Saturday 23 June 2018

Obituary: Cornelia Frances

UK-born actor who appeared in several Australian soap operas and hosted 'The Weakest Link' game show

SOAP STAR: Cornelia Frances, who starred in Australian drama ‘Home and Away’ as the antagonistic lawyer Morag Bellingham, pictured with co-star Ray Meagher
SOAP STAR: Cornelia Frances, who starred in Australian drama ‘Home and Away’ as the antagonistic lawyer Morag Bellingham, pictured with co-star Ray Meagher

Cornelia Frances, who died last Tuesday aged 77, was an English-born actress who emigrated to Australia in 1970 as a "10 pound Pom" and became known for her role as the antagonistic lawyer Morag Bellingham in the television soap opera Home and Away; she also presented the Australian version of The Weakest Link.

She was first seen as Morag Bellingham in 1988, although her appearances were sporadic and would often take place when one of the characters was in legal trouble. Nevertheless, she had her own storylines, including giving up her child for adoption, surviving an aeroplane crash at sea and, as a judge, presiding over a sexual assault trial.

Although she played the role for 29 years, Cornelia Frances found the intermittent nature of her work "very unsettling" and would use media interviews to demand a permanent slot.

She also broke new ground in 1995 with her sympathetic portrayal of a transgender character called Lindy in the ABC drama So Like a Woman. "It was challenging to be believable, and to understand what a transsexual goes through," she said, adding: "I hope that I can convey... a bit of an idea about what can happen."

She was born Cornelia Frances Zulver in Liverpool on April 7, 1941, and educated at a Catholic boarding school. She trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and had uncredited roles in Peeping Tom (1960) and The Queen's Guards (1961), both directed by her uncle Michael Powell.

In 1965 she visited Australia with her boyfriend, where she became the first woman to read the television news on Channel 9 in Perth. They returned to England, married and then migrated permanently in 1970 under the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme.

Stage appearances in Perth evolved to presenting television shows. The tough and acidic personality for which Cornelia Frances became famous was first seen in 1976 in the popular soap opera The Young Doctors, in which she played Sister Grace Scott, basing her character on Sister Sebastian, the strictest person at her school. "You couldn't speak, and you couldn't do this, and you couldn't talk then, and you had to pray a lot," she said in 2001. She was also seen in Sons and Daughters (1982-86). All these Australian series gained followings when broadcast in Britain.

After her first stint on Home and Away ended in 1989, work dried up. She returned to England for a couple of seasons in pantomime, and by the mid-1990s was working in the customer relations department of the wine company Cellarmasters.

Salvation came in 2001 when Channel Seven in Melbourne offered her an audition for the "Anne Robinson role" in the Australian version of The Weakest Link.

As in the British version, under-pressure contestants came out with some unlikely answers. One of her favourites was a player who hazarded a guess that Noah's Ark had come to rest on Mount Kosciuszko (Australia's highest mountain); she responded by asking the contestant if he thought that Moses had parted the waters of Sydney Harbour. When another contender shot off an unthinking response to a question about which girl's name had become popular through Peter Pan, she suggested that he might take all the women he knew called Tinkerbell to dinner.

In 2011 Cornelia Frances, known for her flaming red hair, became an ambassador for "Redheads for Redheads", a campaign by the Australian Orangutan Project to raise awareness of the endangered species.

She insisted that she hardly resembled her on-screen personality, adding: "I'm forthright. I'm impatient. I hate inefficiency. I don't suffer fools gladly... But a bitch? No."

Cornelia Frances married Michael Eastland in 1969. They later separated and she is survived by their son.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment