Two actors, one roof - how does that work?
Living in an extended family clan can be challenging but Dame Kate Harcourt and daughter Miranda have turned inter-generational living into an art form.
The actors share a house in Wellington which is set up for family gatherings but allows privacy when needed.
Dame Kate, DNZM, lives downstairs in a self-contained apartment which has a full kitchen and bathroom included.
It works well for her.
“I’m never lonely for a start.
"I could be down here all day and not speak a word to anybody but I know that there’s company upstairs if I need it, and there’s noise sometimes.
“It’s just nice to know that you’re not on your own – that’s the principal thing for me.
"I could be alone but I’m never lonely.”
While the actor can retreat to her own space when she wants, Dame Kate is heavily involved in family life.
“I’m the family taxi, especially for my grandson. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to take him to school, I’d be a wealthy woman!”
(Photo right: Dame Kate Harcourt and Miranda Harcourt)
Inconveniences important too
Miranda Harcourt says there are definite advantages in living at the same address.
“The benefits are many for Kate because she feels wanted and needed and she has constant communication. It’s great for her.
“I think the pleasures of combined living are really good for her mental health and alertness but also the inconveniences and annoyances are equally valuable, in a funny kind of a way.
“Like for example, this morning, as with many mornings, our son was running late for school and came down and got Kate to give him a lift.”
It was an early morning start Dame Kate could probably have done without, says Miranda.
“She keeps actress hours; having spent so long in the performing arts she prefers going to bed very late and getting up very late but you can’t do that with kids who are at school.
“They’ll come down and say, ‘Kate, Kate, will you take us to school?’ and she will jump out of bed and take Peter to school and drop him off, and then come back, and she’s up, and then she reads the paper.
“That could be considered an inconvenience, if you like, but actually it’s really good because there’s just a constant flow of demands, and she does a lot of driving our kids around from place to place.”
The actor hadn’t ever considered inter-generational living.
“After my husband [Peter] died, I sold our house and went to live in a townhouse but it was on three floors.
“My bedroom was on the top floor and my knees were giving me trouble so it was Miranda and Stuart’s idea that we look for a house together.
“I wouldn’t have even dreamt of it.”
Common courtesy key
When the family bought the two-storey house, they turned the double garage into an apartment and knocked holes in the walls to install windows and create a stunning view.
The two dwellings can be quite separate and everyone observes boundaries.
“I’ve got my own kitchen, my own bathroom. I’m totally self-contained,” says Dame Kate.
“We’ve got a door between floors but we always say, ‘knock, knock’ and ask if we can enter. They do the same with me and it’s just a common courtesy.”
Her advice for others considering similar arrangements?
“You need to be totally self-sufficient but within touching distance or calling distance.
“I’ve got one of those pendant things so that if I fall I can push it for help. It’s nice at night when I have to get up to know that if I did fall over, I could still call somebody.”
There’s never a dull moment.
“I haven’t a spare room anymore because my granddaughter has colonised it,” says Dame Kate.
“Before that it was my grandson but they’ve swapped over – he’s gone upstairs and she’s come downstairs. I know she’s there but she’s hardly ever there because she’s mostly at school.”
For the last ten years, the 88 year-old has taken her granddaughter Thomasin to piano lessons. She’ll also drive Peter to school and sings songs to Davida when the youngest can’t sleep.
They’ve developed a close relationship with their grandmother, says Miranda.
“She really is their best buddy I would say.
“They will all tell Kate things that they wouldn’t necessarily tell us, and have good granny chats in the car. And, of course, Kate is very discreet person so she never passes on their secrets so we have no idea what they talk about.”
Lively and fun
Sometimes the family eats together, other times not.
“Kate often comes up for dinner, but not always.
“Sometimes we’ll come down and say Kate come up for dinner and she’ll go, ‘no thank you very much, I’m quite happy with [what] I’ve got down here’ or she’ll say, ‘what’s on the menu?’ “
Miranda says it’s lively when they do gather around the table.
“We all have good conversations, there’s good research that happens, good global news, we share books – Kate goes to book club and she has good books to recommend.
“Also, it’s very useful when you’re learning your lines, a sounding board because we all work in the same industry.”
Dame Kate has had a number of careers, from teaching to broadcasting, as a fashion buyer, in public relations and then on to acting.
Her willingness to travel, to experiment, and to work in different industries is admired by Miranda.
“All the things that Kate has done through her life, she’s been a great collector of odd experiences – her interest in lots of different things and seizing life, like going on a theatre tour to Norway with ‘Hedda Gabler’ and Colin McColl.
“She’s always said, ‘Yes, that sounds like a great thing to do, cool I’d love to do that.’
“I think it’s been a great legacy to our family.”
Dame Kate is currently waiting for a film script to go through and remains very active.
Her advice for positive ageing is “Don’t give up” and “Stay involved in what you love”.