BOOK REVIEW: Seven Big Australians by Anne Pender
Review by Diana Burleigh
The book, subtitled Adventures with Comic Actors, covers the lives and careers of seven of the most popular and loved Aussie performers. All are still living, aged between 96 and 64, except John Clarke, who died all too soon at the age of 69.
All the subjects have a few things in common. For example none of their careers have gone through a conventional drama school start. Many have worked together and through this we get a good look at the development of types of theatre in Australia, which adds to our general knowledge of recent theatre history when it chronicles details of the early days of La Mama or the Pram Factory. Occasionally the information repeats itself in more than one biography, which could have been less clumsily handled. But this is a minor flaw in a book which is well-researched and written and brings to life artists we have become familiar with through film, TV and on stage. Several times I was delighted to be reminded of productions I had seen which involved one or more of the subjects.
It is heartening that of the seven, three are women, Carol Raye, Noeline Brown and Denise Scott. The four men are Barry Humphries, Max Gillies, John Clarke and Tony Sheldon. This is a greater diversity than we would have had a few years ago, though of course all are of white Anglo Celtic origins, which in itself it a comment on our entertainment history.
Anne Pender, professor of English and Theatre Studies at the University of New England, begins each chapter with an account of an interview with her subject, though I suspect there were several more interviews. The chapters continue with biographical details of the individuals. There is little critical comment, the author choosing to display facts over commentary.
English born Carole Raye, now in her 90s, has one of the most diverse careers. Her father was in the navy and she travelled with him to several countries but it was dancing that captured her interest from an early age. She had childhood success working with Robert Helpmann (who urged her to train for classical ballet) and the Australian choreographer Freddie Carpenter. Marriage took her from the stage and she lived with her husband in America working as a nanny and in primary schools. It was when she moved to Nairobi as television was about to be introduced that she managed to work in the medium, both as a personality and gaining experience in the technical side of the telecasting.
On moving to Australia in 1964, Carol applied to the ABC for a job in production but was told they trained their own people. So she took her talents to Channel 7, where she was allowed to do a pilot of a satiric programme based on current affairs. The Mavis Bramston Show became a phenomenon and ran for years, creating several of our earliest stars, including Barry Creyton, Noeline Brown, June Salter and Gordon Chater.
Subsequently Carol worked in straight theatre: Travelling North by David Williamson; soaps, Number 96 and was a regular on the Mike Walsh Show.
Anne Pender has written a full-length biography of Barry Humphries and it is tempting to suggest that this version is a précis of it, in that it covers some aspects of his life and character and seems to have done a cut and paste on others, omitting quite a lot of his experience.
The early chapters are most illuminating as they show a boy bullied by his Melbourne Grammar fellow pupils because of his inability in the perceived important areas of maths and sport, despite his excellent and original vocabulary. He became introverted and a loner. This did not drive him into solitude or to shrink from public activities. One of his first acts of defiance was, while attending a compulsory footy match, to turn his back on the field and knit. He became known while still at university, for outrageous stunts which were designed to startle fellow passengers on train trips and in city venues. Pender traces his career from his student days when he was recruited by John Sumner for the theatre he founded at Melbourne University (later to become the Melbourne Theatre Company) and his discovery of his ability to create a range of characters for which he was to become famous.
When she was taken to a performance of As You Like It at the age of seven, Noeline Brown became fascinated with theatre. From an under-privileged background Noeline left school at 15 to work in a library where she was encouraged to read widely and see plays. This led to her joining amateur theatre companies. At this time non-professionals were accepted into the artistic milieu and she mixed with writers, critics and artists.
Her big break into television brought her into contact with Carol Raye in The Mavis Bramston Show and they were to work together over years in such programmes as Number 96 and Blankety Blanks.
Throughout this time Noeline still worked on stage in such successes as Don’s Party and Buzo’s Rooted. Pender makes a great deal of her appearance in the musical Applause, based on the film All About Eve, which had been a big success for Lauren Bacall in New York and London. She does not mention that the production in Sydney was an expensive flop.
The chapter on Max Gillies gives us a superb history of Melbourne’s La Mama and Pram Factory. These two theatres were extremely influential in creating a new Australian style of performance. Both writers and actors were given the chance to create something, which contrasted with the then dominant British writing and presentations.
Max took a different path from the other actors in the book and we are regaled with his beginnings in plays to his more vaudeville performances to the range of characters he developed. There is a slightly confusing timeline in the telling of his story but nevertheless Max comes across as a charismatic and talented figure.
One of Gillies early collaborators was John Clarke but the two fell out and their paths diverged. Clarke came from a dysfunctional family (as did several others in this book) but his mother’s interest in writing drew her to the theatre and he was drafted into amateur shows. This was not a path to his theatrical involvement, as he was not interested in playing other people, he wanted to be himself.
He found his mark at university where he gravitated to the theatrical revues. He found a job as an assessor for New Zealand television, for which he had to see and recommend overseas programmes for the TV station. He became influenced by the British satirical movement, which included Monty Python and Beyond the Fringe. The New Zealand TV companies found these too radical for their airwaves but it inspired Clarke, who with the encouragement of Barry Humphries began to develop his own style. The famed Clark and Dawe interviews came from his admiration for Peter Cook. Although the book post-dates Clarke’s death it is not recorded.
Tony Sheldon seems to come from a younger generation, so it comes as a surprise to realise that he is now in his 60s. Coming from a showbiz family, he has a different career path. He began performing at the age of seven on Graham Kennedy’s Tonight. His father Frank Sheldon was a producer on the show and his mother, Toni Lamond a popular performer, singer, dancer and personality.
Once again we get a tantalising glimpse of the world of variety, introducing such illustrious names as Jill Perryman and Ticki Taylor.
Tony Sheldon’s childhood was troubled by family problems, which were exacerbated by the public nature of his father’s suicide and mother’s addiction to prescription drugs. Nevertheless he managed to survive boarding school (which he hated) and began working in straight theatre, a contrast to the lives of his parents and grandparents, vaudevillians Max Reddy and Stella Lamond and his aunt Helen Reddy. Tony worked with a number of established companies as well as commercial shows. He filled in the ‘resting’ periods with script writing for TV. This included a year on Sons and Daughters for Grundy. His big break came when he was cast in Torch Song Trilogy, three plays about a family-minded Jewish drag queen. The play is greatly demanding with the lead character being on stage for nearly three hours. The show was a triumph for Sheldon. After a sell-out season in Sydney, Gordon Frost bought the production and took it to Melbourne. Pender states that it broke box office records as the longest running play in Melbourne, but fails to mention that it was in the Universal, a fringe theatre in Carlton, with a very small capacity. The intimacy of this space added to the atmosphere of the play and enhanced its message. Sheldon admits that this production put him on the map.
Worried that he would be type cast in flamboyant gay roles, Sheldon initially turned down the role of Roger De Bris in The Producers but was persuaded to accept it and it gained him a Helpman award. During the run of The Producers, Sheldon was asked if he was interested in being part of a workshop to develop a stage version of the film Priscilla. Tony said he would rather stick pins in his eyes than play another drag queen. Fortunately he was persuaded to change his mind and history now records the musical was such a success and that he is now referred to as a Tony nominee when it took Broadway by storm after its triumphant seasons in Australia and London.
The final subject of the book is Denise Scott. At first sight she seems an unlikely star. Denise seems to be filled with a lack of self-confidence, and insecurity about her talent and at times self-loathing.
Hers was a happy working class family and at the age of eleven was inspired by the monologues of Joyce Grenfell.
Denise trained as a teacher as a way of escaping Greensborough where she was brought up. This led to her joining theatre companies touring schools, which gave her valuable performing experience.
Against all odds she began to find work in stand up and sometimes had the humiliation of being heckled in a vituperative manner. But she made contacts with other women in the comedy field including Lynda Gibson, Jean Kitson and Sally-Anne Upton, which resulted in work on TV in such programmes as The Big Gig and Full Frontal. Her path to being a successful TV host, comic actor and guru of the Australian comedy circuit is skilfully traversed by Anne Pender.
The book adds much to our knowledge and appreciation of a group of people who have brought much pleasure and will bring back fond memories of performances that we have seen over many years.
Seven Big Australians: adventures with comic actors by Anne Pender, Monash University Publishing, Vic, April 2019, ISBN (pb) 978-1-925835-21-2, $29.95