Obituary: Vivean Gray. British-born Neighbours actress

Vivean Gray, British-born actress who played Mrs Mangel in Neighbours. Picture: PA
Vivean Gray, British-born actress who played Mrs Mangel in Neighbours. Picture: PA
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Born: 20 July 1924, in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire. Died: 29 July 2016, in Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, aged 92

British-born actress Vivean Gray spent only two-and-a-half years in the Australian soap Neighbours during its early days as interfering gossip Mrs Mangel, but she firmly made her mark – to her own detriment. So convincing was her portrayal that she received constant abuse in public and found it too much to cope with, leading her to leave just as the serial was taking off in her homeland.

Nell Mangel had moved to Ramsay Street, in the fictional Melbourne suburb of Erinsborough, in 1986 with her long-suffering husband, Len (played by John Lee) – who was not seen on screen until eight years later.

Her only friends were Eileen Clarke (Myra De Groot) and Helen Daniels (Anne Haddy), and she was soon sparring viciously with her sworn enemy Madge Ramsay (Anne Charleston).

Mrs Mangel’s own personal life was laid bare to Ramsay Street’s residents when Len left her for another woman. However, she found new love with retired dentist John Worthington (Brian James) after joining the local bowls club, married him and set off for a new life in England in 1988.

“The Mrs Mangels of the world are people who are disappointed in themselves,” Gray once said. “Perhaps they are lonely, too. At any rate, they can’t adapt to a changing society.”

The actress, who left the soap and in the mid-1990s retired to Britain to live in Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, was born Jean Vivra Gray in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, to Allan, a fish merchant at Grimsby Docks, and Doris (née Simpson). Despite being the eldest of four children – three girls and a boy – Gray said she led a solitary life, spending a lot of time with her grandparents and observing other adults.

In the mid-1930s, the family moved to Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, where her father ran a fish-and-chip shop. However, war broke out and, during the Blitz, she dodged death several times on one day when a flying bomb shattered the windows of a bus she was travelling on, another bus she missed was bombed, killing 20 people, fighter planes attacked a train she was on and she lost her hearing for two days after a bomb fell close to an air raid shelter in which she had found refuge.

As a result, in 1941, the family returned to Cleethorpes and, on leaving the town’s grammar school, Gray went through various jobs – as a photographer’s assistant, assistant matron at a boys’ private school and sales assistant in a department store – that allowed her to observe people and their mannerisms and, she said later, helped her to act convincingly.

In 1953, she emigrated to Australia in the hope of breaking into acting – her unfulfilled ambition in Britain. With a job in the book trade to bring in money, she gradually found work with amateur theatre companies in Sydney. On moving to Melbourne, she turned professional and appeared in productions such as Don Battye and Peter Pinne’s whodunit musical It Happened in Tanjablanca (Viaduct Theatre Club, 1968) and the Chekhov play Uncle Vanya (St Martin’s Theatre, 1971).

Her television break came when a friend who wrote for Homicide suggested her for a one-off character part and she eventually took seven different roles over the police drama’s entire run (1969-74). This led to her playing 11 different parts in another crime series, Division 4, between 1970 and 1975, and three in Matlock Police from 1972 to 1976.

Before joining Neighbours, Gray established herself as another TV baddie. In the Australian soap The Sullivans (1976-83), she played Ida Jessup, the gossiping, British-born neighbour who had just a few more redeeming qualities than Mrs Mangel. The serial, set in Melbourne during the Second World War, was screened in more than 40 countries and Gray’s widowed character mellowed as it progressed and eventually married fellow Brit Arthur Pike (Wallas Eaton). Her performances in The Sullivans won her two Logie Awards as best supporting actress, in 1978 and 1981.

Then, in 1984, Gray landed the meaty role of poisoner Edna Pearson, one of the female inmates of Wentworth Detention Centre, in the cult soap Prisoner (titled Prisoner: Cell Block H outside Australia). Unfortunately, many of her scenes were cut because the story coincided with a similar real-life case and the producers were threatened with legal action.

The actress had several film roles, including a nun falling in love with a priest in the X-rated Libido (1973) and a doctor in The Last Wave (1977), a mystery drama, directed by Peter Weir, about Aborigines accused of murder. Her best film role was as the maths teacher, Miss McCraw, who disappears with some of her pupils on Valentine’s Day 1900 in another eerie movie directed by Weir, the 1975 Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, screened around the world. Twenty years later, a picture of the actress in the role was featured on an Australian postage stamp in the Centenary of Cinema commemoration issue.

In retirement, Gray, who never married, enjoyed her hobbies of photography and piano playing.