BOOK REVIEW: Home Truths: A memoir by David Williamson, HarperCollins, Sydney, 2021, A$49.99
In 1980 I was in London for some weeks, mainly on holiday, but as I was at the time doing a regular radio programme in Melbourne which covered theatre, I was also aware that I would be talking about the plays I had seen in England on my return. I read (in the days when theatre performances were a stable part of newspapers) that David Williamson’s The Club was to have a production at Hampstead Theatre Club—a small but prestigious venue in north London. It was to be directed by John Bell.
I had managed to miss the MTC production of a couple of years earlier, so I rang and asked to speak to John Bell and arranged an interview with him. While there I managed to score a ticket to opening night. The play, ostensibly about Aussie Rules, is actually a beautiful depiction of political chicanery in a small organisation and it went down very well. After the final curtain descended I stood and turned in my seat only to discover I had been sitting in front of the playwright. I congratulated him on the play and had a brief conversation. It seemed to me he was quietly spoken and a bit diffident about being recognised.
A couple of month later he was at the launch of a Melbourne Theatre Company season and I recorded a brief interview with him. Again, he was quietly spoken and not at all bumptious about being one of Australia’s most popular playwrights.
This is not the confident playwright of his autobiography, Home Truths, which has recently been released and which not only takes us through his life but also expresses in bold detail his beliefs in the Australian theatre and in the whole political and social structure of this country.
What do we look for in autobiographies? Obviously, the life of the writer and his accomplishments. But for many it is a chance to justify themselves, perhaps gain revenge on people who have crossed them and show themselves in the best light. Often readers will get the feeling that they are only being shown what the writer wants them to know, perhaps a sanitised version of the life.
None of this applies to Home Truths. Williamson’s autobiography is warts and all to the point where the readers may feel a bit embarrassed at knowing so much about the private thoughts and actions not only of Williamson but also all who he comes into contact with. He is open about his own infidelities but also those of his wife. His parent’s marriage is shown to be troublesome, mainly because of his mother’s nagging and domineering behaviour. His children also come in for some explicit detail. A few years ago Kristen Williamson, his wife, wrote a biography of David. Of it he writes ‘I did wish she hadn’t been so honest about my shortcomings’. After this I am surprised that any of his family are talking to him.
As readers we are probably most interested in his account of his plays and what impelled him to write them. It became obvious, as the years progressed, that he was tracing the path on which he trod. The Department is about the politics in a University department, which had a close resemblance with his own lecturing tenure at Swinburne. Jugglers Three although having a lot to do with the breakup of his first marriage, was set against a background of the reactions against the Vietnam war by outraged community members of Williamson’s contemporaries. The Removalists was inspired by a story told him when he was moving home and again deals with the society he was inhabiting in at the time. What if You Died Tomorrow shows the reactions of his family to a young writer who is gaining some fame.
In other words we can follow the fortunes of the playwright as he progresses up the social scale due to the success of his works and the affluence which accompanies this. Sydney beckons and we have Emerald City, he buys a beachside home in swish Noosa and Money and Friends finds a place on the stage.
From the days when he was just beginning to establish himself as a playwright it was suggested that all the characters were recognisable to those who knew the people who surrounded him.
Don’s Party, which is based on an actual election night gathering he hosted, offended so many of the people who recognised themselves that Williamson now shows an early draft of plays to his friends and asked if they are OK with the portrayal. He is quite open about the people who influence his characters but records that Robin Nevin once hit a raw nerve when she said to his wife ‘It looks like I’m playing you again!’
In addition to being influenced by those he knew, Williamson widens his perspective and admits to constantly scanning the social environments around him for plots and themes.
The book also traces the development of Australian theatre from the 1970s, when there was a vibrant new wave. The Melbourne Theatre Company, founded by Englishman John Sumner, worked on the British repertory system and mainly programmed genteel English plays, rejecting ones by Australian authors. Williamson is a little unfair here as it was the MTC which discovered and promoted the work of Ray Lawler. But because of their rejection of him and his contemporaries, up-coming talent turned to more radical ways to nurture talent and of course Williamson’s early work was featured at La Mama.
The theatrical revolution was expanded by the arrival of the Australian Performing Group, who turned an old pram factory into a performance space just down the road from La Mama. Its aim was to transform the consciousness of what they saw as socially conservative Australia. They wanted to attract a working class audience from the public housing towers dotted around Carlton. The working class stayed away, but the APG attracted an enthusiastic audience drawn from students and left-leaning academics. Williamson offered them Don’s Party. Initially they hated it because it was too middle class (the MTC had rejected it because it wasn’t middle class enough). However they needed money and Graeme Blundell persuaded them to programme it and had a big success.
From the reputation of works performed at La Mama and the Pram Factory, Williamson’s reputation grew and he was able to take on Sydney audiences at new venues there.
Ironically, as years passed Williamson’s plays became standards at the larger state theatres, both MTC and the Sydney Theatre Company relying on him to produce a hit a year. This resulted yet more criticism from those of all classes and political persuasions that he was selling out for fame and money.
While most readers will want this book because they have an interest in drama and theatre, it also demonstrates the way politics has dominated the landscape and created social change over the past 50 years. Williamson makes no secret of his left wing beliefs but is very willing to castigate those of the left whom he believes have gravely erred in judgement.
In the introduction he writes that his early plays were written when ‘the rigid social conformity of the 1950s had been disrupted by the 1960s, which brought dreams, sadly short lived … of peace love and understanding along with more sexual freedom and less repression and censorship.’ Later in the book Williamson analyses the achievements of the Whitlam government for society at large and the arts in particular. In less than two pages, Williamson brilliantly dissects this short era and explains how it failed.
In the early 1980s the Williamson family were on holiday in Queensland and found themselves sitting at an adjacent table to the Keating family. Paul, at the time, had just been sacked from the shadow cabinet. The two families joined up and spend a couple of days in each other’s company during which Keating let them know the extent of his ambitions. He wanted to open Australia up to international competition by floating the dollar so that we would not be left behind in a super-competitive world that computer technology was about to change forever. He impressed the Williamsons who were getting a sneak preview of the new managerial Labor party.
The Liberal Party rule was one of social and political stagnation, which Williamson calls “union hating, wages lowering, social service cutting, arts and ABC punishing, with tax perks for the rich agenda of the hard neo liberals’.
When the time came for Labor to supplant the Liberals Williamson derides Keating for the neoliberal worship of the free market which leads to Australia moving from having second lowest rate of inequality in the world to being extremely unequal, because the power of the wealthy and big business who hated paying taxes. Keating, he says, was smart enough to realise that any political party which so much as mentioned wealth distribution would die in a barrage of right-wing media. This situation exists in part because Keating permitted the rise of Murdoch to be the most powerful of media barons.
It is interesting to see how these observations by Williamson become themes of such plays as Sons of Cain, Top Silk and Family Values.
Although over 400 pages long, the book is an easy read as Williamson takes us through the interwoven strands of his life, philosophy and observations of the world that makes up his work. For those whose have lived through the years he chronicles, there are many moments of recognition of people or events which we can relate to. I was especially amused at his description of how his mother managed to outsmart two other ladies of the Frankston Bowling Club to become president and then took a busload of the members to Melbourne for a revival of Don’s Party. The genteel lady bowlers reeled under the onslaught of alcohol, sex and bad language and mother felt obliged to resign as president and take herself off to the other Frankston Bowling Club. At that time my father was a committee member of one of the clubs, but he never mentioned this to me.
In addition to his plays, Williamson has written several scripts for film and television but it is his 56 plays he will be remembered. It makes Shakespeare’s 37 look decidedly niggardly!
Ray Stanley was a journalist specialising in the entertainment industry. He wrote for a number of publications in the UK and Australia, notably The Stage (UK), giving information on theatre companies, actors and forthcoming shows. He also interviewed a number of actors and became friends with them, establishing a long correspondence, keeping their letters.
In December 2020, Theatre Heritage Australia was contacted by one of the executors of Raymond Stanley’s estate, seeking assistance with the sorting and cataloguing of a box of letters and other papers ahead of donating them to a suitable institution.
The letters turn out to have an interesting take on the attitudes of people involved in theatre and shed light on what was happening at the time.
Decoding the letters often in difficult handwriting or simply signed with a first name meant a lot of detective work was needed. We were convinced that there was a Ted Bramphas, who turned out to be Edward Brayshaw. Another, whose signature seemed to be ^^^^^^ ^^^^^ was eventually recognised as John Krummel, OAM, actor, director and producer whose career dates from 1960. He has the distinction of being convicted of using obscene language on stage in The Boys in the Band at the Playbox Theatre in 1969. He was arrested by a policeman who confessed on the witness stand that he was not a playgoer and would not have seen this play, except that there had been a complaint about it and he needed to see it to express that it was offensive to him. Not long after the law was changed. John Krummel’s letters however are from a later date, when he went to England. He at times seemed to admire and at others despise the standards in the UK. He also wanted to emulate what was good but feared he would never live up to their standards. Luckily for him, and Australia, he came home and enjoyed a distinguished career.
Most of the Raymond Stanley letters date from the 1960s and 70s and give us a good insight into the people and productions of the day. Some are from very well-known figures, others from actors whose existence has largely gone from our minds. It is this latter group which holds the most interest. Those from the “stars” tend to be mundane.
The earliest letter is from none other than Bing Crosby and was written in 1935 replying I suspect to a schoolboy with a crush on the singer. Crosby has courteously replied thanking Ray for his interest and saying he always appreciates suggestions. (What were they one wonders?). It is obviously typed by a secretary but is signed “Bing”. Our awe at seeing letters from people we may idolise is tempered by the fact that many of these have less than interesting contents. John Gielgud sent two letters; the first to Corporal Stanley dated 1943 saying that he is not interested in reading the corporal’s play, so don’t send it! The second is from 1950 and declines to do an interview. Phyllis Diller was more friendly, on her very decorative personal stationary she says she has no idea when she will next visit Australia but hopes it will happen—“I am so enchanted with Australia. The people and the country are great.”
Another youthful enthusiasm was evidently for Noel Coward. There are two letters written not by The Master himself but his 1943 secretary to Corporal Stanley saying that Mr Coward says “thank you very much indeed for your letter and your good wishes for the opening of his London season”—so no autograph there! Nor in the second letter written by Cole Lesley, for many years Coward’s companion. Mr Coward “wants me to tell you how much he enjoyed the interview with you, also what a pleasant change it was to receive such a charming letter of thanks for having given one”. Also supplied is the address in New York where a copy of the publication with the interview can be sent, and it appears to be the residence rather than an agent’s address.
While many of the letters are short and simply to arrange meetings, others, offer frank assessments of companies, directors and other actors, some of which are libellous. The identity of these writers is supressed, as is others who may find their youthful opinions now embarrassing.
For example one remark which is probably not intended seriously but slightly maliciously reads “fancy the Tivoli burning down. [Gordon] Cooper [joint managing director of the Tivoli] probably put a match to it himself—oh that’s libellous. Don’t quote me—I’m sorry.”
As Ray lived in Melbourne, inevitably the letters refer to people and productions interstate or overseas. Lewis Fiander writes in 1961 to say he is off to England to do Hughie in The One Day of the Year.1 Meanwhile he reports on a production of The Merchant of Venice 2 in Sydney. Lewis went on for two performances as Shylock which got him “a good-bad crit” in the Sunday Mirror and he reports that there were calls to the box office asking if he would be doing it again. He then did a play for Channel 7 (in the days when plays were broadcast direct from the theatre) of Shaw’s Candida.3 He complained that they had to produce one and a half hours of uncut Shaw in nine days.
The Old Vic was touring Australia and Lewis went to Twelfth Night,4 which he thought was hideous. He also saw Lock Up Your Daughters 5 in Sydney, which he didn’t think “was as well produced as it should have been. It just seemed rather brash and bawdy in a very unsubtle way”. He also saw the last week of Bye Bye Birdie:6 “ one of the best produced and cast musicals seen here for a long time.”
A year later he writes from a London address in St John’s Wood [very upmarket]. He reports on The One Day of the Year, which has the roughest last week of rehearsals. We eventually opened with three tough but very successful “press first nights”. The very first performance was greeted with cheers and three curtain calls taken with the house lights on, ordered by the Stage Director. “Having now learned what bastards the press can be;—looking back I realise how well the play was receive. Despite very good notices for me I was unhappy with my work, but during the last week and a half I gave what I believe to be my best work to date. Never have I been so close to a character as Hughie and the memory of the last scene with Ronnie will stick with me always.”
He continues that after a few weeks without work “out of the blue, this dreadful crazy American film man summoned me for an audition. I read the part—got it—and before I knew where I was, found myself in uniform standing beside Dirk Bogarde and 300 POW extras. Ray, the film was awful. Bogarde is a honey. My part—small. The producer a drongo. But as time went by this cheap six week epic (I was booked for 3 days but stayed for the full nine weeks duration) was thrown together and now I wait to shudder at the result.” For those curious the film was called The Password is Courage.
Jon Finlayson had a long career as an actor, writer, director, producer and singer. After beginning by touring the whole country with the Australian Boys Choir, he went on to create several long-running intimate revues. He spent many years in musicals and appeared as a straight actor with several companies, including the MTC.
On the 11 October 1967 he wrote to Ray that he was “terrible at writing letters but very good at answering them!” He’s right! The answer is nine pages long and covers several months in Sydney, in which he describes “an incredibly busy, fraught year for me—dashing and whirling around and trying to do lots of things all at once”.
He described Gypsy 7 as being fraught with setbacks. “Lesley Baker who was just marvellous as Mme Rose, developed voice trouble just before the opening and had to go off for 2 weeks within 2 weeks of the opening. Would you believe that her understudy refused to go on—and I had to rehearse a replacement while I was in the middle of rehearsing the 2nd edition of the Revue. 8 Then, with the new revue opened but one night, and me off to Adelaide as one of the Guests of Honour at the Drama Festival (Combined Unis), Wendy Blacklock developed the same trouble as Lesley and went out of the revue for a week.”
“I arrived back to find Lesley back with Gypsy but one of the dancers out, injured, and had to replace her without the help of Sheila Guye [?] who’d broken her knee cap while I was away shocking the University professors with my attitude toward ‘academic theatre’! Lesley’s voice has broken down again and we’re closing Gypsy early with the replacement playing the last week.”
His plans for the immediate future went array as he had picked a dancer out of the chorus (“who, incidentally was just great!!”) when she had an offer to go to Hong Kong “just as I was preparing to utilise her very heavily in some of the shows coming up, like Bye Bye Birdie, Guys and Dolls (I hope), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (I hope) and West Side Story (I hope). Please, not a word about these as they are not yet settled. I want to find out what Nancye Hayes is up to also”.
“From this, you’ll gather that it seems likely that I’ll keep on with Menzies next year. I don’t know about the Astor [Theatre Restaurant] bit; I had such a drama with them about the last panto. They allowed me to approach a cast for an entirely new revue to open at the end of August and then (contrary to all our gentlemens (?) agreement) decided not to do a new show at all. Now, after I put in fourteen new items (once I’d started making changes I just couldn’t stop) they are kicking about having to pay royalties on some of the material. Really, they are the absolute end!!”
He continues that he was approached about the Phillip Revue but his calendar was so full that the dates made it unlikely he could fit it in. And then, after showing us [well Ray] that he was possibly the most experienced revue person around, he goes on to say that he truly doesn’t believe that revue is his medium.
He was asked to direct Rigoletto 9 for the Trust Opera Company “but wheels within wheels here; internal politics and a decision to do the concert from stock costumes and sets and not as I’d conceived it, made it impossible for me to accept”.
He also saw some productions at the Old Tote. He avoided The Dance of Death 10 because the cast of big names give him a pain in the neck. However “Jenny’s Hedda 11 I’m a fraction more interested to look at, but somehow the clique-ness of The Old Tote and its audience is rather in-bred (perhaps because I’ve never been asked to work there?) and despite excellent notices for the production and cast, I really feel I must organise myself to go there, rather than want to go.”
“Saw Fiddler 12 on opening night and will see it again next week just before it closes. Hayes [Gordon] is tremendous, quite remarkable. This is what it is all about to me! The best musical comedy leading man this country’s ever seen—bar no-one. His selflessness, his stillness his sheer hypnotic quality was a revelation, despite the appalling inconsistency of some of the supporting players … I haven’t seen a show at The Ensemble for an age—they are doing Miller’s Vichy 13 next and possibly I’ll do something if I can fit it in ...”
Fairfax Theatre Archive, Beleura House & Garden, Mornington
Bob Hornery, such a delightful actor who pretended to be so disreputable, also wrote from England. He first had a role in the Regent Park summer theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 14 Later he wrote: “I have been lucky enough to have been chosen to appear in the Chichester Festival … I have 3 lovely roles and I also understudy Danny Kaye, which I feel is a great honour. It is a practically all-star cast and I am doing 3 wonderful plays.” 15 Bob joins the coterie who admire the National: “I didn’t think I would ever see perfection in a theatre but there it is in every production at the National. Olivier’s Othello 16 was superb & the Crucible 17 magnificent.”
Patricia Kennedy’s opinion differed somewhat: “On the whole I believe the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] is stronger and better balanced than the National, though some productions had weaknesses, I think, and some immature acting especially in Twelfth Night.” 18
From Tony Llewellyn Jones comes a rare letter from Melbourne. This actor’s early career was with the MTC, where he managed to appear as the juvenile lead over several productions and years. He writes: “Sumner’s production of MUCH ADO 19 works I think (Just.) As you [are] no doubt well aware there are similarities to the Zeffirelli production [for UK’s National Theatre]—but so what? That production hasn’t been seen here except on television, and if things like the laundry, the singing & mock Italian accents work why not, use them? It is the first Shakespeare I’ve ever done professionally—and it has excited me—and continues to do so each night. I think I play against the text a number of times—so that it doesn’t really hang together, but dammit the play is full of inconsistencies & absurdities anyway, so (again) why not play for the moment? After the country tour of the production, I go back to the Nimrod Company to play Don John in John Bell’s production of the play!!! And then Buckingham in Richard Wherrett’s production of Richard III.” 20
There is another mention of the National Theatre Production of Much Ado About Nothing 21 from Brian James, veteran Australian actor, who visited England in 1967 and “saw Zeffirelli’s Much Ado, with Lady Olivier [i.e. Joan Plowright] playing Beatrice (Maggie Smith is pregnant)—a gay send-up of the Italian way of life—(Neil [Fitzpatrick] was awfully good, playing Baltasar [sic] as a sleezy, broad-beamed Italian singer with a weavey walk in a white suit and panama—and two lovely songs.)”
“Judi Dench is very moving in The Promise 22—so good to be swayed between laughter and tears—in this beautiful little play set against the siege of Leningrad … Can’t get into Fiddler on the Roof—everyone is raving about Topol the star … Through Neil Fitzpatrick’s kindness I was able to get that rare thing a seat for Strindberg’s Dance of Death 23—a strange pre runner of Edward Albee. What can one say about Olivier! Surely his Othello couldn’t have been better than this—such beautiful detail, effortless control, unexpected humour—and heart!”
Brian spent some time in Nottingham, where actor/manager John Neville was highly acclaimed through the country for his work in the Playhouse Theatre. “It is everything a theatre should be in a community—I do hope our new theatre in The Arts Centre will embrace some of the qualities this one has. The amazing thing is that it has acquired such stature under John Neville’s vital direction, in such a comparatively short space of time.”
In his next letter a few months later, he writes “ John Neville has, more or less, been sacked by the Nottingham Theatre Trust—justifiable uproar about this.”
He continues: “The months since April have been pretty exciting—and I feel I have learned a good deal, just by observing, seeing different standards of work—and studying. I hope it will show in any work as time goes by! It was so good to see Bob Hornery get such a hand at Chichester in The Farmer’s Wife 24 as a randy 90 year old Devon man! Irene Worth was stunning, with John Clements, in Heartbreak House; 25 Trevor Nunn’s production of The Relapse, 26 excellent … I’ve been very moved by Michael Blakemore’s production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg 27—black comedy about young parents of a spastic child, but it packs quite a wallop. Glad that it is going to Broadway. Rumour has it that Kevin Colson will do the male lead in Cabaret 28 opposite Judi Dench.”
There are two other letters from Brian James written a couple of years earlier from Sydney.
Brian thanks Ray for sending him notices of Inadmissible Evidence. 29 “I really don’t think Palmer 30 and Standish 31 understood what Osborne was trying for—Palmer’s reference to the playwright’s use of the telephone instead of bringing characters on stage is an example of this. No thought for the terrible isolation of Bill Maitland with the phone the only thing left to resort to … I will pass your letter onto Robin [Lovejoy] when I see him: he has been rather depressed by the reaction to the play: business, in the Tiny Tote, has not been good and, a fortnight ago, when the visiting interstate Trust producers came to Sydney for a weekend conference, not one of them made any remark on this production.”
Two months later he writes: “John Sumner was over here earlier last week with George Ogilvie—that’s an interesting appointment isn’t it?—and I spent a short time with him. I understand the last season has been quite a financial success at the Union; although he seemed rather disenchanted by the critics views of Inadmissible Evidence and The Homecoming 32 as plays. It is quite possible that I’ll be working with him again shortly in some of the plays in the new season at Russell Street but I’ll await conformation by letter this week.”
“Virginia Woolf 33 is doing very well at the Tiny Tote for its third season—never know why they can’t play a season right through and have done with it! They certainly sent the play to some outlandish places like Coff’s Harbour—which seems like plain stupidity to me.”
In a number of cases the writers show a motive to get help or advice about work. One such correspondent is Sophie Stewart, a Scottish actress who married the Australian actor Ellis Irving and managed to split her career between Britain and Australia. In about the mid-1960s she writes: “A very quick scribble to thank you so much for your letters, cuttings and for contacting George Fairfax [at that time at St Martin’s Theatre]. So far we haven’t heard from him—but we live in hopes! I’ve written to Johnnie Ladd at Bettina [Welch]’s suggestion—just in case George falls through.”
Sophie then says they will be driving down from Sydney to Melbourne for an unnamed production. “The publicity is fine—so pleased. Keep it dark—as yet—but I think I am going into My Fair Lady 34 playing Mrs Higgins. It will be a tight squeeze for time and rehearsals but I can do it, I hope.”
In 1965 she writes from Sydney that she and Ellis are off to the UK. “While we were on tour with Hay Fever 35 we had a very attractive invitation to play at the 1966 Pitlochry Festival. [Pitlochry is a small Perthshire town which for several years held an acclaimed summer season in its tiny theatre.] Negotiations went on for a month or two and it was only about a month ago that we got the ok from Pitlochry to give you the news … It was too good an offer to turn down, especially with things so quiet here. We are really thrilled about it and I am very excited at the thought of playing again in my native country! We are going to do The Cherry Orchard with Ellis playing Gayev this time; The First Mrs Fraser with us in the Marie Tempest and Henry Ainley roles; 36 Lady from Edinburgh, 37 the play that was written for me by Aimie Stuart and Arthur Rose, and which I played for 2 years at the Playhouse in London; … Pitlochry is holding back its announcement of our appearance until The Stage gets it from you … I have cancelled my Stage now, so if your article appears before we leave would you be a dear and send it to us.”
The couple later returned to Australia and found work difficult to obtain but she pursues several angles: “Bettina [Welch] has told me of your letter from Peter [Cotes]—dear Peter, so difficult—so I am in the picture! Anyway he can but wait and see. Things are deadly dull and one despairs of the theatre. However I have written and/or contacted everyone we can think of. I had a nice non-committal letter from John Sumner. I have written Irene Mitchell as you suggested about The Queen’s Highland Servant, 38 but there hasn’t been time yet for a reply. John Tasker is madly keen to direct it and he tells me that Irene has already asked him to direct a play for her in the new season. So this might work out.”
“It’s so sweet of you to keep us in contact with things—we do appreciate it … Meanwhile if you are in touch at all with the St Martins, a persuasive word from you might help!”
1972 saw Sophie and Ellis back in Scotland where they bought a small cottage. Sophie had been offered work as a Lady in Waiting in Crown Matrimonial in London but as the contract was for twelve months she turned it down. She seems to have remained in Scotland until her death at five years later at the age of 69.
In 1971 Henri Szeps wrote to say that he was planning a trip to England and “wondered if there are any people you could suggest to me or even if you could write me some kind of letter of introduction to someone. Please don’t go through any kind of trouble over that but if you can think of anyone I would be most appreciative”.
In 1963, Edward Brayshaw took the road of so many other Australian actors by going to England. If he thought it would be the road paved with gold he was disappointed. Shortly after arriving he turned down an invitation to understudy in a Ray Lawler play: “that is not what I came here to do” but took a very minor part in a film called 663 Squadron calling it “an awfully good break”.
Obviously Edward found work as 18 months later he writes: “Things have been going very well for me for the last 9 or 10 months. After the film was finished I had a pretty grim patch.” His agents were “no good for me so I changed and after being 4 months sitting on my prat! Now with the new one [agent], I am doing OK”.
A year later he writes “Ray, I love it here and want to stay permanently … Your news about the theatre scene in Australia is very depressing Ray, but this is really why I find the scene here not as pleasing as I had looked to expect. I feel that it lies in the writing or rather lack of it and it is the same everywhere London, NY and on the Continent. I feel in many ways, certainly in Britain, that the Angry Young Man period (while extremely good and very necessary) brought into the theatre a lot of unskilled people in all fields. Because at the time it was fashionable to shun the traditional, the experimental and the establishment, and replace it with a scruffy set of people who have none of these thing, who have got hold of the reigns and led us to a new ground and created their own ESTABLISHMENT which is just now dull and it will take some time for this to disappear and the pendulum to settle then we will have the interesting theatre again.”
Brayshaw remained in England and worked in the theatre and TV until he died of cancer at the age of 57 in 1990.
The view of a playwright, who I shall not name, is outlined in two letters from the 1960s. In the first he writes about the invitations he has to go to the UK for a production of one of his plays but he is wary. Through the letter he constantly repeats that he is wary because he knows “the behind scenes West End well enough to realise that rather than helping to clear up the muddle that always goes on at this stage, my presence would probably increase it”. He is emphatic that he is not vain or arrogant but at an earlier time a play of his had a “seedy run” at a prominent theatre company. “The reasons for the seediness are many … one of the main reasons was in the enormous amount of rewriting I did, quite placidly, for the director. Often I felt he was wrong but, since he was a reputable man esteemed in the West End, I rewrote without a quiver. This time I am being very wary … if it is muted down too much, is subtle-ized, made too sensitive (and even worse Anglicised) whatever the play has is gone.”
He persist in saying that he doesn’t regard himself as “Strindberg, or Tennessee Williams or Albee” but he still gets very irritated at the way he is treated. Nevertheless he is keener on a British production of his plays. “I have turned down offers from creatures like John Sumner, Robin Lovejoy etc ... you’d better ask me about that. Briefly, I’ll admit to a preference for being launched in London even though I’m an enthusiastic lover of my own country: it’s only in its theatre area I jack up: it seems to me too too fantastic that our ‘national’ theatre should be dominated by pommy poofters, & that the Australian (!) Eliz[abethan] Theatre Trust is controlled by a refugee from the Vienna Boys’ Choir.”
From England Bob Hornery writes that he enjoyed one of Ray’s articles in The Stage and “needless to say I agree with everything you say. Latest reports don’t seem to be so encouraging. The Tivoli close-down was a hell of a blow. Apparently little theatres—Union & St Martins, Tote etc are doing all the business. Is this so? I hear terrifying rumours that Carrolls & Williamsons are both pulling out! Surely not!”
Brian James also comments on Ray’s assessment of Australian theatre in The Stage 39 when he comments on an article which is headed “Setback of standards in Australia”. Brian says “Congratulations! It does make one furious to read of the amateur standards continuing to exist in this organisation—and bad amateur at that, judging by your account I’m so glad someone has shown them up so publicly. And it makes one sad to think that young people like my youngest nephew, will be judging Shakespeare from this type of production.”
There are a number of passing comments from actors who either despair of theatre in Australia or praise it above the standards they are seeing overseas. For instance from England Edward Brayshaw wrote: “I have seen some of the worst theatre here that I’ve ever seen anywhere. The last two Old Vic productions were just so bad as to be laughable particularly OTHELLO. 40 The one thing that I feel is that We at home have been very unjustly maligned and convinced into thinking we are fathoms below standard and in actual fact many of our shows are infinitely better particularly in the staging and regardless of what you are lead to believe give me any time the old Aussie DRIVE and ATTACK at least you can hear us.”
Perhaps, to end, the most surprising correspondent is Marie Stopes, known best for her foundation of the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress. She had seen a letter from Ray in The Times, which was evidently about a book he was planning on William Archer 41 (best known as a journalist who wrote extensively about various aspects of theatre in the late 19th and early 20th century). Ms Stopes wonders if Ray would be interested in the fact that “Archer was one of the Vice-Presidents of the Society which I founded and of which I am still the President, and that he was very helpful and interested in our work”.
It is surprising how far an interest in one area can spread. Raymond Stanley’s love for and fascination with theatre began when he was a child and stayed with him through his life. He does not appear to have wanted to go on the stage but at one time was interested in becoming a dramatist and was an office holder of the Playwrights Club in London. I met him in the 1970s and 80s at various media conferences and other theatrical gatherings and his knowledge of theatre, playwrights and productions was extensive. These letters add to our knowledge of the theatrical world and will one day be conserved at an appropriate place for others to study at their leisure.
1. The One Day of the Year was performed for the first time in the UK at the Theatre Royal, East Stratford, 23 October 1961.
2. The Merchant of Venice opened at the Palace Theatre, Sydney, 23 May 1961, with John Alden as Shylock. Lewis Fiander played Launcelot Gobbo and Robyn Nevin was Nerissa. Fiander took over the lead role during Alden’s indisposition.
3. When Peter Cotes was in Australia during the early 1960s, he directed a television version of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida for HSV-7. It was presented as part of the General Motors Hour on Sunday, 5 August 1962. Cotes’ wife Joan Miller played Candida, with Geoffrey King as Morell and Lewis Fiander as Marchbanks.
4. When the Old Vic toured Australian in 1961, they brought with them three plays: Duel of Angels, The Lady of the Camelias and Twelfth Night. With Vivien Leigh and John Merivale as the stars, Twelfth Night was directed by Robert Helpmann and featured sets by Loudon Sainthill. It was seen at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, in October and November 1961.
5. Lock Up Your Daughters with Hy Hazel and Richard Wordsworth played at the Sydney Palace Theatre from 8 June 1961 to 14 October 1961.
6. Bye Bye Birdie was seen at Sydney’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, 21 October 1961 to 25 November 1961, with Patricia Finley and Frank Buxton as the leads.
7. The first Australian production of Gypsy, directed by Jon Ewing, opened at the Menzies Theatre Restaurant, Carrington Street, Sydney in September 1967. Founded by Jon Ewing and Hayes Gordon, a series of ‘mini musical’ were staged at the Menzies during 1967 and 1968 including Brigadoon, Kiss Me Kate, Sweet Charity, Annie Get Your Gun, Little Me and Bells Are Ringing.
8. Revue at the Loo, written by John McKellar and produced by William Orr, opened at the Astor Theatre Restaurant in Woolloomooloo on 21 March 1967.
9. The Elizabethan Trust Opera Company’s 1967 season comprised five operas, staged at Sydney’s Tivoli Theatre from 26 August to September 1967. For Rigoletto, the director was Stephan Beinl and the designer Rob Reid. Roger Covell, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald (20 September 1967), noted: “Stephan Beinl’s production did noting actively objectionable, but also very little that was positively illuminating.”
10. Presumably Jon Finlayson is referring to the Independent Theatre production of The Dance of Death which opened on 13 September 1967. This featured Ron Haddrick as Edgar and Jacqueline Kott as Alice. The director was Robert Levis.
11. The Old Tote production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler opened on 23 September 1967, with Jennifer Hagan in the title role. Robert Quentin was the director.
12. Fiddler on the Roof played at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney, 16 June 1967 to 21 October 1967, and was revived the following year, 5 October 1968 to 1 February 1969.
13. Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy played at the Ensemble Theatre from 12 October 1967 to 2 December 1967; directed by John Macleod. Jon Finlayson was not in the cast.
14. A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened at the Open Air Theatre. Regent’s Park on 6 June 1966.
15. The three Chichester plays were: The Farmer’s Wife (30 May 1967), which starred Irene Handl; The Beaux’ Stratagem (5 June 1967), with Prunella Scales, Peter Egan and Anton Rodgers; and The Servant of Two Masters (8 August 1967), with Danny Kaye. However the last named was replaced by The Italian Straw Hat when Kaye pulled out of the show.
16. Othello opened at the Old Vic in London on 23 April 1964, with Olivier as Othello, Maggie Smith as Desdemona and Frank Finlay as Iago; directed by John Baxter, with settings and costumes by Jocelyn Herbert.
17. The National Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, directed by Laurence Olivier, opened at the Old Vic on 19 January 1965. Principal roles were performed by Colin Blakely, Robert Lang, Sarah Miles, Frank Finlay and Joyce Redman; with setting and costumes by Michael Annals.
18. Twelfth Night opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon on 21 August 1969, with Judi Dench as Viola and Donald Sinden as Malvolio. John Barton directed, with sets by Christopher Morley and costumes by Stephanie Howard. This production was brought to Australia the following year, with Dench and Sinden reprising their roles.
19. The Melbourne Theatre Company presented Much Ado About Nothing at the Russell Street Theatre, 17 June 1975 to 9 August 1975, with Jennifer Hagan and Frederick Parslow as Beatrice and Benedick; directed by John Sumner; costumes by Kristian Fredrikson.
20. Richard Wherrett’s production of Richard III opened at Sydney’s Nimrod Theatre on 24 October 1975, with John Bell in the title role. The following month, John Bell’s Much Ado About Nothing, with Anna Volska and Peter Carroll as the Beatrice and Benedick opened at the same theatre.
21. Franco Zeffirelli’s Much Ado About Nothing opened at the Old Vic in London, 16 February 1965, with Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens as the sparring lovers; with settings by Zeffirelli and costumes by Peter J. Hall.
22. The Promise by Aleksei Arbuzov, translated by Ariadne Nicolaeff, opened at the Fortune Theatre in London, 17 January 1966, with Judi Dench, Ian McShane and Ian McKellen; directed by Frank Hauser. In November 1967 the same production played at Henry Miller’s Theatre in New York with Eileen Atkins, Ian McShane and Ian McKellen.
23. Strindberg’s The Dance of Death (translated by C.D. Locock), opened at the Old Vic in London, 21 February 1967, with Laurence Olivier as Edgar and Geraldine McEwan as Alice; directed by Glen Byam Shaw, with designs by Motley.
24. The Farmer’s Wife. See endnote 15.
25. George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House was produced at the Chichester Theatre on 18 July 1965, with John Clements, Diana Churchill, Irene Worth, David Bird, Bill Fraser, Doris Hare and Anton Rodgers in the principal roles. It was directed by John Clements, with sets and costumes by Peter Rice.
26. Trevor Nunn directed the RSC revival of The Relapse at the Aldwych Theatre, 15 August 1968, with Barrie Ingham and Frances de la Tour as Lord Foppington and Miss Hoyden.
27. Michael Blakemore’s production of Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg was first produced in Glasgow prior to opening at the Comedy Theatre in London on 20 July 1967. Principal roles were played by Joe Melia, Zena Walker, John Carson, Phyllida Law and Joan Hickson.
28. Cabaret opened in London at the Palace Theatre in 1968, with Judi Dench as Sally Bowles, Kevin Colson as Clifford Bradshaw, Barry Dennen as the Master of Ceremonies, Peter Sallis as Herr Schultz and Thelma Ruby as Fraulein Schneider. Harold Prince was the director, as he had been for the original Broadway production.
29. Inadmissible Evidence by John Osborne opened at the Union Theatre, Melbourne, on 18 October 1965. It featured Edward Hepple as Bill Maitland and Bunney Brooke as Jane Maitland. John Sumner directed, with scenery by Richard Prins.
30. Howard Palmer was the arts critic for The Herald (Melbourne).
31. H.A. Standish was the arts critic for the Sun News Pictorial (Melbourne)
32. The UTRC production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming was performed at the Union Theatre, Melbourne, from 8 November 1965 to 27 November 1965, with Frank Thring as Max, Alan Hopgood as Lenny, Edward Hepple as Sam, Malcolm Robertson as Joey, Frederick Parslow as Teddy and Jennifer Claire as Ruth. John Sumner directed and Kristian Fredrikson designed the scenery.
33. The Australian premiere of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf took place at the Old Tote in Sydney on 25 April 1964, with Jacqueline Kott as Martha, Alexander Hay as George, Wendy Blacklock as Honey and Kevin Miles as Nick, and directed by John Clark. After a nine and half week season, the play toured to Brisbane and Adelaide, returning to Sydney in August 1964 for a further four weeks at the Palace Theatre. Following another tour, it returned to Sydney for a third season, playing at the Tote from 30 November 1965 to 18 December 1965.
34. When J.C. Williamson’s revived My Fair Lady in 1970, Sophie Stewart played Mrs Higgins, alongside Robin Bailey as Higgins, Rona Coleman as Eliza and Kenneth Laird as Doolittle. John McCallum was the director.
35. Sophie Stewart and Ellis Irving toured Noel Coward’s Hay Fever (directed by Alan Edwards) throughout New South Wales, opening at the Orange Drama Festival in February 1964. The tour was jointly sponsored by the Arts Council of New South Wales, Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust and Old Tote Company.
36. Sophie Stewart headlined the 1966 Pitlochry Festival. She appeared in four of the six plays: The First Mrs Fraser (9 April 1966), Dear Charles (16 April 1966) and The Cherry Orchard (31 May 1966) and The Way of the World (28 June 1966).
37. Sophie Stewart created the role of Cristabel in Lady from Edinburgh when the play was given its world premiere in November 1944 in France under the auspices of ENSA. She starred in the first UK performance at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, on 26 February 1945, and in Glasgow and Cardiff, prior to a sixteen month season (560 performances) at the Playhouse in London from 10 April 1945 to 10 August 1946. The play was revived for the 1955 Pitlochry Festival, with Agnes Lauchlan as Cristabel, but it was not a success.
38. The Queen’s Highland Servant by William Douglas Home was first performed in the UK in 1968 with Pamela Stanley as Queen Victoria. The proposed season at St Martin’s Theatre in Melbourne did not eventuate.
39. See ‘Setback of Standards in Australia’, The Stage, 17 August 1967, p. 20
40. Othello opened at the Old Vic on 30 January 1963 with Errol John as Othello, Adrienne Cori as Desdemona and Leo McKern as Iago. The production prior to that was The Alchemist, which starred Leo McKern.
41. Raymond Stanley’s book on Archer was Tourist to the Antipodes: William Archer’s Australian journey, 1876-77, St Lucia Press, University of Queensland, 1977.
Grateful thanks to Leslie Cartwright, co-executor of the Will of Raymond Stanley for giving permission to republish the letters.
And a big thank you to Ingrid Hoffmann, Archives & Curatorial Manager, Beleura House & Garden, Mornington, for assistance sourcing some of the photographs.
Whenever a theatre company does a production one of the first considerations is the costumes. Unless they are doing something like Steaming, with all the characters hanging around a Turkish bath draped in nothing but towels, a lot of thought and care must be taken to give those on stage appropriate dressing to show their character, station in life and relationship with the rest of the population.
In modern plays non-professional companies often raid the individual wardrobes of the company but in a period piece more work is needed. When the characters are in uniform the problem is greater.
Most military uniforms are expensive, with braid, gold buttons and other embellishments. If a known regiment is to be shown, then authenticity is also a consideration.
This is the tale of how one company is going about dressing an old work. Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria knows at least that it will repeat the G&S Operas so any new costumes will be used a number of times—but that also means that they must be sturdy enough for repeated use.
Over the years the Yeomen of the Guard uniforms in Victoria have either worn out or been destroyed in a fire. This problem it turns out it a recurring one. In 1949 the programme for Yeomen had a paragraph stating that the committee regrets that after exhaustive enquiries sufficient Yeomen uniforms were not obtainable so some have been dressed in other costumes of the period and the committee “craves your indulgence and trusts the omission will not detract unduly from the performance”.
While Yeomen allows for some of the male chorus to be citizens, we still need a core of Yeomen in the recognisable costume. How to go about obtaining them?
In 1887 W.S. Gilbert began to wrestle with the thought that he needed to come up with an idea for a new comic opera. The Mikado had been an amazing success and made a lot of money. Ruddigore, which followed it, by contrast had made only a small splash in the theatrical world (though Gilbert was later to say that it had made him £7,000 profit) so an idea which would be popular with the public and entice Sullivan, was needed. Sullivan was suffering a bout of bad health and the desire to do something different.
While waiting for a train one day at Uxbridge station, Gilbert’s eye fell on a poster advertising the Tower Furnishing Company with an illustration of the Tower of London. He decided that this would be an attractive setting and began work on The Tower Warder, which Sullivan declared to have “a pretty story, very human and funny too”. Once in rehearsal Gilbert renamed the work The Beefeater and it was close to the opening night when the title The Yeomen of the Guard was decided upon.
While all the costumes (assuming that the production remains faithful to its original setting) are Tudor in period, the Yeomen uniforms you might think are simply the familiar red outfits seen in many a book on British history. This is not so.
The first Yeomen wore green. Towards the end of the Wars of the Roses, when the Lancastrians heirs were just about exhausted, young Henry Tudor was living in France, in fear of his life. His father was from an undistinguished Welsh family but his mother was the great granddaughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and younger son of Edward III. Margaret Beaufort was indomitable in her belief that her son was the true heir to the throne and eventually he invaded England and improbably won a battle against the much greater forces of Richard III, and became Henry VII. While in exile he was protected by a personal force of bodyguards who stayed close to him in battle. When he was crowned in Westminster Abbey his nearest soldiers were these men, to whom he gave the name, The Yeomen of the Guard. They were the only royal bodyguard, the first permanent armed body in the country and were entitled to stand nearest to the sovereign on state occasions.
Their everyday dress was russet cloth with a Tudor rose front and back. On state occasions their uniform was ‘damask white and green, goodly embroidered both on their breast before and also on their backs behind, with round garlands of vine branches, beset richly with spangles of silver and gilt in the middle a red rose, beaten with goldsmith’s work’.
I have often had the temptation to use this design for a production of The Yeomen of the Guard but apart from the fact that it would be way beyond any possible budget it would also completely confuse the audience.
The familiar red uniforms have changed over the years and directors and designers need to think of what period they want the opera set. The Tower of London was a royal palace and from time to time the Kings lived there and were guarded by The Yeomen of the Guard. However this changed and the body guard devolved into two distinct entities. The Yeomen of the Guard continued as the personal bodyguard to the monarch but a separate group wearing almost identical uniforms became the Tower Warders of more formally The Yeomen Warders of the Tower of London. So Gilbert’s title reflects the wrong body of men.
Today the Yeomen of the Guard are retired soldiers who only appear on special ceremonial occasions, usually around 30 times a year. They are given three weeks notice and provided with railway warrants as well as an allowance for food and overnight accommodation. They receive no pay.
On the other hand, Yeomen Warders are full-time employees. They must have served at least 22 years in the armed services, reached the rank of warrant officer (or equivalent) and have earned the long service and good conduct medal. They live in cottages around tower green and their pay scale is in accordance with that of the Civil Service. In 2006 the first woman was appointed to their ranks. Today the duties are ceremonial and they work as tour guides to the Tower.
This is good research background but how does it help with costumes? There are various imaginations of the costume. Some have the monarch’s initials usually ER or HR on them—some of the authentic uniforms have these others do not, but then placing them limits the period that the production can be set in. Some costumes are embellished with a grid of gold mesh, which is effective, or other decorations. Under Elizabeth II the bodices have the insignias of England (a rose) Ireland (a shamrock) and Scotland (a thistle). Not appropriate for the historic yeomen.
After the D’Oyly Carte Company folded in 1982 much of its goods were sold off including sets of costumes. A few years ago I managed to obtain one of their Yeomen costumes. The first thing to note is the weight of it. I can hardly lift it and it would be very hot and uncomfortable to wear on stage. Nevertheless it is magnificent. The tunic is in the Elizabethan style, with large puffed sleeves gathered in at various points. The bodice is tight fitting with large panniered sections forming skirts. There is a Tudor rose in the centre of the bodice and no initials of any monarch. The tunic is worn over red britches. Both are liberally embellished with ribbons of gold and blue. A heavy woollen material is used throughout.
We invited a professional costume maker to look at it and give us an idea of how possible it would be to simplify and make on a budget. She went into raptures, pointing out how cleverly the decorations were done to catch the light and improve the look from the stage. With her we have worked out how to obtain a pattern, which would take up less material without looking as if we have skimped and making it possible to replicate the costume.
To make a set of costumes will be the task for we can recruit sewers in some kind of production line. But even with a lighter and less expensive material and some corners cut with substitutes for gold braid, the cost per costume will still be substantial.
The alternative to having our own set, is to hire from Perth, itself a costly solution. So the Committee decided to set up an appeal for our supporters to donate toward the making of the costumes.
Donations to Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria are a tax deduction, but the donor cannot direct the money to a specific cause (a regulation that has always puzzled me), nor can they receive any benefit such as a free ticket.
So we have prepared a flyer asking for donations to the group and promising it will be put toward the costume. Names of donors will be acknowledged in the programme. If anyone is generous enough to give us a larger sum that person’s name will be placed on the inside of the costume. In a generation hence a chorister may ask ‘who is Jennifer Benefit?’ And the answer will be a generous person who made the making of this costume possible.
For further information, visit Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria https://gsov.org.au
Diana is a well-known actor, director, reviewer and radio presenter. She is particularly recognised for her work directing Gilbert & Sullivan operas. Forthcoming and recent productions include Iolanthe (2017) and Pirates of Penzance (2013) for G&SOV, Utopia Limited (2016) and Yeomen of the Guard (2013) for Savoynet at the G & S Festival, Harrogate.
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.
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