Life after Marj:
Former Shortland Street star Elizabeth McRae has a recurring role in The Brokenwood Mysteries as the local gossip Mrs Marlowe. The actress talks about working in her 80s and her actor granddaughters. Sarah Nealon reports.
Elizabeth McRae relishes her role as the town gossip in Brokenwood.
As Marj Neilson, she was one of Shortland Street’s most beloved characters. Her talent for playing Ferndale’s busybody receptionist won her fans around New Zealand.
While she won’t be returning to the soap following her character’s death in Shortland Street’s 25th-anniversary special episode, Elizabeth McRae is still on screen acting the part of another nosey TV character.
The octogenarian has a small but recurring role in local crime drama The Brokenwood Mysteries as Mrs Marlowe. It’s something she has done since the show’s second season. (The programme is now in its fifth season.)
“She’s been there for a while,” says McRae of her character.
“So she’s got an idea about the people who live there. She’s often able to give the detectives some piece of information which often leads to the solving of the crime.
“She’s probably the town gossip but every town needs gossip because it’s the gossips who send the information round the whole community.”
The Brokenwood Mysteries stars Neill Rea and Fern Sutherland as detectives Mike Shepherd and Kristin Sims, who solve murders in the fictional town of Brokenwood which is home to McRae’s Mrs Marlowe.
McRae, who is 82, didn’t expect to still be working at her age but it helps that her role in the series is part time.
“I’m not acting a full week,” she says. “When Shortland Street was going, that was when I was very busy but it’s just nice to have the amount of work about. You know, three or four days per episode of Brokenwood. It suits me fine and they treat me very well.”
McRae was part of Shortland Street’s original cast and spent four years on the hospital reception desk as bossy Marj before the character headed to Wellington to be an MP.
The actress returned to Ferndale a few times for guest appearances and is one of the soap’s most memorable characters. When asked why Marj was so popular, McRae says it’s hard to know.
“I was there for the very beginning of the show when a lot of people were watching,” she says.
“Although she was narrow-minded at times, (Marj) often saw her own faults and changed her mind.
“Usually the thing with a soap character is that character can do anything. Other things where you say, ‘My character wouldn’t do that’, you don’t do that in soap. Your character can do anything.
“She became quite liberal minded. She was able to see her own faults. She was well meaning I guess.
“I still get recognised but quite often it’s something like, ‘Didn’t you live next door to us in Te Aroha?’ I think I’ve got a face which is sort of like everybody’s neighbour.”
McRae, who was born and raised in Wellington, pauses when asked what inspired her to be an actress.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I had a voice that carried so was given opportunities to speak I suppose at an early age and I found I could be heard. I felt more myself when I was being someone else, exploring other people. Exploring a character is fascinating.
“Standing in the shoes of someone else has always fascinated me and I’ve always been a great observer of people. That’s where it started, sitting in Wellington trams watching the people opposite and making up stories about them.”
McRae isn’t the only one in her family with a performing passion.
Two of her adult grandchildren, sisters Sally and Elsie Bollinger, are involved in making online shows.
“They are part of a group called The Candle Wasters,” says McRae.
“They’ve made I think four or five web series based on Shakespearean plays. They’ve done extremely well. They’ve just finished one based on Hamlet.”
The Bollingers’ mother – McRae’s daughter Katherine – is also an actress. Katherine was cast in Shortland Street as a nurse and Marj’s estranged daughter Brenda Holloway. Katherine also went behind the camera to work as a director on the soap.
Katherine is now gearing up to appear as Marj in the stage show Shortland Street – The Musical.
“It’s rather quaint,” says McRae, “that my daughter is playing Marj.”
Elizabeth McRae and Neill Rea