Carol Raye, British-born comedy star who emigrated to Australia and hit the big time with The Mavis Bramston Show – obituary

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Carol Raye backstage prior to performing a song in the variety show Fun and Games at the Princes Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, August 1941 - Smith/Popperfoto via Getty Images
Carol Raye backstage prior to performing a song in the variety show Fun and Games at the Princes Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, August 1941 - Smith/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Carol Raye, who has died aged 99, was a popular star of musical comedy shows and films in the UK during the war and the immediate postwar period; then in the early 1960s she moved to Australia, where she became a household name as the creator and co-presenter of The Mavis Bramston Show (1964-68), an Aussie version of That Was the Week That Was.

“Mavis Bramston” was a derogatory nickname for the sort of often C-grade British actors and actresses who in the postwar years were imported to star in Australian productions, even though there were perfectly good local performers available (an example of what Australians refer to as “cultural cringe”). It was brave of Carol Raye to agree to the name.

The joke of the satirical sketch series was that its titular “star” was so hopeless that she had been fired before the first episode went on air, though she none the less popped up from time to time (played by various actresses) in enormous hat, black wig and false eyelashes.

As well as developing the concept for the weekly series (shown first on ATN-7 in Sydney and Canberra before being broadcast nationally on the Seven network from early 1965), Carol Raye recruited its cast and scriptwriters, co-produced the pilot and many early episodes and, with Gordon Chater and Barry Creyton, formed its first presentation team.

The Mavis Bramston Show was an immediate ratings hit, gaining almost 60 per cent of Australia’s television audience and winning the 1965 Logie Award for Best New Show.

“We were told Qantas pilots tried to arrange their rosters to be home on Wednesday nights,” Carol Raye recalled. “ATN was asked by Canberra shopkeepers to re-schedule the programme as Wednesday was late-night shopping and everyone was staying home!”

Carol Raye left the series in mid-1965, however, finding the pressures of juggling television work with bringing up three children too exhausting. Her place was taken by another British star, Miriam Karlin, previously famous as the chain-smoking shop steward in the BBC sitcom The Rag Trade.

Carol Raye was a professional name; she was born Kathleen Mary Corkery in London on January 17 1923. Her father was a commander in the Royal Navy.

Dance producer Freddie Carpenter trains Carol Raye on his day's leave from the RAF, August 1941 - George W Hales/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty
Dance producer Freddie Carpenter trains Carol Raye on his day's leave from the RAF, August 1941 - George W Hales/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty

She trained as a ballet dancer and was discovered aged 16 by the choreographer and producer Freddie Carpenter. She also showed herself to be a gifted singer.

She made her West End debut in January 1940 in Stanley Lupino’s “gay musical show” Funny Side Up, at His Majesty’s, singing popular songs of the First World War and giving, according to the Telegraph reviewer, “a good impression of Elsie Janis” (the “sweetheart” of American troops in the war).

In 1941, braving air raid warnings, she triumphed in her first starring role in Douglas Furber’s Fun and Games at the Prince’s Theatre. The Telegraph’s critic W A Darlington, for one, was smitten: “She had not been on the stage 10 seconds before one realised how beautifully she moved. She has that strange, indefinable quality which catches the attention and holds it riveted… I defy you to take your eyes off her when she dances.”

In 1943 she starred with Arthur Askey in Love Racket, a Jack Hylton musical comedy, at the Victoria Palace Theatre, W A Darlington observing that she had “a grace of movement all her own and has come on notably as a singer and actress”.

In Spring Song at the Astoria in 1946 she was a soubrette with whom an aristocrat falls in love. “Like Becky Sharp in charades she frolics about the stage with all the innocence of theatrical youth,” observed the anonymous Telegraph reviewer, “taking with her a reminiscence, but little more, of Jessie Matthews.”

In 1949 she was a lady-in-waiting in Sir Alan Herbert and Vivian Ellis’s light operetta Tough at the Top (Adelphi) and in 1950 she was “charming” in the title role of Dear Miss Phoebe, a musical based on the play Quality Street by J M Barrie at the Phoenix Theatre.

Felix Aylmer, Robert Beatty and Carol Raye In Green Fingers, 1947 - alamy
Felix Aylmer, Robert Beatty and Carol Raye In Green Fingers, 1947 - alamy

Her film career began with Strawberry Roan (1945), in which she played a city girl whose failure to adapt to country life after marrying a farmer (William Hartnell) ends in tragedy. She scored a UK box office hit as the love-struck Empress Maria in Waltz Time (1945), a musical set in imperial Vienna, while in Spring Song (1946) she looked back at the significance and history of a brooch she had been given by a serviceman admirer.

The same year, in John Harlow’s bizarre Green Fingers, she was the wife who stands by her husband, a fisherman-turned- unqualified medical practitioner (Robert Beatty), after his affair with a patient (Nova Pilbeam) ends in her suicide.

In the same director’s While I Live (1947), equally daft but popular in its day, she played a pianist suffering from amnesia whom Sonia Dresdel’s Cornishwoman believes to be the reincarnation of her sister who died after sleepwalking off a cliff.

Carol Raye (left) and Judy McBurney preparing for the 1977 production of The Pleasure of his Company - Peter John Moxham/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Carol Raye (left) and Judy McBurney preparing for the 1977 production of The Pleasure of his Company - Peter John Moxham/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

In 1945 Carol Raye married Clark Spencer, an American GI, but the marriage did not last, and in 1951 she married Robert Ayre-Smith, a veterinarian and agricultural scientist.

In 1952 her husband was appointed as a livestock specialist in the Rift Valley in Kenya, where he developed a research station. As Carol Raye wrote later, “being a dutiful wife what could I do but pack up and follow?”

Once there, she recalled, “I was fully occupied raising three children and coping with such unexpected events as the Mau Mau Emergency”, though she found time to star in Alastair Scobie’s No Rain at Timburi (1954) as the wife of a district commissioner who joins him in Kenya and encounters trouble with the locals.

Back in Britain in the mid-1950s, she appeared at the Arts Theatre in Tom Taylor’s melodrama The Ticket-of-Leave-Man, as the good-hearted street singer who helps an innocent ex-convict get back on to his feet.

She also did a BBC producer-director course, and when her husband’s work took them to Nairobi in 1961, she spent two years producing and directing for the newly founded Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.

Carol Raye practising her singing, circa 1955 - Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Carol Raye practising her singing, circa 1955 - Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Before emigrating to Australia in 1964, Carol Raye asked friends in London for contacts in Australian television. This led to an introduction to James Oswin, general manager of ATN-7, who appointed her his assistant in “Matters of Live Programming”, with a remit to come up with ideas for new programmes.

She recalled that when she first came up with the idea for an Australian version of TW3 Oswin was sceptical. “He said, ‘The trouble with you, Carol, is that you’re too BBC. I’m not sure that Australians are ready to laugh at themselves’. ’’ But they were.

As well as The Mavis Bramston Show, she had roles on Australian panel shows and soaps, most notably Number 96, in which she played a much-married socialite, Baroness Amanda von Pappenburg. She continued to appear in television and stage productions until the turn of the century.

She was appointed to the Order of Australia “for service to the performing arts as an actress and producer” a week before her death.

Carol Raye’s husband died in 2006 and she is survived by their two daughters and a son.

Carol Raye, born January 17 1923, died June 18 2022

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