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Joan Sydney King (1936–2022)

by Tony Braxton-Smith

Joan Sydney King was born in Kensington, London, on September 5, 1936, the first daughter of Sam and Rose King, a young couple who met working in hotels. At the start of World War II, the family moved to rural Wales, where her younger sister Margaret Anne (Maggie) King was born three years later.

They lived first in Rhyl, where her parents managed the Kimmel Bay Club, then later in nearby Rhuddlan, where they were publicans at the Castle Hotel, becoming known affectionately by locals as “the Kings of the Castle”.

Joan attended Abergele Grammar school, where she attained her General Certificate in Education (GCE) in eight subjects in 1953. It was at Abergele Grammar that she also became interested in theatre, performing in school plays from around the age of nine. Later in her teenage years she would travel regularly to Aberystwyth to train with and play in the theatre club that is now part of the university campus.

Following school Joan secured a place with the Oldham Repertory Theatre Company, in Greater Manchester, where she trained as an actor for three years. At some point in this period the “Rep” toured a show through Germany. As she told the story in later years, it was there that she first adopted her stage name, because Germans who she met were often perplexed mishearing her introducing herself as “I’m joking” rather than “I’m Joan King”.

Her theatre schooling complete, Joan sought work with BBC radio, and then made her first onscreen appearance in the 1957 BBC film of When We Are Married, playing the part of Ruby Birtle in a classic comedy about an administrative mix-up with marriage certificates.

As many young actors do, she supplemented her income with a second job, working as an usher in a local movie theatre. It was there that a brief romantic encounter with a part-Egyptian projectionist led to the birth of her first son Tony in 1958.

As a young single mother, Joan moved back in with her parents, who by then had moved to Lichfield to take over the lease the Duke of Wellington Hotel.

She met Gerald, whom she married in 1960. Her daughter Ananda was born in 1961, and then son Matthew in 1964. Her theatrical career was, as they say, on ice. It was in the depths of a bleak English winter that family conversations turned to talk of moving somewhere warmer, and closer to the beach of which they had become so fond during their time in Wales.

Advertisements for Australia’s assisted migration program caught their eye, and the thought appealed. If it got too hot, they reasoned, they could sit in a cold bath. So it was that Joan, her husband and children became ″⁣ten-pound Poms″⁣, leaving Southampton in January 1965, arriving in Fremantle in early March to blistering summer heat, and settling in suburban Perth.

Living in a rented house in Claremont (before it was posh) and struggling to make ends meet, Joan returned to her trade to supplement family income with radio work for the ABC. Shortly after she made her Australian stage debut with Perth’s Playhouse Theatre in Hobson’s Choice, then on stage in When We Are Married, this time in the role of Lottie. During this period, Joan separated from Gerald, and taking her children with her moved in with the family of her sister, Maggie.

In 1968, budding theatre-restaurant entrepreneurs Frank Baden-Powell and Coralie Congdon hired Joan to perform at Perth Old Time Music Hall. It was here that her sister Maggie, who had trained as a pianist and was also a talented entertainer, joined Joan on stage for the first time.

In 1974 she moved to Sydney, her school-age family in tow, to play Good Queen Bess at Dirty Dick’s Theatre Restaurant. In early 1975 she joined the Perth Theatre Company in a variety of roles from the lead role in the musical Hello Dolly to serious theatre including Shakespeare and Anton Chekov’s The Seagull.

Joan was always a student of human behaviour, a keen observer of peoples’ accents, voices, poise and gestures. She would quietly observe others as they went about their daily life and deftly incorporated aspects of what she observed into the portrayal of her characters. She would practice gestures and intonations around our home, whilst doing housework or watching TV.

In the early 1980s Joan returned to the east coast, playing in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for the Sydney Theatre Company as well as other productions. In 1983, she was signed by producers of TV show A Country Practice to play Matron Maggie Sloan, a role that she played over seven years in more than 400 episodes.

Maggie was known for her firm hand, warm heart and wicked wit, and she brought Joan to national fame. Such was her popularity in this period that she started to wear a wig, scarf and dark glasses to go out shopping or dine in a restaurant.

In 1989, she was awarded the Silver Logie for most outstanding actress. In seasons’ breaks from A Country Practice, she returned to musicals, playing Bloody Mary in South Pacific, Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! and Mrs Bottle in Mrs Bottle’s Burp. She also shared the stage with Maggie in Songs from Sideshow Alley and most famously in the musical comedy Nunsense. She and Maggie also appeared on film together in the movie Sisterly Love in 1988.

After her role in A Country Practice wrapped, she played other roles in a number of other TV programs including E-Street and All Saints. Later in her career she played Valda Sheergold in Neighbours and distance-runner Cliff Young’s mum in the ABC telemovie Cliffy in 2013.

In 2001 Joan also played in a Brisbane stage production of Are You Being Served as Mrs Slocombe opposite the late John Inman from the television series. She felt most at home on the stage, working with the Melbourne Theatre Company regularly and a number of cameos and touring productions in the later years of her career.

Joan and Maggie relocated to Melbourne in 1992 and later to the Dandenongs, to be closer to daughter Ananda and her family.

A decade ago Joan had started to have difficulty learning her lines and had become forgetful on occasions. There was increased difficulty with her favourite cryptic crossword and bigger mood swings. In 2015 came the diagnosis of dementia. In the ensuing years, she left us ever so slowly, that bastard Alzheimer at work.

Hers was an entertaining life lived to the full, but with a long slow exit that still leaves us wanting more of the many good times we can cherish within us forever.

Tony Braxton-Smith is Joan’s eldest son.

Original publication

Citation details

Tony Braxton-Smith, 'Sydney King, Joan (1936–2022)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/sydney-king-joan-33046/text41194, accessed 20 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Sydney, Joan
Birth

5 September, 1936
London, Middlesex, England

Death

28 December, 2022 (aged 86)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Occupation