She thinks he's a hard taskmaster; he describes her as untamed. After 25 years of marriage, Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown are still a combustible couple, writes Stephanie Wood.
When Nell Campbell first saw Rachel Ward, it was across a crowded room and her thoughts were uncharitable. "I thought she was just another stunning aristo-girl, good-time girl." It was London, the wild and heady '70s, around the time Campbell, aka Little Nell, was putting on a sequinned top hat and bow tie to play Columbia in the first production of The Rocky Horror Show.
Ward ran with a party crowd and Campbell thinks it might have been at one of theatrical impresario Michael White's fabled shindigs that she met the art-school drop-out, model and niece of an earl. Indeed, among snapshots in White's celebrity-studded photo albums is one of a young and ravishing Ward, naked but for a small white towel clutched over breasts and belly, doubled over with laughter, tongue stuck out. White shared his albums with a London newspaper last year and the saucy pic is among candid shots of his crowd - the likes of Polanski, Jagger, de Niro. Ward would go on to New York, where she modelled and dated David Kennedy, the troubled, drug-addled son of the assassinated senator Bobby Kennedy, then to Hollywood in the '80s for a sprinkling of largely forgettable roles.
It would be three decades before Campbell would fully discover how wrong her early impressions of Ward were. "There's so much more to Rachel than what you see," says Campbell, now an ardent admirer and friend. "Getting to know her - it's peeling away the onion skins."
In August, a little more of Ward will be exposed with the release of Beautiful Kate - her first feature-length outing behind the camera. The film, co-starring Bryan Brown, her husband of 25 years with whom she famously hooked up on the set of The Thorn Birds in the early '80s, removes her even further from any lingering images of privilege - of "parties, cads and gossips", as she once described things. The powerful story of isolation and alienation shot in the Flinders Ranges, which Ward both wrote and directed, also speaks volumes about her relationship with her adopted country.
"I feel English a lot when I'm here and very Australian when I go back home to England - I'm always an outsider a little bit in both," says Ward. "But as a writer and a filmmaker, it's a positive place to be in because I've always got a little bit of an outsider's perspective ... about what sells Australia to the world. The outback and the frontier land has never lost its exoticism to me."
Brown remembers his then girlfriend's first day in Australia: he picked her up at Tullamarine Airport and drove straight into country Victoria where he was filming. "She was in raptures about it. I remember her going, 'Oh my God, this is wonderful.'"
Spend some time online and there's much you can learn about Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown. You'd certainly find that in the '80s, Ward was named one of the world's 10 most beautiful women. You might also turn up a site about the British peerage that would outline her aristocratic connections and show that her great-grandfather, the second Earl of Dudley, was the fourth governor-general of Australia and that, before he married, Ward's father was part of Princess Margaret's set. You might see photographs of Cornwell Manor, the huge estate on the edge of the Cotswolds where Ward grew up with her younger sister and brother, Tracy and Alexander. You would discover that Tracy is a fascinating character, too: an actor who married the Marquess of Worcester, heir to the palatial Badminton House in Gloucestershire, and who has become a fierce environmental campaigner - an "eco-toff", according to The Times - who rides a pushbike around London and recently made a documentary about the horrors of commercial pig farming.
About Brown, you might discover that he was working for an insurance company when he got involved with amateur theatre in the '60s; that he plucked up the courage to quit his job and go to England, where he landed at the National Theatre. You'd find a list of his parts in a squadron of iconic Australian films - the latest as a dying father in Beautiful Kate - and as the archetypal laconic Aussie in international releases. You could read about his work developing and producing Australian films, including Beautiful Kate, as founder of New Town Films. And you'd learn that he married his bride in 1983 in a little church in Oxfordshire, transported her to the northern beaches and fathered her three children - Rose, 24, Matilda, 22, and Joe, 16.
But none of that will tell you what beguiling company Ward and Brown make. Sit with them on the veranda of their 170-year-old sandstone and sea-green-shuttered Balmain home - scattered with weathered antique tables, squatters' chairs, sofas draped with old quilts, a mounted deer skull and horns - and you might long to become a part of this family and its substantial, richly textured life.
With Brown, there's an odd shock of the familiar, like catching up with an old friend and realising time is slipping away. In a Flying Burrito Bros T-shirt and battered R.M. Williams boots, he's older and greyer than you might imagine but also more handsome. At 62, he says he's surfing more than ever - up the north coast past Kempsey or at local beaches, often with Joe. "I know that very soon I'm not going to be able to do it, so therefore I may as well enjoy it while I can," says Brown. "My recuperative powers aren't as strong; a big surf knocks me around a bit."
And, of course, his 51-year-old wife is a captivating, charismatic presence - lean in jeans and green velvet jacket, tousled curls, bone structure to take up arms for,
a trace of sauciness in a little tattoo of a bird on her right forearm (done to mark daughter Matilda's move to university and inspired by a scrawl in Matilda's diary). Her speech is all rounded vowels and fruity language and she has a disconcerting habit of looking away as she talks, down over the top of her glasses to the floorboards or across to the stretch of green that runs down to the harbour.
Her attention snaps back, though, when an unexpected visitor strolls onto the veranda. "What are you doing here?" she cries, leaping up. It's Sam Neill, apologising for the interruption and man-hugging Brown. The actor comes bearing a gift for his old friends - a framed caricature of Brown by Herald artist John Shakespeare, published earlier this year. "You know I tried to get this," says Brown. "I got it first," says Neill. "You bastard - how great. Look what he gave me," says Brown, holding it up for his wife to see.
For locals, the couple are part of the furniture - you might spot them queuing for coffee at Bertoni, getting groceries in Woolies. Ward, who was filmed on this veranda for a video in support of Patrice Newell's Climate Change Coalition before the last election, often grabs her bike from a shed just inside the front gate and pedals up to Balmain shopping village. "I think we've been here long enough, people have seen us enough that they're bored shitless with us - 'Them, yet again,'" says Ward. "People don't make a fuss." Brown, who sometimes commutes in his boat from home to his East Balmain office, shrugs: "You've got to buy your food."
If locals look upon them with affection, friends lean towards idolatry. "As my experience of him went on, [I found] he was one of the most generous people in the world and he married the most generous person in the world," says barrister-around-town and occasional film producer Charles Waterstreet, who met Brown in the early '80s in a "weird situation" in which the two then "eligible bachelors" took visiting American actor Marisa Berenson to dinner. These days, he often lunches with Ward at Bambini Trust in the city or Fratelli Paradiso in Potts Point. They share, he says, "alleged artistic sensibilities" and discuss projects, films they've seen. "If I had to describe Rachel, she is sensitive, silly, serious, ravishing, long-suffering, solid as Uluru."
Waterstreet offers a glimpse of Ward and Brown's social life. At Balmain, he says, they host "tremendously great social occasions" attended by a roll-call of luminaries - British actor Richard E. Grant, Cate Blanchett and her husband, Andrew Upton, Environment Minister Peter Garrett, former Wallaby George Gregan, Nicole Kidman. "Bryan loves a barbecue," says Waterstreet. "Chops and sausages."
At their farm near Macksville on the north coast, meanwhile, "you're just as likely to meet a timber cutter as Nicole", adds Waterstreet, who shares the tantalising information that on the back of the couple's toilet door is a genealogical chart showing Ward's links to Henry VIII, Winston Churchill and Princess Di, among others.
"I worship at her shrine," says Nell Campbell, only half joking. Ward would come to be a saviour of sorts for Campbell, an actor who became a New York nightclub owner in the '80s. Moving back to Sydney five years ago with her young daughter, Campbell struggled to adjust. Ward invited her to lunch, went out of her way to introduce her to people. "She knew how hard it was ... it was like starting over.
I cannot say enough how much I appreciate that."
Campbell offers an insider's view of an elemental part of Ward's life - her love for the bush. "We go on these marvellous walks together ... up around the Hawkesbury," says Campbell, who remembers a day Ward kayaked across the harbour from Balmain, towing a second kayak for Campbell who was waiting at Greenwich.
Every second Friday for the past few years, Ward and a composer friend have left the city for what she calls an "adventure trip" - kayaking, cycling or hiking (see box, page 30). "I've done about 60 of them now and never repeated one," she says. "It's just getting out in the wilderness a bit. What's so extraordinary about Sydney is that in half an hour you can be in some incredible national park."
Last year, Ward spent two weeks horse-riding in the foothills of the Andes in northern Patagonia. In an article for The Spectator Australia, published last November, she wrote of lakes, snow-capped mountains and glacial river valleys. And, uncharacteristically, of the shopping: "... entering the arrivals concourse at Sydney airport, dressed in black sombrero, a patterned poncho, waving madly and pushing three suitcases (when I'd left with only one), my husband, mistaking me for some insane Patagonian gypsy, didn't recognise me until I'd all but run him over".
All indications are, that one way or another, Ward has been bowling Brown over since they met on The Thorn Birds set. But the pair's great love affair has been famously fiery - "not just ups and downs but volcanos and tsunamis", declares Waterstreet. A newcomer might find the couple's jousting discomfiting, as during this exchange about the process of writing the Beautiful Kate script:
Brown: "I was a constant ear. She'd say, 'Read this, read this,' and I'd go, 'Mmm, yeah, OK, well, it's not there yet.'"
Ward: "He was a very tough taskmaster."
Brown: "I don't know any other ... way to be about it..."
Ward: "The hard thing is, Bryan never questions whether he's right or not. He's always in a position of rightness."
Brown: "No, that's not true. What I do is I give my opinion. I go, 'For me, it's not there yet.'"
Ward: "Something like this is also very subjective."
Brown (with what seems to be genuine irritation): "Well, fine, well then, ask someone else."
Beautiful Kate co-producer Leah Churchill-Brown often found herself in the middle of their rows. "We'd have meetings and they'd scream at each other," says Churchill-Brown. "I was the piggy in the middle ... the mediator."
When the garrulous Brown describes his wife as "untamed", the only surprise is in the intimacy of the revelation. While Ward is candid - she once described Brown as "a good root" - he lets only a few personal details slip: that his salesman father "wasn't around when I was growing up" (his late mother, Molly, cleaned houses to make ends meet). That as a child, he had such dreadful stage fright in an eisteddfod that three times he got up on stage, opened his mouth and nothing came out.
No doubt there are times Brown would prefer that nothing came out of his wife's mouth. Lounging on a sofa with her brown boots slung up over the arm, she's talking now about England and how she has come to embrace her privilege, in the most English sense of that word, rather than shunning it as she once did. She's also talking about her father, Peter, and his death early last year. "In true British primogeniture form I was not left a picture or a book or a nothing," she says, as Brown tries to shush her. "It is a bizarre, bizarre system and it still exists ... I don't want anything but it is extraordinary that you can have a family of that many [Ward also has two half-brothers] and the eldest brother was left everything."
Ward has spoken in the past about her dismay that her mother was left nothing when her companion died in 2006. For nearly four decades, Claire Ward, said to be 1954's most beautiful debutante, lived with the notoriously louche Lord Lambton in a sprawling 17th-century villa near Siena where they hosted guests including Prince Charles. Lambton had quit the British parliament in 1973 after photographs of him naked in bed with two prostitutes, smoking dope, were published. According to a 2007 Daily Mail report, after his death, Claire was forced to leave the Tuscan estate to make way for Lambton's son and returned to England, devastated.
Peter and Claire Ward separated when Rachel was young and it seems that her relationship with her father was a distant one - "I mean, I saw him once every 18 months and he wasn't a great communicator." Brown jumps to his defence: "I liked her father a lot. He was of a time and a certain [place] ... I always felt for her father." Ward snorts derisively as Brown continues: "No, I did, I mean ... he lost his mum early. Those things are so affecting, so affecting. When you lose someone early, to survive you cut off certain emotional things ... it hurts too much, so you pull back."
It's tempting to interpret Brown's sympathy for his late father-in-law as that of someone who also lost a parent at a young age but there's more to it than that. For years now, Ward and Brown have mentored troubled young people: "I mean you come back to a couple of boys we know that we're trying to help - it all comes back down to that early family stuff," says Brown. In a spirit of noblesse oblige, Ward has helped to raise more than $4 million for mentoring and family support programs over the years.
Brown is reluctant to talk about it - "You give a bit of help where you can." But Charles Waterstreet is happy to elaborate. "They're unbelievable," he says. "Not only do they raise hundreds of thousands a year ... they take [children] into their homes." Waterstreet says that over the past five years, the couple has had kids staying with them half the time. "By osmosis, [the children] learn what good family life is ... they have them up at their farm, interact with their kids, the whole family is a sort of roving St Vincent de Paul."
In her journey from quaint English countryside to the South Australian outback, Rachel Ward has had her challenges: shaking off what she long felt to be the shackles of her aristocratic past, coming to terms with her embarrassment at her role in the melodrama that was The Thorn Birds and railing against her "sexual objectification" in Hollywood.
"If you don't want to be that person, you get out of Hollywood," she says. And she did - but not before she'd demanded that flesh-heavy photographic plates destined to be used for a New York magazine cover in the early '80s were broken. "I'd had a contract that there'd be no bathing suits, no breasts," says Ward, who adds that Anna Wintour, then fashion editor of the magazine (now the editor-in-chief of American Vogue), has never forgiven her.
At some point, perhaps with Ward's shift from Hollywood sex symbol to northern beaches mum in the '80s, there was a metamorphosis from carefree beauty to driven woman of substance. And Brown's influence has been pivotal. "He was 10 years older than me; he had an incredible core value system," she says. "My father was interested in power and success and position. His thing was, 'What do you need an education for? You should marry someone rich.' His thing was not really the value system that helps you when you're freefalling in Hollywood. Girls like me get in a lot of trouble."
With the release of Beautiful Kate, there's no question that Ward has become a person to be reckoned with. "It's unbelievably thrilling; it's been a very long journey for me just to be able to feel I have the authority to direct a feature film." Based on a novel by American author Newton Thornburg, Beautiful Kate tells the story of Ned Kendall (Ben Mendelsohn), who returns to the isolated family property to farewell his dying father (Brown), cared for by his sister Sally (Rachel Griffiths). Through flashbacks to Ned's childhood with his twin, Kate (Sophie Lowe), confronting family secrets emerge. Some might find the film and its themes of sexual awakening dark - and indeed Ward found some inspiration for her "gothic love story" in the photographs of Bill Henson.
Leah Churchill-Brown first read Ward's script in 2006 on her return from Cannes with the award-winning Suburban Mayhem. "I thought, 'Whoa, this is quite dark,' yet it wasn't dark because it was a story of reconciliation and hope."
Brown is immeasurably proud of his wife's achievement. Most people, he reflects, would still think of her as Meggie in The Thorn Birds but "that's a 25-year-old girl and here's a 50-year-old woman". You can't just make a feature film on a whim, he says. "Someone's got to go, 'Here's seven million bucks,' or Rachel Griffiths or Ben Mendelsohn saying, 'Yeah, I'll do it.' Let alone the fact of being able to write a story that actually smells emotionally true and is interesting."
He's warming to his subject now. "The journey that people go to get to somewhere ... it's never whimsical, it's actually substantial in that you've got to have guts and you've got to have learnt things." Brown pauses for a moment, deep in thought. "It's always dangerous ... that is quite an interesting journey."
Lane Cove River kayak
Kayak from near the mouth of Lane Cove River to the weir just past Fullers Bridge at the start of Lane Cove National Park and back - about 16km (launch from Angelo Street Reserve, Woolwich). "Lots of local river life, wilderness and quiet spots with waterbird life. Great picnic spots on river beaches." (If you don't have your own kayak, Jolly Roger Kayaks can meet you at the launching spot on the river with kayaks, life jackets, instructions and maps for $55 for four hours. Phone: 0433 547 449; www.jollyrogerkayaks.com.au.)
Cycle to Cottage Point
Ride your bike from Terrey Hills to Cottage Point Kiosk ("My favourite cafe in Sydney - it's simple and cheap and there's always freshly caught fish for lunch"). Take Coal and Candle Drive, then descend Cottage Point Road. After lunch, a short but arduous climb brings you back to Coal and Candle Drive. Turn left and continue to the river. Take the steepish hills back via Akuna Bay and the water's edge up West Head Road and McCarrs Creek Road to Terrey Hills. Look out for freshwater pools along the way. A ride for the fit and the brave.
Palm Beach to Pearl Beach
Take the ferry from Palm Beach to Patonga (check www.sydneysceniccruises.com for timetable or 9974 2159) and walk along the cliffs to Pearl Beach (about an hour's walk). "There are great views across to Palm Beach and Lion Island. Pearl Beach General Store & Cafe is a funky spot set back from the water at Pearl Beach."
Middle Harbour kayak
Kayak from Seaforth to Roseville Bridge and back (about 16km) "to see lots of authentic waterside communities and old, wooden shacks - among hideous, inappropriate new developments". Kayak hire available at the Mosman side of the Spit Bridge. Phone: 9960 4389; www.sydneyharbourkayaks.com.au.
Walk through Botany Bay National Park
Drive out to the Kurnell Peninsula, park inside the national park off Captain Cook Drive and start walking: around the headland, past Captain Cook's landing site, to Cronulla. "The walk takes you past Boat Harbour, a little-known, shabby-chic beach town, aquatic reserves and sand dunes." About a four-hour walk. Veolia Transport's bus route 987 runs from Cronulla to Kurnell (only three services on Sundays).