‘I need an ambulance’: Jenny Woodward opens up about scare
When Jenny Woodward disappeared from our screens last year her fans were worried. They were even more concerned when they heard the news that she had been hospitalised with an inflamed heart, the after-effect of a virus.
The popular ABC TV weather presenter's illness produced an outpouring of support tinged with disappointment because she was off the air, literally, for six weeks across June and July.
"I was astonished by the amount of well wishers who contacted me," she says when I sit down with her, husband Doug and son Alex to chat over a cuppa in the lounge room at her Enoggera home.
"I got an amazing amount of cards and hundreds and hundreds of messages on my Facebook page. It was really heartwarming and quite overwhelming. I'm well now, though I still take some drugs."
"Who doesn't?" I add and she smiles that Jenny Woodward smile that helps brighten up the world.
She recalls her health scare with candour.
"We had just got back from a trip to Sydney and I walked into the bedroom and thought, I don't feel very well. Then I thought, I really don't feel very well and I said to my husband Doug, I think I need an ambulance."
The fact that her turn was preceded by a dead, leaden feeling in her arm convinced her that she might have been having a heart attack but it was actually a post-viral condition that can sometimes be mistaken for a heart attack.
After a period of rest she was back at work. The whole episode demonstrated the bleeding obvious … that she has legions of loyal fans to whom she is like family.
They were relieved when she appeared on their TV screens again and will be thrilled to hear that Jenny Woodward is soon to star in her own stage show. It's not Jenny Woodward The Musical, although she will sing in it.
It is actually called Weathering Well and it is coming to the Brisbane Powerhouse next year for two shows and then the plan is to take it on the road to regional Queensland where the Jenny Woodward cult is well-established.
The show will feature the blip that was her health scare but that will be mentioned only fleetingly because there's a lot of material to get through … her whole life in fact.
Weathering Well has been scripted by her friend, journalist Karen Berkman, wife of newsreader Rod Young with whom Jenny worked when he was at the ABC. It is being directed by Bridget Boyle, who is exactly the person you'd want doing a show like this. Among Boyle's credits is another terrific Queensland story, The Longest Minute, which centres on the North Queensland Cowboys' grand final win in 2015 and she has recently directed The Holidays for Queensland Theatre.
The producer and puppet master of Weathering Well is, however, none other than her son Alexander, or Alex as he's best known. Jenny and husband Doug have three sons … Sam, 36, who lives in Sydney and is a sales rep for a craft brewery, Alex, 33, a well known Brisbane actor and producer, and Michael, 28, a real estate agent at The Gap.
Alex is a rising star of the Brisbane theatre world and through his Woodward Productions is the creator of a number of shows including the rather risque A Very Naughty Christmas which is on at Brisbane Powerhouse next month, the mere mention of which makes his mother blush.
He also produced Bare - A Musical at the Brisbane Powerhouse in 2018, a show about coming out and he gave his mother, a trained actor, a role in that.
"That was a rock musical loosely based on Romeo and Juliet," Alex explains. "Very loosely based on it."
Jenny, who when asked her age replies, "I'm as old as I feel", played the mother of a boy who comes out as gay during the course of the show and in that show Jenny sang one song, called Warning.
"Because Alex is doing productions and because I studied theatre and was an actress I'm always saying to him - is there a part for me?" Jenny says. "Then he found a part for me but he said, 'Are you really sure you want to do this?' It gave me an opportunity but I wasn't exactly holding that show together or anything."
Alex, who confesses that he enjoys loitering in foyers eavesdropping after his own shows, says he picked up plenty of positive feedback about his mum's appearance on stage.
So he's confident that Weathering Well, which will feature plenty of audio visual retro treats from Jenny's career, will pack them in because he understands just how much love there is for his mother.
"We first noticed that when we were kids and we were walking around in a shopping centre in Toowoomba one day and people were whispering … look, there's Jenny Woodward. It was at that moment I realised the connection Mum had to people and particularly to people in regional Queensland."
Jenny's viewers are all over Queensland and in parts of the Northern Territory. As well as presenting the weather she is an events host and famous for her annual Ekka broadcasts. Over the years she has also had a number of community roles and for 10 years she has been an Australia Day ambassador. She has also developed a talk she gives to Probus and other clubs about her career and that talk is the kernel of Weathering Well.
Growing up in a family of six girls in Toowoomba, young Jenny Mackie, as she was then, was keen to become an actor after completing high school at Mater Dei, a Catholic school. "I wanted to do the acting course at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education (now University of Southern Queensland) but my mother said I needed something to fall back on," she recalls. "So I studied teaching but when my parents went overseas on a long holiday I dropped out and did theatre instead."
She graduated in 1978 and had already started working at Channel 10/4/5a in Toowoomba doing weather, then went to work for the Armidale-based New England Travelling Theatre Company.
"After working with the theatre company I went back to doing weather although I needed another job," she recalls. "So I cleaned at a hotel in the morning and worked part-time on television and that evolved into a full-time job as a producer and presenter. I really learnt a lot as a weather presenter in Toowoomba."
She and husband Doug were married in 1981. They had met at college where Doug, now 67, a former farmer and policeman who worked in fingerprinting and photographics studied journalism at DDIAE. "I saw a lot of Jen on stage at college," Doug says. "So I think it's a great idea for her to do Weathering Well."
Jenny points out that the couple were even on stage together once as students in a production of As You Like It and Doug, who has had numerous careers and is now an award-winning winemaker (his labels are Wedded to The Weather and Cloud Projects), brightens at the mention of his turn as a thespian.
"I keep telling Alex he should have a part for me in Weathering Well," Doug complains. "But he doesn't trust me because I'm too much of a ham."
After marrying, the couple moved to Brisbane and Jenny went to work at Channel 7 on Wombat and then left to have Sam. "Then when Sam was about 18 months old I saw a job as a weather presenter for the ABC and thought, I can do that. So I auditioned for the job." And she got it in October 1986 and has now been at the ABC for 34 years.
Weathering Well will be a cavalcade of the Jenny Woodward years with the national broadcaster. "It's a retrospective of my career," Jenny says. "But we also talk about some interesting weather history covering famous meteorologists such as Clement Wragge and Robert Fitzroy. I will have Luke Volker on keyboard and I will sing but there won't be any dancing. There are a lot of weather songs to choose from."
Jenny is also a trained singer. So what could she sing in this show? It's Raining Men? Blue Skies? Stormy Weather? Singin' in the Rain? As she pointed out, there are plenty of options.
Scriptwriter Karen Berkman, who has known her for decades, says she thought a show about Jenny was a great idea and she was thrilled to be asked to write it.
"But it was a revelation to me that she could sing," Berkman says. "The show was initially supposed to be on in May but was delayed because of the pandemic.
"I know people will love it and people in the country particularly. It's quite a phenomenon the way she has become a household presence."
Director Boyle says she was excited to be asked to direct the show. "Jenny is amazing and I'm a bit of a fangirl," Boyle says. "She's an icon, my goodness. I grew up in an ABC-watching family and we'd gather around and watch Jenny presenting the weather. She said to me - there's nothing special about me, I'm just a person who turns up every day and does their job. I love her humility. People trust and respect her."
Mind you, they're not backward about coming forward when it comes to giving her advice about her hair and fashion choices over the years. Expect some bad hair days and plenty of footage of retro fashion fun in the show.
"I've had fashion catalogues sent to me with things circled," Jenny says. True story.
Which begs the obvious question: "What are you wearing in the show?"
"That's a secret," she says. "Let me just say there will be many costume changes."
Weathering Well will be at the Brisbane Powerhouse with a matinee and evening show on April 23, 2021. Tickets on sale December 3; brisbanepowerhouse.org
Originally published as 'I need an ambulance': Jenny Woodward opens up about terrifying health scare