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EXCLUSIVE: Miranda and Gracie Otto discuss their new miniseries Ladies in Black

The sisters have worked together again. But this time on a project set in the 1960s…

When you think of the early 1960s in Australia, what comes to mind? Perhaps Robert Menzies as Prime Minister, or maybe the rise of television?

For us here at The Weekly, when it comes to the Swinging Sixties, we can’t help but think of how womens’ roles in society slowly began to be challenged.

Not to mention the impeccable fashion that reflected this ‘rebellion’ to social norms.

Therefore, we were simply delighted to learn that a new ABC miniseries would explore both the societal and fashion shifts that occurred back then.

Ladies in Black, set in Sydney in the early 60s, will follow a group of women who work in a department store as they all navigate life as they know it slowly changing.

If the title ‘Ladies in Black’ sounds familiar, it’s because this is somewhat of a continuation of the 2018 film of the same name.

The film was based on the novel The Women in Black by Madeleine St John, and both are set in 1959.

However, Ladies in Black jumps ahead two years to 1961.

Set to star in the new miniseries is Miranda Otto as well as Debi Mazar, Jessica De Gouw, Gemma Ward, Todd McKenney, Kate Box, Clare Hughes, Azizi Donnelly, Julian Maroun, Carlos Sanson Jr, Tom Wilson, Huw Higginson, Russell Dykstra, Thom Green, Ngali Shaw and Hazem Shammas.

Ahead of Ladies in Black’s premiere on June 16, The Weekly sat down with Miranda and her sister Gracie Otto – who directed all six episodes – to discuss the miniseries.

Read our full Ladies in Black interview with Miranda and Gracie Otto below.

The Weekly: Miranda, what initially drew you to Ladies in Black? Was there a particular aspect of the story or character that resonated with you?

Miranda: I loved the book. I loved the film. And I thought this was a great chance to take the story further; delve more deeply into the characters. The great thing in TV is you can play out a number of different arcs for a character.

a still from ladies in black
The Weekly: And Gracie, what drew you to the project as a director?

Gracie: I was so excited and inspired by the opportunity to recreate for the screen stories of women’s lives in Australia in the early 1960s. I love period shows, as there is always a fantasy element in pre-production when I can deep dive into the historic nature of everything and imagine myself as a character trying to understand the decisions they made in that period of time – from storylines, original locations, props and costumes.

This season of Ladies in Black takes the story from the 1950s and the secondary roles women played into the early 60s, introducing new ideas and concepts of freedom through university education and the ambitions for working women, and how especially the advent of the pill began to liberate their lives.

These young women were about to be at the forefront of the cultural shift of “women’s liberation” and there would be no looking back.

The Weekly: Gracie, how did you approach Ladies in Black with a fresh perspective, particularly considering the narrative and stylistic choices made in the 2018 film? Were there specific elements you aimed to reinterpret or emphasise differently?

Gracie: I loved the 2018 Ladies in Black film, and I love shows like Mad Men, so I was inspired to recreate a cinematic department store featuring candy colours and contemporary music, to truly reflect the period but in a modern, fresh way that works for audiences today.

I worked with an incredible Art Department led by Michael Rumph who was equally inspired by the architecture and design and displays of the period. He designed a set I loved, with curved edges and a high ceiling, because I wanted to be able to shoot 360 degrees as well as using the curves to make it feel cinematic.

Plus, the Art Department was able to incorporate a whole living experience into the design; when you arrived on set you felt like you had stepped into a museum of the past. There was even a semi-working elevator!

New actors were also cast to play the lead roles as the series continues from the 1950s story of the film – Debi Mazar as Magda, Clare Hughes as Lisa and Jessica De Gouw as Fay – and then new characters are introduced, including Angela, an aspiring young designer played by Azizi Donnelly, and Mrs Virginia Ambrose, a new head of fashion from Harrods played by Miranda.

The Weekly: Miranda, can you tell us a bit about this new character Virginia?

Miranda: I’m playing Virginia Ambrose, a new character to the story. She’s come from England to take over Magda’s role as head of Model Gowns at Goodes. And she has very different ideas to Magda.

She sees fashion as a way of blending, obeying social etiquette, and being untouchable. Whereas Magda sees fashion more as a joyous self-expression.

a still from ladies in black

I loved that Greg [Waters, Ladies in Black writer] had written Virginia as someone we slowly get to know better. She’s very much the antagonist at first but over time we discover she has many facets. I had a lot of fun with it.

The Weekly: During the 1950s, there were often strict gender roles and societal expectations placed upon women but this began to change in the 60s; Gracie, you touched on it before, but how does Ladies in Black reflect this, particularly in the context of women’s roles in the workforce?

Gracie: This series is set in a transitional period, leaving behind the more compliant women of the Menzies era of the 1950s and featuring women who have quiet ambition to be more than housewives and mothers.

Lisa has left school and enrolled at Sydney University where she is exposed to new and radical ideas and begins to seek a career in journalism.

Fay is happily married to Rudi, but she resists his plans for their future for her to have children and leave work, which was the norm at the time.

And Magda has high ambitions to open her own boutique featuring Australian designers – even though she still needs her husband’s signature to get finance.

a still from ladies in black

It’s so difficult to imagine that women had so few rights, and that their futures were often determined by pregnancy. This series briefly introduces the pill and the idea that women, single and married, might begin to determine their own lives with sexual liberation.

Lisa at university sees it as a chance to be a free thinking woman, while Fay aspires to delay motherhood and continue as a working woman at Goodes.

The Weekly: Speaking of Goodes, department stores played a significant role in shaping fashion trends and personal style during the 1960s; can you tell us a bit about Marion Boyce’s stunning costuming for Ladies in Black?

Miranda: Goodes is very aspirational. I loved looking at the romance of the department store. It’s changed so much today – you’re lucky if you can even find anyone on the floor!

But at Goodes everything feels special. Marion Boyce did an amazing job of bringing individual style to each character as well as the many different ranges in the store and all the extras and models.

Gracie: Marion Boyce and her team were incredible in sourcing, designing and creating costumes that captured the individuality of each character which represented the best early 60s fashion trends.

Costuming was a huge role; not only did we need the actor’s costumes, but also dresses, shoes and hats for sale in the store, and duplicates of items for sizing. There was also the introduction of new collections like the Young Sophisticates range, referencing the changing of style from the 50s to the 60s.

Plus, Marion’s work was complemented by the production design of Michael Rumph and his team, and beautifully captured by Director of Photographer Simon Ozlins. It was such a collaboration, and it was incredible to witness their creative roles all come together to produce something unique and beautiful.

The Weekly: And you two obviously worked together on The Clearing; what was it like working together again?

Miranda: It was so great to work with Gracie again on Ladies in Black. She has such a great sense of style and creates a really happy, vibrant, fun set. I think she did a wonderful job.

Gracie: I absolutely loved working with Miranda again! She is a brilliant actress and does so much work on her character’s backstory, and I am just amazed at the characters she creates and the details she brings to set… But she can also let herself go and improvise and do something totally unexpected. Mrs Virginia Ambrose is definitely one of my favourite characters in the show. Even I’m scared of her!

Ladies in Black premieres Sunday, June 16 at 8.30pm on ABC TV.

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