Less orchid, more snapdragon Max Cryer

Angela: A Wonderful Life
Angela D’Audney and Nicky Pellegrino
Penguin, $27.95,
ISBN 0143018116

In spite of the desperate tabloid-celebrity culture currently fashionable, a New Zealand show-biz biography would seem to be dodgy commercial territory. Biographies of sportsmen: yes. Of politicians: maybe. Of a television news-reader: doubtful.

The “autobiography” of Angela D’Audney appears to be the first of these, and it has featured large on our local bestseller list this year. Which says something for the selling power of a woman whose considerable celebrity status arose from reading out someone else’s words from an autocue, and whose popularity arose from the engaging way in which she did it.

The details of D’Audney’s tragic illness and untimely death (6th February 2002) were so widely publicised that it was difficult not to know about them. Thus a sizeable proportion of Nicky Pellegrino’s “Angela” gives the impression of being déjà vu, albeit smoothed by Pelligrino’s competent prose-flow, recording Angela’s telling of her own gruesome and terribly sad decline exactly as it was.

This leaves the two earlier areas of D’Audney’s story as fresh material for the reader: her upbringing, and her forty-year battle to remain a star before illness set in. The early chapters form the exotic part of Angela’s life. She was born in London during a World War 2 flying-bomb attack, her parents an interesting racial combination of Spanish-Russian. Angela was largely educated in South America, and a continuing part of her attraction was that faintly exotic quality.

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After an early breakthrough into NZ broadcasting, Angela entered several decades where being almost constantly on-screen brought her celebrity status and a level of attention from the public that she greatly valued. In terms of the ephemeral world of television, Angela did achieve what William James called “the bitch-goddess of success”. But this was paralleled throughout by problems with divorce, finance, and, above all – employment. An ever-present theme for most of her professional life was her much-publicised gaining of high-profile “presenting” jobs, losing them, and then getting another one.

In this “career” element of Angela’s life, the book’s rhythm takes a dip, through no fault of the writer. But if you find lengthy exposition about the push-down-bounce-back factor inspiring, then this is it. True, the reader cannot but admire D’Audney’s stickability and her iron determination not to give up fame. (Think of some high-profile figures, equally talented, who disappeared while Angela survived: Dairne Shanahan, Lindsay Perigo, Karen Sims, Catherine Saunders, Tom Bradley, John Hawkesby, Philip Sherry, Jennie Goodwin, Rhys Jones, Brian Edwards, Dougal Stevenson ….) Right up to the day of her last appearance, Angela (then 57) defied the TVNZ bimbo rule, whereby anybody who seems more than 30 has been washed away in a great Rinso tide.

Circumstances determined that this ghost-written account of Angela’s life be hastily done, but the haste doesn’t show. (Only one noticeable typo: Edwina Rumford Myers becomes Edwina Rutherford Miles.) Clearly, Angela took the writer into her confidence and held up a mirror whose reflection Pellegrino has de-misted. In the process, a great deal of laundry was hung out, and much of it has been left visible.

Angela D’Audney the person could contrast markedly with her self-generated image. Pellegrino plays no part in this; there is no deliberate whitewash – she simply reports exactly what Angela said. Sometimes the reportage is accurate to the point of being slightly too honest for the good of her subject. For instance, D’Audney’s apparent frankness about her frequent financial woes turns out to have been somewhat disingenuous, allied, as it unblinkingly was, to her avowed love of overseas travel, to living with a heated swimming pool and two classic cars, not to mention adding an extra storey to her house.

She was exotic, yes, though often less of an orchid, more of a snapdragon. And colleagues well knew her “volatility” (for which read, strident self-confidence). In real life, she did show occasional regret about her volatility. Gordon McLauchlan has reported that during one particularly explosive discussion he remained totally calm until Angela shrieked at him: “Are you a wimp?” To which, he replied: “No, actually I am just cool.” After a meaningful pause, Angela asked: “Could you teach me that?”

Such humility doesn’t always surface in the autobiography. Through Pellegrino, Angela reports that, at various times, she was familiar with seven different languages. Acquaintances will mutter that, in spite of this, three words she never learnt were “Please” and “Thank you”. Until the biographer came along.

In the story-telling, these contradictions are carefully masked, and the viewers presented as always adoring. Not that they weren’t: Angela was one of the few people in New Zealand who could get away with actually saying the phrase “my public”, and since she was no shrinking violet, she said it quite frequently.

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If ever a career’s publicity hinged on one headline-worthy moment to the exclusion of all other professional activities (as with Grahame Thorne’s infamous 1983 hair perm), the display of the D’Audney boobs in the television play Venus Touch was something Angela never lived down. Shown on air in 1982, her going topless for a few seconds caused a sensation and an “endless” stream of telephone complaints, the public being less adoring than usual. But only tempor-arily, she avers, since later “boxes and boxes of mail” arrived in support. (At the same time, the other channel had been showing vampire lesbian lovers, about which not one complaining word was uttered.) Even 20 years later, the D’Audney boob-baring was referred to constantly, though not actually shown, as she lay dying. Through her biographer, D’Audney admits that she seriously misjudged the effect that brief semi-nudity would have on “her public”.

There was a charismatic quality about Angela D’Audney which brought to mind Margaret Mitchell’s famous opening line: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful but men seldom realised it.” Somewhat reminiscent of Scarlett, in this and other ways, Angela was popular with the viewing public and very efficient within the narrow confines of what she actually did. In cut-down-tall-poppy-land, it would have been difficult for her in “autobiographical” mode to emphasise these qualities. Which, just for a moment, raises the interesting question of how Pellegrino might have tackled her subject’s complex personality, had she been writing a straight biography. But here, as in any “autobiography”, Angela’s public can rejoice in the untrammelled view which Angela wished to project of herself. Although the phrase “told in her own words” isn’t used in the sub-title, it would never have been more apt.

Following Jewish funeral practice, Angela D’Audney was buried on the day following her death, after a ceremony at Beth Shalom synagogue. A unique personality, she will be missed. There is no doubt that Pellegrino’s very readable book stands as a reminder of how Angela would have wanted to be remembered.

 

Max Cryer is a writer and broadcaster, who knew Angela D’Audney for 30 years.

 

 

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction and Review
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