Why I Adore… Thank God He Met Lizzie

By Sarina Rowell

I am never sure whether it would make a person feel good or bad to hear that either they themselves or something they have created is thought to be severely underrated. Yes, naturally, being classed as underrated would be better than being classed as overrated, but the trouble is that it indicates a dearth of applause that the person in question may not even have realised was their, or its, lot. So, at the risk of causing offence should anyone involved with the motion picture in question be reading this, my vote for Most Underrated Australian Film goes to Cherie Nowlan’s Thank God He Met Lizzie.

In terms of its reception, it’s my belief that Thank God He Met Lizzie suffered from not being what it wasn’t – namely, something that featured Loene Carmen playing a junkie.

I first saw this work at Sydney’s Cremorne Orpheum in 1997, and the trouble with going to the Orpheum was that you always felt slightly ripped off if you weren’t treated to the man playing the olden-time organ, even though you hardly ever were treated to the man playing the olden-time organ. In fact, I think I can only ever recall once being graced with his presence, before a teeming Saturday-night screening of Fatal Attraction. Nonetheless, I remember that when I saw Thank God He Met Lizzie, my good humour quickly returned during its opening scene, when a party guest, apropos of nothing, says to another, ‘You know who I really hate? Prince Andrew.’ This line didn’t make me so happy because I had a particular prejudice against this unfortunate royal, mind you; it made me happy because of the unexpectedness of it. And it is this kind of unexpectedness that makes the film so pleasurable and so profound, with a story that is both as simple and as complicated as stories get.

Guy (Richard Roxburgh) is thirtyish and single, and desperate to be in a serious relationship with a woman, something that he spectacularly fails to accomplish by going to parties and being set up on dates. One morning, however, while out running, he sees a pregnant cat in distress and, while seeking assistance, ends up at the expensive doorstep of a glamorous doctor, Lizzie (Cate Blanchett).

Click to play this clip on the Australian Screen website.

Click to play this clip on the Australian Screen website.

After a brief courtship, they decide to marry, resulting in an elaborate wedding. However, even though Guy is besotted with Lizzie, he finds himself thinking constantly about his previously most significant affair, with Jenny (Frances O’Connor).

Now, Lizzie and Jenny, and their respective relationships with Guy, are of such opposite natures that this triangle could, in lesser hands than those of this particular writer (Alexandra Long), director and actors, feel contrived and unconvincing. Namely, Lizzie has a father who is a surgeon and a mother who would be able to hold her own with terrifying socialite Charlie in Sons and Daughters, while Jenny comes from a cheerfully eccentric working-class family; Lizzie is elegant and hyper-controlled, while Jenny is charming but chaotic; Lizzie is a blonde, while Jenny is a brunette. Lizzie and Guy got together in the sort of romantic way that is tailor-made for being recounted in a father-of-the-bride speech; Jenny and Guy got together because she purposely rammed her pool cue into him at a pub, and later staked him out at a party, after which they had sex for the first time, in a car.

While Lizzie upsets Guy in big ways, she seems much less likely than Jenny to upset him in the small ones, and that is what makes the difference in day-to-day life

Whatever differences the women have, though, Guy becomes equally disillusioned with both of them, although the process is much faster with Lizzie. His relationship with Jenny had curdled over years, turning from affectionate banter and high old times in the bedroom into his becoming chronically irritated at the way in which she never shut up, wouldn’t wash fruit before she ate it, read over his shoulder and left her dirty clothes on the floor, while she resented this pecking, and was hurt by his reluctance to get marry and have children with her.

Click to play this clip on the Australian Screen website.

Click to play this clip on the Australian Screen website.

Regarding Lizzie, though, Guy quickly makes several unpleasant discoveries during merely the course of their wedding day, among them that, while he had believed his meeting with her was preordained and their relationship some sort of miracle, he was really just part of her plan to be married by thirty. Then, once the newlyweds are ensconced in their hotel room, she deals him the worst blow of all.

Aside from anything, Thank God He Met Lizzie is often very funny, as when Lizzie assures her husband-to-be that the priest who will marry them has a great sense of humour and Guy replies, ‘They all do now; it doesn’t prove God exists’. And there is the nuttiness of Jenny’s father (Roy Billing), with his ‘tune I penned in an idle hour’ (a bizarre ode to the Sydney Harbour Bridge); his refusal to accept Latin’s status as a dead language; and his obsession with the Republican movement and statistics about Queen Elizabeth’s use of public money. And then there is the wedding MC, Darren (Jonathan Biggins), referring to himself on his business card as a landscape gardener and ‘specialist in human relations’. It is, of course, also small, exquisitely surprising moments that make it a deeply sad film. When Jenny and Guy finally break up, and he says, ‘The magic’s gone; we can’t get it back’, we are expecting her to insist that they can. Instead, though, she replies, ‘Why would we want to do that?’ This line makes no sense in one way, while also making total sense, in telling us just how much Jenny wants to cling on to whatever it is they still have, whatever state it’s in.

Click to play this clip on the Australian Screen website.

Click to play this clip on the Australian Screen website.

It is this kind of unexpectedness that makes the film so pleasurable and so profound, with a story that is both as simple and as complicated as stories get.

And this brings me to why, most of all, I am crazy about Thank God He Met Lizzie, and that is the extent to which for the past fifteen years or so it has really made me think about its characters, their existences and the wisdom of their actions both within and without the ambit of the film. Namely, I’ve always imagined Jenny having a truly septic time with men throughout her thirties but meeting the honest-to-goodness love of her life in her forties. In the case of Guy and Lizzie, it is equally possible to imagine them undergoing a bitter divorce; staying together semi-miserably for the sake of the children whom we see briefly in the final scene; or, who knows, perhaps even ultimately being happy together and only parted, and reluctantly so, by death. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve devoted to debating whether Guy was wrong or right to exit from his relationship with Jenny and, yes, on one hand, his having done so is deeply upsetting, especially his lack of appreciation of her spirit and originality, and of how genuinely mad about him she was; on the other, he had fallen out of love with her and, quite possibly, was only ever as much, or as little, in love with her as he was with Lizzie. At the end of the day, just because we, the viewers, are in love with Jenny, it’s not fair to expect Guy to be. As well, the fact that he couldn’t stop thinking about Jenny the more serious his relationship with Lizzie became doesn’t mean anything. I’ve known men who have wept and wailed about exes whom they came to appreciate too late, but all this carry-on didn’t mean they should still have been in those relationships; it was much more to do with the past itself, due to its certainty and, thus, its safety, seeming wildly attractive to them. And, not only had Guy’s and Jenny’s relationship reached the terminal stage, the fact is that Jenny, winsome though she is, didn’t bring out the best in Guy; in fact, she brought out the worst, so that when he was with her, he was fussy, nagging and mean. He is actually a much nicer man when he’s with Lizzie and, yes, he may well have become a lot nastier later in their relationship, but while Lizzie upsets Guy in big ways, she seems much less likely than Jenny to upset him in the small ones, and that is what makes the difference in day-to-day life, let’s face it.

U.S. poster for the film, renamed The Wedding Party.

U.S. poster for the film, renamed The Wedding Party.

In terms of its reception, it’s my belief that Thank God He Met Lizzie suffered from not being what it wasn’t – namely, something that featured Loene Carmen playing a junkie. This seems to have made for a widespread assumption that it was going to be either a bland romantic comedy based around improbable wish fulfilment or a quirkfest based around improbable wish fulfilment, or some vile combination of the two. I’ve known people who have become fans of the film only after having deprived themselves of it for many years because they would rather have cooked and eaten their own feet for breakfast than seen either a bland romantic comedy or a quirkfest, while anyone who saw it and were expecting, and wanting, another Muriel’s Wedding would, I imagine, have been taken aback at what a downer it is and so not given it the positive word of mouth that makes for a hit. But I defy anyone not to be affected by one of Thank God He Met Lizzie’s final lines: ‘The trouble with happiness is, you don’t know when you have it; you remember it.’ And, the thing is, I don’t actually even agree with that statement, but I’ve spent an hour and a half watching characters so beautifully constructed and acted that, no matter their faults, I just can’t stand the thought that, wherever they are now, their best days might be behind them.

 

About Sarina Rowell: Sarina Rowell is a writer and freelance book editor based in Melbourne. She was co-editor of, and a regular columnist on, Tony Martin’s humour website The Scrivener’s Fancy, and a columnist on the ‘Melbourne Life’ page of The Age, and has also written for The Drum and The Kings Tribune. She has her own website, Imagined Slights, and tweets at @imaginedslights.

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Why I Adore… TANGLE

By Sean Lynch

In this latest edition of our Why I Adore series, comedy writer, performer and presenter Sean Lynch waxes lyrical about his love for the John Edwards/Southern Star universe of Australian dramas – most recently brought to life in AACTA nominated drama series Tangle, starring Justine Clarke, Kat Stewart, Ben Mendelsohn and Matt Day.

Tangle maze

The search for truth

If I’m being 100 per cent honest with myself – and it’s rare that I am (as far as I know, I’m a 74 year old Asian woman) — the reason I adore Tangle isn’t so much because of its own stand alone perfection, as it is for its association with sister series Love My Way and, to an extent, the entire John Edwards adult drama universe (from Secret Life Of Us through to Puberty Blues).

Justine Clarke, Lincoln Younes and Eva Lazarro in Tangle.

Justine Clarke, Lincoln Younes and Eva Lazarro in Tangle.

It’s very much the same reason I adore Woody Allen films: you can change the title, character names and packaging all you want, but at their core they’re all part of the same story; all searching for the truth at the centre of characters and ideas created by their writers long before the product in question was even considered.

Where Puberty Blues takes us on a journey from the ages of 10 – 20, Secret Life explored the perils of 20 – 30, and Love My Way looked at 30 -40. With Tangle, Edwards and company take us through the complications of being 40 – 50.

Tangle follows Ally (a pitch perfect “woman who has settled” Justine Clarke), who is married to Vince (charming rough-nut Ben Mendelsohn) and their two children, Romeo (Lincoln Younes) and Gigi (Eva Lazzaro).

In the first series of Tangle (aired on subscription television channel Showcase in 2010) Vince’s best friend Gabriel (Matt Day) has secretly been in love with Ally since their high school days, and when faced with the ultimate moral dilemma (love versus loyalty), Gabriel finds that he is unwilling to cover for (one of) Vince’s affairs with a local school mum.

Mixed in with all of this scandal is the fact that this school mum’s daughter Charlotte (Georgia Flood), is involved with Romeo and his cousin, Max (Blake Davis). Did I mention that Max is the result of an affair between Tim (Joel Tobeck) and Ally’s sister, Nat (Kat Stewart)? Tim and his wife Christine (Catherine McClements) are raising Max as their own, but boy, you wouldn’t know it half the time!

Two 'mums' competing for a son's love. Catherine McClements, Blake Davis & Kat Stewart in Tangle.

Two ‘mums’ competing for a son’s love. Catherine McClements, Blake Davis & Kat Stewart in Tangle.

What we have are three families colliding, connected via a web of love, sex, money and politics – almost to the point of suffering from soap opera syndrome. The number of “Tangles” in question becomes almost TOO coincidental to really be believable at some points. But with characters this well written, that’s just part of the fun.

Recurring themes, continuing pleasure

A talented young cast bring teen storylines to life, in contrast to the 40-something dramas of their parents.

A talented young cast bring teen storylines to life, in contrast to the 40-something dramas of their parents.

Edwards does like his archetypal characters and setups, and Tangle is full of them right from the outset: the uptight passive aggressive woman with control issues (Asher Keddie’s Julia Jackson in Love My Way versus Tangle’s Catherine McClements’ portrayal of Christine Williams); the heroine finding solace with her ex’s brothers (Brendan Cowell’s Tom Jackson in Love My Way versus Tangle’s Kick Gurry as Joe Kovac); a troubled born-out-of-wedlock child dealing with the concept of multiple parental figures and family units (Alex Cook’s Lou Jackson and Sam Parsonson’s Dylan Feingold in Love My Way versus Blake Davis’ Max Williams in Tangle); burgeoning teenage homosexuality (Dylan versus Max); the lingering effects of grief after a sudden death (Love My Way’s tragedy versus Tangle’s own dramatic death)… and that’s hardly the end of the list.

For many, this type of rehashing could be seen as little more than weak writing, a creative lull or even a quick cash-in by producers after the success of a break out hit (which Love My Way certainly was). However, it’s for this exact reason that I adore Tangle.

By “starting from scratch” with Tangle, the writers can continue to explore these deeply flawed, endlessly interesting characters without tainting the legacy of Love My Way. Yes, the stories of the Tangle universe could have VERY easily played out as Seasons 4 – 7 of Love My Way. But this “reboot” meant Love My Way couldn’t ever veer into the territory of “jumping the shark” or, more importantly, having its audience simply grow weary of the characters’ relentless, increasingly unlikely dramas.

It’s very clear the aforementioned situations have unfolded in the real lives of the writers. They pop up far to often in multiple shows for them not to have been based in experience. So, not only are viewers getting a voyeuristic peek at someone else’s’ dirty family laundry… we are also part of these writers’ decade-long cathartic therapy sessions as they try to come to terms with the guilt, pleasure and pain of the events in question. It’s all there on the page. It’s the ultimate fly on the wall experience if you are willing to join the dots and watch several TV shows as if they were one.

Pitch perfect dialogue: understand the rhythms, understand the culture

Tangle is also an impressive an achievement at the dialogue level. Aussies have quite an ear for our own voice, not simply for the literal sound… but the rhythms, the cadence, the intricacies of how words run together.

Matt Day and Kat Stewart having a moment in Tangle.

Matt Day and Kat Stewart having a moment in Tangle.

What may sound perfectly normal and award winningly insightful on paper almost NEVER translates when performed in an Aussie accent. Audiences subconsciously detect something’s not right between: “I love her” and “I love ‘ah”. On paper, it looks stupid and wrong, but it’s the difference between honest and believable portrayals of Australians onscreen and the kind of stilted, clumsy dialogue that leaves actors struggling (a perfect example of which can be seen in Tomorrow When The War Began. Excellent actors speaking words and rhythmic structures that young Aussies simply DO NOT speak in).

In this regard, producer John Edwards and the writers he employs, have been able to rise above the pack. It is no coincidence that Edwards has been behind the most highly regarded Aussie productions for over a decade, because he and his superb writing teams stick to a simple rule: understand the rhythms, understand the culture.

As usual, in Tangle the dialogue and performances are spot on. Everyone delivers here, their performances are nuanced and genuinely believable. These are people you have met; these are conversations you’ve had.

For the love of Ben Mendelsohn

Tangle Ben MendelsohnThere’s a great ensemble cast in Tangle, but the real star is Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn has long been a staple of Aussie productions (and most recently cracked into the USA with Animal Kingdom, The Dark Knight Rises and Killing Them Softly) but never have we been subjected to such a long-lasting dose of his skills as seen in Tangle.

As Vince Kovac, Mendelsohn owns every single scene of the show, even the ones he isn’t in. No matter what the situation, Vince’s sinister, threatening (and oddly charming) vibe exudes throughout every scene, infecting the lives of everyone in both direct and indirect ways.

As a performer, Mendelsohn takes the dialogue into unexpected territory. A fine example of this is towards the end of the last episode of the first season in which Matt Day’s Gabriel finally works up the courage to express his love publicly for Vince’s wife Ally. (Gabriel is everything Vince is not, and vice versa: Romance vs Lust, Brain vs Brawn.)

As Gabriel paces back and forth, spilling his guts melodramatically – Mendelsohn’s Vince sits silently, still, like a lion assessing his prey. He mutters silently, almost as if Gabriel hasn’t earned the respect to hear his words: “You snake in the grass… Me and Ally are bound in ways you can’t even imagine”. In the hands of anyone else a confrontation like this could end up as a fairly stock standard Home & Away level exchange – but Mendelsohn takes it to such a dark, deeply disturbing place. You can see the Tim Burtonesque spooky forest which consumes his mind through his unflinching eyes. It’s raw and gripping and utterly perfect.

A continuing puzzle, an endless universe

Ultimately, why I adore Tangle is simple: it’s only a tiny part of a much bigger puzzle, a picture which will unveil itself in many forms and in many ways in coming years (assuming networks are smart enough to continue commissioning these productions). Tangle is simply a chapter in an ever growing, wonderfully nuanced John Edwards saga that I can only hope and pray continues to expand outwards like this strange old star-littered place we call the Universe.  It doesn’t hold all the answers – it doesn’t even answer all the questions it raises – but just like the lives it depicts… not everything can have a neatly tailored beginning middle and end. All we can do is just acknowledge we are on a journey and – as Happy Gilmore teaches us – “play the ball as it lies”.

… Also, I really just want to be cast in a John Edwards show. Is that too much to ask? So make that happen AFI, that’d be swell.

_____________________________________________________________________________

Sean lynch candy aisleAbout the author:

Sean Lynch is a comedy writer/performer, film critic for various publications throughout Australia and Head Editor at WatchOutFor.com.au and WebWombat.com.au. He was one third of the Aria Nominated (Best Comedy Release, 2006) comedy trio The Shambles, a regular presenter on Channel Ten’s The Circle and most recently gave an Academy Award-worthy performance in his gripping portrayal of “Balloon Guy” in Working Dog’s Any Questions For Ben?. You can follow him on twitter @thatlynchyguy but don’t follow him on the tram or at the supermarket, unless you are offering to pay for his groceries or Myki fines.

Note: Tangle Season 3 is one of the four nominees for the AACTA Award for Best Television Drama Series, competing with Puberty Blues, Rake – Season 2 and Redfern Now. The winner will be announced at the 2nd AACTA Awards Ceremony on Wednesday 30 January, and broadcast on Network Ten at 9.30pm. 

If you enjoyed this piece, you may like Why I Adore… Love My Way, by AFI | AACTA Editor Rochelle Siemienowicz.

Why I Adore… They’re a Weird Mob

Walter Chiari and Alida Chelli on Bondi Beach in THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB

by Iain Wilson.

One of my favourite Australian films is They’re a Weird Mob (1966) – although like that other recently restored classic, Wake in Fright (1971), it was made by a foreign director.

I’ve become interested in this film for a number of reasons: growing up, I had always liked horror films, and strangely enough, my favourite filmmaker, George A. Romero, was a big fan of the British director Michael Powell. It was Powell’s style of filmmaking that had influenced Romero when he came to make his low-budget masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead (1968).

Secondly, I didn’t learn to drive until I was in my late-twenties, and my driving instructor, who was originally from Sicily, told me about how much he liked the Nino Culotta books, the first being They’re a Weird Mob, which was published in 1957. He had found them funny but they had also helped him to learn a bit about Australia.

An outsider’s view of Australian culture

A recent edition of the classic book is now available from Text publishing.

Although the books had been written from an Italian immigrant’s point of view, they were in fact the work of an Australian born-and-bred journalist, John O’Grady (which my instructor also mentioned), who had supposedly written the books after having a bet with his brother, Frank O’Grady.

Although the film’s plot was slightly different from the book, the gist of the story was still the same: Nino Culotta, a sports journalist from Italy, arrives in Circular Quay on a passenger ship after having his fare paid by an entrepreneurial cousin who has invited him to work on an Italian magazine he has set up. But after discovering that the magazine has folded due to bad debts, and that his cousin has shot through, Nino is forced to takes up a job as a brickie’s laborer.

He saves all his money in an attempt to pay off his cousin’s debt to Kay Kelly (Clare Dunne), an Anglo-Australian girl of Irish ancestry, whose father owns the building in which the magazine was housed. Despite Nino’s honourable intentions, she treats him shabbily; but Nino proves to be a resilient soul and doesn’t let her put him off.

In the course of his new job, Nino meets some very “Aussie” characters: particularly the trio of Joe, played by Ed Deveraux, who employs him, and his immediate work mates, Pat (Slim DeGrey), who fought in Italy during WWII, and Dennis (John Meillon), who instructs him in the basics of brick-laying. But Nino also befriends an Italian family on the Manly ferry, after they bond during a racist affront from a drunken passenger.

Appeared originally in Australian Women’s Weekly 29 June 1966. Sourced the digitised article from the Australian newspapers digitisation project at http://trove.nla.gov.au/

A Window on the Past

The thing that is most shocking about They’re a Weird Mob is just how much Sydney has changed in terms of place and people – in what is relatively a short amount of time. The phrase “the past is a foreign country” completely applies here.

You also begin to realise that this was a very confident time for Anglo-Australians who had just entered a period of prosperity and growth, with a self-esteem boosted by a moral victory in WWII. It was also the later stages of the post war immigration scheme, which Prime Minister Ben Chifley had set in motion just after the war, which saw thousands of migrants from countries like Greece and Italy arrive on Australian shores.

Essentially, the film is a comedy of errors, a conceit O’Grady used to make a sociological study of what was at that time, a predominantly Anglo Australian way of life, looking at how absurd some of its rituals must have seemed to outsiders, particularly to cultured Europeans.

There are a few uncomfortable moments in the film, which probably comes with the territory – a look into race relations. When Kay’s father, Harry Kennedy (played by the legendary Chips Rafferty) first meets Nino, he makes an assessment of him as “a dago – bit bigger than most, but a dago just the same.” This would make most modern Australian viewers squirm in their seats.

The circumstances behind the creation of They’re a Weird Mob also said something about the colonial relationship that Australia still had with England at that time – that a British director could easily come to Australia and make an “Australian” film, that Australians would embrace, despite it not always showing them in a flattering light (particularly a final scene that has them breaking out kegs of beer and drinking like I swear you’ve never seen on film before!).

Quirks and Cameos

The film has many quirks which make it fascinating to watch. It captures the long-running rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne with a brief cameo by Graham Kennedy, who pulls up in his car on George Street to ask a Sydneysider the way to the Channel 7 studios. The passerby, recognising who he is, tells him that his kind isn’t welcome in Sydney, and that he should just keep driving and not stop until he reaches Queensland.

There is also a very strange scene – a long sequence where Nino is hoeing the earth of the Greenacre building site, where some of the story is set, and he is sweating profusely. As the music rises, the viewer suddenly finds themselves in something like a weird kind of slipstream.

The film was also made in the mid-sixties in the midst of a growing surf culture; there is a night-time “beach party” sequence in the style of the AIP produced films, Beach Party (1963) and Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello – possibly a ploy to make the film more attractive to a youth audience.

Without a doubt, however, Walter Chiara is the great talent of this film, and he has many touching moments.

Walter Chiari – the undoubted highlight of the film.

In one of them, he visits Guiliani (Alida Chelli), the beautiful daughter of the Italian family he had befriended earlier on, at their family business, an Italian restaurant. Nino has a rose behind his back, ready to give it to her, to see if she would like to date him – however, the first thing she does, without realising his plans, is to excitedly show off the engagement ring on her finger; calling her fiancé out of the kitchen to introduce him to Nino – who congratulates them both sincerely. In the next scene, Nino is singing an Italian song “I Kiss You, You Kiss Me” that Chiari had written in real life.

They’re a Weird Mob is a film that leaves you wishing that Nino was a real person, and that the book had been written by an Italian immigrant, and not an Australian journalist. Chiari brings to life such a likable character that you instantly know that he is the sort of person who makes a great contribution to life, wherever he goes.

Finally, I just want to say that there is a great website called They’re A Weird Mob, Then and Now, http://jsarkozi.blogspot.com.au/ whose author has chased up all the original locations to see if they still exist (– and surprisingly, many do, which I think would make a great walking tour of Sydney). Also thanks to Steve Crook from the Powell and Pressburger Pages http://www.powell-pressburger.org who provided me with the after party picture below. Lastly, watch out for Jeanie Drynan, the Australian actress who played the mother in Muriel’s Wedding, who is a nice surprise – she is seen here as the host at Nino’s first Saturday brunch with work friends.

You may also be interested in:

  • An overview of They’re a Weird Mob, clips from the film and curator’s notes by Paul Byrne at Australian Screen.
  • NFSA programmer Quentin Tournour’s essay ‘Contexts in which to place They’re a Weird Mob and in which you might never have placed it before” in online journal Senses of Cinema.
  • Brian McFarlane’s essay ‘How weird does this mob still seem?’ in Inside Story.

Crazy times – afterparty for THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB. Sourced by Peter Crook from an unknown magazine.

About the author:

Iain Wilson runs the website www.fotwaudio.com, where you can find his audio stories, as well as a blog about film and music. He is currently working on two audio documentaries –“John Harrison and the Music of Creepshow” about the creation of the soundtrack to the classic Stephen King/George Romero horror film, and “That Dr Who Sound: Descendants of the Radiophonic Workshop” about musicians influenced by the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop. You can find out more about these projects here.

Why I Adore… Heartbreak High

By Niki Aken

When I was in primary school, the school prefect told me that all the boys had ranked the attractiveness of the Year Six girls. My best friend and I had tied first. I wasn’t flattered, but it’s not because I took issue with being objectified (at that age). I simply didn’t believe what he was telling me. And why was that?

I may have been a studious, athletic House Captain, but in so many ways I felt inferior growing up Asian in Australia. The screen stories I devoured as a kid all featured white faces. Not Asian faces like mine. Television, film (and later, magazines) taught me that blonde and brunette girls with fair skin were beautiful. The romantic leads on TV didn’t fight over a raven-haired girl with olive skin. It was never the ethnic character who went on an inspiring journey; they were only ever cast in the support role– as the sidekick or the prop. Such was the power of having only ever seen guys fall for quintessentially Australian-looking girls, that I was 100 per cent sure the school prefect was using his hot-or-not survey to mess with me.

Heartbreak High was the first Australian television drama that made multiculturalism a central feature.

Then along came a television program that included multicultural faces in lead roles: Heartbreak High. Is it corny that I credit a TV show for making me feel more visible and accepted? Maybe, but it’s also testament to the power of the television medium and the quality of Heartbreak High as a text.

The season 1 cast in front of Hartley High.

Heartbreak High is a teenage drama set in a multiracial, eastern Sydney community that spanned six seasons from 1994 to 1999. Produced by Gannon Television, it was first broadcast on Network Ten in 45-minute chunks. Later the ABC picked it up and reformatted the show to 25-minutes. Set at fictional school Hartley High, the series was a spin-off of the 1993 feature film The Heartbreak Kid (which starred Claudia Karvan and then newcomer Alex Dimitriades), which was also set in an ethnically diverse inner city area. The word “gritty” has become an unwelcome adjective in Australian film and television discourse, but in the early 1990s it was a welcome change – especially in this genre. Heartbreak High was the first Australian television drama that made multiculturalism a central feature. In fact, it resembled the Canadian teen drama Degrassi Junior High more than it did our own teen programs like Neighbours and Home and Away.

Rivers (Scott Major), Jodie (Abi Tucker), Nick (Alex Dimitriades) and Christina (Sarah Lambert).

We’re introduced to the world through Nick Poulos (Alex Dimitriades) who is the central character in series one. His Italian-Greek cousin Con (Salvatore Coco) picks him up, and we meet their friends when they get to school. There’s Rose (Katherine Halliday), a Lebanese girl who runs the student newspaper, sporty Danielle (Emma Roche) and her boyfriend Steve (Corey Page), and Chaka (Isabella Gutierrez) and Jack (Tai Nguyen), who are Salvadoran and Vietnamese, respectively. Rivers (Scott Major) and Bolton (Jon Pollard) play two disruptive students, and new girl Jodie is played by Abi Tucker.

Heartbreak High covers a range of themes pertinent to teenagers including racism, sexism, homophobia, drug use and sexuality. In the third episode of season one, teacher Christina Milano (Sarah Lambert) decides to create an official school soccer team. This becomes a vehicle in which to explore issues of race and gender identity. Rivers thinks Aussie rules is superior to soccer and taunts Con and Nick in class, “We don’t want wog ball, this is an Aussie school.” It’s clear that Rivers is having a go at them based on their heritage.

When Danielle says she wants to try out for the new soccer team, she cops it too. Her boyfriend Steve tries to talk her out of it on the grounds of it being a rough game– he doesn’t want her getting hurt. But the blatant message from the rest of the boys is that she’d never make the cut anyway because she’s a girl. They tell her to play netball instead. “Girls play soccer!” she exclaims. Rather than Danni being let in as the token female, she proves her chops in the tryout and becomes the team goalie. This plot strand tackles issues of racism and sexism whilst highlighting values that are typically Australian. “I want a fair go,” Danielle insists before her tryout. While putting second-generation Australians front and centre, Heartbreak High simultaneously grounded itself with Aussie values. The students are unpretentious, hard-working and irreverent.

It wasn’t just that it explored real issues; it tapped into our base teenage desires.

Heartbreak High tackled some daring topics like teen pregnancy, drug use and homophobia, but the creators were always mindful of the age of their audience. Executive producer Ben Gannon, who sadly passed away in 2007, explained in an interview, “… we tried to show how those issues can affect your life, rather than making it seem somehow glamorous or something to emulate.” But there’s always the risk of becoming too didactic. “That’s a real turn off for a younger audience. We had to continually think about that.”

Social issues were explored through multiple story strands, and while the teachers got dedicated screentime, their stories were always borne out of the students’, not the other way around. Heartbreak High may have started out trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience, but it grew into a solid teen drama.

Teachers at Henley High.

The writers interwove teen romances with the issues at hand. In that same soccer team episode, Chaka challenges Rivers to a game of pool, and calls bullshit when he deliberately sinks the white ball instead of the black; she knows that he let her win on purpose. They have a rematch. It’s a close game, but Rivers wins. They shake hands. Chaka hasn’t proved that she’s better at Rivers at pool, but she’s happy that the game was fair this time. Meanwhile, Rivers is falling for the quietly confident Chaka.

Re-watching the show recently, it rankled me to watch a scene from series one, where Jodie desperately needs an amp to record her demo for an A & R exec. She relies on Nick to find her a replacement rather than do anything about it herself. However, in the same episode, Danielle fights for her place on the soccer team. So it’s not like the boys are constantly swooping in to save the day for the girls, it’s more that the characters who are “activated” varies from one episode to the next. The writers did a good job of spreading the hero stories across the cast. It might be Nick and Danielle in one episode and Con and Rose in another.

Rose (Katherine Halliday) and Chaka (Isabella Gutierrez) in a school debate.

Stylistically, it’s shot fast and messily, conveying a sense of youthful exuberance– especially so in earlier seasons. Before any heroes are in shot, a boy chases another through a crowded hallway, knocking a stack of papers out of a girl’s arms. You feel like you’re being told that the world can be loud and shambolic, and that’s normal. Heartbreak High used a staggering amount of extras, and that sole element adds so much authenticity; it grounds the show heavily in realism.

Katerina (Ada Nicodemou) and Mai (Nina Liu).

The sets aren’t polished and ordered. I longed to be one of the gang at Ruby’s (and later, The Sharkpool), but it wasn’t because it looked like a privileged hangout. There are no grandstands on the oval, just a view of community housing. The students don’t wear expensive-looking sports gear– one kid wears cut-off denim shorts to soccer practice. Not ideal for exercise, but whether it was by accident or design, it sells the idea that he doesn’t have any dedicated sports wear, something many teenagers aren’t often given the opportunity to relate to.

Drazic (Callan Mulvey) and Anita (Lara Cox).

I recently uploaded a photo of the cast ensemble of series one to Facebook. There was an immediate response, friends far and wide revelling in nostalgia. My friend subsequently added a photo of Rel Hunt, who played Ryan from series four onwards. “Seriously thought I was going to marry him,” was her caption. I handed the DVD case to one of my mates, just to gauge his reaction. “Anita…” he said longingly, his one-word response speaking volumes about why ordinary Aussie kids tuned in to Heartbreak High. It wasn’t just that it explored real issues; it tapped into our base teenage desires. After they were introduced in series four, Drazic (Callan Mulvey), Anita (Lara Cox) and Ryan were popular heartthrobs, but every character on the show was in a relationship at some point. They were all portrayed as desirable by virtue of their personalities (notwithstanding the fact that Drazic did for eyebrow rings what Don Draper has done for pomade and cuff links).

Callan Mulvey as Drazic.

It’s true that by the time Heartbreak High moved from Channel 10 to the ABC a significant number of ethnic characters had left. Nick died in a tragic boxing match at the end of series one, Jack scored a scholarship to a selective school, Yola the school counsellor (Doris Younane) fell pregnant to an Australian policeman and also left. Given the premise of the show, the cast had to change lest it become too unrealistic. But it’s worth noting that the tone changed too; it somehow became a bit less raw.

You could argue that diminishing the speaking roles for ethnic characters sends a message to Australian teens as powerful as what the show purportedly set out to achieve.  But despite the proportion of ethnic characters changing, Heartbreak High continued to connect with the topic of cultural diversity while it’s contemporaries simply didn’t. This is as relevant as ever today, where reality shows present a truer picture of multicultural Australia than our dramas do. A classroom full of kids who would’ve been deemed ugly ducklings in Summer Bay – kids like me – were validated and celebrated here. Heartbreak High was hugely successful and sold to eighty countries. By casting non-Anglos as normal teenagers in a contemporary setting, Heartbreak High proved that multiculturalism could work on mainstream television.

About Niki Aken: Nicola Aken is a screenwriter based in Sydney, Australia.  She got her start in television researching for Underbelly: The Golden Mile, followed by Underbelly: Razor.  In 2012, Nicola researched and wrote two episodes of Underbelly: Badness.  Mediaweek praised her debut screenplay ‘Troubleshooting’ as “amongst the best the Underbelly franchise has delivered.”  Her second script ‘Strike Force Tuno’ was the series finale.  Nicola has also written and produced a short film called Poppy, which is a tribute to her university job of cinema projectionist (aka The Coolest Job Ever).  It is currently on the festival circuit.  Nicola is currently writing for the ABC and Screentime WW1 miniseries Anzac Girls with Felicity Packard. She tweets at @nikiaken and occasionally blogs at nicetruck.tumblr.com.

Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:

Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood spent watching the television show Round the Twist. Or you can read Anthony Morris flirting with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper, Annie Stevens going bridal with Muriel’s Wedding, or Popzilla bowing down before the altar of literary screen adaptations. More recently, Lia McCrae-Moore showers affection on SBS’s high-octane police thriller, East West 101, Rochelle Simienowicz delves deeply into the ground-breaking television series, Love My Way, and Simon Elschlepp discovers a fondness for stylish and audacious futuristic noir, Dark City. Thomas Caldwell rhapsodises about Richard Lowenstein’s anarchic and playful 1986 film Dogs in Space, John Bailey remembers a strange fascination with Big Brother Up Late, Hila Shachar explains why Cate Shortland’s Somersault moves her so, and James Madden explains how Lantana won him over. Briony Kidd loves to be horrified by the Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, Glenn Dunks reveals himself to be a Kidmaniac in his celebration of Nicole Kidman, and David Evan Giles explains how Bliss changed his view of Australia. British film critic and sportswriter Scott Jordan Harris defends Aussie soap opera Neighbours, Bradley Dixon heaps praise upon the comedian and writer/director Tony Martin, and Stephen Vagg revisits the classic comedy Dad and Dave Come to Town.

Contribute: We’re currently looking for more ‘Why I Adore’ articles devoted to Australian film and television. Send a one paragraph summary to editor[at] afi.org.au and we’ll get back to you with more details.

Why I Adore… Dad and Dave Come to Town

Entwistle (Alec Kellaway) showing Dad Rudd (Bert Bailey) around Cecille’s. Image © NFSA.

By Stephen Vagg

When I was a student at AFTRS many moons ago, I wanted to do a paper on a classic Australian film. Our lecturer, the very lovely and passionate Jane Mills was all for it, “as long as it wasn’t bloody Dad and Dave Come to Town again”. I remember thinking at the time, “Jeez, Jane, what brought that on?” but I never asked why. I don’t think Jane hated the film – although that’s always a possibility – I think she was just sick of its position in the Australian cinematic firmament: a pre-revival comedy that people actually enjoyed watching. Well, I was talked out of it twelve years ago, but the time has come to bring this film back under the spotlight.

Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938) was the third Dad and Dave film from director Ken G. Hall. You don’t hear much about Dad and Dave nowadays, but there was a time – the first half of the twentieth century, to be precise – when Australians couldn’t get enough of them: the comic antics of these Queensland farmers were eagerly consumed by the public through scores of short stories, several magazines, best-selling story collections, a phenomenally successful theatre adaptation and its sequel, two popular silent movies in the ‘20s, four even more popular sound films in the ‘30s, comic strips, and a radio show that ran for 15 years, not to mention inspiring countless rip-offs (The Hayseeds, The Waybacks, Possum Paddock). For a while there, Dad and Dave was the most blue-chip flop-proof franchise in Australian show business. Several actors played Dad Rudd but the one most identified with the role was New Zealand-born Bert Bailey, who essayed the irascible farmer in thousands of stage performances from 1912 to 1929, and a tetralogy of movies for Ken G. Hall the following decade.

You don’t often hear the word “heart” used in discussing Hall’s films, even by Hall. But the best of Hall’s movies had heart in spades, most of all Dad and Dave Come to Town.

Hall launched his directing career with a Dad and Dave film, On Our Selection (1932), and although he went on to make sixteen more movies over the next decade, he always returned to the Rudds whenever he needed a sure-fire hit. In 1938 this was particularly urgent since the English government had ruled that Australian films no longer counted as British under local quota laws. Hall could no longer rely on overseas sales for his films; profits needed to be made in the domestic market, and in Hall’s mind the best way to ensure that was to make a comedy with a popular star – and no Australian star was bigger than Bert Bailey as Dad Rudd.

Dad Rudd (Bert Bailey). Image © NFSA.

Hall’s own favourite of the Dad and Dave films was Dad Rudd MP (1940), but Dad and Dave Come to Town remains my favourite of the series – indeed, of all Hall’s movies – because it has the biggest heart. You don’t often hear the word “heart” used in discussing Hall’s films, even by Hall. He would talk about stars, publicity, production value, female interest, the importance of a good climax, special effects, the public always being right, character actors, showmanship and sound recording equipment, but rarely emotion. This put him apart from filmmakers who wore their hearts more obviously on their sleeves, such as Raymond Longford and Charles Chauvel, and who (therefore?) enjoy greater artistic reputations. But the best of Hall’s movies had heart in spades, most of all Dad and Dave Come to Town.

There’s probably a lot of people who haven’t seen the film (it’s bewilderingly difficult to get hold of today – brushing up for this article, I had to see a copy at the NFSA office in Sydney), so I should give a quick synopsis: Dad (Bert Bailey) is engaged in various comic shenanigans at his farm when he learns his brother has died and left Dad a house and woman’s fashion store in the city. Dad travels there to investigate, taking his wife (Connie Martyn) and two eldest children, Dave (Fred MacDonald) and Jill (Shirley Ann Richards), with him. The house, Bellavista, is under the regime of the housekeeper, Miss Quince (Marie D’Alton) while the store, Cecille’s, is being deliberately run into the ground by the treacherous manager, Rawlins (Cecil Perry), who is secretly in cahoots with Pierre (Sidney Wheeler), the owner of a rival store. Dad installs Jill as manager, and she updates the stock, gets rid of Rawlins, promotes the floorwalker Entwistle (Alec Kellaway), and hires a new publicity agent, Jim Bradley (Billy Rayes). Jill decides to completely refurbish Cecille’s and host a major fashion show; Dad agrees to finance it all but has to mortgage his farm to cover the costs. Pierre then reveals he lent Dad’s brother a thousand pounds and sends in the bailiffs to repossess the store during the fashion show, but Dave fights them off with the help of Entwistle and his new girlfriend Myrtle (Muriel Ford). The show is a big success, Pierre arrives to call in the debt – only for Dad to be bailed out at the last minute by his old neighbour, Old Ryan (Marshall Crosby) and all ends happily.

Peter Finch makes a wonderful feature film debut as Bill Ryan, looking like he stepped straight off the farm, skinny as a rake with his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down like a yo-yo.

Why do I love this movie? For starters, it’s a very good script, well-structured and tight.  “Well-structured” isn’t a back handed compliment – as a writer, I know how hard that is to achieve, and is a something many films fail at time and time again. The action moves along briskly and logically, stopping several times for comic set pieces, which were usually written by an uncredited gag team. Some of these creak (Dad and Myrtle sabotaging Pierre’s front display), some are obscure (I’d love someone to explain the busman’s holiday joke to me) but others are first rate, such as Bill Ryan (Peter Finch!) asking Dad for Sarah Rudd’s (Valerie Scanlan) hand in marriage when Dad thinks he wants to buy their dog. There is also some of the best rom-com dialogue in Australian cinema history (admittedly not a very big field) in the exchanges between Jill and Jim Bradley, which are bright, snappy and clever. The script is certainly far superior to any in Hollywood’s Ma and Pa Kettle series, which tended to be repetitive, and ranks up with the best of the Andy Hardy series at MGM in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

I’ve always enjoyed Dad and Dave Come to Town for it’s acting, too. Bert Bailey and Fred MacDonald had been playing Dad and Dave since 1912 and could have done it in their sleep by now (they probably did at times), but Hall kept them lively. Peter Finch makes a wonderful feature film debut as Bill Ryan, looking like he stepped straight off the farm, skinny as a rake with his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down like a yo-yo; Finch was dreadful in some of the British comedies he later made like Simon and Laura (1955), but he’s very funny here.

Dad (Bery Bailey) and Dave (Fred MacDonald) in the bathroom. Image © NFSA.

Jill Rudd is easily the best role Shirley Ann Richards ever had. Richards had an appeal similar to that of the young Olivia de Havilland – she looked like a good girl, but there was always a twinkle in the eye; virginal but with the promise of a lively honeymoon. Throughout her career Richards usually had to play against handsome elder lunks or gentlemen players, even in Hollywood – this film marked the one time she was matched against a spirited actor who seemed her contemporary, Billy Rayes. Rayes was an American touring the country with his juggling vaudeville act when cast as Jim Bradley (Hall frequently press-ganged touring foreigners into his films) and this seems to be his only movie – a great waste, for his scenes with Richards snap and crackle.

But the really great thing about this film for me isn’t its script or acting, it’s the fact it’s so warm and inclusive. The Rudds may bicker, but deep down everyone loves and supports each other: all the Rudd kids work for their father; Dad hires Jill to manage Cecille’s and puts her in charge of all decisions; Mum is supportive of her husband and daughter. Outsiders, too, are brought into the family fold: Bill Ryan is a moron but Dad allows him to marry Sarah because they love each other; Jim Bradley is a cocky city slicker, but Dad likes and respects him, and he becomes part of the Rudd family circle; so, too, do dimwitted but loyal sales girl Myrtle, gay Entwistle, and reformed-bad-girl-model Sonya (Leila Steppe). In fact, the only really nasty people in the whole film are Pierre and Rawlins (both of whom have pencil moustaches – make of that what you will). Yokels, gays, press agents, farmers, models, feminists, all under the one roof – it’s not SBS but this is pretty multicultural stuff for 1938.

It’s also remarkably progressive. Okay, yes, Entwistle is a gay stereotype with fluttering wrists and obsession with women’s clothes, but he is clearly out, which was unusual for the time (“all he can think about is frocks – why, he can’t even see the woman inside them,” cracks Rawlins) and while he’s mostly played for laughs, he’s also a brave, loyal friend of the Rudds, with a kind heart and good ideas how to run the store; he works hard, and puts his body on the line to fight off Pierre’s bailiffs at the end. Entwistle is definitely camp but he’s no camper than Jonathan Kurtiss (Damien Bodie) on the TV show Winners and Losers (2010-) and was even more popular with audiences – indeed, he was brought back to the series in Dad Rudd MP (1940).

The film is quasi-feminist, too, with Dad handing over the reigns of the business to his daughter Jill, who calls the shots, tells Jim “Don’t call me girlie”, says she doesn’t want to be “stuck away in a little country town” for the rest of her life, is her boyfriend’s boss, and shows female solidarity with Sonya. She’s a far better feminist role model than Sarah Hardy in the Andy Hardy series, who was always mocked whenever she expressed a desire to find a job, or any of the daughters in the Kettle movies, who just wanted to get married. Mum Rudd isn’t much of a role – it never has been (her arc in this film consists of reclaiming the kitchen at Bellavista from Miss Quince) – but at least she has a brain, encourages her daughter’s ambition, and inspires her husband by telling him to man up rather than using the blathering, absent-minded idiotic platitudes of Ma Hardy over in MGM land.

“Where I come from, a man sticks to his mates,” explains Ryan, in a scene that never fails to move me.

I also like it how Dad and Dave Come to Town supports capitalism with a heart. The Rudds appreciate the value of a buck: Jill’s ambition is admired, modernization is important, Dad makes sure he checks the books of any business he’s involved in, and extols the virtue of hard work. But it’s not capitalism of the unrestrained Thatcherite kind: Jill lets Rawlins resign even after his duplicity has been exposed to make it easier for him to get a new job; Jim criticizes Pierre for trying to crush “the little guy” in business; Jill lets Sonya keep her job despite knowing she’s a thief because she’s basically a good person; Dad goes into debt to expand the business when he thinks it’s worth it. And the film makes the rarely-made-but-valid point that making something isn’t enough, you need to publicise it, too. (Indeed, Jim Bradley is one of the most positive depictions of a publicity agent in cinematic history – handsome, bright, loyal, and smart – and surely ex-publicity man Hall’s fantasy version of himself.)

I love the coda of this movie, where Dad realises that city folk are just like country people down deep (“whether it’s poured out of a tin pot or a billy, it’s tea just the same”), and the Rudds have a Christmas Party where all the kids make out. Dad not only takes this in stride, he pulls Mum on to his lap and announces he’s going to join in on the fun, making this one of the few Australian movies to end with implication of characters over fifty having sex.

An early print advertisement for Dad and Dave Come to Town. Image © NFSA.

But my favourite bit of all comes in the climax. Pierre turns up after the fashion show, demanding one thousand pounds. Dad, by then deeply in debt, can’t pay it – but he’s bailed out by his neighbour and sparring partner, Ryan, who writes Pierre a cheque on the spot. “Where I come from, a man sticks to his mates,” explains Ryan, in a scene that never fails to move me. I love this moment because it says a lot about what I’d like Australia to be – a place where you squabble with your neighbours but when the chips are down you help each other out.

Dad and Dave Come to Town isn’t Citizen Kane (1940). It’s a bit creaky, some performances whiff of ham, there are a couple of jokes I just plain don’t get, and the pacing occasionally feels off. And if you don’t like old movies, or old Aussie humour, you probably won’t like it at all. But I love it. It’s got yokels loose in the city, two great juveniles, witty dialogue, comic dogs, Bert Bailey acting up a storm, a young Peter Finch making his mark, slapstick, Shirley Ann Richards and Billy Rayes lighting sparks off each other, and that great feeling of inclusiveness, tolerance, family and mateship that marks the best of Australian populist entertainment – the same sort we later saw in The Overlanders (1946), They’re a Weird Mob (1966), Crocodile Dundee (1986), Neighbours (1987-), Packed to the Rafters (2008-) and The Sapphires (2012). And the fact that the the film is not commercially available on DVD is a downright scandal.

About Stephen Vagg: Stephen is an AFI-nominated writer whose credits include the feature films All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane and Jucy, as well as the TV shows Home and Away and Neighbours. He is the author of the biography Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood as well as several plays. His most recent play, Sidekicks, is playing at the Old 505 Theatre in Sydney from November 2-18, 2012.

Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:

Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood spent watching the television show Round the Twist. Or you can read Anthony Morris flirting with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper, Annie Stevens going bridal with Muriel’s Wedding, or Popzilla bowing down before the altar of literary screen adaptations. More recently, Lia McCrae-Moore showers affection on SBS’s high-octane police thriller, East West 101, Rochelle Simienowicz delves deeply into the ground-breaking television series, Love My Way, and Simon Elschlepp discovers a fondness for stylish and audacious futuristic noir, Dark City. Thomas Caldwell rhapsodises about Richard Lowenstein’s anarchic and playful 1986 film Dogs in Space, John Bailey remembers a strange fascination with Big Brother Up Late, Hila Shachar explains why Cate Shortland’s Somersault moves her so, and James Madden explains how Lantana won him over. Briony Kidd loves to be horrified by the Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, Glenn Dunks reveals himself to be a Kidmaniac in his celebration of Nicole Kidman, and David Evan Giles explains how Bliss changed his view of Australia. Most recently, British film critic and sportswriter Scott Jordan Harris defends Aussie soap opera Neighbours, and Bradley Dixon heaps praise upon the comedian and writer/director Tony Martin.

Contribute: We’re currently looking for more ‘Why I Adore’ articles devoted to Australian film and television. Send a one paragraph summary to editor[at] afi.org.au and we’ll get back to you with more details.

Why I Adore… Tony Martin

On July 18th a very special anniversary came and went – special, that is, to virtually no one but a small, insular group of super-fans (some might say nerds) with an interest in an influential but ageing gem of Australian TV.

It was the 20th anniversary of July 18th, 1992, the Saturday night on which The Late Show first aired live on the ABC, a cause for celebration, reflection and appreciation for a show still well-remembered by its fans long after it finished playing on television.

For me, the anniversary was an opportunity to reflect on not just the show, which I discovered relatively late in life, but one of its writer/performers in particular: the incomparable Tony Martin, who is entering his fourth decade entertaining and influencing Australians with his singular blend of high- and low-brow comedy in stand-up, television, radio, literature, feature film, and now even web video.

Tony Martin posing with a list of radio executives who will still take his calls.

I could go on all day about his legendary radio show Get This or his two books, but for this remembrance I want to focus on two of his most high-profile credits: The Late Show, through which most Australians first became familiar with him, and his 2003 “low budget cop movie”, Bad Eggs.

On that date back in 1992 I was seven years old, and though my older brothers would religiously watch The Late Show it never occurred to me to join them and find out exactly what they were on about when they would discuss such strange concepts as “Bargearse” or “Pissweak World” (which they compared, with some accuracy, to the eastern suburbs institution and source of much of my childhood disappointment, Wobbies World – home of the world’s slowest monorail).

A lot of the humour would have gone way over my head, of course, but now as a 27-year-old who believes Tony Martin to be Australia’s greatest comedy writer, I can’t help but think that if only I’d stayed up on just one Saturday night in 1992, I could have enjoyed two decades of Martin’s work as he was creating it rather than attempting to go back and piece it together after the fact – a task made possible (but not easy) with the aid of YouTube and an active culture of fans recording his work.

“Influential” is certainly an understatement when used to describe The Late Show and the team responsible for it. The D-Generation were a new breed of young, irreverent and disrespectful Australian comedians and theatre performers who assembled, Thunderbirds-style, in the 1980s and with acts like the Doug Anthony All Stars ushered in the demise of the relatively safe, prosaic Australian comedy that was dominant through the 1970s and (with a few exceptions) had scarcely developed since the end of World War II.

The Late Show, by contrast, was anything but safe. Absurdism, topical satire, slapstick, political humour and fart jokes would sit side-by-side, the show blending sharply-edited, high-quality pre-recorded sketches with live, in-studio pieces which could, and often would, go entirely off the rails and cause at least one performer to corpse (a delightful term derived from the theatre meaning to break character, such as to laugh during a scene).

While his quick wit, experience with stand-up comedy and rapport with Mick Molloy saw him introduce each episode and act as a sort of M.C. between sketches, the pre-recorded skits are where Martin’s talents really shone.

Apart from maybe Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant there are few writers in the world more willing than Tony Martin to actively hide their own jokes in a scene.

Sketches gave Martin an avenue to showcase his ability to work in a range of styles and with a range of topics, equally brilliant whether expressed as short, single-idea sketches or elaborate, high-concept sequences stretching over 10 minutes. He would often throw oblique references to art or pop culture into his work which, while not significant enough to spoil a sketch if you didn’t understand the reference, would make it that much funnier if you did.

One of my favourite examples of this is in “The Last Aussie Auteur”, a spoof of one or more stereotypically tawdry Australian film producers of the 1970s and 80s, personified by Warren Perso:

Hidden in the background of the sketch, barely catching seconds of visibility, hang posters for two of Perso’s films: Evil Angels 2: Lindy’s Revenge (tagline: “DINGOS BEWARE, SHE’S BACK – AND SHE’S MAD AS HELL!”), and Wuthering Heights Down Under.

These jokes aren’t central to the sketch in any way, but the fact that Martin surreptitiously placed these two posters into Perso’s office for those who happen to notice them (and understand the comment they make on the Australian film industry’s colourful history), says a lot about how much work he puts into a joke regardless of how many people would be expected to see or even understand it.

For most people those two jokes would fly entirely under the radar, but for someone that does catch them, that feeling of being “in on the joke” improves the scene immensely. Apart from maybe Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant there are few writers in the world more willing to actively hide their own jokes in a scene, forcing people to work hard to get maximum enjoyment out of their work.

Tony Martin… Canberra: Martin as Peter Harvey on The Late Show.

Above all else The Late Show was unpredictable – a quality appreciable even when viewing it for the first time many years after it first aired, as I had to do.

It was made in an era before entrenched home video, never meant to be viewed 20 years later, and certainly not viewed for the first time 20 years later. But it’s a testament to the strength of the show’s writing and the chemistry of its performers that – save for a few references to relics of the 90s like Tanya Blanco – it’s as relatable, hilarious and daring today as it must have been at the time.

The fact that a sizeable portion of Australia’s comedic output over the last 20 years has come from this single group of a dozen or so comedy performers is a testament to both their enduring talent and the risk-averse attitudes that Australian content commissioners have had towards comedy in the years since The Late Show went off the air.

After the show ended, most of its performers and writers split into two major camps, with one (Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro and Jane Kennedy) forming Working Dog Productions and the other, Tony Martin and Mick Molloy, moving into commercial radio and eventually writing and/or directing films of their own.

Bad Eggs remains a film I desperately defend to my film-snob friends for one reason and one reason only: it’s funny.

While I did spend all of my high school years incessantly quoting The Castle with my small cadre of outcast friends – an easy shorthand by which the school’s female population could discount us as potential suitors – it is Martin’s Bad Eggs to which I continually return and which, if pressed, I would name as my favourite Australian comedy.

Note that I say it’s “my favourite” and not “the best” – an important distinction because, while it is a surprisingly effective comedy-thriller given its budget, on a technical level it clearly doesn’t have the production values of, say, The Dish or Kenny, which are positively slick compared to the slightly rough-around-the-edges Bad Eggs.

Victoria Police entry requirements were a little lax in the early 21st century.

Budgetary constraints are evident from the very first scene, where a long and presumably expensive tracking shot follows a car – its driver passed out from an apparent suicide attempt – rolling down a street and through a busy shopping centre. This impressive extended shot is undone almost immediately when the car crashes into a fountain and what is obviously a plastic mannequin flies through the windshield into a conveniently placed convertible.

The scene is ludicrously over-the-top, but then again, this is a film set in a world in which someone of Mick Molloy’s physique could make it as a “top cop”, so gritty David Simon-esque realism doesn’t seem to have been Martin’s goal.

But what it lacks in budget it certainly makes up for in its alchemical combination of hilarious visual humour; endlessly quotable dialogue; understated, laconic lead performances (especially from Bob Franklin); inventive set pieces (including one of the least-exciting security camera hacks in all of cinema); and a raft of irresistable cameos drawn from Martin’s long career in entertainment.

The result is a film which is justifiably panned for many legitimate reasons (with David Stratton giving it a particularly bad review on The Movie Show), but will remain a film I desperately defend to my film-snob friends for one reason and one reason only: it’s funny.

And that’s what I love about Tony Martin more than anything else: his absolute commitment to “the funny”, deliberately less focused on any factor which doesn’t directly make the sketch or scene more effective comedically.

The shame is that, despite his past successes in a range of creative media, the only time we get to see much of Martin on television these days is when he turns up on a light entertainment panel show, over which he has no control.

He has dipped his toes into the world of online content in collaboration with Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler, but I hope he finds his way to creating more film or television brilliance in the future, if only so that future generations aren’t forced to delve into decades of history or the bowels of the internet to discover the treasure trove that is his body of work.

The 20th anniversary of The Late Show has given me a chance to reflect on how much enjoyment Tony Martin has given me and many like me over his career, and it’s hard to think of anyone who has contributed more to Australian comedy over the past three decades than he has.

It’s a well-worn cliché to note that many of Australia’s favourite film and television performers are, in fact, not Australian, but do any of us really appreciate just how well we’ve done at the expense of our pacific neighbour?

For every Taika Waititi – who has stayed in New Zealand to make two of the sweetest and funniest films of the past 10 years (Eagle vs Shark and Boy) – there’s a handful of John Clarkes, Sam Neills or Jane Campions who crossed the Tasman and saw their adoptive country champion their successes and disavow their failures, as we Australians tend to do.

For me, even accounting for what others describe as “failures”, the New Zealander who has given Australia more successes than any other is Mr. Tony Martin.

Tony Martin can be found on Twitter at @mrtonymartin or on repeats of Spicks and Specks. Scarcely Relevant, an e-book collection of his columns for The Scriveners Fancy is available from Tony Martin Things for $6.00. I particularly recommend “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Laserdisc Player”, a reminiscence about an ancient device, and “Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy”, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Further Late Show clips that movie fans may enjoy:

About Bradley Dixon: Bradley J. Dixon is a web developer, writer and film lover who has been AFI | AACTA’s web coordinator since early 2012. You can find more of his film writings at his blog Cinema Quest or follow him on Twitter at @bradleyjdixon.

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Contribute: We’re currently looking for more ‘Why I Adore’ articles devoted to Australian film and television. Send a one paragraph summary to editor[at] afi.org.au and we’ll get back to you with more details.