Dame Kate Har­court:

At al­most 90, Dame Kate Har­court is still mak­ing movies and is ac­tively in­volved in her grand­chil­dren’s life at the home she shares with daugh­ter Mi­randa. Suzanne McFad­den chats with the mother and daugh­ter from one of New Zealand’s most re­spected act­ing


hav­ing the time of her life at 90

It’s 1.30am, and Mi­randa Har­court, roused from sleep, gets out of bed to see who’s re­spon­si­ble for the clat­ter­ing and shriek­ing out­side her home, perched above Welling­ton Har­bour. She’s not sur­prised to find that the per­pe­tra­tors are her “old­est teenager” and a gag­gle of friends. The naughty teen, as Mi­randa calls her, should know bet­ter. She is about to turn 90 years old, and is a Dame Com­pan­ion of the New Zealand Or­der of Merit.

But Dame Kate Har­court, one of our most revered and trea­sured ac­tors, scoffs at her daugh­ter’s ver­sion of events. “You do tell the most ter­ri­ble sto­ries, Mi­randa,” she growls softly.

“Now, Kate, you know it’s true!” her daugh­ter replies.

Yes, there ap­pears to be plenty of truth in Mi­randa’s story. Her mother had just fin­ished per­form­ing in the hi­lar­i­ous women’s com­edy col­lec­tive Hens’ Teeth at the cap­i­tal’s Circa Theatre. For 10 nights straight, the zingy 89-year-old played “grumpy old biddy” Maud Hornby – a role she first made hers 20 years ago. She even sang a Mozart duet.

“Af­ter the show, she was drink­ing red wine with her friends in the theatre foyer,” Mi­randa says. “Then in the early hours of the morn­ing, they dropped her off home; all of them shriek­ing with laugh­ter. She is one

very old teenager.”

“Well, I had a very good time,” Dame Kate re­torts, with a half-smile that slides into a grin. She knows she can’t get away with much when she’s liv­ing down­stairs from her daugh­ter, her son-in-law (writer and di­rec­tor Stu­art McKen­zie) and three grand­chil­dren. But it’s also the way she loves it. “We are a whanau,” Kate says. “It works a treat.”

The fam­ily bought the two­s­toreyed 1960s house – on a clifftop above Houghton Bay with stu­pen­dous views of the har­bour and Cook Strait – around 17 years ago. The down­stairs area was con­verted into a twobed­room flat for Kate, but she keeps her in­de­pen­dence.

“We have a con­nect­ing door, but we never barge in. We al­ways knock – or bang,” says Kate, whose hear­ing is no longer the sharpest. Every now and then she cooks for the rest of the fam­ily in her own kitchen, but re­mains quite self-suf­fi­cient.

Kate still drives, and has long been the “taxi driver” for her grand­chil­dren: Peter, now 18, Thomasin, 16, and Davida, 10.

And in keep­ing with her streak of fierce in­de­pen­dence, Kate – who cel­e­brates her 90th birth­day on June 16 – is work­ing hard. As she has for the past six decades, she is still tread­ing the boards and mak­ing movies.

“Kate lit­er­ally goes from project to project. When you’re act­ing, you get a big rush of adrenalin, and it’s very youthen­ing and en­er­gis­ing,” says Mi­randa, her­self a re­spected ac­tor and now world-renowned act­ing coach, who works with Hol­ly­wood tal­ents such as Ni­cole Kid­man and Dev Pa­tel (Lion and Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire).

“She’s re­ally for­tu­nate to have so much work. Most 90-year-olds keep busy by go­ing to the li­brary, but Kate al­ways has a project to look for­ward to.”

Says Kate: “It’s im­por­tant to have some­thing to look for­ward to at my age… or any age for that mat­ter. Even if it’s just a new book to read. Oth­er­wise you might as well turn up your toes.”

In the past few years, she has made reg­u­lar ap­pear­ances in New Zealand short films, and most re­cently played a witch in The Changeover, a fea­ture­length su­per­nat­u­ral thriller, based on Mar­garet Mahy’s book. It will be re­leased later this year.

“I have one or two things on the boil,” Kate says. “I’m only too pleased to do what­ever I can. I re­ally don’t mind what I do.”

But she still draws the line at some things. Like nu­dity. It was a mat­ter she was con­fronted with re­cently, while play­ing the lead role in the short film The Pact, cen­tred around eu­thana­sia.

“There was a nude scene in the script where I was in a bath. I was stag­gered!” Kate says. “Nude, at my age? How ridicu­lous. I re­fused, and they had to re­write the script.”

Mi­randa tries to pla­cate her mother: “Kate, you would wear a spe­cial bathing suit. And they would only have seen your bare shoul­der!”

“I still think it’s ridicu­lous.”

Mi­randa laughs. “This is not the usual con­ver­sa­tion you’d have with your 90-year-old mother, is it? ‘Now, Mum, you must take your clothes off for a film!’”

That kind of ban­ter seems quite nat­u­ral, how­ever, in the Har­court-McKen­zie house­hold. Stu­art, who wrote the script and co-di­rected The Changeover with Mi­randa, even sug­gested his mother-in-law join a witches’ coven – purely as re­search, of course, for her role as Win­ter Carlisle.

“I ac­tu­ally found a coven in Welling­ton that I could have joined,” Kate says. “But I didn’t par­tic­u­larly want to. I didn’t have the in­cli­na­tion.”

Gen­er­a­tion gap

Kate has never been one to hold back her point of view. Mi­randa de­scribes her mother as be­ing “very po­lit­i­cal”, de­spite her con­ser­va­tive up­bring­ing on a hill-coun­try sheep sta­tion in Okuku Pass, North Can­ter­bury.

Kate’s fa­ther, Gor­don Ful­ton, could not have been more tra­di­tional or con­ser­va­tive, while her Aus­tralian-born mother, Winifred, was a more feisty, free thinker.

She was 47 when she had Kate, the youngest of three chil­dren. “It was a ter­ri­ble em­bar­rass­ment to my fa­ther. I never re­ally ex­isted in his eyes,” Kate says. “I only got one let­ter from him, which I have kept. He was a strange man.”

“It’s so sad,” Mi­randa adds. “Kate was a big girl, and her fa­ther told her, ‘Fat mares don’t breed.’”

For­tu­nately, Kate ig­nored such a cruel fal­lacy. With her much-loved hus­band, the late Peter Har­court, Kate had two chil­dren. And like her mother, she had them “later in life” – Mi­randa at the age of 35, and for­mer tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ist and Fair Go host, Gor­don, when she was 39.

“We are his­tor­i­cally late breed­ers; I was 44 when I had Davida. So our gen­er­a­tions are far apart,” says

My only re­gret is that Peter died be­fore he met his grand­chil­dren. He was a very spe­cial man.”

Mi­randa, who is now 54.

Meet­ing Peter – at the Monde Marie cof­fee bar in Welling­ton – was for

Kate the best thing that ever hap­pened to her. “He was such a great chap; a lot of peo­ple still re­mem­ber him.” Peter – a renowned broad­caster, writer and ac­tor – died in 1995.

Be­fore she be­came an ac­tor, Kate was a singer, who trained first at the Con­ser­va­to­rium of Mu­sic in Mel­bourne, then at the Joan Cross Opera School in London. When she re­turned to New Zealand, she even­tu­ally moved to Welling­ton in 1958, tak­ing a job at the Monde Marie, where Peter would sit and write scripts for mu­sic re­vues with the Welling­ton Reper­tory.

Pluck­ing up the courage to au­di­tion for one of his re­vues, Kate sang for him. Need­less to say, she got the part, and she and Peter then worked to­gether over the next three decades – in theatre, ra­dio and tele­vi­sion. In the 1960s, they be­came part of New Zealand house­hold life through the chil­dren’s ra­dio show Lis­ten with Mother, and then Ju­nior Mag­a­zine, one of New Zealand’s first chil­dren’s tele­vi­sion shows; Kate was the pre­sen­ter and Peter the scriptwriter and the voice of

Porky, the glove-pup­pet hip­popota­mus.

“My only re­gret is that

Peter died be­fore he met his grand­chil­dren. He was a very spe­cial man,” Kate says. “Young Peter is very much like him.”

Mi­randa and Stu­art mar­vel at the deep re­la­tion­ship Kate has with all three of their chil­dren. “She’s so much a part of their lives; it’s a bless­ing and a boon,” Mi­randa ex­plains. “She loves driv­ing them around, and they do all their talk­ing in the car. She of­fers them great grand­moth­erly ad­vice.”

She has even been giv­ing Thomasin driv­ing lessons. “She’s a jolly good driver, too,” Kate says.

As much as she is there for the chil­dren if work takes Mi­randa and Stu­art away from home, the kids have proven they also look out for their cher­ished grandma. Like the time, four years ago, that Kate suf­fered a bad fall – trip­ping on a pile of tim­ber out­side the house and break­ing her eye socket, nose and arm.

“The chil­dren came to my res­cue: Davida brought me a bowl of warm wa­ter; Thomasin rang for an am­bu­lance and ran to get the doc­tor [a brain sur­geon] who lives next door; and Peter came with me to hospi­tal. They were won­der­ful,” Kate re­calls. Af­ter that ac­ci­dent, she be­came a kind of “poster woman” for the preven­tion of falls for the Health Qual­ity & Safety Com­mis­sion.

For the past few years, Peter lived down­stairs with Kate, while he was at Scots Col­lege (he was head boy last year). He va­cated his room ear­lier this year to move into halls of res­i­dence at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity, where he is study­ing politics, law and Man­darin.

Thomasin is Kate’s new flat­mate, but her room has been empty for the past cou­ple of months, while the teenager has been in Port­land, Ore­gon, act­ing in the lead role of Amer­i­can in­die film My Aban­don­ment. Thomasin, in Year 12 at Sa­muel Mars­den Col­le­giate School, is no stranger to leav­ing home for the bright lights and cam­eras – she spent six months in Auck­land play­ing Pixie Han­nah on Short­land Street, and played a young Louise in Con­sent: The Louise Ni­cholas Story.

All three of the McKen­zie chil­dren act: Peter has been the lead in a num­ber of short films, in­clud­ing the award-win­ning Bird­song, and starred op­po­site Sir Ian McK­ellen in the play Wait­ing for Godot. Davida starred with her grand­mother in the short film Tur­tle-Bank Hustler; she acts to earn money to buy Amer­i­can Girl dolls.

While Kate is proud, she tries to de­ter their gen­er­a­tion from mak­ing a ca­reer in act­ing. “I’m very happy to say Tom doesn’t want to go to drama school.

She wants to study psy­chol­ogy, crim­i­nol­ogy or phi­los­o­phy,” she says. “And I’m glad to see Peter has es­caped it too.”

“Kate has al­ways said act­ing is not a job for a grown-up per­son,” Mi­randa chips in. “That’s why she be­haves like a naughty teenager…”

“Oh, you do talk an aw­ful lot of twad­dle, Mi­randa! But it’s

Kate has al­ways said act­ing is not a job for a grown-up per­son.

true about act­ing.”

Mi­randa can at­test that avoid­ing act­ing is one of the most use­ful things her mother tried to teach her… even if she didn’t ex­actly ad­here to it. Mi­randa started her ca­reer at the age of four play­ing a young Kather­ine Mans­field, and is still recog­nised as Gemma from Gloss, 30 years af­ter the TV se­ries screened. While she con­tin­ues to act today, she is in de­mand across the globe as an act­ing coach, and has now worked with Ni­cole Kid­man on eight film and theatre projects.

Brother Gor­don couldn’t evade it ei­ther – he played Mi­randa’s on­screen brother in both Close to Home and Gloss, be­fore opt­ing for jour­nal­ism. Gor­don is now the se­nior com­mu­ni­ca­tions ad­vi­sor for the Com­merce Com­mis­sion in Auck­land.

“It was in­evitable I would be­come an ac­tor,” Mi­randa says. “Grow­ing up, Gor­don and I ex­pe­ri­enced the good and the bad of it – the ex­cite­ment and the drama. Like be­ing at the shop counter and Kate say­ing loudly: ‘Oh dear, we can’t af­ford to pay for these gro­ceries this week.’

That re­ally should have been a very good dis­in­cen­tive.

“Kate has ac­tu­ally taught me some amaz­ing things, bear­ing in mind she’s a less prac­ti­cal, more en­ter­tain­ing per­son. The other thing I learned was to never cre­ate pa­ram­e­ters; to never say no. Luck­ily Gor­don and I were very good chil­dren, be­cause Kate and my fa­ther were so dis­tracted do­ing arty things and earn­ing money, they didn’t have time for in­tense par­ent­ing.

“When I was born, my mother went straight back to work, which was un­usual for those times. Today Gor­don has great re­spect for his wife’s work­ing life. And I’m ob­sessed with my ca­reer. Kate has been a won­der­ful role model, and I hope we can pass that on to our kids.”

Op­er­a­tions and hon­ours

As an ac­tive nona­ge­nar­ian, Kate teas­ingly says that her fit­ness rou­tine in­volves bend­ing down to pick up the chil­dren’s laun­dry. “Thomasin has an enor­mous amount of wash­ing.”

She ac­tu­ally finds it dif­fi­cult to stand straight these days, the on­go­ing reper­cus­sion of a rid­ing ac­ci­dent suf­fered be­fore she was mar­ried.

“My back has never been the same since. I had a big oper­a­tion to de­com­press the spine when Mi­randa was six months old,” she says. She’s also had two knee re­place­ments. “I do a lot of ex­er­cises un­der hot wa­ter in the shower.”

She has mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion in both eyes, but ad­mits she would be “sunk” with­out her driver’s li­cence. “We’re miles from the shops and the li­brary,” she says. “If I couldn’t read, I’d go mad.” She de­vours two or three books a week.

Her skin is still smooth and lu­mi­nous. “Aren’t I lucky? I’ve al­ways used sun­screen.”

She rarely leaves Welling­ton these days, but ear­lier this year she trav­elled with Mi­randa and Davida to Hawke’s Bay and her old school of Wood­ford House, where she was both a boarder and a teacher. She was the spe­cial guest at the open­ing of the Dame Kate Har­court Per­form­ing Arts Cen­tre – a three-level build­ing with stu­dios, class­rooms and re­hearsal spa­ces.

“It’s beau­ti­ful; like per­form­ing in a tree house. It is such a priv­i­lege to have a build­ing named af­ter you. But I told them they should re­ally call it ‘Kate’s Place’,” she says.

That’s one thing Kate still finds hard to ac­cept, be­ing named a Dame; an hon­our be­stowed upon her in 1996 for her con­tri­bu­tion to theatre. “I have tried to live up to the damn ti­tle ever since, and I’ve never man­aged it!”

She sim­ply prefers Kate – the name Mi­randa has called her since she was a child. Davida is not im­pressed: “I get re­ally an­noyed at you not call­ing her Mum,” she tells her mother.

“But I’m called Mum around here,” Mi­randa laughs. “I called Kate ‘Mum’ un­til I was 10, and then I did my first act­ing job with her at the Down­stage Theatre. For four months, we shared a dress­ing room. You can’t be in that sit­u­a­tion and call her ‘Mum’.”

Kate smiles a know­ing smile. She doesn’t seem to mind what her fam­ily call her – as long as she can still hear them call­ing.

FROM TOP: Kate (cen­tre) on­stage as Maud Hornby in Hens’ Teeth. As Win­ter Carlisle in the movie The Changeover. In 1984 Kate (right) starred in the play Wed­nes­day to Come.

LEFT: Dame Kate Har­court with her daugh­ter Mi­randa and grand­daugh­ter Davida, the youngest of Mi­randa’s three chil­dren.

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