A lifelong storyteller
Judy Nunn’s childhood prepared her well for life as a storyteller.
Whether it was fishing with big brother Rob in the Swan River close to their home in Perth or skimming the ocean at giddy speeds in a skiff built by her father, it was a childhood brimming with adventure and discovery.
“I was a tomboy,” Judy says. “Mine was an idyllic childhood. Our home was on the banks of the beautiful Swan River. Rob and I grew up swimming and boating and crabbing and prawning and diving for the mussels.”
Judy’s father Bob, an agriculturist, liked to introduce his children to new experiences and sometimes took them with him on work trips to remote parts of Western Australia. Judy was a natural born explorer, curious, brave, up for any challenge.
“My most vivid memory of a trip north with Dad and Rob was a cattle station called Boollalloo, where I first learned to ride. I was ten years old and a wonderful Aboriginal stockman called Jackie put me through my paces on one of the two fat house ponies reserved for beginners (they were named Seldom Awake and Fast Asleep)… Jackie taught me that if I was to fall off, I must always hold onto the reins. ‘It’s a bloody long walk home,’ he’d say, and he wasn’t wrong.”
Judy had one persistent problem in those early years: she couldn’t see anything beyond a short distance. Until she was eventually diagnosed at age 10, she found creative ways to keep the problem to herself.
“I became a very clever little fibber,” she says. “If my mother pointed out something in the distance from the verandah of our home overlooking the water, I’d join in the conversation as if I could see it, guessing and making it up as I went.”
Judy’s other strategy was to escape. She retreated into reading.
“Books became my life. I loved The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne. It made me believe that one day, I could be an author.”
If Judy’s father was her hero, then mother Nancy was her greatest influence. At a time when it was unusual for married women to have careers, Nancy Nunn worked as a schoolteacher and was also heavily involved in Perth’s acting and theatre scene.
“She was a schoolteacher and a very good one, but her great love was the theatre. To me, she was always an actress, and from my earliest days that’s what I decided I wanted to be – as well as a writer, but that would come later.”
Judy began taking acting classes as a teenager. Shortly before her 19th birthday, she moved to Sydney to begin seriously pursuing her acting ambitions. From there, she moved to London for a five-year stint, finding success in everything from Shakespeare productions, BBC Radio plays and television shows.
When she returned to Sydney in 1973, the Australian theatre and film industry was booming. Films like Picnic At Hanging Rock and The Chant of Jimmy Blackmsith were filling cinemas. A young playwright named David Williamson was preparing a new production and Judy stepped straight into the role of posh, plummy Jodie in Don’s Party.
“It was exciting to have a part in a new Australian play, telling a story that Australians could relate to. It was after that I knew I was going to stay here.”
Over the next decade, Judy was a familiar face on Australian TV, with roles in iconic shows like Prisoner, Sons and Daughters, and The Box. In that show, her character initiated television’s first lesbian kiss.
“That famous kiss, it was so tame, honestly. We got the giggles filming it,” she says. “There was a lot of nudity in the show and I wasn’t at all modest. I had no compunctions about working with no clothes on. But I was fussy about what went to air and I had a clause inserted in my contract, no side shots or full frontal. Shots from behind were fine… In those days I had a nice backside.
“Acting of course taught me everything about character and dialogue. Actors are continually required to explore characters and relationships. In my books, I very much enjoy writing dialogue, I find it comes naturally, and no matter how important my story may be, I concentrate on making it character driven.”
Judy’s transition as a storyteller, from actress to writer, began with a casual conversation at a party in the early 1980s that led to a job writing for a new TV series called Neighbours.
Of course, this would not be the last long-running TV soap to host the talents of Judy Nunn. In 1988, she was among the original cast of Home & Away, starring as Ailsa Hogan (later Ailsa Stewart) in a role she would continue for 13 years.
“The Home and Away writers handed me the first of many surprises very early on in the show. I'd been playing Ailsa as the nice, no-nonsense, strong woman the script purported her to be, when six months down the track it was discovered by all, including me, that Ailsa had a secret past. It turned out she'd killed her father and had gone to jail for manslaughter. Apparently Dad was a drunk who'd been attacking Mum with a bottle, so eighteen-year-old Ailsa had stabbed him to death. I might have played her differently if I'd known her history. But then, perhaps not,” Judy says.
“I was also surprised to later discover that Ailsa had a brother who was a psycho, and a sister who had a daughter, who was played by Dannii Minogue.”
It was storytelling with short, sharp twists and constant cliffhangers and Judy was fascinated.
“I deeply admire the mental gymnastics that soap writers have to go through. I learned a lot from some very good ones. They taught me structure,” she says.
“From a writer’s point of view, Home & Away was a very simple and very clever concept. The situation of a family that fostered children kept the show from being bogged down. There were new kids with new problems, and they came with new storylines that could be taken anywhere.
“I embraced the role of Ailsa wholeheartedly, but after a while I found I needed an extra challenge, another creative outlet. That’s when the books started to take over.
“I wrote four books while I was still doing Home and Away,” she says. “When we were either burying or marrying someone on the show, Then they’d yell, ‘Action!’ and I’d sit in the scene and cry with happiness or sadness.”
Another memorable TV experience was Judy’s appearance on This Is Your Life – a program that would catch notable figures unawares and rush them into a studio for a spontaneous taping.
"It's a nerve-wracking experience, and I went through the actual show that night in a sort of a haze. I was a bit overwhelmed certainly, but for the most part all I could think of was, ‘Is this good television? Could audiences possibly be finding this interesting?’ When the show went to air several months later, tons of people told me they really enjoyed it, and I do hope so. It's difficult to be objective when you're dealing with your own life.”
Today, with over one million copies of her books sold worldwide, Judy Nunn is one of Australia’s most successful authors. In 2015 she was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her "significant service to the performing arts as a scriptwriter and actor of stage and screen, and to literature as an author.” She writes her bestsellers from her home office, a dedicated room in the Queenslander-style house she shares with husband Bruce Venables. They met on a blind date in 1985.
“Bruce was an ex-cop from Tasmania with a fascinating past, he'd served in the Royal Hong Kong Police Force in the seventies, and he was not only attractive and interesting, he was a very funny man. He’d switched careers in the eighties, he became a successful actor and writer.” Bruce now has four clever thrillers and a book of poetry to his name.
“He's what you call ‘a natural,’ with a wonderful singing voice to boot. We help each other hugely with our writing, which is an enviable situation to many of our writer friends who know what a lonely profession it can be.”
When Bruce suggested marriage in 1987, Judy was wary.
“My two other serious relationships had bombed out after two years and I wasn't sure how I'd go in the long term. I nervously asked a friend of mine who'd married his partner of long standing whether it had affected their relationship and he said, 'Oh yes, we used to drink out of glass, we now drink out of crystal' - meaning it had added a sparkle. My friend was right, I like being married. Well - to Bruce, anyway.”