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EXCLUSIVE: Jennifer Byrne on her royal and rebel family history, and the scandal of her childhood

In a candid interview, Mastermind host Jennifer Byrne talks to Juliet Rieden about the society scandal that rocked her childhood, her royal and rebel ancestors and the son who convinced her to wed.
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Jennifer Byrne is full of beans. Just days ago she arrived back in Sydney from a mammoth adventure on which she and her husband, TV host Andrew Denton, travelled from Bergen to the very tip of Norway and back again.

“It’s a bucket list thing of course, to see the Northern Lights, which means travelling into the cold and dark of the northern winter. Though the real lure for me was we’d be joined by the ‘world’s greatest explorer’ Sir Ranulph Fiennes,” says Jennifer.

“His feats are too many to enumerate but include [being] the first man to circumnavigate the earth via the two poles. He cut off his own fingers to counter frostbite and scaled Mount Everest at 64. He’s my older-man crush,” she adds mischievously.

“I saw him at the Opera House. This trip was my chance to get closer. We went from six hours of light a day to just 20 unearthly minutes, sailing past tiny ports illuminated only by twinkling Christmas lights.

“And the joy! Ran – as he introduces himself, offering his fingerless hand to shake – was every bit the charming gentleman I’d hoped for. A baronet who joined the SAS, now 75 and still adventuring.”

As she talks, Jennifer’s eyes sparkle: adventure travel is her passion, combine it with maestro ‘Ran’ and you have the trip of a lifetime and one that also feels totally in keeping with the host of brainiac TV quiz show Mastermind.

In a few days, Jennifer will start filming Celebrity Mastermind, followed by a second season of the SBS quiz show.

“I grew up watching it and I’ve played games since I was a kid, so it’s perfect for me,” she quips. “In fact, probably one of the noblest moments of my life was when I was crowned celebrity Sale of the Century (SOTC) champion on the Nine Network. For me, that was the acme.”

“I was working at 60 Minutes and though Dad was always proud of me, it wasn’t until then that he paid any attention to my television work. He was a games nut too, and this was his golden moment; his child was going to compete! This is when it was still a class act, right, so I was playing against people like Gough Whitlam, who was miffed I beat him.”

Jennifer says winning the celebrity edition of Sale of the Century was “one of the noblest moments of my life”.

(Credit: Photography by Alana Landsberry. Styling by Jamela Duncan.)

“Some years before the SOTC show Dad and I were playing Scrabble as we always did, and I won for the first time. I would have been in my late 20s. He said, ‘Well done, darling’ and we never played again. We played other games, but Scrabble was handed on. The baton passed – which I think is lovely.”

This tale gives some idea of the brilliant and colourful family Jennifer was born into.

And while she’s always been at pains to underplay her upper crust pedigree, after the shock discovery that she genuinely is descended from medieval British royalty in the SBS TV ancestry series Who Do You Think You Are – which we’ll get to – she is finally ready to lift the curtain on her extraordinary childhood, much of which was spent scampering around the hallowed corridors of Melbourne’s Government House.

“I feel incredibly grateful about having … what looked like a jewelled life and of course wasn’t.”

(Credit: Photography by Alana Landsberry. Styling by Jamela Duncan.)

Fairytale and scandal

“My parents met when my mother was the Governor’s daughter. The family came from England when she was about 20, and my father was the man in the white uniform with the braid who was the ADC, the aide-de-camp,” she says.

“Traditionally the Governor chooses his ADC, and because my grandfather had been the commander of the Royal Marines, he had one from the Royal Navy. He picked my father. It was never explained to me why. My father was playful and fun and bright and quick, but not the most obedient.”

Jennifer’s grandfather was Sir Reginald Alexander Dallas Brooks, Victoria’s longest-serving Governor (from 1949 to 1963), while her grandmother was Lady Violet Brooks and dressed almost regally emanating from wealthy British stock. Jennifer says “Lady Vi” always claimed, “I am the class in the family”.

Jennifer’s father, Robin Byrne, came out from England with Grandpa Dallas and then fell in love with his boss’s daughter, Jeanette Brooks.

They married in 1952 when Jean was 22 and Robin 25, and from that moment on every cough and sniff of their lives filled the society columns of the newspapers.

Jennifer grandparents, General Sir Reginald Alexander Dallas Brooks and Lady Muriel Violet Brooks circa 1950.

(Credit: Getty Images)

After they married, Jennifer’s parents moved to a house 10 minutes’ walk from Government House but Jennifer and her two siblings – older brother Christopher and younger sister Belinda – still spent much of their time at the vice-regal dwelling.

“It was a different world and a different time and a different land. The house is a giant wedding cake of a place with endless staff, whom my grandmother called ‘servants’ because that was the word of the time. It was incredibly antique, remote from an Australian world, with these endless lawns on which there would be garden parties. The Queen and other royals would come and stay because that was their house when they were in Victoria.”

Jennifer has a distant recollection of meeting the Queen Mother as a cheeky three-year-old. She was made to spend weeks practising to curtsey before Her Majesty arrived.

“There’s a picture of me doing an incredibly giraffe-like curtsey, where one of my back legs is sticking out,” she chuckles.

“We had our own bedrooms and spent Christmas and the like there, but we didn’t stay overnight when the royals were there. I remember thinking the Queen Mother was a bit grumpy.

WATCH BELOW: Jennifer’s husband Andrew Denton interviews Keith Urban on his hit TV show, Interview. Story continues after video.

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“It was a fairytale. We wore fairytale clothes and we lived a fairytale, strange existence. When you look at The Crown, I think that GH, as it used to be called in the family, was absolutely designed on the great houses of England. Those scenes are completely familiar to me, that big central stairwell, the way it curls around, that is exactly what Government House is like.”

Mostly she remembers the fun she had there.

“There was this huge ballroom with thrones on either side with crowns on the top. They were not for Granny and Grandpa, they didn’t sit there, they were for royalty.

“My brother Chris and I would take our pillows in and slide the length of this magnificent, beautiful polished wooden floor from one end to the other. And yes, we played on the thrones even though we were always told not to. Then we’d go down to the kitchens and pinch meringues. It sounds like some hideous cross between Billy Bunter and Enid Blyton, and it was quite odd.”

Away from the big house, as time went on, she says, “it became something that I really tried to conceal. I just wanted to fit in with everyone else.”

Then one day everything came crashing down. Jennifer’s eyes fill with tears as she talks about probably the most damaging and formative period of her life, when her mother left her father for another woman, Zita West.

“It was all very mysterious. I didn’t really understand and no one told me what was happening,” says Jennifer.

“I know there were reports in the newspapers. The Truth [a scandal sheet of the day] was very strong.

“I remember my granny used to have a special drawer she kept all the papers in, and I’d sometimes go and look because I knew they were tucked away. I wanted to find out what was happening. I would read – this is reflecting the times – and they didn’t ever say ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’. It was ‘an unmarried friend’.”

While vitriolic, reports were deliberately oblique which made it even more confusing.

For example, The Mirror reported that Jeanette “dresses sensibly for the farm in slacks and shirt”.

Jennifer had just finished primary school, which looking back she thinks may have been a deliberate moment chosen by her parents to enact the transition.

“My sister had finished pre-school, my brother was at secondary school, but nothing was explained. It’s really hard to imagine how people can not tell you, but this was a different era and in the world I came from it was a question I couldn’t bring myself to ask, because I knew there was disgrace. The things people said to me were pretty awful.”

“I don’t feel driven anymore. I just feel free” says Jennifer.

(Credit: Photography by Alana Landsberry. Styling by Jamela Duncan.)

The only warning that something was awry came to 10-year-old Jennifer when she overheard her parents arguing.

“They never argued and I remember saying to my brother, ‘our parents may not stay together’. I don’t remember what he said, but I know that about a week and a half later we were removed, taken up to the country to a place called Harkaway Farm.”

“Not so long after I remember the phone ringing in the middle of the night because my grandfather had died. He’d had a bad heart.” By that time Dallas was retired and living in Frankston.

“It was suggested publicly that it was Mum’s fault, she’d killed him by running off.”

Jennifer was especially concerned about her father.

“He had all the humiliation and he had been publicly – in the old days you’d have called it ‘cuckolded’. It was all over the papers. Even though I didn’t understand what it meant, I understood he was incredibly vulnerable.

“It’s a very great privilege as a child or young person to see your father vulnerable because most of us never do until they get old or sick, but he was a man in the prime of his life and I didn’t understand all the complexities.

“I just knew something Mummy had done was scandalous and terrible and my grandfather had died. But my father never said one bad word about my mother. Not once.”

Jennifer’s mother stayed with Zita for 19 years and though Jennifer didn’t like her mother’s partner, looking back she has come to understand what her mum may have been feeling.

Elizabeth, the Queen Mother during her royal tour in 1958. Jennifer was just three at the time and curtseyed for Her Majesty at Government House.

(Credit: Getty Images)

“Slowly as time went on Mum would tell me things. She was bright. She’d been encouraged by one of her school teachers to sit the Oxford entry exams. But when she told her father he said, that’s not going to happen. No man is going to marry a bluestocking, and she was sent to a Swiss boarding school. She always joked when making the bed that she could do a perfect hospital corner!

“Grandpa was the maximum male that you could have – it didn’t worry me; I loved it. He was my grandad. But if he was your father-in-law or your father it was different. Maybe Zita was the escape. It was her chance to break away from an incredibly restrictive life.”

It has taken decades for Jennifer to overcome her “intense dislike for this woman who blew up my life” and appreciate her mother’s situation, and I sense a lot of the pain is still very raw.

After a couple of years Jennifer was sent away to boarding school for four years, which she loathed.

“It was nothing like Malory Towers,” she jokes.

Her golden days were the summer holidays with her father.

“I think a girl who has the unreserved, unquestioned love of her father is blessed indeed. I did.”

Robin later remarried and retired “at 59 and a quarter years of age,” Jennifer says.

“He lived another 28 years. He couldn’t wait to be with his games, jigsaws, garden and tennis. He was the happiest retiree I’ve ever known.”

“Andrew used to say he’s a bit like Winnie the Pooh. To be around him made you happy because he was undemanding, endlessly interested and didn’t try to turn you into something better. He was a really gentle soul in a pretty tough world.”

Jennifer with husband Andrew Denton attend the Art Gallery of NSW in November 2019.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Flying high

Jennifer was a smart student and sat her HSC – or Matric as it was then – early. She ended up two years ahead of her peers and won a place in university.

Her mother thought she was too young to go at 16, so as a fill-in she applied for a journalism cadetship at The Age newspaper.

“I don’t know why [editor] Graham Perkin took on a 16-year-old cadet, but I think it was partly because it was the beginning of ’70s feminism, he wanted women in the newsroom.”

She was paid $40 a week – as were men – and loved it. Jennifer’s print journalism career took her to Melbourne, San Francisco and London’s Fleet Street. She gave up her university place and embraced work.

With the benefit of hindsight she sees she was “running away from the fractures and running towards the perceived solutions and the determination to grow up incredibly fast”, but admits The Age “saved” her at a time when she was lost.

Ten years on when the Nine Network called to offer a position on the new Sunday show, Jennifer took the leap into TV and moved to Sydney. Then in 1986 she replaced George Negus on 60 Minutes and the rest is history.

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“It was fun to take over from George. I was conspicuously different in everything from hair quantity to experience. It was big. But by that time I’d had a really good stint at Sunday, so I was ready.”

Jennifer has never been one to stay still and her impressive career has seen her move from TV to book publishing and back to TV. On the way she married and broke up with her first husband, journalist David Margan, and in 1990 just two weeks after that split, met her soulmate Andrew Denton.

“It was not sought, not expected, but that is an almost unbelievable 30 years ago.”

Their son, Connor, born in 1994, was the catalyst for the couple to tie the knot nine years later.

“He really wanted it. He had this romantic idea, and a very particular vision, in which he would be the one who carried the ring on a red velvet cushion as his parents got married.”

“He mentioned it several times over the years and he never nagged, and when we did decide to get married our neighbour, who has remained really good friends and is much handier than I am, made us the red velvet cushion.”

“I’ve got fabulous photographs of the ring on the red velvet cushion being held by our son with a smile like sunshine. He knew he’d made the whole thing happen.”

Time healed her parents’ rift and they ended up living a stone’s throw from each other in Melbourne with their new spouses – when Zita left, following years on her own, Jean married Jennifer’s godfather, who had also been the best man at Jean’s first wedding.

The two couples became the best of friends, in and out of each other’s houses. Jennifer too realised “the amazingness” of her mum, who went to university to study anthropology in her later years.

Then when Jean turned 79, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

“It was beyond terrible. It didn’t happen quickly and my sister did absolutely the lion’s share because she was in Melbourne.”

After a long illness, Jennifer’s father died in January 2016 and Jean died in November the same year. She is philosophical about the circle of life, but it was undeniably hard to bear and is still something she’s struggling with.

(Credit: Photography by Alana Landsberry. Styling by Jamela Duncan.)

But one of the positive outcomes was that Jennifer agreed to go on the Who Do You Think You Are TV series to investigate her family history.

She had no idea of where she came from beyond her parents move from England and her father’s childhood in China, and admits it was definitely a way to reconnect with her parents, but says it was also something she would never have felt free to do when they were alive.

The result of her journey with the show was cataclysmic. In short, Jennifer discovered she’s the descendant of three royal dynasties and of Sir Edward Neville, one of King Henry VIII’s courtiers who was beheaded as a traitor; his head put on a spike.

Amid the powerful men were equally impressive women, who seized control of their lives in difficult circumstances.

WATCH BELOW: Aussie cooking legend Maggie Beer on SBS’ Who Do You Think You Are (preview). Articles continues after video.

My formidable family

In 2017, niggling indigestion resulted in a diagnosis of advanced heart disease for Andrew. It came out of the blue and the subsequent operation was a big one – quadruple heart bypass surgery which ended up being quintuple.

In the lead-up, Andrew and Connor were resolutely positive but Jennifer was terrified. After the operation she rushed in to check on her husband.

“I made a mistake and went in too early. They say you should wait till they come out of the deep – they basically kill you; they turn off all your vital organs so everything is done by machine.

“When I went in he was this horrible colour. He was in the Underworld … So I sang. Songs we sing together. Songs we’d sung to Connor. And he came back. It was the miracle of medicine, but I sang him to life.”

Since Andrew’s brush with death, I note the couple has embraced travelling and tried to scale back work. Is this Jennifer’s way of grabbing on to life while she can?

“No, I truly don’t think that way,” she replies. “I feel incredibly grateful about having – though it was painful – this long track which began when I was in my single figures of what looked like a jewelled life and of course wasn’t.

“That’s the race and what happened when my parents went is that I don’t feel driven anymore. I just feel free. I think anyone who’s lost a parent would know the deep grief and the sense of the layer above you in the universe, gone; but would also recognise there’s freedom.”

Jennifer is about to own that freedom with her next project, what she’s calling “a bit of a memoir”.

It’s going to investigate her newly discovered relatives, Katherine Swynford and her daughter, Lady Joan Beaufort, with whom she now feels an affinity through their shared experiences of scandal, love of literature and a belief women can shape their own destiny.

“It was the publisher’s idea; someone from outside saw it and said, ‘you’ve always had that singing family, you always were bookish people, you always were women who ran rather than sat.’

“It’s still sinking in. I’ve been alone a long time. There was something thrilling about finding I come from a coherent line, people you can respect and want to emulate. One gave birth to two royal dynasties and her mother, who survived scandal and sneering, prevailed. I’ve got to live up to them. It’s easy to be the one in the 21st century who has the voice and the pen. I’m so proud that I’ve got to be as formidable as they were.”

Celebrity Mastermind airs Saturdays on SBS from February 15 to March 21. Mastermind returns weeknights on SBS from February 24.

Read this and more fantastic articles in the February issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, on sale now.

The February issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, on sale now.

(Credit: AWW)

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