Val Edmunds, a class act

Memories ... Val Edmunds with her script for Spit MacPhee. Picture: KYLIE ESLER
Memories ... Val Edmunds with her script for Spit MacPhee. Picture: KYLIE ESLER

A story that began more than six decades ago  has grown into the performance of a lifetime  for the region's much loved speech and drama teacher Val Edmunds, writes JANET HOWIE.  I still want to keep going, I love it. As long as my health holds out, I'll teach 'til I drop.

ALL the world might be a stage, but for Albury's Val Edmunds it's perhaps not too much to suggest the stage is her world.

For more than 60 years Mrs Edmunds, as her pupils know her, has taught speech and drama to Border and North East performers of all ages, abilities and situations in life.

She has also performed in live shows as well as television and radio.

Now 81 and keen to carry on, one thing has not changed during her long career.

"I used to get terribly nervous before I went on ... and I still do get nervous," she says.

No thoughts of stardom led nine-year-old Val Kelly, as she was then, to her first classes in  Albury with respected teacher Miss Boyes.

"My mother had a slight stammer, very slight one, and she sent me to speech lessons, hoping I wouldn't develop that speech habit," she says.

"I just loved it right from the start and just kept going."

Performing became a key part of her childhood, teen years and early adult life as Mrs Edmunds enjoyed success in the Albury, Corowa and Wagga eisteddfods.

She progressed through the speech and drama examination system to the highest diploma levels, often encountering the same examiner each time.

"He was very English and I could hardly understand a word he said," she recalls.

"It was terrible having to ask him what he was asking me."

Later she would contribute to various functions and musical theatre, some of which could become a little raucous.

"I remember one year ... I was doing a sketch and they'd all had a bit to drink in the audience and they were calling out, 'Get your gear off!'," Mrs Edmunds laughs.

But an invitation to perform at a 21st birthday party in Wodonga proved more than usually memorable -- among the guests she met that night was her future husband Ian. At that time, Mrs Edmunds had not long left Albury High School and started going out to dances.

"The Palais was the place where we frequented in those days," she says.

"He used to go there too and so it flourished from there."

After completing her Leaving Certificate, Mrs Edmunds worked at radio station 2AY for five years.

"It was a real fun place to be," she says.

"I did typing mainly but then I had mentioned to the manager I'd like to be a radio announcer and so when the lady announcer which we used to have in the mornings was sick, which she often was, he'd let me take over the program."

As well, she helped George Jennings and Ray Currie present the Chickabidees children's show each night.

Her first experience of teaching speech and drama came in the early 1950s when Miss Boyes travelled overseas for six months and left her longtime pupil in charge.

"I never intended to teach," Mrs Edmunds says.

"I loved it and I did my three diplomas, but never intended to teach."

In 1955, Mrs Edmunds became a farmer's wife and the couple began their life together at  Wooragee.

Her former teacher again played a hand in events when nuns from St Joseph's at Beechworth convent sought the teacher's services.

"She said no, but she suggested they get in touch with me," Mrs Edmunds says.

"So I started there, just one afternoon a week.

"Then various people from the district heard that I was teaching and rang to see if I'd take private pupils, which I did."

Mrs Edmunds' time at the Beechworth school started when she didn't have her driver's licence and her eldest daughter was a baby.

Ian came to the fore to overcome these challenges.

"He would drive us up and he would look after her in the car while I taught," she says.

Gaining her licence made things easier, especially when she extended her teaching to the convent school at Wangaratta.

Mind you, these employers imposed some restrictions whenever Mrs Edmunds was pregnant.

"When I became noticeable they asked me to leave because it wasn't the thing to be," she says with a smile.

"They didn't want pregnant women standing in front of the children."

In later years Mrs Edmunds also made good use of her time when taking her daughters to Albury for music and ballet lessons.

"While they were having lessons I would move around to various houses and teach students," she says.

In the 1960s Mrs Edmunds helped Reverend Bob Hull with his annual pantomimes at the Mayday Hills institution for the intellectually handicapped and performed in plays with prisoners from jail at Beechworth.

She followed this by starting a drama group with the prisoners that performed at Yackandandah and successfully at the Wangaratta Eisteddfod.

"When I started the group a lot came, because they got Brownie points if they joined various groups," she says.

"But a lot of them fell away and we had about half a dozen who were really interested.

"I met some wonderful people.

"They were so nice and a couple of them were very talented, one man in particular wrote beautiful poetry."

The Edmunds family relocated to Leneva in 1968 and then moved into Albury 11 years later.

Eventually the convent teaching jobs ended through school closures or changes in direction.

"I was missing it terribly so I thought I'd start up something in Albury," Mrs Edmunds says.

That something became Val Edmunds' Children's Theatre, a group that still continues under the direction of its founder and assistant Patricia Clout.

Thirty-four annual productions and numerous competition awards are part of its long history, with the present crop of junior and senior students now preparing for this year's Albury-Wodonga Eisteddfod.

Classes were held in Albury's former Methodist hall, now part of the police precinct, before moving to Albury Public School's hall.

Mrs Edmunds held individual lessons at a studio in Smollett Street, "a very old building, it was falling down around my ears, but it was lovely," until 2010 when she relocated to rooms at St David's Uniting Church.

Giving up the studio meant finding a new storage place for all her props, costumes and scripts, a dilemma overcome with family assistance to make room, more or less, at her West Albury home.

"I have two tall bookcases in the laundry and a photocopier in the laundry as well," she says.

Through all the changes, Mrs Edmunds has continued to guide many pupils.

For 23 years from the 1980s she taught clients at the Murray Valley Centre for the intellectually handicapped.

"That was a very rewarding time," she says.

"I loved them, they were delightful people -- I still see them occasionally."

She also acted when the opportunity arose, which it didn't always as much as she'd like.

"I still want to keep going, I love it. As long as my health holds out, I'll teach 'til I drop."


One chance came when television police drama Division Four filmed scenes at Beechworth and Mrs Edmunds was asked to take a small part opposite actor Chuck Faulkner.

Her role included the seemingly simple task of driving down a hill.

"That was it, but oh, I drove that jolly car down the road about a dozen times because something would go wrong," she says.

"They'd decided the light was in the wrong place or I was in the wrong place, standing in the wrong place, and then at one stage I went up the top of the hill and drove down and in the meantime someone had decided the gate should be closed.

"I couldn't get the gate open, so we had to go back up the hill and start again.

"They were getting a bit worried because it was getting close to dark and they wanted to go back to Melbourne that night."

Mrs Edmunds nominates the 1987 filming of telemovie Spit MacPhee as a career highlight, with her cameo role allowing her to meet Sir John Mills.

"He was interested in my studio and what we did and all of that, he was just lovely, a real gentleman," she says.

She still has her Spit MacPhee script and says the lengthy filming process was an eye opener.

"You'd go there for a day ... and they'd film all day, and that accounts for about four minutes of the production," she  says.

She became involved when the casting agency asked if any of the young boys she taught might be suitable for the title role.

"I sent a few along, but they all spoke too well -- they wanted a real ocker," she explains.

Mrs Edmunds combined her speech and drama activities with motherhood and farm life, mainly dairy and cattle at Wooragee and also sheep at Leneva.

She says teaching and keeping busy has helped her through some difficult times, such as Ian's death 15 years ago and the tragic loss of their second daughter as a toddler.

And she still finds her work satisfying.

"Particularly too when you see children who are very shy the first time and you see them developing," she says.

In the case of one quiet girl years ago, Mrs Edmunds was close to despair.

"For six weeks she wouldn't say a word," she recalls.

"And suddenly the next time I asked her if she'd like to get up and do a poem, she said yes.

"And so off she went and she ended up winning prizes and things. She got there."

Mrs Edmunds' success as a teacher has been recognised officially more than once, most recently by the Australian Music Examinations Board for teaching students who received the best examination results in the private teacher speech category for preliminary to fifth grades.

She was one of five in the state to receive the award. The children's theatre annual production has taken up much of Mrs Edmunds' time each year, with the choice of play dependent on the number, ages and abilities within the group.

And not for nothing does the old phrase warn against working with youngsters.

"There's been lots of moments when I could scream," the teacher admits.

"Sometimes it's a battle and on last rehearsal you think, 'Oh no', but they do rise to the occasion usually."

Last year's production, held at The Cube, Wodonga, proved particularly challenging as Mrs Edmunds had undergone eight medical procedures in the 12 months beforehand.

She has decided not to stage a show this year but instead hold a more informal presentation, a hard but necessary decision.

This concession, however, in no way implies any wish to consider retirement.

"I still want to keep going, I love it," she says.

"As long as my health holds out, I'll teach 'til I drop."


 [Merlin ID 1275029] 'I still want to keep going, I love it.' Albury speech and drama teacher Val Edmunds has been guiding pupils for more than 60 years. Picture: KYLIE ESLER

 [Merlin 1275030] Distinguished British actor Sir John Mills made time to talk to Albury's Val Edmunds during the filming of telemovie Spit MacPhee in 1987.

Memories ... Val Edmunds with her script for Spit MacPhee. Picture: KYLIE ESLER

BELOW: Mrs Edmunds pictured in 2001.

BOTTOM: She has performed in live shows  as well as for television and on radio.

ABOVE: 'I still want to keep going, I love it.' Albury speech and drama teacher Val Edmunds has been guiding pupils for more than 60 years. Picture: KYLIE ESLER

BELOW: Rehearsals for a Val Edmunds pantomime back in 2007.

BOTTOM: Mrs Edmunds says teaching has helped her through some difficult times.

Sir John Mills made time to talk to Mrs Edmunds during the filming of Spit MacPhee in 1987.