor was offered the part of Mal in the film version of Don's Party when he returned to Australia to make a cigarette commercial in 1976. Over the next three decades, he was a regular on screen there.
He won another Australian Film Institute Award, as Best Actor, for his role as a policeman-turned-journalist blowing the whistle on Queensland politics in Goodbye Paradise (1982) and the institute's Best Supporting Actor Award for his performance as the patriarch in the family-reunion drama Hotel Sorrento (1995).
His other films included Where the Green Ants Dream (1984), the director Werner Herzog's tale of Aborigines protesting against uranium mining, in which he played a bigoted miner, Heaven's Burning (1997), as the embittered father of a fugitive played by Russell Crowe, and, finally, the director Baz Luhrmann's Australia (2008), when he was seen as Nicole Kidman's father.
On television, Barrett had regular roles as a grouchy sports journalist in Sporting Chance (1981) and a busybody coaching a poor soccer team in a former gold-mining town during the first year of the serial Something in the Air (2000). He also popped up in episodes of other serials, such as The Flying Doctors (1986), G.P. (1989) and All Saints (2004). The actor's memoirs, Ray Barrett: An Autobiography, were published in 1995. Ten years later, he was presented with the Australian Film Institute's Raymond Longford Award for outstanding achievement.
Barrett's three marriages tied in with the three stages of his working life – in Australia, Britain and back in Australia. He is survived by his third wife, Gaye O'Brien, who became his agent and was credited by him with putting both his career and life back on course, helping him to sober up after a period of heavy drinking.
Raymond Charles Barrett, actor: born Brisbane, Queensland 2 May 1927; married 1951 Audrey Bettanay (divorced, one daughter), secondly Miren Cook (divorced, two sons), 1986 Gaye O'Brien; died Gold Coast, Queensland 8 September 2009.
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