General articles

After our enforced abandonment of activities, we were delighted to renew our partnership with Arts Centre Melbourne to present a series of talks at The Channel. We are grateful to Joshua Cowie, Creative Arts Producer, for working with us to mount these talks.

So far in 2023 we have had three excellent speakers with widely different backgrounds in the theatre providing us with a superb view of various aspects of our theatrical heritage.

We opened the year with Barry Dickins, who chose the method of a Q&A which was conducted by Dr Cheryl Threadgold. With more than 50 plays to his name, Barry is one of the most prolific playwrights of our age. He took us through his career, beginning with a translation of Ibsen’s Ghosts, produced at La Mama. His account of his plays and the inspiration for them entertained all and it is not surprising, given the size of his contribution to the theatre, we were only able to hear about half of them before time ran out. We have asked Barry to come back on another occasion to complete describing his opus and to tell us something of his on-stage work. [See also Event: Barry Dickins to read more.]

Roger Neill is a UK based arts historian. One of his accomplishments was to assist Sam Wanamaker with the building of the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe on the south bank of the Thames. He visited Australia in March and we were able to secure him for an evening talk on the subject of his book The Simonsens of St. Kilda. This family, who moved to the Melbourne suburb in about 1870, are largely unknown but contributed a great deal to our theatre heritage. The family consisted of 10 children, no less than six of whom became professional singers. They toured extensively through the remote areas of Australia and in the gold rush mining towns of the USA. Roger was able to bring this amazing family to life and showed us something of the life of itinerant performers in the nineteenth century. Many of us we interested in purchasing a copy of his book but sadly he was let down by the firm who had promised to send copies along to The Channel. It is still on sale at the Avenue Bookshop, Port Melbourne, at Readings in Carlton, and online via Booktopia.

One of the biggest names on Australian television was our third guest. John Wood, multi-Logie winner and even a gold Logie, has also had an extensive career on stage. In June he graced us with what was more of a chat than a talk. In a charmingly relaxed way, he described many of his accomplishments on stage with such companies as The Old Tote and the Melbourne Theatre Company as well as The Playbox (now the Malthouse). His TV career took off when he played Sugar in Power without Glory and continued through many guest appearances in Homicide and any other series you can think of. It was Rafferty’s Rules, in which he played a country magistrate brought to preside in a Sydney court that made a star of him. Many of us agreed with him that the series was one of Australia’s best and it was a pity that it did not last more than 5 seasons. Of course his greatest fame to
date was playing the laid-back police sargent Tom Croydon in Blue Heelers, a role that seemed to be based on his own personae. John was honest about the lack of work for older actors and his ways of pursuing self-employment. Currently he is working with friends to produce a rock and roll show. It is typical of John’s lack of pretension that he called his autobiography How I Clawed My Way to the Middle. Sadly this was published just as isolation was declared at the outbreak of covid and he was not able to do any publicity for it and Penguin have said the first edition is sold out and they do not have plans for another edition. Having read the work, I can only say “what a pity”.

Our Annual General Meeting was held, as usual, in June and was well attended in person and by zoom. We have been fortunate in being able to have excellent speakers for this event and we were all looking forward to hearing Mary Lou Jelbart this year. Mary Lou has been involved in the arts from the 1970s as an ABC producer and presenter but for the last 20 years has run the amazing bijou space 45 Downstairs in Flinders Lane.

Unfortunately the night before the AGM, Mary Lou had a fall and had to pull out of coming to the meeting. We were fortunate that her daughter Phillipa Jelbart agreed to substitute at the last minute. Phillipa works in administration at 45 and has an intimate knowledge of the workings of the theatre and visual arts space. She began by talking about her mother’s involvement in the arts and then about the setting up of 45 and its running, with very little funding and its reliance on donations from arts patrons. Astonishingly in all those 20 years, Mary Lou has never drawn a salary.

We plan to invite Mary Lou to join us at The Channel at a future date as we believe she has a good story to tell.