Why not Dame Judith in a soap ?

 By Michael E. Hill, TV Week, 1984

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OK, let's get a few things straight from the start. First, don't call Santa Barbara, the new NBC daytime drama, a soap opera. Not in front of Dame Judith Anderson, anyway. And second, if you ask Dame Judith why she's in a soap - in a daytime drama, that is - be prepared for a pretty quick answer.

"Why not ?" she asks, well prepared to explain or defend herself against the question as to why she, with her classical acting background, is doing a daytime serial for television. "It's another dimension... It's practically the same as doing a play. In a Broadway play you fall in love with characters. The curtain goes up, and it comes down. Tomorrow you have a chance to do better."

It's such the same in a serial, she said, with each day bringing a chance to further develop and perfect her character. The added dimension is the size of the daytime-serial audience, which is huge - and ubiquitous. "Many years ago I was going back to my native Australia and wondered what I was going to do without General Hospital," Dame Judith recalled. "I went to my hotel room, turned on the telly and there it was. I didn't even have to change channels."

Dame Judith, a 30-year resident of the real Santa Barbara, has been a fan of General Hospital for about twenty years. And now we're on the trail to the answer to the question, "What's a classic actress like you doing in a show like this ?"

The writing-production team of Jerome and Bridget Dobson, who also live in Santa Barbara, developed Santa Barbara and offered a part to Dame Judith. The Dobsons' credits include head writers of As the World Turns, Guiding Light - and General Hospital. "Mr. Dobson came to talk to me about Santa Barbara," Dame Judith said. "It's set right here in Santa Barbara. I didn't have to travel - I go to work at a beautiful old mansion just around the corner, although we also spend a lot of time in a studio in Los Angeles. The Dobsons are aware of my time of life - and we won't talk about that - and it's nice to be wanted."

But let's talk about Dame Judith's life and times just a bit. Her time is as long and as rich as the century itself. She was born in Adelaide, Australia, at the turn of the century and made her stage debut in Sydney in 1915. Dame Judith came to the United States in 1918 and appeared on the New York stage for two years. She made her motion-picture debut in Blood Money in 1933 and received an Oscar nomination for Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca in 1940. Fourteen years later she won an Emmy for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth in the Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Macbeth on TV. Other film work has included Kings Row, Laura, Diary of a Chambermaid, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Red House and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She also did two TV movies, The Underground Man and The Borrowers, both Hallmark Hall of Fame productions. Perhaps a sign that Dame Judith would surface in pop fare is her role as a Vulcan priestess in Star Trek III.

Now comes Santa Barbara. The serial revolves around the comings and goings of four families in the lush California seaside city. Dame Judith plays the matriarch of one of the families and the grande dame of the town. Depending on how things work out, her character's name will be Birdie, Minx or Tiger Lockwood. "They first called her Birdie, because she loves birds," explained Dame Judith. "But that sounds like a tidied-up old spinster." The production company then settled on Minx, a better tag on a character who's supposed to be as much feared as she is appreciated. "They can call her what they like," Dame Judith said. "I call her Tiger. She's unafraid, unbowed, naughty, bitter - a certain amount of hate - all the ingredients of a good plum pudding. They say I'm pretty much like her."

Her first few days in her new role were not the most comfortable as the Dobsons' newly formed production company lurched into action. "We're late !" Dame Judith exclaimed in anguish. "We're behind schedule ! They'll give me hell for saying that. But it's a new show, and it's taking a bit of time." And how has the distinguished actress been treated on the set of a soap ? Just like one of the girls, she said. "I'm just a cog in the wheel, a part of the crossword puzzle." Deference is shown, though. She is chauffeured to the set, but that's a necessity. "I don't drive anymore," she said.

From there she launched into a discussion of how plentiful cars are these days. Dame Judith mentioned, for instance, a family she knows in which each member - both parents and the children - has his or her own car. "They're expecting another child," she said, "and they'll probably have another car waiting for the baby." There is a point to all this. "I think it's terrible that kids can grow up without wanting things," she said. "I wanted everything when I was young. So many of the good things of life and free," she added, recalling a recent visit with friends in New York City. "We walked up Riverside Drive, went into a five-story deli and saw children dunking for apples along the way. We went into a church and heard Handel's music - for nothing. The whole day was free and beautiful."

Her days in Santa Barbara sound beautiful too. She moved there because it was close enough to Hollywood and yet far enough away. Among the beautiful things there is her garden. "It's my religion," she said. But it is not altogether free. There are the territorial feuds with gophers, and the struggle to find good help. Her current gardener, she said, doesn't share her devotion to the flowers, trees, vegetables and desirable animal life that fill her 1-acre plot. "I used to have an avocado ranch," she said. "And I've had a 3-acre garden, complete with a hothouse." And there's been trouble before in keeping good help. "I once lost a Japanese gardener," she recalled. "He was interned during the war."

But there is probably less hassle in fighting off the gophers than there is in putting down that ubiquitous and - to her - distasteful term, soap opera. "I dislike it intensely," she said in a tone that makes you want to erase it from your vocabulary. "It's ordinary. Santa Barbara is a serial."