Tait Trust First concert 1993 Austrlai House Taken Angus Forbes 1Liane Keegan (mezzo soprano) with Antony Giantomasso (piano), Exhibition Hall, Australia House, 1993. Photo Angus Forbes.

On 29 may this year I went to the best birthday party ever. It was an eightieth, and there were eighty-one people there, although the birthday girl (and girl is the word) Isla Baring, told me that she could have filled the beautiful David Lloyd George Room at the National Liberal Club three times over with her friends. The ones in attendance were uproariously pleased to be there. Dressed obediently in ‘something violet’ (because violet is Isla’s favourite colour, and because the mauve-wigged Barry Humphries had so recently died, and because Isla’s beloved mother’s Christian name was Viola), we were there to celebrate a woman about whose cause we all felt passionately.

The Tait Memorial Trust sprang into being in December 1992 when Isla’s notoriously kind heart responded to a plea from her mother. Could she help to look after a young singer from Rosebud, Victoria, called Liane Keegan, who had just won the Covent Garden scholarship but had no network support in London? Knowing the entrepreneurial spirit that Isla had inherited from her father, Sir Frank Tait, Lady Tait said: “Perhaps you could put on a concert for her.” Isla had absolutely no experience in this field, but she and her husband, Julian Baring had some generous contacts and a wide social circle. Trevor Baldock, the agent General for Victoria, lent her the Downer Room at Australia House imagining she would only conjure a small audience. “I made a list” says Isla, “of all the Australians I knew and before long I’d collected a three hundred strong crowd with their partners and friends.”

Start as you mean to go on. And go on she did, first to the substantial bigger Exhibition Hall, followed by numerous other venues both grand and intimate. The tally stands today at 170 fundraising concerts, all of them show-casing the remarkable talents of the Tait awardees.

The Trust’s remit expanded pretty quickly to include New Zealanders as well as Australians, instrumentalists as well as singers and dancers as well as musicians. Which is where I came in. About five years ago Leanne Benjamin brought Isla to meet me and they asked if I would help audition the candidates for the Leanne Benjamin ballet awards. How could I refuse? In Sydney, in 1959, I had won a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School, and the head judge, the person who had handed me my cheque was none other than Viola Tait, Isla’s mother. Karma or what?

Never having sat on a committee, I was cautious at first. But no need. While spending much of her life in Britain and Europe, Isla had perfected the art of remaining stubbornly and gloriously Australian. The meetings, conducted mostly at the Chelsea Arts Club are deeply unpompous get-togethers of witty, down-to-earth sponsors and helpers who just happen to find themselves, by dint of work or marriage or children or something, ten thousand miles from their beloved homeland. Conducting the meetings is usually James Hancock—an original awardee from the early days and one of what Isla calls her ‘three boys,’ the other two being Jeremy Vinogradov, now her P.A., and Ross Alley who acts as Master of Ceremonies.

Among the gifted women round the table you might spot June Mendoza (who, having painted Queen Elizabeth II five times has embarked on a portrait of Isla), the pianist Rosemary Tuck, the actress Joanna McCallum and another noted artist, Isla’s beautiful younger sister Ann Seddon whose illustrative flair contributes to the design of the programs. And what concerts these programs proclaim! I was not around in 1996 for perhaps the most star-studded of all: a Gala to celebrate the 70th birthday of Dame Joan Sutherland, with Prince Charles as guest of honour. But last year I did attend the dinner and concert at Australia house for the 30th Anniversary of the Tait Memorial Trust. As well as a roll-call of exciting performers, both established and budding, we watched something unexpected and rather astonishing; unearthed fragments of a black and white silent movie, The Story of the Kelly Gang, first shown in Melbourne in 1906, a signal event in the history of cinema and, at over an hour in length, the longest film the world had ever seen. Made on a thousand pound budget it was directed and produced (and in one case performed) by four of the Tait brothers: John, Charles, James and Isla’s father, Frank. These young men, aged between 34 and 22, who were to become such a world-famous ‘Firm’, were four of the five sons of John Turnbull Tait, who in 1862 had made the five-month voyage by windjammer from the Shetland Isles in Scotland to Castlemaine, Victoria, where his wife-to-be Ann Sarah Leeming, joined him. The family moved to Richmond, a suburb of Melbourne, and one day, the second son, Charlie, aged 14, was walking down Collins Street when he saw a sign in the window of Allan’s music warehouse: BOY WANTED, FIVE SHILLINGS A WEEK. He got the job and proceeded to deploy his brothers at the concerts held at the Town Hall, Athenaeum Hall and Exhibition, as ushers, bookers and stage managers. There they managed to meet and watch great performers from all over the world, and it was from these humble, penny-pinching beginnings that the Tait Brothers Concert Bureau was founded. Charlie became director of Allan’s and, in 1920, J.H. Tait, J. Nevin Tait, E.J. Tait and F.S. Tait took control of the mighty J.C. Williamson’s.

Robert Helpmann wrote: “I wonder how many people, particularly the younger generation, appreciate the fact that the Taits represented the foremost standards in the theatrical entertainment or realise that these standards created a vast Australian public?” Certainly my mother spoke to me thrillingly of having seen Melba, Flagstaad, the Oliviers and Anna Pavlova. And before I left for London I had already seen Marcel Marceau, Danny Kaye, Victor Borge, the New York City Ballet and, crucially for me, Margot Fonteyn.

Frank Tait, being the youngest, lasted longest in influence, and as managing director of J.C Williamson’s, benevolently ruled musical life in Australia. At the age of 56 he had married Viola Wilson Hogg, a young silver-voiced Scottish soprano, who had sung with the D’Oyly Carte Company in New York before being lured to Australia as principal soprano with the Gilbert and Sullivan J.C. Williamson’s Opera Company. They had three children, Isla, Ann and Sally, all of them steeped in the deep family commitment to music and theatre. The wonderful home-grown Borovansky Ballet would not have thrived throughout my childhood without Sir Frank, and in 1961 he chaired the Australian Ballet foundation from which, following the death of Edward Borovansky, the Australian Ballet was formed, a company I joined in 1962 as a founding member. After the huge success of My Fair Lady (it ran for 730 performances), Sir Frank was instrumental, in 1964, in bringing Camelot to Australia, stealing a march on the London production, and importing an English actor to play King Arthur. His name was Paul Daneman, and in 1965, reader, I married him. So, without both of Isla’s parents, my life might have taken a very different turn.

And now there are dozens of young artists who can say the same of the influence of Isla herself. Having picked up the baton from her father and run with it, she has raised one million pounds and counting (a new and generous ballet scholarship in the name of Richard Bonynge has just been added), and brought talented young singers, instrumentalists and dancers from the new world to the old, so that those particular Antipodean qualities of warmth and openness (so evident in the recent appearance at Covent Garden of the Australian Ballet), can be presented on a wider world stage.

May there be many more happy returns of her birthday.