Guest Actor Biography
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Ray Barrett

Strong, Man in the Mirror

by Pete Stampede

Craggy-faced, heavily built but (usually) with impeccably-groomed hair, Australian star Ray Barrett was quite a heart-throb on British TV in the 60s, as star of the long-running series The Troubleshooters. To telefantasy fans, however, his primary importance is as a voice artiste on several of Gerry Anderson's puppet sagas, most notably the immortal Thunderbirds.

Born in Brisbane in 1927, as a boy he was fascinated by radio, and, aged 12, made his first appearance on the medium when he won a talent competition; he'd been encouraged to enter by his mother (who was actually from the North of England, so there wasn't much of a culture shock when he later came to Britain). After leaving school, he got a job in the record library of the same radio station that had held that contest (or "eisteddfod", in a strange Welsh / Australian crossover); his enthusiasm landed him the job of hosting a daily show by the age of 16. An unfortunate legacy of his teenage years was an acne problem which didn't clear up satisfactorily, leaving pock-marks on his face; however, he later conceded that this helped him get roles as scarred, "tough-guy" characters. While shooting a minor Hammer horror, The Reptile (1965), he jokily claimed to an interviewer that the scars had resulted from catching himself on barbed wire while helping fellow prisoners of war escape during WW2, and was amazed on seeing the finished article that she'd actually believed him! His presenting, interviewing and even occasionally singing on radio led to him participating in plays, and doing so well that he became the first actor to be put under an exclusive contract by the ABC—the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, roughly modelled on BBC lines.

By 1954, he had moved to Sydney, the hub of the burgeoning radio industry, and was constantly taking leads, in everything from adaptations of the classics to commercials; the experience of working to the microphone, changes of accent and so on, came in more than handy later. One version of Tarzan saw him taking over the title role from Charles Tingwell, who had in turn taken it over from the now-forgotten Rod Taylor; Barrett recalls meeting Taylor in later life and disappointedly finding he had very much 'gone Hollywood'. An early TV appearance was in an episode of The Adventures Of Long John Silver (1955), with a (pissed?) Robert Newton reprising his most famous role; it was one of the first series anywhere to be made in colour, but was reputedly no-one's finest hour. Along with John Bluthal, Barrett supported Spike Milligan, who was (and is) very popular in Australia, when the founder of absurdist British comedy arrived for a Goon-ish radio series for the ABC called The Idiot Weekly (1958), also the title of one of his early British TV series. Barrett got another crack at TV when Milligan did a special, again for the ABC, which as it was live, meant getting the settings ready for the fast-moving daft sketches wasn't easy; Milligan's solution was to have the camera, during scene changes, cut to Barrett, upside down on a swing, coming in and out of shot then saying, "I'm not mad, you know. I just do this until they're ready."

By the end of 1958, Barrett felt ready to move on, and sailed to Britain, where he found an agent through the already-resident Madge Ryan. His first, atypical, assignment was as a stooge to ventriloquist Peter Brough and dummy Archie Andrews (the showbiz joke at the time was that Brough's mouth moved more than the dummy's did) in the TV transfer of their radio series, Educating Archie (A-R, 1958-9); he'd performed a similar function on one of Brough's visits to Australia. His participations in various drama series were more in character, beginning with Armchair Mystery Theatre, "Flag Fall" (ABC, 1960), an Australian-set entry, with Patrick Barr (seen in "Take Me To Your Leader") and again, Madge Ryan, in a series hosted by Donald Pleasence. On recommendation from Charles Tingwell, by now in Britain, Barrett joined him in the regular cast of the medical soap Emergency Ward 10 (ATV, 1961-62), playing Dr Nolan. Like Tingwell, he largely avoided broad Aussie stereotyping while in Britain, and quite often played British characters.

Then; Man Of The World, "The Highland Story" (ATV/ITC, 1962), an obscure (despite a theme tune by Henry Mancini), early ITC series in which he guested along with the splendid John Laurie (from "Death of a Great Dane," "Brief for Murder," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station" and "Pandora"), Armchair Theatre, "Dumb Martian", (ABC, 1962), actually the pilot for the SF anthology series Out Of The Unknown, and featuring Garfield Morgan; and, First Night; "The Strain" (BBC, 1963), written by Alun Owen and set in the writer's native Liverpool, with Barrett tackling a Scouse accent as a villain just out of jail who finds things have changed on his patch in his absence, also with John Junkin. He was definitely in episodes of Harpers West One (ATV, 1962) an early soap set in a department store whose title rings the faintest of bells with viewers if the time, and Z Cars (BBC, 1963) which he says he got paid 151 and ten shillings (!) for, but I haven't been able to trace the episode titles for either. He had a guest role, along with then-stuntman Ray Austin, in an episode of Ghost Squad, "Polsky" (ATV, 1963), a then-popular spy series which had some other Avengers elements, notably Brian Clemens and Philip Levene as writers. At the end of that season (its second), Neil Hallett's co-star, an equally obscure, apparently American actor called Michael Quinn, was killed off; when it returned, now titled G.S.5 (ATV, 1964), it had Clemens as script editor, and Barrett and Austin, as different characters, added to the regular cast. Dave Rogers describes Barrett's role of Peter Clarke as "a soft-spoken agent who abhorred violence (until aroused) and preferred to get his quarry through slow, methodical investigation"; but a sign of how much it's remembered now is that, in his own autobiography, Barrett doesn't mention it once.

However, some of his next work continues to captivate children of all ages. For Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, he provided voices for Stingray (ATV/ITC, 1963-64), the first of the pair's puppet series in colour (although, for obvious reasons, still shown in black and white in Britain); as well as voicing several minor characters in each episode, he assumed an all-American tone for the irascible, wheelchair-bound Commander Shore, getting to declaim "Stand by for action! We are about to launch — Stingray!" over the exploding, all-action opening titles, continuing with "Anything can happen in the next half-hour" (unfortunately, loads of people, especially in pub conversations, think that was said in Thunderbirds). Showing his vocal versatility, he switched to a cut-glass, upper-class English accent for the villainous undersea ruler King Titan; his pronunciation of Titan's command "Mechanical fish!" always sticks in my mind. As John Bluthal, Charles Tingwell and others had found, the Andersons liked using Australian actors as voice artists, considering that they were better at the all-important transatlantic accents than their British counterparts, and Barrett would be called on again for their most famous series, Thunderbirds (ATV/ITC, 1965-66).

It's easy to laugh at the puppets' awkward way of walking, and to point out the repetitive nature of the plots, but... something about the Tracy family's rescue missions, especially the launching sequences, and the countdowns—synchronised to Barry Gray's staccato-rhythm scores—to saving lives before everything explodes, give the series a charm and charisma all of its own. Barrett voiced John Tracy, manning the space station Thunderbird Five, after taking a liking to the puppet on his initial visit to the studios in Slough, and the bald, vaguely Oriental villain The Hood; more than a few British characters waiting for International Rescue, saying things like, "It's... got to work! It's... just got to!" sound like his work as well. However, few could have recognised his contribution to "The Duchess Assignment", which saw an elderly titled acquaintance of Lady Penelope falling foul of jewel thieves; when Sylvia Anderson (who voiced Lady P herself) and Christine Finn, the series' other voice actress, couldn't manage the right voice, Barrett, of all people, stood in, by doing what he says was an impression of Edith Evans! With the rest of the series' voice cast, and, for some reason, Bob Monkhouse and Cliff Richard, he was on hand for Thunderbirds Are Go! (1966), the Andersons' first feature film, always described as having been a financial failure, although judging by the amount of times it and the sequel Thunderbird 6 (1968), which Barrett was unable to do, were shown in cinemas as children's matinees, in the pre-video days, they must have made their money back eventually. According to interviews with puppet operators, in the 1980s Anderson fan magazine S.I.G., Barrett, alone among the voice cast, actually turned up at the filming sessions a few times and seemed fascinated by the whole process. The only drawback to all this is, in all the times that the rights to the series have changed hands, the voice artists have never received their proper remuneration; Barrett says "The distributors claim to have based our residual payments on a percentage of the original contractual fee. The snag there is that no such original contracts exist!...as far as the actors are concerned, it's a case of Thunderbirds Are Not Go and certainly Not F.A.B."

Barrett somehow found time for films in the middle of all this. Although Fred Zinnemann's The Sundowners (1960), starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, had extensive location filming in Australia, these had been shot after Barrett left his homeland, and several of the interiors were shot in Britain, hence people like Ronald Fraser pretending to be Aussies; Barrett had a small unbilled role in the studio scenes, noting he was in the odd position here of playing a role that, in the location long-shots, had been played by someone else. Several crime dramas for the big screen followed, notably a couple in the Edgar Wallace B series; another monochrome mystery, Jigsaw (1963), was quite well written and directed by Val Guest but, what with Jack Warner as the star, couldn't help but feel like an extended episode of Dixon Of Dock Green.

On TV, his guest roles and one-offs kept coming. He says some of his best work was in a classic serial adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov (BBC, 1964-65), as Mitya, with Jane Asher. The Saint, "The Loving Brothers" (ATV/ITC, 1965), saw the always enjoyable but rarely convincing series at least making some attempt at authenticity for this Australian-set story, with Barrett one of an all-Aussie guest cast including Annette Andre, Ed Devereaux from "The Midas Touch," and Grant Taylor from "Killer," plus "Pandora" and "Bizarre" helmer Leslie Norman, who had worked for Ealing Studios' Australian unit, directing. Norman also directed Gideon's Way, "The Lady Killer" (ATV/ITC, 1965), with Barrett suspected of being a latter-day Bluebeard. Blackmail, "Call Me Friend" (Rediffusion, 1965) was one of yet another anthology series, centering on the theme of... go on, guess! Naked Island (BBC, 1965) was a play, which he had done on stage in 1960, about a group of Australian prisoners-of-war being held by the Japanese; clearly a sombre drama, but Barrett's co-stars were (and are) generally associated with comedy—James Bolam, then one of The Likely Lads, Fulton Mackay and the inevitable Burt Kwouk, seen in "Kill the King," "Lobster Quadrille" and "The Cybernauts." Doctor Who, "The Rescue" (BBC, 1965) was a two-part story, as opposed to the usual Who length of four or six parts per adventure, designed to introduce William Hartnell's Doctor to the fey companion Vicki (Maureen O'Brien), who was being menaced by a horned creature called Koquillion. It didn't take a genius to guess that Koquillion was really Barrett's character in disguise, as he was the only other guest actor; in the first part, Koquillion was billed as being played by "Sydney Wilson", the pseudonym deriving from the series' creators, Donald Wilson and the ubiquitous Sydney Newman. As several Whovian scholars have noted, Barrett's appearance in the show at this time was apt, as it had just started showing on the ABC.

Following Barrett's performance in a play for producer John Elliott, Reunion Day (BBC, 1962), Elliott cast him in Mogul (BBC, 1965), as Peter Thornton, an Australian field agent for the multinational oil company of the title, headed by Geoffrey Keen, ever-present in British films of the 50's and 60's, and later an acolyte of M's in the later Bond films. After its first successful series, the show's title became The Troubleshooters (BBC, 1966-72), although for some reason, it kept the title Mogul when shown in other countries; an episode shown at the National Film Theatre in 1999 had The Troubleshooters on its opening titles, but Mogul on its closing ones! Those opening titles went all out to create a tense mood for the show, with a brassy theme tune by Tom Springfield (brother of the wonderful Dusty) playing over shots of oil gushing forth, things exploding, planes taking off, racing cars, Barrett in a speedboat and Keen coming out of a Rolls, looking every inch the Big Businessman. To be honest, by today's standards, the episodes themselves hardly maintain the same pace; nonetheless, it certainly had a loyal Monday night audience, moving into colour from its 1970 run onwards, and in what was rare for a videotaped drama of the time, travelling to other countries for location filming. That very actor-ish actor Robert Hardy was later added to the regulars, and sometime Avengers director Peter Graham Scott later became producer, while Ridley Scott was given an early chance to direct on some episodes.

Keeping his hand in during this time, Barrett guested in The Man In Room 17, "Lady Luck's No Gentleman" (Granada, 1966), a cerebral detective series starring Denholm Elliott; Till Closing Time Us Do Part (BBC, 1967), one of several celebrities playing themselves in a Till Death Us Do Part special set in a pub, with Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell) making unflattering comments about Barrett's complexion; Barry Humphries' Scandals (BBC, 1970), helping out another Aussie in London with a cameo, as the first Australian on the moon; and Public Eye, "The Bankrupt" (Thames, 1972), a series much-loved by vintage TV fans but never repeated today, in the episode's title role as a busted shirt-maker. And at a time when practically every popular British TV actor felt the need to release an album or two, a practice which was more or less instigated by Edward Woodward (with the most uncharacteristic and notorious contribution to the genre coming from Peter Wyngarde!), Barrett weighed in with a couple of LPs of cover versions in 1969 and 1970, the first reflecting his TV fame with the title No Trouble Now! Also during this time, he acquired a farmhouse on Formentera, an island off the Spanish coast, where he still spends as much time as possible.

In 1976, Barrett went back to Australia to make a commercial, a visit which at the time he assumed would be a well-paid interlude rather than a return home. While there, however, director Bruce Beresford offered him a lead role in the film of David Williamson's play Don's Party (1976), about an acrimonious gathering on the night of an Australian General Election, in which the results don't go as forecast, in every sense of the word; having already done the play, in its London production at the Royal Court, Barrett accepted his boorish role with gusto, even showing more than could be expected in an impromptu swimming scene. Immediately following its completion, Fred Schepisi offered him a key supporting role in The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith (1977), from Thomas Kenneally's novel about a rebellious Aborigine; Barrett not only signed up but, having realised that the Australian film industry had changed greatly since he was last in the country, decided to move back. His role in this as a racist police sergeant earned him an Australian Film Institute Award for Best Supporting Actor; he got another, for Best Actor this time, for Goodbye Paradise (1982), as a former Deputy Commissioner who turns journalist to blow the whistle on politics in Queensland. There was a very quick return to Britain for Golden Soak (Portman, 1979), an adaptation of a Hammond Innes novel which I can dimly remember being shown late at nights on BBC1, then he supported in one of William Holden's last films, The Earthling (1980).

He was personally fond of Sporting Chance (ABC, 1981), a series in which he was a grouchy sports writer, and was disappointed that it only ran for one series. Character parts in films included Where The Green Ants Dream (1984), in some ways a characteristic Werner Herzog film, except that it was made and set in Australia (and there was no sign of Klaus Kinski), Rebel (1985), a co-production with HBO starring the then-hot Matt Dillon, which Barrett thinks ended up looking more like a promo video than a film, and Blood Oath (1990), a war film with the inevitable Bryan Brown. Both Waterfront (10 Network, 1984), about Australian mine workers striking over Italian immigrants, and the WW2-set The Last Bastion (10 Network, 1984) were mini-series in which he co-starred with frequent visitor to Oz Warren Mitchell, while Waiting (1991) and Hotel Sorrento (1995) were both emotional dramas with strong female leads, the latter is not to be confused with Hotel De Love (1996), a romantic comedy in which Barrett also appeared. Dad And Dave; On Our Selection (1995) saw the return of a couple of comic characters from the earliest days of Australian films in the 30's, here somewhat surprisingly played by Leo McKern (on a rare return to his homeland) and future Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, with Barrett again in a featured role. He netted excellent reviews for In The Winter Dark (1998), another character-driven drama with Britain's Brenda Blethyn as his wife.

In an interview in TV Zone in the mid-90s, following the great success of BBC2's re-runs of the Anderson shows (which continue today; they've just started showing Thunderbirds again at the time of writing), Barrett mentioned a recent visit to his grown-up children in London, in which he collected his grandchildren from school and obliged them, and their friends, by bellowing "stand by for action!" in best Commander Shore mode. He added that he'd like to work in Britain again, as after all it's easier to get to from Spain than Australia, but this doesn't seem to have happened so far. He published a self-titled autobiography in 1995, which most of the info for this entry has come from. Still very much active, he's currently a regular in an ensemble drama series, Something In The Air (ABC, 2000), as a local busybody coaching a hopeless soccer team.

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Page last modified: 5 May 2017.

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