Fiona Spence (born 10 October 1948) is an English Australianstage and television actress and dramateacher. She is known for her television roles as Gestapo-like prison officer Vera Bennett in Prisoner (1979–81) and the unlucky in love spinster Celia Stewart in Home and Away (1988–90). She has made numerous returns to Home and Away reprising her role of Celia. Her other television roles include Eleanor McCormick in Packed to the Rafters (2013).
Spence was born in Kent, England to an Irish mother and an Australian-born father serving with the British Army. When her father finally left the service, Spence and her family (including her sister-in-law, casting director Kerry Spence) moved to Hong Kong when she was three and then to Australia when she was six. After leaving school, she was trained as a secretary and later traveled to Montreal where she was a hostess for the Australia Pavilion (Expo 67) at the Canadian Expo.
After living in Canada for a year, she left for England and lived in London for a time working as a saleswoman for the Fortnum & Mason department store. It was while seeing several plays in London’s West End, she became interested in acting. She was engaged when she was 22, but broke it off. After returning to Australia, wanting to become an actress, she trained with The Independent Theatre.
Spence began acting professionally during the late 1970s. She became engaged a second time, but again the relationship ended around 1978. While living in Sydney, she appeared in her first television role in the teen drama Glenview High in 1977.
In 1979 she first found fame playing the sad and sadistic, authoritarian prison officer Vera Bennett, in cult soap opera Prisoner. It was on the set of Prisoner that she first met her long-term life partner, scriptwriter Denise Morgan. They remained together until Morgan’s death in 2011. The character of Vera Bennett, the show’s main villain, was nicknamed “Vinegar Tits” by the inmates. The role continued from the show’s premiere in 1979 until 1981, appearing in episodes 1 to 224. In the first episode she was coldly sad. Later developments showed other more sensitive angles of her personality and explored the idea that her tough behaviour in the cell block was connected to her loneliness and social awkwardness outside the prison and caring for her elderly mother. Spence who played Vera with her hair in a tight bun, was hardly recognisable if she let her hair down. Spence herself commented she wasn’t readily recognised in real life, as Vera whenever she wore her hair down.
When producer John McRae took over day-to-day running of the series in 1981, plans were made to write Spence out of the series. Her character had become immensely popular during her two-years on the show and, when news of her departure was announced, the Ten Network received at least 100 phone calls and countless fan mail asking for Spence to remain. Spence however quietly left the show later stating “I loved playing Vera. But it was time to wash that dame right out of my hair.”
During her last year with the show, Spence appeared in supporting roles in both the television mini-series Women of the Sun and the television movie I Can Jump Puddles, which also featured a number of other former Prisoner co-stars including Sigrid Thornton, Sandy Gore, Lesley Baker and Anne Phelan.