The Wellingtonian interview: Dame Kate Harcourt

DAME KATE HARCOURT: 'My mother was terrified we were going to be over-run by the Japanese.'
DAME KATE HARCOURT: 'My mother was terrified we were going to be over-run by the Japanese.'

Actress Dame Kate Harcourt talks about teaching at kindergarten, mixed flatting in London and why the New Zealand flag should be changed.

I understand you were taught by a governess. Why was that?

We lived in a rather isolated part of North Canterbury, so until I was nine I had a governess. She lived with us. There were five of us in her little class. Our classroom was a small public works hut in our garden and we had a little stove to keep us warm.

What happened when you were nine?

I went to boarding school, first at Amberley House and then at Woodford House in Hawke's Bay. I boarded for eight years. It was a very cosseted existence at Woodford. We were permitted out for one day each term, and on two Sundays each term we were allowed approved visitors.

You grew up in different times, the Depression and then World War II.

That's true. My mother was terrified we were going to be over-run by the Japanese. If that happened her contingency plan was to take us to the lime cliffs above the river and poison us, to save us from Japanese atrocities. I didn't find out about her plans till years later! It's hard to imagine now but a lot of my parents' generation were terrified of the Japanese. And they did get to Sydney harbour and were seen around New Zealand.

You trained to be a kindy teacher?

It meant I could leave home and train in Christchurch and continue with my singing and piano. I did teach for a couple of years and I liked it. I'm not sure teaching methods then would stand up to scrutiny now. I had one boy, Lionel, who used to bite everyone. I would tie a rope around his waist and the other end to my waist, so he went everywhere with me. If I was playing the piano, I'd tie his rope to the piano.

Were you always keen on drama and music?

It came from my mother, who was a good singer and musician. I wasn't very good at scholastic subjects, but loved singing and playing the piano.

And acting?

Not so much initially. When I attended the Joan Cross Opera School in London I used to get too nervous in front of an audience.

How did you get over that?

After I met Peter [her husband] at Wellington repertory I got more confidence and was able to perform in public.

You once went mixed flatting in London. What did you mother think?

It was 1952. Mixed flatting was unheard of in New Zealand. I imagine my mother would have been horrified, but I spared her most of the details.

You've had a variety of jobs in Wellington. Let's talk about some. What about working at the Monde Marie cafe?

I did that for a year. I would open the cafe in the morning and manage it during the day. Mary Seddon made it an exciting place. They had "special coffee". It had rum in it. The place was more like a private club, very exotic for those days.

And you ran the Kirkcaldie and Stains fashion shows?

Yes, that was almost a fulltime job for seven years. There would be up to three shows a day, two at lunchtime and one in the afternoon. Also on Friday evenings. I'd choose the models, plan the show and compere it.

You also did a lot of radio work?

I did. It began with Listen With Mother on national radio every weekday morning, at 9.04am. It was a 20-minute programme for pre-schoolers – singing and story-telling.

You acted with your daughter Miranda in Biography of My Skin. How was that?

It's a wonderful privilege to be able to act with your daughter at that level. Stuart [Miranda's husband] wrote it.

You must be proud of Miranda.

Miranda has done so well as an actress, and [son] Gordon has done very well in journalism. I'm so proud of them both.

How did you get involved in Downstage?

Initially by doing its publicity in the early 1970s. I'd be marching all over town sticking up posters and organising the publicity. Every now and then I'd get the chance to get on stage.

Which form of acting do you most enjoy?

I enjoy radio work. However, you get into whatever you are doing – television, film or stage. What I like about stage is that you can get to know your character better and improve your performance each day. You can't alter the script but you can advance your role.

Have you thought of winding down your career?

Not at all. I enjoy the work. I've got a big month coming up. I'm touring with David McPhail throughout August, doing Auntie and Me.

I note you campaigned to have our flag changed. Why was that?

I'm part-Australian – my mother was Australian. But I think it's absurd that we have a flag that's virtually indistinguishable from Australia's. Our flag should have the silver fern on it, and some black, though not too much, otherwise it would look like a pirate flag. However, there was no groundswell of opinion that the flag needed changing.

The Wellingtonian