View Comments
Mandy McElhinney as Matron Bolton and Jessica Marais as Joan Millar. Picture: Simon Cardwell

TV viewers know and love her as Rhonda the safe driver from the AAMI insurance ads but from Monday we'll be seeing a much sterner Mandy McElhinney on our screens.

The Perth-raised actress who last year played magazine queen Nene King in Paper Giants: Magazine Wars is part of the cast of Nine's new drama Love Child. She plays no-nonsense Matron Frances Bolton, who works at the Kings Cross Hospital and associated Stanton House for unwed pregnant young women where she is instrumental in putting the women's babies up for forced adoption.

"She is a fairly isolated woman, there's a great loneliness to her," McElhinney explained by phone last week from her home in the Sydney beachside suburb of Bronte.

"She is one of those women especially of that generation who dedicated their lives to service, to the community.

"I know a lot of matrons in that era ran their hospitals like they were a ship. Basically her whole life has been about becoming the woman that she is and without a family, she has created a family of sorts by caring for these girls but not in a gentle way. She feels she is absolutely doing the right thing and doing a service to the community in giving these girls a chance at a new life without their children.

"The fabulous thing about setting it in the 60s is that so many of those ideas were being challenged and there was a whole new generation of people saying 'We're sick of your rules and regulations' and there is a grey area. So that's a very distressing thing for a woman who has dedicated her life to thinking there is a correct way to do things."

Perth-raised former Packed to the Rafters star Jessica Marais plays Joan Millar, who returns from London to work as a midwife with Matron Bolton and clearly has more empathy for their young charges, especially Rosie, played by another WA actor, Gracie Gilbert of Lockie Leonard and Underbelly: Squizzy.

"Joan is from a younger generation and is bringing with her all the ideals of the feminist movement," McElhinney said.

"Joan is actually a very competent nurse and potentially has the opportunity to be a doctor, so they clash in a way.

"There is a certain respect for each other that they have because they are both good at their jobs and are part of the medical fraternity but Matron feels it is best not to get involved on a personal level with these girls and they should be ashamed of what they have done.

"Basically Matron feels she is rehabilitating them and the best way to do that is not in a soft, hold-your-hand sort of way, but of teaching them responsibility, consequences and the rules. Joan is not a playing-by-the-rules kind of gal."

Although the show's website states Love Child is fictional and does not attempt to tell the full story of forced adoptions in Australia, McElhinney said series creator Sarah Lambert had met women who had been in homes for unwed mothers or worked in them.

"She is very passionate about the subject and feels very strongly about it because she has met people who have had their babies taken away and the women who worked there and felt they were doing the right thing.

"So she was very interested in not demonising Matron."

McElhinney said World War II would have had a great impact on Matron so she spoke to her grandmother and read stories about war nurses to help form a picture of her character.

With Marais and Gilbert, the actresses swapped stories of their families and favourite places in WA, and McElhinney donated some of her vintage clothing to the show's wardrobe.

"I really love vintage fashion and I had quite a few dresses," she said.

"I still hang on to the ones that I wear and are really special. It's going to be fun for me to spot them during the production."

As for the future of Rhonda and Ketut, who might finally have found a happy-ever-after in the most recent AAMI commercial? "It is a happy ending and that's probably where we should leave it," McElhinney laughed.

"I think we should leave it at the beginning of their relationship."