From Downstage groupies to theatre royalty, Colin McColl and Ginette McDonald have a fierce and occasionally volatile friendship that's been forged over five decades. Joanna Wane marks the end of an era
I hoped there'd be plenty of gossip, and there was. A down-at-heel Paul Holmes in the "swinging 70s" making a dodgy insurance claim in London and turning up later at a cottage in Wales wearing Ginette McDonald's fur-collared chamois leather coat. Colin McColl burning his passport to avoid deportation and filching money from the till at Swan & Edgar, the posh department store where he worked in Piccadilly Circus, to buy theatre tickets.
I hoped there'd be banter, and there was some of that too. What was it like for McDonald as an actor to be directed by McColl? "Wonderful!" she said. And what was it like for McColl to direct McDonald? "Impossible!" he said, teasing her affectionately on our three-way Zoom call. "She makes me laugh so much. But I never saw Ginette as just a comic actress, because she's got a great brain."
McColl told a fabulous story about the time he scored tickets for a theatrical ball at the Dorchester Hotel and they got stuck in the revolving door. When the doorman gave it a heave, they tumbled out on their hands and knees into the foyer. "I don't remember THAT," said McDonald archly.
She does remember the beautiful pale-blue silk dress she wore, from Wellington fashion designer Valerie Svendsen's boutique, Memsahib. "London was having terrible power cuts and we had to put on our makeup by torchlight. But it was so glamorous, the absolute cream of London's theatre world."
Lifelong friends since the mid-1960s, they first met as teenagers wagging school to hang out at Wellington's Downstage Theatre, where "Lyn of Tawa" would tentatively emerge in a late-night sketch show, Knickers. In each other they recognised kindred souls. "It was such a relief," she said, "because I certainly didn't fit in at school."
Now, McColl is quietly exiting stage left (the natural inclination of most in the arts) after an 18-year tenure as artistic director at Auckland Theatre Company — leaving McDonald cheated of the chance to star in his final production. Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit was originally due to open next week, with McDonald playing the eccentric clairvoyant Madame Arcati. It was finally cancelled after being rescheduled twice.
Seen most recently as a "foul-mouthed boiler" on the TV series Talkback, McDonald lives in Wellington and had been on standby for weeks. "I had piles of clothing and medication arranged around my suitcase because I had to be ready to leave," she said.
"I was tremendously saddened for Colin to end such a long and really distinguished career not with a bang but not even a whimper. It hit me very hard. But we're tiny droplets in a great ocean of pain at the moment."
McColl and McDonald were part of the first generation in New Zealand who stepped straight into acting careers, serving unpaid apprenticeships at Downstage, where founding member Ian Mune, for example, had originally trained as a teacher. The theatre also operated as a cafe and McColl remembers tripping as he rushed out to serve dessert before a show one night, spilling strawberries and icecream all over the stage.
"Ginette and I were kind of Downstage groupies. I think we were dreadful. So arrogant and out to shock in a way. I remember us going up to a director on opening night and saying, 'Oh well, that was a load of s***, wasn't it?' This was a fabulous director and a man I've grown to like very much. But you think you're invincible at that age."
McColl was the first to head to London, where he was frequently mistaken for the British playwright Tom Stoppard. McDonald still has a suitcase full of the letters he sent her.
"Oh Netty, it's marvellous news you've finally decided to come," he wrote in 1971. "Believe me, we'll make a star out of you yet. Wellington is lovely, the wind and the sea and all that and you'll probably miss it a great deal. But it's so limited. Here, you can climb as high as your talent and cheek can take you."
Convinced it would be merely a stepping stone to Hollywood, McDonald ended up mostly playing "yokelly North Country types", missing out by a whisker on a key role in a new TV series when the producers discovered she was a New Zealander.
For McColl, those years in England crystallised that his future lay in directing. McDonald still remembers his advice after he cast her in a couple of early productions at Wellington's Unity Theatre, which was so strapped for cash there was only a single spotlight. "Colin said, 'Feel the light' and that's stayed with me to this day."
A youthful romance blossomed only briefly — "I was very repressed, so God help anybody trying to get near me, but we were as close as you can be in sort of a Mormon way," said McDonald — but a deep and abiding friendship endured.
Do they ever fight? "Oh yes, we have in the past," said McColl. "Terribly." He'd rage and shout, said McDonald, while she'd fix him with a silent death ray of disapproval. "For an actress, I'm hopeless at disguising what I feel."
Despite living in different cities for much of their lives, they still fall easily into the same old gossipy routine. "It's literally having known someone when you were little embryo people," said McDonald. "And we went through so much together. The thing about a long friendship is it's priceless. And it's very, very rare."