Standing Orations: Campbell McComas and the Goodfa Business Theatre Company (1985–1993)

Written by

The goodfa business theatre company

 

No props or costumes or video. The Goodfa Business Theatre Company only worked with words. On the 35th anniversary of its controversial debut performance, founding member SIMON PLANT remembers a small ensemble which spoke volumes during Melbourne’s comedy renaissance of the 1980s.

 

On the evening of October 30 1985, six Melburnians stood on the stage of the Southern Cross Ballroom and gave a Royal Command performance.

The occasion was an official dinner dance to celebrate Victoria’s Sesquicentenary in the presence of The Prince and Princess of Wales, then touring Australia. Comic speech maker Campbell McComas had been engaged to provide entertainment for the dinner and, in preparation, gathered together a troupe of young, occasional actors to ‘act out’ a presentation: an ‘historical revue’ tracing the intertwining lives of the City of Melbourne and the Royal Family, from the first Royal tour in 1867.

The Royal Melbourne Business Theatre Company was born ... but almost didn’t make it through the night. Midway through the presentation of Royal Melbourne, several high society women staged a walkout, claiming to be offended by our irreverent script. In particular, a tongue in cheek reference to the colloquialism, ‘Pommy bastard’. [1] The show went on—after a dramatic pause—and the press had a field day, both here and overseas. ‘Revue ruins a night of nights’, ran one headline, in the Sunday Telegraph. ‘Fuss over PB’s in front of the HRHs’, ran another, in The Age. The South China Morning Post called the fracas ‘A right Royal pommie [sic] row’. McComas begged to differ. ‘Storm in a Royal Doulton teacup,’ he sniffed. Prince Charles was on our side: ‘Offended?’ he responded to a reporter. ‘Not at all. Were you?’ On receipt of a leather bound copy of the Royal Melbourne script, ‘Their Royal Highnesses’ thanked McComas for a ‘splendid memento’ of ‘an extremely enjoyable evening’.[2]

The Royal Melbourne Business Theatre Company had passed a huge test on its first outing. Not wishing to sound too grand, the ensemble soon changed its name to The Goodfa Business Theatre Company ... and the rest is ‘hysterical’, as McComas used to say. Over the next eight years, Goodfa was called on to entertain, amuse and inform some of Victoria’s most notable institutions: Scotch College, Elders IXL, the Australian Institute of Management, and the Royal Melbourne School of Nursing, among others. These engagements were all bespoke. As Goodfa’s prospectus explained: ‘Through meticulous preparation and personal involvement, the Company is committed to creating tailor made performances of the highest standard’. Goodfa members—drawn from the realms of government, business, academia, journalism and the law—also staged sell-out black tie balls where topical events were lightly burlesqued. Like Royal Melbourne, those orations got ovations.

Between 1985 and 1993, Royal Melbourne-Goodfa Business performed 11 original shows to thousands of people and played a small but significant role in Melbourne’s emergence as Australia’s comedy capital. The Company’s heyday coincided with the birth of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, a surge in stand-up comedy clubs and an Australian humour boom on prime time TV. Goodfa’s place in that firmament of fun has been rather overlooked, not out of any deliberate neglect, but because it stood apart. The Company was exclusively theatrical, it commandeered non-theatrical spaces for its presentations, and it prided itself on ‘one off’ performances where there was no scope for repetition or reproduction. Goodfa’s aloof position in Melbourne comedy aligned with McComas’ own practice. The one-time lawyer turned comic speechmaker regarded television as ‘the great over exposer’ and aside from fitful appearances on TV in the early 80s, and an ongoing ABC radio spot, he confined his practice to the podium. [3]

Up there, McComas was in a league of his own. Before he took it up professionally in 1979, speechmaking was largely the province of corporate motor mouths, ‘blue’ comics, and retired sportsmen who lazily recycled their material at footy club smoke nights and service club luncheons. McComas broke with this dull anecdotage. Enamoured with the ‘noble and neglected art’ of after-dinner speaking, he set about ‘researching, creating and presenting original characters for State occasions, conferences, dinners and other major gatherings’ in Australia and overseas. [4]

‘I’m not aware of anyone else anywhere doing speeches like mine’, he said in 1986. [5] No wonder. McComas’ unique brand of corporate comedy was hugely labour intensive. He insisted on at least three months’ notice for any assignment and having accepted a commission, proceeded to make a forensic examination of his client:

‘I work like a lawyer and use the same processes of reasoning. I’m given a case, I develop an argument, and I stand up and present that case before an audience’. [6]

The man delivering that ‘case’ kept changing, of course. One audience would see McComas masquerading as Comrade Ivan Topov. Another would encounter Dr Roscoe G Headlammer. It was Harley C. Weymouth who spoke at a meeting of the Meat and Allied Trades Federation, Dr Karl Kaufman who addressed a Motor Trades AGM, and laconic Bert Aitken who reflected on ‘Patients, Patience and Pain’ at an Australian Physiotherapy Foundation Conference. McComas invented them all and rarely resorted to eleborate makeup and costuming. Inheriting a ‘sheer, unadulterated love of language’ [7] from his father, the veteran Melbourne broadcaster Geoff McComas, he relied instead on words: all of them precisely calibrated for speeches that possessed their own special rhythms. The best ones commingled satiric comedy with sly observations, provoking laughter and reflection in equal measure. ‘I enjoy picking up the jargon of my clients and, in a sense, throwing it back at them,’ McComas once said. [8] And having made his closing remarks, this comic chameleon would whip off a pair of glasses (one of his few props) and invariably say: ‘Thank you very much for having me but, then, I think you’ve been had too’. [9]

McComas’ first memorable appearance, at Monash University in 1976, was a hoax. For a prank, the final year law student pretended to be a distinguished Cambridge academic—Professor Granville Williams - and delivered a po-faced dissertation entitled, ‘When No means Yes—Rape, Consent and the Law’. Hundreds of fellow students and staff fell for the lunchtime leg-pull which newspapers dubbed ‘one of the most amazing hoaxes in campus history’. [10] Later, having created a hugely successful speaking business (Speechmasters), McComas came to regard the hoax element as a ‘nice bonus ... not an end in itself’. [11]

McComas was into his sixth year as a speechmaker when he was summoned by ‘royalty’ to pen a ‘Historical Epistle to Their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales’. True to form, he spent months mining mountains of material, looking for nuggets to illuminate two centuries of royal kinship. But when McComas appeared at the Southern Cross Ballroom, in the guise of Roycroft Fawkner Batman Melville Esquire (‘Unofficial Acting Town Clerk of the City of Melbourne’), he was attended by five bow-tied courtiers. I was one of them. Writing about the event, in a subsequent newspaper article, I recalled how ‘the VIP lounge door swung open and off we marched, swinging bells and shouting, ‘Hear ye, hear ye’ over the assembled throng. We were ‘on’, with 2000 eyes concentrated on our flag-bedecked stage. No first night nerves allowed. No fluffed lines and definitely no second chances. Our act had to be as smooth and well oiled as a Royal itinerary and it was, despite unexpected interjections’. [12]

Forty minutes long, and supported with music, Royal Melbourne was the product of ‘more than 300 man-hours of research, writing and rehearsal’. [13] It also established Goodfa’s signature style, albeit it in a raw and unvarnished state: a narrator to the side, a Greek chorus front and centre, and every member moving with military precision. No props, no costumes, no video. Our brief on that glittering night was to stand up and serve sentences. Pure and simple.

Royal Melbourne was directed by Tim Blood. He and McComas became great friends through Tin Alley Players, the University of Melbourne’s longstanding graduate theatre company, and shared a love of drama. [14] To ‘build’ a supporting cast for their regal gig at the Lady Mayoress’s Committee Dinner Dance, Blood looked again to Tin Alley where he tapped Meg Mitchell, Mary Fotheringham, Elisabeth Wentworth and myself. All of us had experience in university revue and were dubbed, for the occasion, ‘Purveyors of Superior Theatrical Services to Businesses and the Professions’. [15] Consolidating as Goodfa in 1986, the troupe soon added fellow thespians Helen Rollinson, Mark Williams and John Billings to its ranks, all ably stage managed by Field Rickards and Anthony Bartel.

By the time we embarked on our second engagement, a revue for the Queens College Centenary Wyvern Dinner in August 1987, the shape of Goodfa was set. McComas and Blood declared it would be ‘specialising in research, scriptwriting and production of short plays, sketches and musicals as a component of large scale conferences and other major gatherings’. [16] Asked how he viewed Goodfa, McComas called it ‘a logical extension to my established format’. [17] The word ‘extension’ was revealing. Working solo, McComas could be anyone he wanted to be. Performing with Goodfa, he had four—sometimes five—extra voices amplifying the message. He was, in effect, going from mono to stereo. Even full surround sound. This brief passage from Royal Melbourne, announcing the ‘arrival’ of a certain Prince at Geelong Grammar’s Timbertop, signalled our happy union:

TB: I’m His Royal Highness Philip? Arthur? George?

CMc: Charles!

EW: Charles

SP: Earl of Most Earldoms, Duke of the Others

TB: Heir to the Throne, Move over Mother!

MF: Lord of Lords and king of Kings

SP: Knight of knights and all good things

TB: Owner of the Oval, the Queen’s first child

MF: Marquis of the MGB, Viscount Special Mild

SP: Commander of the Corgis, Czar of Silver Spoons

TB: And Colonel-in-Chief of the Order of the Goons

MF: Pooh-Bah of All Creatures Here Below

EW: And 21st Prince of Wales. Hello!

CMc: Well!

In November 1986, Goodfa laid its other key stone: an end of year revue. ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, presented at the South Melbourne Town Hall, unpacked a years’ worth of news through songs and skits. Our approach owed a debt to English exemplars—Oxbridge revue, the ‘60s TV satire, That Was The Week That Was, and The Two Ronnies (Ronnie Barker was one of McComas’ comic heroes)—but our humour was grounded in home soil, evidenced by this wry 1988 Bi-Centenary ditty:

ALL: ‘I’ve been to Sydney, it should be closed down/To Brissy, Perth, Adelaide and old Hobart town/But no matter how much this years’ been a failure/I still call Australia ... Australia’.

Melbourne was Goodfa’s heartland. In show after show, we ripped headlines from local papers, quoted local identities and name-checked familiar haunts. Footy nearly always got a guernsey:

CMc: Over to you, Tim Lane, at the Park

SP: Thanks, Lou. Well, the crowd in the stand above us, which we can’t see, is jam packed I think you’d agree, Drew

MF: Yes, Tim, and it looks like Michael Toss has won the Tuck. Over to you KB

MK: Thanks Scottie. Well, there it goes, the left boot is on its way

CMc: And so was Melbourne in their best season for 23 years!

Goodfa did not thrive in isolation. In the mid-’80s, its ‘associates’ swam in what comic scribe Shane Maloney called ‘a reservoir of absurdity and playfulness’. [18] So, while we were lobbing jokes over dinner dance tables in Camberwell and Albert Park, other young writers and performers (such as Richard Stubbs, Mary-Anne Fahey and Mary Kenneally) were ‘working for peanuts in sweaty little theatre restaurants all over the inner north’. [19] The Melbourne International Comedy Festival gave this talent pool a proper stage. Launched in 1987, and conceived by John Pinder of Last Laugh Theatre Restaurant fame, it shone a spotlight on the ‘new generation’ who were ‘trying out material, collaborating in different combinations, experimenting with characters and voices, and taking risks in front of local audiences’. [20]

To Maloney, a cultural officer with the City of Melbourne, the festival gave people ‘a license to be silly’ and this invitation was accepted in very different ways. Larrikinism powered Rod Quantock’s popular Bus Tours. The migrant experience was upended in Wogs Out of Work. And old fashioned clowning animated the anarchic duo, Los Trios Ringbarkus. The Doug Anthony All-Stars (DAAS) were downright aggressive and got people’s attention with stunts involving lighter fluid.  Goodfa was never angry. Or dangerous. For corporate commissions, our job was to celebrate, not subvert. To unify, not fragment. The gala revues were our ‘Fringe’, a place where we could cut loose a bit, even drop a few expletives, but we had nothing in common with anarchic ‘improv’. Goodfa was no fan of formlessness and always stuck to the script—a legible gender-neutral script that aimed to be ‘entertaining, relevant, insightful and original every time’. [21] The Company was even orderly behind the scenes. Once commissions were secured, and a cast was locked in, some members would be dispatched to undertake research. Others would take the lead on scripts. Being a truly collegiate company, the whole troupe influenced the drafts that followed but our ‘artistic directors’ had the final say. In all decisions, they adhered to the ‘three prongs’ of Goodfa: That we are the main attraction on the night, that we play to no fewer than 500 people, and that we stage manage the entire night from start to finish. Once original music was added, and rehearsals were complete (six weeks was typical), the show would get a ‘dry run’ in front of family and friends. After that, it was show time!

The 1988 ‘historical revue’, Visions of Boyhood: The World of Scotch College, tested Goodfa’s ensemble approach. Not only were we selected to present a 50-minute entertainment tracing the history of the school (McComas’ alma mater) from its inception in 1851 to 1988. We were asked to do so four times at four fund raising dinners in the Scotch Memorial Hall. Blood advised the team: ‘While this revue will be broadly similar in style to Queen’s College: 100 Not Out, it will be a significant departure in terms of depth, content and the variety of memories, personalities, qualities and emotions conveyed’. [22]

Sure enough, it took the writing team ‘two months, seven drafts and scores of arguments’ to produce the final 25-page script. A decent amount of our research eventually lay on the ‘cutting room floor’ but Company chieftains wisely emphasised ‘balance, perspective and a brightly focused statement on what makes Scotch special’. [23]

Accents were a Goodfa specialty and this big gig, with its ‘cast’ of staff, students and assorted Scots, gave us scope to show off Highland burrs, English trills and Ocker slang. Relaying a century and a half of Scotch history also called on our physical skills. Parade ground drills, track and field events and tuckshop tales were all enacted with appropriate schoolboy zeal.

Flush with sentiment, ‘Visions of Boyhood’ was borne up on the wings of skirling bagpipes ... not to mention a choir, an organ and a bell. McComas, who cast himself for the shows as Forbes Lawson Donaldson McMaster, declared: ‘It all worked perfectly. I can’t remember feeling better on a stage’. [24] Did John Dorman Elliott hear about Goodfa’s standing ovations at Scotch? If not, this buccaneering businessman and Liberal Party kingpin had very probably heard of our ‘inspirer-in-chief’. By the late ‘80s, McComas was exceeding 700 characters and being hailed as Australia’s ‘Prince of the Podium’. Whatever the case, it was Elliott who gave Goodfa the thumbs up to star at the Elders IXL 150th Anniversary Dinner, planned for spring 1989.

‘This engagement is undoubtedly our most significant achievement to date,’ a delighted McComas reported, ‘and the first occasion when there was little or no personal contact to create the opportunity in the first instance. We submitted an unsolicited proposal which has been accepted without any qualification’. [25]

Blood remembers it differently. ‘The welcome we got at John Elliott’s office was rather intimidating,’ he says. ‘After chatting for a while, he put down his papers, looked at us over his reading glasses, and said gruffly, ‘Well, you can do your show then ... but it better be good!’ [26]

Coming out of the meeting, Blood was concerned Goodfa had ‘finally bitten off more than we could chew’ but McComas, brimming with confidence, insisted they press on. [27]

In the debt-fuelled, ‘capital efficient’ 80s, Elders-IXL was a corporate juggernaut: a behemoth that bolted together a one-time jam company with a pastoral empire. Elliott was its public face, a garrulous corporate warrior whose bravado—and barnstorming style—was gleefully satirised on ABC-TV’s Rubbery Figures. ‘Pigs arse!’ was his puppet’s immortal catch phrase. Goodfa’s 1987 revue had some fun at Elliott’s expense as well:

ALL: ‘We are the navy blue/ we are the corporately controlled navy blue/ We’re the team that pours the Fosters down/ We’re John Elliott’s cash base crown’

Embarking on Elders: 150 for Australia, a revue spanning 150 years of agribusiness, resources, finance and brewing, we went hunting for colourful stories that conveyed the push and shove of empire building. We excavated dusty archives in Adelaide and Sydney. We deconstructed complex takeovers and stock trades. And we turned part one of our 50-minute show into an annual general meeting, chaired by Alexander Henry Dormant Barr-Elliott, ‘John’s Elder brother, from the Dormant side of the family’:

CMc: Let’s look at the accounts. For the year ended 30 June 1989, I’m pleased to report that the Company’s final result was

EW: The total of the difference between the amount of deferred interest in the Finance Group

MK The number of short sold sheep in the Agribusiness Group

MF: And the square root of the convertible notes in the Resources Group.

SP: Which is all equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides of the Brewing Group ... hic!

Part two of Elders: 150 for Australia brought the company’s history up to date, neatly twining corporate shenanigans with the Carlton Footy Club, where Elliott presided as President:

CMc: Welcome back to ...

MK: Footy Round Up. I’m Harry Beitzel. It was a very level playing field here today for the big interstate clash of Season ’81, as Elders GM finally drew with Henry Jones IXL.

EW: In a sensational move after the siren, half the Elders GM team hung up their boots.

SP: And the entire Henry Jones team, led by rugged veteran centre half forward Johnny Elliott, went across to Elders in a record breaking transfer.

EW: That’s certainly put some pressure on the Elders salary cap, Harry.

MK: I’m sure they’ll find a way round it. They’re a very creative club.

If Goodfa’s Scotch show was sturdily constructed, our Elders script displayed the highest level of craftsmanship. Reading it today, as a document describing the fluctuating fortunes of a major Australian company, it comes across as cogent and concentrated—a tribute to the research and writing effort led by Mary Fotheringham and Mark Williams.

The script’s emotive power came from the way it transcended raw data to humanise not just the people who led Elders but the people who served it. In one memorable passage, addressing hierarchy, we adopted the structure of a classic British comedy sketch (‘The Class System’ made famous by John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett), and grafted Australiana over the top:

CMc: (aka John Elliott) I used to have two blue suits,45 blue shirts, 55 pairs of black socks, one blue blazer, one pair of black shoes, one Elders tie and one pair of 25-year-old thongs. Then Amanda [Elliott] came along. I’ve thrown out the thongs.

MK: I’m a quiet, orderly man. My suits and ties are well tailored, my hair is smooth and my desk is always neat and tidy.

EW: I’m so quiet and orderly that nobody knows what suits and shirts I wear

MF: Ah, I’m so, ah, disorderly that, ah, my shirt is usually hanging out of my dacks

SP: I’m a well dressed man, and a well dressed man needs a well dressed beer, and the best dressed beer is Vic – Victoria Bitter (Drinks). Aaaaah!

Our composer-in-residence, John Billings was skilled at crafting anthems and penned a stirring heart-tugger for the Elders gig. ‘One Hundred and Fifty Years’ carried lyrics that harked back to Kirkcaldy, in Scotland, ‘where the dream was born’. Then, in a bridge that ‘Let our voices sing’, Billings’ words conjured a bright future where ‘We all can tell/ Elders IXL/ Will never treat the race as though it’s run’.

The anthem’s beguiling melody tickled ears from the get-go. Billings, on piano, had it rippling under monologues and pivotal plot points. As the show climaxed, a backing track bolstered the song with the sound of crashing waves and bagpipes. Voices rang out and spirits soared as we lunged into the final verse:

‘Let us all take pride in Elders/ Be thankful for the joy, though there’ve been tears/ Glad to have come this far, proud that today we are/ 150 Years’.

Elders: 150 for Australia was a triumph. ‘You promised me a performance that would match the importance of the occasion,’ Elliott wrote, in a letter addressed to McComas and ‘Goodfa Business Theatre Co.’.‘You delivered in spades’. [28]

This landmark occasion, which took us back to the Southern Cross Ballroom, was attended by ‘600 of the most important Australian and international people from the world of Elders IXL’. It is inconceivable that a local comedy troupe would have been granted such a stage even two years earlier. In the mid-80s, before Melbourne had a comedy festival, Australian comics made odd incursions into the ABC but they were rarely seen in the mainstream, least of all at blue ribbon corporate events. Tables started turning in the late ’80s when the fringe dwellers of Fitzroy and Collingwood gate crashed commercial radio and fired up free-to air TV. All of a sudden, local comedy was ‘cool’. Or, ‘So excellent’, to quote Mary-Anne Fahey’s scowling schoolgirl Kylie Mole on The Comedy Company. Debuting on Network 10 in 1988, this sketch comedy show presented a gallery of recurring Aussie types. Channel Seven responded with a programme conceived by Steve Vizard (another lawyer-turned-entertainer). Fast Forward (1989-1992) pilloried Australian popular culture by splicing spot-on TV parodies with mock commercials and Rubbery Figures puppetry. It, too, was a ratings winner.

McComas had more in common with satirists John Clarke and Bryan Dawe, whose po-faced political ‘interviews’ on Nine’s A Current Affair made no effort at impersonation. But scorching satire was not his forte. Instead of going for the jugular, McComas went for the vernacular. And nowhere was this more pronounced than in the show Goodfa presented for the Australian Institute of Management (AIM) in 1991. At first glance, the subject matter—winning in work—seemed daunting. But this revue, at a 50-year anniversary dinner, was a gift that kept on giving: a chance to throttle industry jargon and satirise the US management- speak infecting Australian business life:

MW: Are we on? Welcome to the not-the-AIM Goodfa Institute of Total Mismanagement. Please welcome visiting Emeritus Professor Willard P. Wafflebanger

SP: The Third

MW: Author of 5 books, 6 videos and 12 t-shirts, all on sale in the foyer. Tonight’s lecture: The Logical Linguistics of Management.

CMc: Hi, OK, you’re welcome. Tonight, back to basics. I’ll be asking for a formal envelope to hold a grass roots brainstorm, tethering factors and polarising tendencies in a hands on semi autonomous one-on-one intergroup work group. Any questions so far?

SP: Professor, are we working through Maslow’s Theory, Walton and McKenzie’s Analytical Framework, or the model of Hackman and Oldham?

MF: Or Deveson’s Theory of Coalface Negotiation?

CMc: Smartass ... we want peak performers, wave riders, corporate pathfinders and change makers, but beware the plateauing trap. What we really have to master is

SP: A multi level mind mix approach?

CMc: No, more of a blinding flash of the obvious.

MW: Oh, doing more with less.

CMc: Yep. It’s innovate or else, the attacker’s advantage!

Revisiting the script, I’m struck by its dizzy wordplay, the way we piled up sentences to create a mood of escalating absurdity. Heightening the hectic mood was a more informal structure. In decoding AIM’s credo of ‘Change, Challenge and Commitment’, we ditched the convention of a single narrator and divided the show into four acts, the final one unfolding as the dot-point diary of ‘Darren Stevens, 43, Divorced, Organisation and Methods Manager for one of 6000 company members of AIM ... but personally heading nowhere’.

The AIM show was, in many ways, our most unconventional outing: a sign of the Company straining at the leash, creatively, and bending the formal stand-and-deliver format we had established five years earlier. The Melbourne Olympics: What Am I Bid?, in May 1990, was a return to standard operating procedure. This 25-minute dinner dance revue ‘tracing the association of the City of Melbourne and the Olympics’ was another journey through time, teeming with VIP names and lists in a style redolent of Royal Melbourne  but there were significant differences. First, Goodfa was not only supplying ‘the talent’. The entire team helped to arrange, plan and present a lavish black tie event for a fictional organisation known as the ‘Other Melbourne Olympic Committee’ (OMOC). The production schedule shows we attended no fewer than 14 rehearsals. Second, What Am I Bid? served another  purpose: to introduce McComas’ 1000th character in the presence of real life ‘supporters’. The evening’s guest list was a Who’s Who of Australian power and influence at the time, proof of the hosts’ impeccable connections, and the assembled throng gave William Granville Melvin Millichamp (‘A man who needs no introduction’) a thundering ovation. [29] A chuffed McComas-Millichamp responded: ‘Our heavyweight corporate structure belies our light-hearted strategic objective which is to celebrate, in grand style, a monumental milestone in the annals of Australian professional speaking’. [30]

Blood sees the OMOC evening as a shining example of Goodfa’s collaboration with McComas. ‘When we were in control of an event, Campbell could relax in the knowledge that everything would be perfect,’ he says. Beyond that, McComas relished the rehearsal room camaraderie of Goodfa. Blood explains: ‘He loved being part of the gang. Goodfa was his only professional engagement with other actors and writers which he greatly valued.’ [31] In conversation with me, McComas conceded speechmaking ‘can be a lonely business. You are working on your own gut feeling most of the time’. [32]

The Conference – first proposed in 1992 - intended to build on the OMOC example. McComas and Blood conceived this ‘Everyday Farce in Three Acts’ as part of a real conference, complete with lobby registration, delegates and speakers. They hoped it could even become ‘a major long running Melbourne show’ but despite ‘valiant attempts’ to craft a viable script, The Conference was reluctantly shelved. [33] Another mooted project cast members of ‘The Goodfa Business Theatre Company (Australia)’ in a ticketed Melbourne International Festival event. The Great New World Debate of 1492: That America Won’t Be Discovered (and by whom?) imagined historical figures behind lecterns and was advertised in Richard Wherrett’s 1992 festival programme. It never came to pass. [34]

Goodfa itself was changing. With ‘associates’ raising families and building careers, it was time to refresh the cast for 1993’s Goodnight Nurse but this compact revue - chronicling the Royal Melbourne School of Nursing - was to be our last hurrah. [35] McComas pressed on, character building his way into a new century. ‘If I ever stopped reinventing myself, I’d cease to exist altogether,’ he said. By late 2004—just months before he died, aged 52—McComas had amassed 1822 alter egos. A man of many parts, indeed. As Barry Humphries observed: ‘Campbell created his own genre and triumphed in it’. [36]

Two other characters are missing from this story. One is Oliver K. Goodfa, a self-described ‘show business legend’ whose stellar career began as ‘an out-of-work sound recordist for silent films’. The other is Alastair Baxter, a mysterious impresario more at home behind the scenes. In the case of our shows, as far behind the scenes as he could get. Their presence was flagged on Goodfa letterhead, where they were listed as co-artistic directors, but Company members were the only ones who ever ‘saw’ them. That’s because Oliver K. was a McComas alias and Baxter, a nom de plume for Blood.

For a Company dealing in facts and fictions, it made complete sense to acknowledge the existence of these make-believe men. Indeed, any personal correspondence from Oliver K or Mr Baxter only served to confirm your fortunate membership of a very exclusive club. Goodfa, you see, was not just a production unit. It was a unique eco-system, buoyed by a shared love of theatre and warmed by friendships dating back decades. The depth of that friendship was made plain in April 2006 when members of Goodfa reassembled at the Crown Palladium for Campbell McComas—A Selection.

Compiled, written and directed by Blood, and presented as part of a Leukaemia Foundation Dinner, this show was a ‘collage of excerpts’ from McComas ‘character speeches, scripts as a radio and television performer, and his many roles as Master of Ceremonies’. Prof Granville Williams was ‘present’ and accounted for, of course. So was Alexander Kennedy, the first paying passenger on a Qantas flight; Aaron B. Conover, a White House technology policy adviser; and Sir Winston Cholmondley-Somers, the British yachting ‘expert’ whose 1983 America’s Cup address prompted (another) infamous walkout, this time in Newport, Rhode Island. [37]

‘Campbell McComas could be anybody you like,’ we all declared, ‘but there was nobody like him’. [38]

The Goodfa spirit lives on in 2020. And when Company members reunite, I’m always reminded of that fabled evening—35 years ago—when we joined McComas in front of the world’s most famous married couple and wondered out aloud: ‘Will Royal tourists still be here in the Age of Charles the Third?

SP: What about King William the Fifth?

MF: Our welcome will always be heard.

TB: And still we’ll stand in Swanston Street

EW: At Flemington and the Shrine

SP: And the local lasses will cheer for Him

MF: And the lads will cry, ‘She’s mine!’

TB: They’re as much a part of Melbourne as the footy or a tram

EW: It never pours here when they reign

CMc: And until they don’t, I humbly remain your obedient servant, sir and ma’am

Roycroft Fawkner Batman Melville

Clerk ... clerk? Lord Clerk! 30 October 1985

Melbourne’.

 

REFERENCES

Papers of Campbell McComas 1975-2004, MS 10268, National Library of Australia

Tim Blood (ed.), The Goodfa Scripts, Goodfa Business Theatre Company, 2008

Lorin Clarke, ‘Weeds are as important as trees’: Where now for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival?’, Meanjin Quarterly, Volume 7, Number 1, 2011

‘Stunted growth: a hoaxer’s rise and rise’, The Monash Quarterly, Spring, 1991

Simon Plant, ‘The night Charles offered me an MBE’, Sunday Observer, 3 November 1985

Simon Plant, ‘Man of 617 faces ... and counting’ (unpublished article, 1986)

Sue Thomson, 30 Years of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Culture Victoria 2016, cv.vic.gov.au

 

INTERVIEWS

Tim Blood (29 June and 10 July 2020)

John Billings (4 July 2020)

*With special thanks to Tim Blood, Wendy McComas and Alistair McComas

 

ENDNOTES

1. ‘Pommy bastard’ is defined in The Australian National Dictionary as: ‘Of or pertaining to a ‘pommy’; British, English (often as a term of affectionate abuse)’, p.492.
2. Letter from David Roycroft, The Assistant Private Secretary to H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, to Campbell McComas, 2 November, 1985, Goodfa Correspondence.
3. McComas made his TV debut on New Faces in 1973. He also played a comic boffin on The Don Lane Show, appeared on Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday and moderated ABC TV’s World Series Debating.
4. Biographical note in ‘The Other Melbourne Olympic Committee’ prospectus, February 1990, Goodfa Correspondence.
5. Campbell McComas interview with Simon Plant, 1986, cited in ‘Man of 617 faces ... and counting’ (unpublished article), p.2.
6. Quoted in ‘Campbell McComas – A Selection’, in Blood, Tim. (Ed.)The Goodfa Scripts, Goodfa Business Theatre Company, 2008, p.289.
7. Blood, p.292.
8. Plant, p.3.
9. Blood, p.299.
10. ’Stunted growth: a hoaxer’s rise and rise’, The Monash Review, Spring 1991, p.10.
11. Plant, p.3.
12. Plant, Simon. ‘The night Charles offered me an MBE’, Sunday Observer, 3 November 1985, p.4. The term, ‘Pommy bastard’ was used twice in the Royal Melbourne script and ‘not directed at Their Royal Highnesses’. ‘If it had’, I wrote, ‘it would have been hastily excised from the script which was carefully screened by protocol officials before we began rehearsals’.
13. ‘The Royal Melbourne Business Theatre Company’ prospectus, 1986, Goodfa Correspondence.
14. Tim Blood was president of Tin Alley Players in the 1980s.
15. RMBTC prospectus, 1986.
16. Ibid. In January 1986, members of the Company also participated in MLC Life Ltd’s Centenary Ball in Sydney.
17. Plant, ‘Man of 617 faces’, p.5.
18. From 2010 Shane Maloney interview, cited in Clarke, Lorin. ‘Weeds are as important as trees: Where now for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival?’ Meanjin, Vol. 70, Number 1, 2011. In the festival’s first year, Maloney was seconded to help plan the programme.
19. Ibid. ‘The MICF emerged from the anti-establishment theatrical traditions of the Last Laugh and other venues’ such as The Comedy Cafe, The Flying Trapeze Cafe, La Mama and Le Joke.
20. Ibid.
21. McComas in Blood, p.300.
22. Letter from Tim Blood to Goodfa members, 14 December, 1987, Goodfa Correspondence.
23. McComas, Campbell, ‘A date with history’ in Great Scot, newspaper of the Old Scotch Collegians’ Association, No.47, April 1988, p.9.
24. Ibid.
25. Letter from Campbell McComas to Goodfa members, Elders: 150 for Australia proposal, 17 January 1989, Goodfa Correspondence. McComas wrote: ‘Our clients’ expectation is as high as you would expect for an event they now regard as the event for 1989.’
26. Plant interview with Blood, 29 June 2020.
27. Ibid.
28. Letter from John Elliott to Campbell McComas, Tim Blood ‘and your team’, 23 August, 1989. Elliott closed with the words: ‘On behalf of the Board, sincere thanks for a display of great professionalism and panache’.
29. The Melbourne Olympics: What Am I Bid? was performed at a ‘millennium’ dinner dance in the Hyatt-on-Collins’ Savoy Ballroom. McComas conceived the ‘Other Melbourne Olympic Committee’ as a vehicle for the evening’s festivities. Invited ‘ex officio’ members of OMOC’s fictitious ‘1000 Club’ included Richard and Jeanne Pratt, Bob Ansett, Sue Calwell, John Elliott, Donald Cordner, John Bertrand and Professor Louis Waller.
30. McComas, OMOC prospectus, op cit.
31. Blood interview, op cit.
32. Plant, op cit., p.4.
33. Letter from Campbell McComas to Goodfa members, 30 May 1995, Goodfa Correspondence. McComas and Blood conceived The Conference in early 1992. Work on it halted in May 1995. In September 1997, Goodfa was invited to workshop a ‘final draft’ at Playbox Theatre Company but this did not eventuate.
34. The Great New World Debate of 1492: ‘That America Won’t Be Discovered (and By Whom?)’ was meant to be ‘posthumorously, retrospectively and irreverently’ presented by Goodfa at the Athenaeum Theatre on September 13 and 20, 1992. According to the advertising spiel, ‘Speakers will be auditioned and selected from a multicultural constellation of the known world’s most brilliant debaters of 1492’ (Christopher Columbus, Hernando Cortes, Leonardo da Vinci and Queen Isabella I, among others) with a ‘guest appearance by J.Westward Ho Jnr, the first American to greet whoever it was’.
35. Goodnight Nurse, performed as part of a Royal Melbourne Hospital Nursing Education Gala Dinner, marked the arrival of three new Goodfa cast members: Tamsin West, Julie Thompson and Samantha Woodward.
36. Barry Humphries, cited in Blood, p.298.
37. Sir Winston, one of McComas’ most celebrated characters, so ‘offended’ an American Vice-Commodore and his wife that they got up and walked out. His controversial address in Newport, Rhode Island, to the Challenger 12 Syndicate, included the following observation: ‘While some people claim the America’s Cup is a matter of life and death, I myself don’t share that view. It’s much more serious than that.’ Ibid, p.290.
38. Ibid., p.300.

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Simon Plant

SIMON PLANT is a Melbourne writer and curator.

He was a Herald and Weekly Times journalist for 30 years, specialising in arts and entertainment, and has been contributing to On Stage since 2019.

Simon—who holds a Master of Arts from the University of Melbourne—has also co curated several exhibitions including ‘Making a Song and Dance: The Quest for an Australian Musical’ (2005), at Arts Centre Melbourne. He is currently writing essays about 1890s Melbourne—one to do with theatre scenery, the other theatre portraits in the Falk Album—and researching George Coppin’s picaresque travels in Civil War America.

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