10th August 1991
On screen they’re the all-Australian mother and son, but their real-life backgrounds are dramatically different.
JULIE and Michael Winters — G.P. ’s popular mother and son — are ordinary, uncomplicated Aussies through and through.
But Denise Roberts and Brian Rooney, who play them, are far from ordinary, having been brought up in two of the world’s toughest cities — she in Glasgow, he in Belfast.
As well as being mates on and off the screen, they have more in common than you can possibly imagine. Theirs were childhoods of street brawls — where kids in their formative years carried weapons for protection.
Because of their Catholic faith, both Denise and Brian were in regular fights with the “Proddies”, but there was an unshakable code of ethics — you never grassed on the perpetrators.
In Scotland, where they swore like toopers (Denise still does), the biggest insult was: “Are ye in debt?”
Both Denise and Brian carry scars to this day. She has marks from razor blade slashes on her hands, inflicted by a nine-year-old girl. He has scars on his head from bricks and other flying objects, legacies of a bus explosion. Brian was also engulfed in flames once after a glue bomb was thrown at him. A pool of mud saved him.
Every now and then, as they talk to TV WEEK about their experiences “back home”, they both often revert back to their native accents. It’s something they do themselves when they’re chatting between scenes on the G.P. set.
For all they’ve been through, Denise and Brian still have a great love for their homelands and their people. “I had the best times,” says Brian. And Denise: “My dad always had a car, so we drove around a lot. It was fun. Otherwise I’d use public transport, because my mum was a clippy on the buses. I’d get a free ride to wherever I wanted to go.”
Brian had witnessed Northern Ireland’s troubles from his very first memory. He lost a close relative in tragic circumstances.
“I came out of school many times and saw a burning bus or there would be a riot on,” he recalls. “Up until the age of 12 — when we came to Australia — I would often see people hurt or killed.
“I was always small for my age and when I was about 10, I looked six. The army would patrol the streets with machine guns and rifles. One day, my friends told me to go up to this soldier and ask to hold his gun. If he said yes, then they told me to shoot him. So I said to the soldier, ‘Can I please hold your gun, mister?’ He looked around and said yes and handed me the gun. I looked through the telescopic thing, and my friends kept saying, ‘Go on, shoot him, shoot him’. But even at 10,1 didn’t want to bloody shoot him.”
Denise was only three when she realised that there was something very different about her life. It was voting time and her family lived in a tenement nestled in a close. One of the rules of survival for a Catholic girl — even at three — was to keep your crucifix out of sight. “On this particular day I came through the close when three very large boys, about 18 or so, pushed me up against the wall, grabbed my crucifix out of my blouse and said, ‘You’re a tyke aren’t you — you’re a tyke. Well who do you vote for? And you’d better have the right answer or you’re dead’.
“I had no idea what they were about, but even at three I remember saying, ‘Who do you vote for?’ They said, ‘We vote for the Proddies, we vote Labor’. So I said, ‘We vote for them, too’. Even at a very young age, I knew if I was going to survive in this town, I’d need to be one step ahead.”
Denise speaks affectionately of her father — who only has one eye, ‘‘the result of Glasgow living”. He’s the oldest of six children, and at 14 he was let out of an orphanage with all his brothers and sisters and had to support them. Her father accompanied her to the TV WEEK Logie Awards this year, and voted it one of the best nights of his life.
For Brian, coming to settle in Adelaide was a culture shock.
“I was nearly 13 and it was a nightmare. I was still in the Ireland mode,” he says. “In Adelaide, you came home from school, did your homework, watched TV and went to bed. In Ireland, you have a jam sandwich and go back to play in the streets until 11 pm. If you have homework, well you don’t do it.
“And in Adelaide I’d just punch people, talk back, not listen, get into trouble, and these terrible people would grass on me!
“In Australia, I just thought people were boring because they didn’t have anything to worry about — except money.”
Adds Denise: “When I first arrived in Australia, I thought people were a bit petty. I thought they whinged a lot — and yet they talk about the Poms!”
Off screen, Denise is something of a surrogate mother to Brian now that his parents have gone back to Adelaide. Many viewers believe their on-screen relationship carries over to their real lives.
If Brian is having a late night out on the town, someone will inevitably say: “Does Julie know you’re out?” And just the other day, Denise was cornered at a supermarket by a fan who said: “You ought to give that boy of yours a bloody good beltin’ the way he talks to you.”
In September, Denise takes the biggest step of her life when she marries her sweetheart, Andrew Braitling. And at the end of the year, Brian will make his first pilgrimage back to Ireland.
Story: Garry Shelley Main
Picture: Michelle Day
Original content copyright TV Week.