A Tribute to Don Battye (1938-2016)

Written by Peter Pinne

A TRIBUTE TO DON BATTYE (1938-2016)

Eulogy delivered by Peter Pinne at St Martin’s Theatre, South Yarra, on 15 April 2016

 

Don Battye’s major television career has overshadowed his other achievements, in particular his work for musical theatre which was just as groundbreaking.

 

I first met Don in 1959. It was after the first performance of a Late Night Revue at Joy Mudge’s Arts Theatre in Swan Street, Richmond. We were introduced by Little Theatre actress Peggy Marks. I asked Don what he thought of the show, and he said he liked only one song, “I Played Around With Love and Lost”. I said “I wrote that,” and so began a wonderful partnership. We discovered we both loved musical theatre and wanted to write for it.

 

And we did. Our 36-year collaboration resulted in us writing 16 stage musicals. We wanted to write contemporary stories so chose AFL football as our first subject. It became All Saint’s Day in 1960. We followed it up with a story about seasonal jobs in a large department store; that became Don’t Tell Helena in 1962.

 

But the show that put us on the map was A Bunch of Ratbags in 1966, based on the best-selling book by William Dick about teenage gangs in Melbourne in the fifties. We were the first writers to put genuine Australian working-class characters on the musical stage. The image of Syd Conabere and Peter Adams dressed as slaughtermen doing a soft-shoe wearing gum boots and singing “A Mason or a Mick” caught the public’s attention. It ended up being sung in revues around the country and on TV.

 

The seventies were out most prolific period. Caroline opened here at St Martin’s, the movie A City’s Child had just been released, our two folk-operas had premiered at the Adelaide Festival of Arts, we had done major rewrites of Ratbags and It Happened In Tanjablanca which became Red, White and Boogie, Sweet Fanny Adams opened, and Rumpelstiltskin commenced a series of seven hugely successful children’s musicals at the Alexander Theatre, Monash University. It was a time when The Bulletin referred to us as “indefatigable” and called us “Australia’s answer to Rodgers and Hammerstein”.

 

The 1970s were also the period that we famously took a taxi to Brisbane. Twelfth Night Theatre were premiering Red, White and Boogie in Brisbane, and we had booked to go up and see it on the opening night – a Friday. The day before, there was a plane strike with no flights to Brisbane, so we decided to take a taxi. We left Melbourne just after midnight on the Thursday night and arrived 21 hours later. The taxi driver had never been out of Melbourne, let alone Victoria, and had no idea where Queensland was, but fortunately I’d driven there twice before. The driver got so tired that I ended up taking over and driving for most of Friday afternoon. We had two flat tires, the last one just outside of Warwick on the Darling Downs. We’d already used the spare so we were stranded until a tyre truck came along out of the blue and saved us. We arrived in Brisbane at 9.10 and got to the theatre just before the finale. Of course everyone was amazed to see us when they thought we weren’t going to be able to make it. The mad jaunt made the papers the next day. And the cost of the taxi was $400, big money in 1974.

 

I might remind you that at the same time we were writing all these shows, Don was producing Homicide, Division 4, Matlock Police, Bluey, The Box, The Sullivans, Chopper Squad, Bellamy and The Restless Years. I never let him sleep!

 

Our final show was Prisoner Cell Block H – The Musical which played a West End season in 1996 at the Queen’s Theatre. During the eighties I had many trips to London for Neighbours which at the time was pulling 22 million viewers each day on the BBC. On one of them a meeting had been arranged for me to see the producer, John Farrow. He wanted Reg Watson to write a play version of Prisoner which I talked Reg into doing when I got back to Australia. Farrow produced it and it played two successful regional tours. He then commissioned Don and me to write a musical version of it as he thought it could have legs and become a cult hit like Rocky Horror which he had toured successfully. He was happy with out first draft, but on his way back to London he stopped off in Bangkok, had a heart attack and died. Move on 12 months and producer Helen Montague talks to us about Neighbours appearing live in the West End. We said no: we couldn’t afford to stop production and send the whole cast, but she could have two of the stars. She said no, and then we pitched her Prisoner – The Musical. She liked it, took an option, and two years later got it up with drag queen Lily Savage in the lead. Throwing a drag queen into a women’s prison was an inspired idea. The show played 100 performances and did two tours of the UK, one in 1997 and another in 1998. It holds the record of being the longest running Australian musical in the West End in the 20th Century.

 

We were in previews and Don and I were alone in the top foyer of the Queen’s, working on a ratty keyboard. I was writing background music that was going into the show that night. Don and I looked at each other. He said, “Remember this moment, because it will probably never happen again,” and we both knew what each other was thinking. Who would have thought 36 years ago when we’d started out in Melbourne, that we’d end up in the West End.

 

I have a coda to this story. The theme from Sons and Daughters, which we wrote in one hour, was the most popular song Don and I ever wrote. It’s been recorded many times, and heard around the world. One Sunday afternoon when I was living in Santiago, Chile, in the nineties, the TV was on in another room and I suddenly heard the theme playing. I rushed into to see it and there was Rowena Wallace – speaking Spanish!

 

In 1998 Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which had been a big hit in London, opened on Broadway. I went to see it and when the second act started I was thrilled to hear them playing the theme from Sons and Daughters. Not only that, the characters talked about the characters in the TV series as the song was being played. The play went on to win the Tony Award and played a year. So Don Battye’s work was not only seen in London but also heard eight performances a week for a year on Broadway. He truly had an amazing career and I was privileged to be part of it!

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