What I know about men

Date

Paul Connolly

"Dad believed the arts should bring joy and clarity and empathy and be thought-provoking."

"Dad believed the arts should bring joy and clarity and empathy and be thought-provoking." Photo: James Brickwood

Noni Hazlehurst, actor, 62, single

My father, George, and my brother, Cameron, didn't prepare me well for the world of men. My father was – and Cameron still is – very gentle, loving and kind, and I think I've probably spent the rest of my life trying to find men like them.

My parents and Cameron, who is 12 years older than me, migrated to Australia from the UK in 1950, three years before I was born. We were a tight little family unit of four. Like my mother, Eileen, my father was of his time, and of his nationality. He believed you didn't talk in public about things that were potentially upsetting. So there were family secrets. 

Dad would talk about character and what kind of person he wanted me to be, which exemplified the things he held dear: kindness, empathy, and being of service to others.

My father had been a comedian and singer before World War II – he entertained troops during the war. When he and my mother, who was also a variety performer, realised that I had similar interests, and some talent, they made sure I had a thorough grounding in every major British comedy. They encouraged me to take piano lessons and ballet lessons, and to learn accents and comedy timing.

Advertisement

There was a lot of joy in our lives together, because that is what the arts should do. Dad believed the arts should bring joy and clarity and empathy and be thought-provoking. And he was hysterically funny, loving the ridiculous and the silly; we shared a sense of humour, which drove my mother insane. My brother, too, could make me laugh until I wet the bed.

I think my mother would have preferred me to be like Julie Andrews. When I did films like Monkey Grip [1982], she said at one point, "I wish you could do something I could be proud of," but we were from different generations. Being a teenager in the '60s and early '70s, I was pretty much the wild child, at least in their terms.

I was never one of the cool girls. I was always the clown, the performer. As a young teenager, I just wanted to have a boyfriend other girls envied. I don't think there was any real sense of "Who am I looking for?"

I remember spending lots of time designing my wedding dress and creating floor plans for my dream home; but I put absolutely no thought into what kind of man might be ideal. That's because I assumed that most men were like my brother and father.

I suppose I was just naive. Obviously, it had been pointed out to me that some men – and women – were horrible, but I assumed I would have the sense to weed those people out. I guess I was unprepared for agendas and the masks that so many people put up. I think women, in general, are more prepared to be open and honest than a lot of men. Men have more facades that they feel the need to hide behind.

I was 21 when I first married, which was ridiculous, and turned out very badly. It shook me for a long time. Then when I was 35, I married [actor] John [Jarratt] and we had two beautiful boys [Charlie, now 27, and William, 21]. We did Better Homes and Gardens [on TV] together for five years, which was based around our family life. But ultimately, two actors together wasn't the greatest combination and sadly we split up, but with the beautiful legacy of our sons. 

The hardest thing about having boys is keeping them alive. Until you're 25, you don't assess risk as risk, you see it as challenge. It was a great challenge for me to let them fall, to let them crash. 

The big shock was that they fell into so many male stereotypes as they got older. They did become monosyllabic in their teens, and I found that threatening at the time. Having children, you suddenly see influences that you feel are detrimental to them. But you can't stop them; you have to try to contextualise these influences for them. You try and say, "Okay, this is of interest to you, so let's see what this actually means; what are the ramifications of the attraction you feel?"

The boys have taught me many things, including how destructive judgement can be. Like a lot of young people, they've been through anxiety and depression, and they've been very honest and open about it. And I am incredibly proud of the work they've done on themselves and in helping their peers.

Now that they are men, not boys, I think they're really gentle, loving and kind. But I have seen them struggle with the pressure of feeling powerless like so many young men – and women – do.

It used to be a badge of honour for the boys to wind me up. When Charlie was about eight and I was in the heyday of Play School, people used to come up to me and tell me how fabulous I was. Charlie would ask me, "Why do people think you're so wonderful?" And I'd say, "Because they don't know me like you do," and he would reply, accepting of that, "Oh, right."

Noni Hazlehurst stars in A Place to Call Home on Foxtel's SoHo channel.