The Sydney Morning Herald from Sydney, New South Wales on March 5, 2001 · Page 49
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The Sydney Morning Herald from Sydney, New South Wales · Page 49

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Location:
Sydney, New South Wales
Issue Date:
Monday, March 5, 2001
Page:
Page 49
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MAR 5-1 1 2001 the guide cover r J 'J- n K III Until The Weakest Link, Cornelia Frances thought she'd kissed her TV career goodbye. Jenny Tabakoff reports on an amazing comeback. I ft . .1 and then you w ltu CORNELIA Frances is not a bitch. She might snap at contestants who say Noah s Ark came to rest on Mount Kosciusko, and peer over her specs like everyone's most terrifying school teacher, but she's nice. Really. Well, when she's not hosting The Weaiesr Link, anyway. The Seven Network is giving Frances the kid-glove treatment, knowing she is the woman who might help it win the ratings war against the previously invincible Nine. The quiz show won its timeslot on its first outing last month and both the Monday and Friday editions have been rating consistently in the top 10 programs of the week. Frances is becoming as well-known as her heartless farewell to contestants about to make the "walk of ' shame" after being voted off by their fellow panelists: "You are the weakest link. Goodbye!" In short, this one looks set to run and run - a very pleasant change for the 59-year-old actress who, only three months ago, was working in the customer-relations department of the wine company Cellarmasters. Now, for the first time in years, Frances is being greeted in the street with the words: "You bitch!" Her tigerish eyes glitter as she recalls her reply: "Yes - and I get paid for it." Professionally, at least, Cornelia Frances has been a bitch for years. "I love them because they're so strong and they're great fun," she explains. Followers of Australian soap will recall Frances's heyday when she played Sister Scott in The Young Doctors, Barbara Armstrong Hamilton in Sons and Daughters and Morag Bellingham in Home & Away. She has marched through some of our most memorable TV dramas - from Certain Women to Prisoner, by way of Matlock Police, Homicide and Cop Shop, to name a few - usually in the role of a strong, forthright, if not downright nasty, woman. Born in Liverpool during World War II, Frances was sent to a Catholic boarding school in the south of England. She was an average student ("but at least I knew about Mount Ararat," she laughs). She thinks she probably based Sister Scott 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." After training at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Frances began a small-time career in British film. She had a role as "a dyke" in the film Goodbye, Mr Chips. In 1965, she came to Australia with her then boyfriend and had the distinction of being the first woman to read the television news on Perth's Channel 9. They returned to England, married, and migrated here permanently in 1970. She laughs at many of those early Australian soaps, describing them as "a genre of their own", but she was "When crossed, I can be very sarcastic and nasty, but then so, I think, can anybody when you are fairly quick-witted." Cornelia Frances always busy. In later years, though, she resented the fact that the actors were getting younger and younger, and depending upon the older, properly trained actors to teach them basic techniques. "To me, it's like paying apprentices masters' money." About 10 years ago, middle age - the curse of actresses everywhere - hit Frances hard. After Home & Away, the roles dried up - a brutal shock for someone who had never been out of work as an actor for more than 30 years. "Suddenly no-one was asking," she recalls, sipping coffee in her Neutral Bay flat. She went back to England to do a couple of seasons of pantomime (playing the Wicked Queen and Queen Rat, naturally). Five years ago, back in Australia, she took a job at Cellarmasters, taking odd bits of acting work when she could but never expecting another big break. Her marriage broke up. Newspapers ran the occasional "Whatever happened to ..." article about her, and reported a court appearance last year for drink driving. ("I had no idea I was over the limit," she says.) In December last year, things finally started to look up. For one thing, Frances was looking forward to becoming a grandmother for the first time. And then the telephone rang. "I got a call from a friend who said that Tim Warner Seven's director of program development was looking for a bitch and he wanted to see me," she says. Seven had bought the rights to make an Australian version of the hit British quiz show The Weakest Link. Its host there, Anne Robinspn, is bespectacled, red-haired and so sharp-tongued that she has been voted "the most hated woman in Britain". Frances was a perfect match, but she still had to go through an audition process, up against about 10 other candidates, including Helen Wellings and Tina Bursill. Frances begged for some time off from Cellarmasters to go to Melbourne and then realised that if the pilot went well, she would be expected to start work within a few days. "So I had to resign ... not knowing if I had the job or not. Because if I hadn't, it would have meant me walking out from Cellarmasters with a very nasty taste in my mouth." She takes comfort from the fact that "if anything happens to this" she has been assured of a warm welcome back at Cellarmasters. But it's probably safe to say her career in customer relations is over. Though her initial contract for The Weakest Link was for just 13 episodes, this seems certain to be extended. She also has the offer of a four-week return stint in Home & A way and there's a script from the Ensemble Theatre. Her whirlwind rediscovery has left her feeling punch-drunk. "It's great to be back in this industry. I've missed it so much - the people, and just the attitude." Only a matter of weeks ago, Frances was talking to people about their wine deliveries. "Now I'm in Melbourne four days a week in my hotel suite," she says. "It's amazing ... I still don't realise it - I still think, 'You're doing it, Cornie. Get used to it'." When we meet at her Neutral Bay home, Frances is bristling with the news that Anne Robinson has just been poached by the US network NBC to front an American version of The Weakest Link - for a rumoured SUS50 million (S95 million). As Frances bustles about, making coffee, she jokes that she must put her agent in touch with the BBC. "Fifty million dollars!" she says every now and then. Frances wears her age comfortably. She makes no effort to hide the fact that she is a size 16, and will be 60 in a couple of months. Her wrinkles are her own and so is her red hair, although these days it is aided by highlighting shampoo. She looks good, but she looks like a real person. She doesn't own a black power suit, preferring casual trousers and T-shirts. She is not as frightening

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