Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Rebecca Gibney: A mother's love

Packed To The Rafters' Rebecca Gibney tells Lydia Jenkin about saying farewell to her matriarchal role.

After six series, 122 episodes and five years in our living rooms, Packed to the Rafters is coming to an end. It's a bittersweet moment for the many fans who have followed the Rafter family and friends through the highs and lows of everything from the shocking death of a newlywed to the comedic neighbourly arguments, the discovery of new relatives, the departure of old ones. But for Rebecca Gibney, the New Zealand-born actress who reignited her career playing mother hen Julie Rafter, it seemed like the right time to take a break.

"When the show started, all the kids were at home or moving back in and they felt like the house was packed, and so it seems fitting to end where the kids now have moved on with their own lives and Dave and Julie are moving on to the next phase, too.

"It's very difficult to have a show called Packed to the Rafters when all the kids are all off doing different things," she laughs, down the line from Queenstown, where she's been on holiday with her own family - husband Richard Bell and 9-year-old son Zac.

They wrapped filming for the show last December, so she's had plenty of time to reconcile with life beyond Rafters, but she knows their story is still unfolding for the audience.

"It's kind of weird to still be talking about it, but it's hard not to as well, because people still stop me in the street saying 'Please do some more,' which is lovely."

It's no surprise that Gibney is approached in the street - in many ways, she now seems like the mother of the nation, or nations, though she laughs at the suggestion.

"Certainly the public have taken Julie Rafter into their hearts and I do feel incredibly fortunate that people responded to so well to the character. I mean, I think you could probably say that across the board with the entire family."

Indeed, there are plenty of people out there who have become so familiar with the on-screen family you can imagine they might want some wise Julie Rafter advice when they spot her in the supermarket.

"Actually, more often than not, they ask, 'Can we have a Julie Rafter hug?' And I say, 'Absolutely!' I'm a big hugger anyway. Occasionally I get asked for advice, but generally people responded to Julie's warmth and kindness, so often people just smile at me, I get lots of big smiles and hellos."

As to whether Gibney feels like she shares many traits with Julie Rafter, she says there's a lot of Julie Rafter in her, and a lot of her in Julie Rafter. "Definitely. I remember when the producers first approached me all those years ago, they said, 'We have this character and you have to do it, you have to play her.' For me it read like a combination of all my sisters and me, and they agreed - like my sister Diane, who lives in New Zealand, she'd ring me up and say, 'I saw me on the telly last night, that was me!' So there's been elements of all my sisters in Julie, too, but there is a lot of Julie in me and I do wear my heart on my sleeve. I've always been a very open book."

They share a similar outlook on life, too.

"My attitude in life is that we're all connected and we all share the same stuff, we've just got different costumes on, and everyone deserves respect and to be treated with warmth and kindness. People make mistakes and if you treat them with compassion, things will go a lot further. Some people might say that's simplistic, but my own mum always taught me that anyway - kindness to others."

She's not Mother Teresa, but Julie Rafter has always been relatable, particularly through this last season, which has dealt with some difficult topics: Nathan's arrival home with a new baby, but without the mother, Julie balancing her own needs with those of her family, and of course her father Ted's slow decline into dementia.

"It's a really difficult subject, and they handled it incredibly well , but it's very painful and emotional, and so it's been quite a sad ride. Seeing someone so beloved sinking into dementia was awful. But it was actually Michael Caton [who plays Ted] who suggested it to the writers when we were contemplating finishing up, because Michael's own mother had gone through dementia. The writers were very keen to do it, and it's been very tender, and touched a lot of people."

"They have managed to throw in plenty of positive things and humour, too. And that's what Rafters has been best at really, marrying the pathos with the comedy. Finding the humour in situations that may not be that funny, that's a big part of the Australian and Kiwi attitude, you know, 'She'll be right,' and you can get through things if you whack on a smile and a positive attitude."

Gibney readily admits it wasn't an easy decision to finish the show, but she's found that though they may no longer be an on-screen family, she's still close to the rest of the cast.

"I may not see everyone as often as I used to, but I speak to the kids - I still call them the kids - all the time. They're all off travelling or working overseas, but I'm still going 'Are you okay? Are you eating properly? Take it easy.' Erik Thomson [who plays Dave] and I have the odd phone call, and try and catch up as much as possible, the same with Michael Caton. I'm really lucky, they're still kind of like family."

Gibney is also optimistic that this may not be the last we've seen of the Rafter family.

"I'm a never-say-never kind of girl and I think that everyone agreed we all have such fond memories, and had such a fondness and love for the show and the characters, that no one wanted to walk away and say, 'That's it, I'm never going back again,' because we loved it. It had such a lovely warm vibe, because we never argued or fought - it was always a great show to work on. So we'll never shut the door on it."

Who: Rebecca Gibney
What: Final episode of Packed To The Rafters
Where and when: TV One, tonight, 8.30pm

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