Brendan and Molly Jones captured Australian families’ hearts on A Country Practice through the 1980s and ’90s, before Molly’s devastating death scene became one of the most memorable and iconic TV moments in soap history.
But their love story secretly continued off-screen too between actor Shane Withington and actress Anne Tenney. While they’re now happily married, the couple chose to keep their relationship secret while filming together over fears they may “cheapen” their love by publicising it during filming.
Speaking in an exclusive chat with Starts at 60, Withington has now revealed how it all began, and said they’re stronger than ever after keeping their work and private life separate all these years.
“We kept it under our hats, no one really knew,” he said of their time on the hit show. “We didn’t want the media to get a hold of it. We kept it a secret for years, we didn’t want to cheapen our relationship by doing a magazine cover saying ‘we found love on a soap opera’!
“We valued our relationship more than that, it’s a private thing and we’ve kept it that way ever since.”
While the actor’s character Brendan’s relationship with Molly was celebrated throughout the series, the actors were really propelled into the limelight during Molly’s 10-week battle with leukaemia in 1984.
It resulted in one of the most heartbreaking death scenes in Australian TV, and was viewed by about 2.2 million people – a staggering number at the time. However, neither Withington nor his now-wife Tenney could have imagined the success it would have.
“If I’d known that the death scene was going to end up being the highest rated moment in the history of Australian TV, and that I’d still be watching it every year 40 years later, I would have put a bit more effort in. I would have done my hair!” He joked.
Asked how his wife handled it at the time and how she was inspired to put on such a good performance, he added: “Annie is a great one for research and I know she researched the effects of leukaemia. She was highly aware of what effect the death of that character would have on her viewers, she was really adamant how it would be played and done.
“I remember her doing heaps of research, much more than I do. She’s a very dedicated actress”.
Withington is now best known for his role as John Palmer on Home and Away, and he revealed while he doesn’t rely as much as his wife on ‘research’, he said he gets himself into emotional scenes by imagining his own loved ones in those situations.
“They [the scenes] are all completely different. As an actor, you’ve just got to be the guy. That’s what I tell the kids, it doesn’t matter how you look, don’t worry about the camera or anyone else around you, you’ve just got to be that person in that situation and feel it as a genuine and real moment,” he explained.
Asked if he’s drawn on his own emotions in the past, he said: “You often picture one of the people you love in that position. You play it to them. You picture them as the person you’re playing opposite, and think ‘how would I do it if this was my own daughter or my own brother or my own wife’.”
John recently suffered a brain tumour on the hit soap, leading to him carrying out a series of arson attacks – before forgetting all about them.
Withington said the storyline was hugely important to him, as close friends of his had suffered similar health issues – and he felt a responsibility to get it right for them. As part of his preparation, he spent hours talking with the soap’s medical advisor Wendy O’Donnell and learning about the side effects and emotions some sufferers may go through.
“When I realised my character would be going through this, I knew it would be highly sensitive as people out there have brain tumours,” he added. “It’s a responsibility to our viewers, we hold that dear here at Home and Away. As much as you can enjoy it, I enjoyed that storyline, it was fun to play something different.”
His character John was unaware of his actions for some time amid the arson attacks due to his condition, and asked if playing those scenes made him sympathise with people going through it, he said: “Yes, of course. There are people in my immediate circle who have had brain tumours, and did at the time. I was highly aware that what we were doing would affect them when they saw it.”