I finally feel that I'm free
The Australian Women's Weekly|February 2020
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 sunshine son who convinced his parents to wed.
Juliet Rieden
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.

“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.

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. 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.

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.

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