|Subject: Maggie Fitzgibbon, Australian singer- actress
Dead at 91
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Date Posted: Monday, June 22, 12:05:24pm
Maggie Fitzgibbon obituary
Star of West End musicals and light entertainment who appeared in the TV series The Newcomers and Manhunt
Fri 19 Jun 2020 06.29 EDT Last modified on Fri 19 Jun 2020 06.31 EDT
Maggie Fitzgibbon, who has died aged 91, took her talent as a singer from Australia to Britain to become a star of West End musicals and a popular guest on television light-entertainment shows of the 1960s – but she was also memorable for two acting roles on the small screen.
Starting in October 1965, as the strong, independent-minded Vivienne Cooper she was the linchpin of The Newcomers, one of the BBC’s early attempts to take on ITV’s Coronation Street and Crossroads in the soap opera stakes; and in 1970 she landed a supporting role in Manhunt, a compulsive ITV thriller series set in occupied France during the second world war.
The Newcomers, created by the writer Colin Morris, saw Vivienne newly arrived in Angleton, a fictional East Anglian overspill town for Londoners, with her husband, Ellis (played by Alan Browning), who was relocating to a job at a computer components firm, their three teenage children – one of them played by Judy Geeson before she became a film star – and Vivienne’s mother. Wendy Richard, who went on to star in EastEnders, also appeared in it as the Coopers’ rebellious young neighbour, Joyce Harker.
Worthy and middle-class – with Mary Whitehouse’s Clean-Up TV organisation giving it an “honorary mention” in its annual awards for morally sound shows – the programme seemed to come to life only when Fitzgibbon raised her voice. In those moments, her character’s usually genteel English tones gave a hint of the actor’s origins – the TV critic Hilary Kingsley later described her as sounding like Madge in the Australian soap Neighbours. At the time, another critic brought attention to an otherwise lack of drama in The Newcomers by dubbing it “The Vivienne Cooper Show”.
When Browning left, bored, at the end of 1967, the scriptwriters killed him off with a heart attack and planned a ratings-grabbing wedding for Vivienne to a new character, Charles Turner. However, they switched to the idea of giving her a whirlwind romance, followed by an off-screen wedding in New Zealand. Fitzgibbon vehemently disagreed with the storyline and left in April 1969, seven months before the serial was finally taken off the air.
The following year, she was cast as Adelaide in Manhunt, in which Alfred Lynch starred as a crashed RAF pilot trying to get a Jewish agent (Cyd Hayman) back to Britain with the help of another allied agent, played by Peter Barkworth, while being pursued by German officers (Philip Madoc and Robert Hardy). Fitzgibbon combined her acting and vocal skills to play Adelaide, host and singer at a sleazy nightclub frequented by both the French resistance and collaborators.
She was born in the Melbourne suburb of Mentone, in Victoria, to Minnie Mitchell, a music-hall singer and tap dancer, and her husband, Frank Fitzgibbon, an acrobat and tap dancer who worked as a bookies’ clerk. Maggie’s younger brother, Graham, became a celebrated jazz singer under the name Smacka Fitzgibbon. “My mother was quite sure I was going to have a voice and she would sit me on the piano and play, and insist that I sang,” said Maggie.
She performed in musical and drama productions while studying at Kilbreda college, a convent school, and trained as an operatic soprano before singing in shows across Australia on the Tivoli theatre circuit (1946-49). She continued in revues, variety and pantomime before winning acclaim for her starring role as Bianca in the original Australian production of the Cole Porter musical comedy Kiss Me, Kate, at His Majesty’s theatre, Melbourne, in 1952.
This led Fitzgibbon to seek fame in Britain, moving to London the following year and playing the principal boy in an Aladdin pantomime in Blackpool – opposite Hylda Baker’s Widow Twankey – then touring with the Crazy Gang (1954), a group that included Bud Flanagan, whose former comedy partner Chesney Allen was her agent. Several years followed performing in cabaret at London clubs, including Danny La Rue’s venue, Winston’s, in 1956.
Fitzgibbon had starring roles in the West End as Jinx Abbott in Leslie Bricusse and Robin Beaumont’s Lady at the Wheel (Westminster theatre, 1958) and Emmie Dalziel in Eric Spear’s Kookaburra (Prince’s theatre, 1959-60), but both productions were short-lived.
Stage success finally came in the role of Kay Cram, alongside Max Bygraves, in Do Re Mi (Prince of Wales theatre, 1961), when she met Noël Coward and he cast her as the divorced cruise ship hostess Mimi Paragon in a six-month run of his musical Sail Away (His Majesty’s theatre, Melbourne, 1963) in Australia.
Back in Britain, Fitzgibbon was beginning to get dramatic roles on television, as well as singing spots in light-entertainment shows. Playing Lili, an Italian, in the thriller series Reluctant Bandit (1965) led its writer, Morris, to suggest her for the part of Vivienne in The Newcomers.
Finally a household name, she displayed her vocal talents on a solo album, A Newcomer Me? (1968), featuring songs from popular musicals. She then effectively took her Manhunt character to her own ITV series, Maggie’s Place (1970), as the host and singer, joined by guests such as Acker Bilk, her brother, Graham, and middle-of-the-road vocalists and groups.
Fitzgibbon moved back to Australia in 1978 and made her final acting appearance on screen as a shopkeeper in A Place to Call Home (1987), a US TV movie shot there, followed by a brief return to the stage as Carlotta Campion for a one-off performance of the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies during the 1993 Melbourne international festival.
In 2002, she was awarded an Order of Australia medal for her community work, which included setting up a refuge for boys from broken families on her farm in Wahgunyah, Victoria.
Fitzgibbon’s marriage, in 1950, to Sidney De Kat, ended in divorce. Following her return to Australia, she had a 17-year relationship with the actor Peter Elliott. She is survived by her niece, Nichaud, and nephews, Mark, Andrew and Dominic.
• Margaret Helen Fitzgibbon, singer and actor, born 30 January 1929; died 8 June 2020
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