Women played an important role during Australia’s early years of radio broadcasting. We look at the contributions of several pioneering women, starting with Queenie Ashton.
Queenie Ashton was born in England in 1903. Ashton studied dancing from the age of four. From the age of 16 she studied voice production, drama and sight reading. Her first professional appearance was at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, where she sang a duet with Noël Coward in a production of Happy Family.
Ashton began her radio career in 1924 at Radio 2LO in London singing brackets of classical songs. Her ability to both act and sing led her into musical comedy. She performed in several London productions which earned her recognition abroad and in 1927 she was offered work in the musical Sunny at the new Empire Theatre in Sydney (which later became Her Majesty’s Theatre).
She returned to England but soon came back to Australia to perform again in a number of musical comedies. In 1931 Ashton married Lionel Lawson, leader of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. They had two children, though they later divorced.
During the 1930s Queenie Ashton worked on a number of ABC radio musical comedies. She appeared regularly with Dick Bentley on 2GB’s program Oh, Quaite! In 1939, Ashton was cast in her first role as an actress in a radio drama, when she was cast as the lead in the serial Marie Antoinette:
In the same year she also played the female lead in the serial East Lynne, and after these roles her destiny as one of Australia’s most loved radio performers was sealed and Ashton was in constant demand for roles in radio productions.
As well as performing in radio drama, Ashton continued her singing career through the 1940s and performed in ABC musicals with singers Gladys Moncrieff and Strella Wilson.
It was for her roles in the long-running Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) serial The Lawsons, and later Blue Hills, that Ashton became most famous. The series ran for 28 years. Ashton was cast as Mrs Gordon, the country doctor’s wife in the first episode and later, towards the end of the series, she was cast as Grannie Bishop, a character 40 years Ashton’s senior, who became a much-loved national figure.
Lane, Richard and National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, 1994, The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama 1923-1960: A History Through Biography, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic