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Desmond remembered as TV’s Shirley

Although her acting career spanned more than half a century, Australian entertainer Lorrae Desmond was probably best known for playing “Shirl” Gilroy in the long-running TV soap A Country Practice.

The TV star was born Beryl Hunt on October 2, 1929 in Mittagong, in the NSW Southern Highlands, where her father was a doctor and played music in the town band.

Friends announced her death in a series of touching tributes on social media on Sunday.

Desmond attended Mittagong Public School but her education stopped a few months before her 14th birthday and she trained to be a hairdresser.

However, as a child she developed a desire to become an entertainer after seeing Gracie Fields perform in Sydney.

Young Beryl Hunt poured her meagre earnings as a hairdresser’s apprentice into elocution lessons, in an effort to get rid of her broad Australian accent.

At 16 she threw down the comb and scissors and got her first gig, as a singing cigarette girl. Unable to imagine her birth name in lights, she rechristened herself Lorrae Desmond and soon boarded a ship to England.

Her first job there – singing at a pub in Scunthorpe – led to more glamorous work in cabaret, pantomime and radio. She worked with stars including Terry Thomas (with whom she had a romance), Tony Hancock and Morecombe and Wise.

Desmond also travelled to the Middle East, Malaya, Singapore and Kenya to entertain soldiers.

In the early 1960s she was offered the chance to go to Malaysia with the comedian Reg Varney to entertain soldiers. She did a deal for the trip to include a flying visit to Australia, and ended up doing a 15-minute show for the ABC.

That evolved into The Lorrae Desmond Show, which earned her a Gold Logie in 1962, with the star flying out from England to record the 12 episodes.

Desmond married Sydney surgeon, Alex Gorshenin in 1963 and their wedding – at the high-society St Mark’s, Darling Point – was the subject of a Women’s Weekly spread. The marriage ended in divorce in 1976.

In 1967 Desmond did her first tour of Vietnam, travelling with the ABC Dance Band and entertaining Australian soldiers from a “stage” on the back of a flat-top semitrailer. She did several more tours there, and was thrilled to be handed a plaque by her “boys” that named her the “Mother of all Vietnam Veterans”.

She marched in the “Welcome Home” march for Vietnam veterans in Sydney on October 3, 1987, and the following day performed in the Welcome Home concert. She always made a point of marching on Anzac Day.

Some of the costumes she wore on her Vietnam tours are in the Australian War Memorial’s collection.

After her divorce, Desmond set her sights on television drama and in 1981 secured the role of salt-of-the-earth Shirley Gilroy in a new Seven Network soap, A Country Practice. The show, which followed the characters associated with a rural Australian hospital, became a huge hit.

Desmond starred alongside her screen husband Brian Wenzel, and show regulars Shane Porteous, Grant Dodwell and Penny Cook. Desmond confessed she made “Shirl” as much like herself as possible, “to save having to do a lot of hard acting”.

She told the ABC’s Talking Heads in 2008: “Shirl couldn’t cook. Lorrae can’t cook. Shirl’s an earth mother to the bulk of her friends who are always 20 years younger than her. That’s Shirl, that’s me.”

After a decade Desmond wanted to move on and pleaded with the writers to kill off Shirl, who eventually died off-screen in a plane crash.

Desmond then toured nationally in the show High Society, followed by Legends in Cabaret which was televised by the ABC

That was followed by Honey, based on the Bryce Courtenay novel Smokey Joe’s Cafe, about Vietnam veterans of the Battle of Long Tan. Desmond turned it into a play with music and toured it for six years.

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