ON SCREEN and off, Anne Haddy was beset with health problems. A string of real-life illnesses, including stomach cancer and a heart attack, preceded the Australian actress's role as worldly-wise Helen Daniels in the popular teen soap Neighbours. In the programme, her character bounced back from two strokes and a hip-replacement operation.
When the serial started, Helen was the widowed mother-in-law of Jim Robinson, and to the Robinson family she was known as "The Rock of Gibraltar". She was the diplomat and voice of reason to whom residents of Ramsay Street, in the fictional Melbourne suburb of Erinsborough, turned for advice.
But after 12 years on the programme her own ill-health finally forced her to leave Neighbours two years ago, after cheating death as she lay unconscious in hospital, her kidneys failing and heart weakening. Doctors were convinced she would not survive, but she confounded them by staging a remarkable recovery.
On being told of their pessimism by her actor husband James Condon, Haddy decided it was time to take life easier. "In the past, I have been seriously ill," she said, "but nobody ever told me I was going to die. Staying healthy is our only goal at the moment. To keep living, laughing and loving."
It signalled the end of a long and successful career on stage and television that Haddy had dreamed about in her teens. Born an only child in Quorn, South Australia, in 1927, she invented characters, dressed up and produced plays with other children. She also watched films as many as three times a day when she discovered the magic of cinema, and was a great fan of Bette Davis.
While at Adelaide High School, she performed in a play, Androcles and the Lion, for which her art teacher Keith Michell - who later found fame himself as an actor - applied her make-up. Later, she acted in radio plays and schools broadcasts while working by day in Adelaide University's book room.
Haddy left for Britain at the age of 23, hoping to find acting work, but ended up working for Kellogg's as a secretary. She met and married her first husband, Max Dimmitt, before returning to Perth, Western Australia, where she gave birth to two children. In 1960, the family moved to Sydney and Haddy found herself in demand in the theatre and on radio.
One of her most notable stage roles was as Sheila Larkin in the Jack Roffey courtroom thriller Hostile Witness, alongside Ray Milland, who starred in the film version. Her theatrical repertoire also included The Entertainer, Hay Fever, The Glass Menagerie, Twelfth Night, Richard III, Gaslight and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, and she had roles in films such as Newsfront (1978), one of the "new wave" of acclaimed Australian pictures, in which she played the wife of company boss A.G. Marwood (actor Don Crosby).
In her early days on television, Haddy presented Play School and guest- starred in the popular series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. Like many Australian actors, she appeared in a number of the country's major television serials. She played Alice Hemmings, estranged, dying mother of Doreen Burns, in Prisoner (retitled Prisoner: Cell Block H in Britain), Toni Lee in Skyways, Louise Francis in Cop Shop and, most memorably, the housekeeper Rosie Andrews in Sons and Daughters, as well as taking roles in The Young Doctors, The Flying Doctors and A Town Like Alice.
However, she was hampered by a string of personal tragedies. In 1971, while rehearsing the stage play National Health in Sydney, she fell and broke her wrist. Because the play was set in the ward of a London hospital, there were nurses on hand to give advice to the cast. Eight years later, she collapsed from a heart attack and had to have bypass surgery. Shortly afterwards, she fell and broke a hip. Then, she discovered she had cancer of the stomach, but it was diagnosed early and the growth was removed. In 1983, she was back in hospital, having one of her four heart bypasses unclogged.
In 1985, by now recovered, Haddy was invited to take the role of Helen Daniels in the new serial Neighbours. Reg Watson, who had returned to his homeland in 1973 after being the first producer of the much-maligned British serial Crossroads, created Helen to destroy the myth that all mothers-in-law were battleaxes.
Neighbours failed to attract audiences when it was first screened by the 7 Network in Australia, in March 1985, so it was axed after less than a year. However, the producers Grundy Television persuaded the rival 10 Network to buy the programme and, with changes that included Jason Donovan taking the role of Scott Robinson and Kylie Minogue joining the cast as Charlene Mitchell, it became a massive hit.
In Britain, BBC1 first screened Neighbours in October 1986, broadcasting each episode twice a day, five days a week. The combined daily audience figures meant that Neighbours was soon challenging Coronation Street and EastEnders at the top of the television ratings.
Helen was seen as the most glamorous granny on television, who enjoyed painting in her spare time. She gave wise advice when Scott's marriage to Charlene was on the rocks and was astute enough to run her own chauffeuring business, Home James, as well as helping her grandson Paul to run the Lassiters complex.
However, her trusting nature was taken advantage of when a charming conman, Douglas Blake, cheated Helen out of her life savings after promising to marry her. Blake was, in fact, played by Haddy's real-life husband, James Condon. More heartbreak came when she married the debonair Michael Daniels, cousin of her late husband, but he was later revealed to be a bigamist. Even worse, Helen's next husband, Reuben White (also played by Condon), died just a few weeks after their wedding.
After several illnesses, Helen was last seen (in an episode shown in the UK in April 1998) dying peacefully at home as she watched a video of her grandson Scott's 1988 wedding to Charlene, recalling for viewers the soap's glory days when Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue made teenage hearts flutter.
During her final years in the serial, Haddy bemoaned the increasing amount of sex in the programme:
There's been more sex brought into Neighbours, particularly more teenage sex, which is sad. I have nothing against sex, but there can be too much of it on TV. You turn your set on and that's all you find. I get bored with it. Sex was never what Neighbours was about. It was about family values. The relationship between Scott and Charlene was very innocent. There was no hanky-panky and they got married. But society has changed and, as much as I hate it, Neighbours has naturally changed with it.
When she left the serial in 1997, Haddy was the only surviving member of its original cast. She was also the longest-running, although veterans Anne Charleston and Ian Smith, who joined Neighbours in its first two years, later returned to it.
In 1988, the programme and Anne Haddy's popularity were honoured when Oxford University undergraduates made her an honorary member of Corpus Christi College.
Anne Haddy, actress: born Quorn, South Australia 5 October 1927; married first Max Dimmitt (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), second James Condon; died Melbourne, Victoria 6 June 1999.
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