Janice Gray: A Swan Song


Runtime - 11:12

Entertainment legend Janice Gray has one last gig after a lifetime on stage.

Colourful would be understatement when describing Janice Gray. She’s a much-loved performer with razor sharp wit, and at 80, is still bringing a crowd to their feet. Many in Christchurch have a story about Janice, whether it’s her raucous stage presence, her ability to perform whilst waiting tables, or her time on the inside - but more on that one later. In this tribute to a legend, Frank Film talks to Janice about her career, her textured life, and her most recent stint on the stage.

Whilst everyone might have a Janice story, it’s only Robin Judkins who has written her into a play. Free Bus to God went live at the Christchurch Town Hall at the end of May this year, with Janice as a key member of the cast. “I’m just proud of myself a wee bit, to be asked to be in a play at 80,” Janice says. “It’s my lucky draw.” Robin, who both wrote and produced the play, is a big Janice fan: “She’s absolutely sharp as a tack. I wouldn’t be dealing with her if she wasn’t sharp as a tack!” he says, laughing.

Life didn’t get off to an easy start for Janice. Her father, a tap dancer (or hoofer, as they were known then), died when she was 18 months old, leaving her with five older siblings and a mother who favoured them over Janice. “My mother loved the boys,” she remembers. “I realised that the only way to get my mother’s attention was to become a bass baritone at four, which I did.”

The stage was where Janice found her home, landing her first role in a play at age 12. “The stage!” she says.“I found my calling, I loved it.” From then, Janice found as much work in showbiz as she could. “I’ve done radio plays in Australia, I’ve done commercials here - even when I was in the can, I’d go in my lunchtime!” she says. In 1975, Janice was arrested at Auckland airport and accused of smuggling marijuana from Thailand. 5000 buddha sticks, to be exact. For that, she was sentenced to two years, and spent sixteen months of it on the inside. “I got eight months off for good behaviour in helping murderers on their guitar when they had a down moment,” Janice recalls.

Back on the outside, she continued to forge her performance career. She was a much-loved cast member in the 80’s comedy show, McPhail & Gadsby. In 1999, she sang jazz, swing and the blues for president Bill Clinton on his visit to Christchurch. She appeared on film in features like TV movie The Champion - Yankee Soldier (1989) and comedy Offensive Behaviour (2004), and became well known as host of the The D.O.G Show on CTV. To make ends meet, Janice worked for over eight years at the Volcano Cafe, the iconic Lyttelton restaurant. In fact, as many regulars can attest to, she was as much of a drawcard at the Volcano as the food.

Lois Ogilvie, who owned the Volcano for 23 years, remembers Janice singing for tips - and going to great lengths to collect them. Another memory, Lois recalls, is the time one young local enjoyed his dinner, and then left without paying. “Janice took this as a personal affront, pranced down to the local pub, there he was inside,” Lois says. “(She) found the money, took $10 for shoe leather and walked back, very happily!”

Whether at the Volcano, on screen or on stage, Janice’s ability to entertain has delighted audiences and fans over many decades, and Free Bus to God was no exception. Janice says she’s sick of life on the stage, and that she’s had enough - but was this play really her swan song? If Free Bus to God went on tour, would Janice be on the bus?

Producer/Director: Gerard Smyth
Editor: Oliver Dawe
Cameraman: Gerard Smyth
Story Producer: Georgia Merton
Production Manager: Jo Ffitch
Sound Mix: Chris Sinclair
Production Asst: Romah Chorley

Dave Mitchell
Alexander Turnbull Library
From footage preserved and made available by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision.
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