Monthly Archives: August 2012

Gillard, August 30, After Certain Deaths Considered

Three soldiers in a ten-year war die by gunfire and it is like a ‘physical blow’ to a nation. Forty children hoping to join that nation die by drowning and there is no sorrow spoken by its Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Just as there was no sorrow spoken by her after the drownings off Christmas Island, no names of the dead, no apology, no prayer for the bereaved.

Is the Prime Minister a racist? Well, she looks like one. She sounds like one. If a hundred brown-skinned corpses wrench no word of kindness from her and five white-skinned casualties of long stupid war she greets like an unbelievable calamity, these numbers, these numbers alone, suggest she looks like one, and sounds like one; looks, indeed, like that worst kind of racist, an unconscious one, the kind that thinks she is just being scientific, and ‘these people’ should go back to the village where their uncle was beheaded and seek work there and not risk big seas on their way to a civilised life in Melbourne or Sydney. Her phrase ‘a better sort of migrant’ (meaning me, JG, not Roquia Bakhtiyari) speaks volumes, as does her lack of an African or Aboriginal close friend in Melbourne or Adelaide, towns teeming with them, in forty-five years of making friends in Australia.

Is Julia Gillard a racist? She looks like one. Now it is clear her persistence with the Intervention lost Labor the Indigenous vote last Saturday, she looks like one. She looks like the female hotelier in The Sapphires disgusted by black girls who sing in competition with white girls, and says, ‘go back to the humpy.’

She may be otherwise, but she looks like one.

Discuss.

Gillard, War Leader

Hard to see the Prime Minister knows what she’s doing. Having heard some soldiers were killed in the Fighting Season of a war we’ve been ten years in, she professed amazement, and left an international conference early (why?), refusing to see Hillary Clinton (why?), to fly to not Afghanistan but Canberra. Very hard to see why she chose that destination. Skype, after all, was available, and mobile phones. And generals capable of going by plane to wherever she was, in three or four hours.

She then said the news of some new deaths in a long war came ‘like a physical blow’ (no, it was like fired bullets at young men whose women didn’t want them to be there, at war with young men in their own brigades), but we would stay there nonetheless, in a war that nobody likes, and resolutely stay there by heaven, till we resolutely slink out of it in eighteen months time, on a date now decided that makes no sense to anybody; anybody, that is, except, perhaps, the Taliban.

(Eighteen months is the time between Dunkirk and Pearl Harbour; discuss. Eighteen months is a long time in politics; discuss. Eighteen months is five months longer than the Dictatorship of Julius Caesar; discuss.)

She thought this cry of commitment to a war long lost was in some way reassuring. Reassuring to whom? It left all our soldiers’ wives and sons aghast, and their mothers frantic with foreboded grief.

Why are we still in Afghanistan? Even the New Zealanders are leaving early. Whom are we pleasing? Anybody? Whom are saving from eventual beheading? Anybody?

Why did she not say, ‘We are training murderers to murder us, it would seem. I would like to know why. I require an investigation into this incident before I decide what we are to do. We may stay. Or we may go. I need more information.’?

What she did stay stands alongside ‘Americans can do anything!’  and ‘The real Julia!’ in the annals of her inanity. If a wartime leader is unpossessed of good words when a soldier dies — Lincoln words, Churchill words, Kennedy words, Beazley words, Obama words — she should not hold that office. Discuss.

One big thing that should flow now from this event is that anyone who comes here from Afghanistan should not be sent back there, and should be admitted automatically as refugees from this terrible, dangerous place, unfit for children to grow up in, and women to go dancing in.

Discuss.

A Further Word To Nick Xenophon

At breakfast yesterday with Nick Xenophon, a decent, mild, unpretentious and well-balanced man who does not much care if he is defeated next year or not, I put to him — and he did not much like — a plan to solve everything.

This was to confiscate, this year and next, seventeen billion dollars from Gina Rinehart, and with it balance the budget, bring in free universities for five years, universal uncosmetic dental health care, and so on. She was an enemy of our civilisation, I said, digging out of soil we owned overmuch wealth and banking, in a day, as much as Barack Obama earns in two terms and giving nought of it back to Australia.

Nick said person-specific legislation was a bad idea and possibly unconstitutional. I said it wasn’t when used against David Hicks. He said he’d think about it.

Twenty-one million Australians would be in favour of it, and a couple of hundred, three hundred perhaps, against it.

Labor won’t do it of course, for fear of being sent up to see Matron or whatever it is they’re currently scared of, or being reproved by Gittins or Grattan, or stared down by Leigh Sales, and what idiots they are, or seem to be.

I want argument on this. A much disliked woman with bags of gold we could wrench out from under her fat arse and spend on good works and our future, saving a generation from underachievement, misery, suicide, smashed communities, and so on.

Any takers?

Homage To Montezar Bakhtiyari (2): Vanstone, War Criminal

It is hard to see after yesterday’s beheadings why we would send anyone back to Afghanistan, but Amanda Vanstone did it to my friends the Bakhtiyaris and I hear they are dead now, and I ask that she be charged with murder if indeed they are dead. The two boys Alamdar and Montezar did well in the one year at an Adelaide Catholic school they were allowed in their lives, both winning medals, Montezar excelling at soccer (there is film of them kicking a ball with Mike Rann) and the outrage I feel at their deaths, if dead they are, is swollen by my suspicion that my publicising of them hastened and worsened their fates.

How dare we do this? How dare we not take people in who flee decapitation? How dare we send them back penniless, confiscating their toys, to seek work and schooling in a tyranny that hates them for deserting it?

How dare we? Where do we get the idea some Hazaras are not ‘genuine’ refugees? And some Tamils? And some Syrians? And some Ba’hai from Iran and Iraq? How dare we lock up children already disrupted by change of land and language, and wreck their education? How dare we do that? How dare we send them back to be killed?

I ask for a Royal Commission into Amanda Vanstone’s assistance of the Taliban in the murder of the Bakhtiyaris.

The boys beheaded, were they? We shall see.

The Way We Were: Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires

The Sapphires is the best Australian film thus far made, better even than Beneath Hill 60, Samson And Delilah, Snowtown, Newsfront, Breaker Morant, Not Suitable For Children and The Year My Voice Broke, and Wayne Blair our greatest auteur. I went to it expecting to be bored and preached at and came out elated, uplifted, and whooping with pleasure. Not just because every performance and composition was a delight. Not just because it showed, for the first time on film, that genial Groucho cynicism which is the way modern Aborigines think. Not just because it showed us, from a new perspective, the enormity of the Occupation and the Stolen Children. Not just because it gave as a look at the Vietnam War like none before it. Not because it gave us a look at backstage wrangling as good as Me And Orson Welles, and at Irishness as good as The Commitments, and at Black American sixties politics as good as the recent film on Harry Belafonte. No. It was more than that.

It gave us the joy of performance as never before — and, in Chris O’Dowd’s wonderful, stoic, share-misery, Irish roadie/accompanist Dave, the difficulties of the management of prima donnas who are blood-related and simmering with ancient family aches, in this case Julie (Jessica Mauboy), a pale-skinned Stolen Child who came back to her mother’s funeral and spoke of ‘you people’ in the accents of a white private school and later, coiffed and platinum like Kim Novak, sold tupperware. It’s not a destiny she chose, she icily declares, and is nonetheless punched in the face by her blacker sister Gail (Deborah Mailman).

Never has this national tragedy been more succinctly concentrated into a single foul sisterly quarrel in a tiny room. Tony Briggs’s and Keith Thompson’s dialogue leaps from this to that, from the local to the universal, from the insouciant to the moral, with the thrilling genial sarcasm of Bogart in Casablanca, and the joust between O’Dowd and Mailman has gleams of Tracy-Hepburn to it: the taming of the sulphurous termagant whom he calls ‘Mother Bear’ and then, very movingly, invites to dance, in daylight, on the bank of a river in Vietnam. We know so much so quickly, and we are reminded of the enormity of life, and the cruelty of fate, and the endless unguent of laughter with every exchange.

I could go on and on, but no description of it will prepare you for it. Go see it soon — or late if you like, it will run a year — with someone you love, or a stranger, or any racist of your acquaintance, for he will be changed by it.

The music is terrific also, in this best postcard to the future of 1968, my favourite year, yet made.

The Silence Of The Williamsons Broken

The Williamson Brand Name has been bestirred to write a play on Murdoch, funder of his Gallipoli, with typical ingratitude for bags of money.

It will be nine months behind our Murdoch miniseries and Murdoch telemovie, which he will have heard of, and infinitely worse, of course, as Alderman Lear is worse than Shakespeare In Italy, The Last Bastion than A Local Man, Dog’s Head Bay than Goodbye Paradise, Phar Lap than Newsfront, and so on.

No-one from the MTC came to Shakespeare In Italy. Better things to do. No-one thus far from the SATC either.

We will see.

Shakespeare In Italy The Countdown (2)

Twenty-one of the forty-two shares in Shakespeare In Italy are now gone.

Hurry hurry.

Shakespeare In Adelaide No Longer, ‘Tis Pity, And Pity ‘Tis, ‘Tis True

It seems the Adelaide Film Festival, on whose Board I sat for ten years, will not countenance putting a dollar into Shakespeare In Italy, an Adelaide feature film, or showing it at the Adelaide Film Festival in October next year. ‘I don’t have a dollar,’ the confused bureaucrat Adele Hann in distress protested. ‘Yes you do,’ I said. ‘No, in fact I don’t,’ she said. It was that sort of conversation. She had seen the play and loved it, but could not possibly commit to showing the film of it, unlike Dr Plonk, which they had money in; she didn’t have the authority, no-one did.

Don’t worry about it, Jake. It’s just … Adelaide.

The ten Adelaide actors and the Adelaide lighting man and the Adelaide musician and the Adelaide scene shifters and ticket collectors, all of whom have shares in the hundred million it will make, will be disappointed by the Adelaide Film Festival refusing out of hand thus to premiere it in Adelaide, or any possibility of doing this. So will Mike Rann, who invented the Festival, saw it last night and bought shares in it.

We will now I guess try to show it like Strictly Ballroom on the last night of Cannes, as an out-of-competition closing night entertainment. Or put it on as a play in the Globe or the Barbican for a few nights before it premieres in the London Film Festival in November 2013 and gets Oscar nominations, or not, after its limited first London and New York screenings in December.

I repeat: an Adelaide film thronged with Oscar-standard Adelaide actors and technicians cannot possibly be premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival. They don’t do that sort of thing.

‘Tis no wonder, my masters, its talent is fleeing the city.

I will now ring up my friend John Hill the Arts Minister and ask what punishment short of waterboarding they should get; ot, by contrast, what gold medals.

Unbelievable.

Don’t worry about it, Jake. It’s just …

Adelaide.

A Modest Proposal Of National Salvation

Now would be a good time for the Federal Government to pledge fifteen billion dollars for the Olympic Dam expansion in return for half the profits, and three billion dollars for Fairfax in return for a controlling interest in its management, to be run by the ABC.

If one third pf the Olympic Dam money were to be spent in 2013-2014, and all of the Fairfax money, the eight billion dollars could be raised by a levy of twelve dollars a week on each taxpayer, who would get it back tenfold after the dam is up and running. A government bank could be acquired in the same way, and Qantas. And a flood and fire insurance company.

This would return the Labor Party to where it used to be, a useful entrepreneurial socialist enterprise, of the people, by the people, for the people.

Discuss.

The Coming End Of Dumbing Down, And Tony Abbott, By December

It seems that Gillard’s credibility and Abbott’s credibility will bring them both down soon. And there is a reason for this.

Both have embraced the Howard method of dumbing-down and shrill simplistic accusation. Both talk in abusive banalties, and voices that irritate, of the other’s ‘negativity’ or ‘incompetence’ or disloyalty to Australia.

The arrival of Bob Carr has put all that into sharp relief. He does not dumb you down, he smarts you up. He shows you the complexity and uncertainty of the world in a particular troubling time, and talks to you as if you were an adult, or even a scholar.

This makes Abbott’s rants and blatherings seem prepubescent, shrill, dumb, bullying and out of touch. It makes him look like he is still in short pants, and has cried Wolf once too often.

Abbott cannot recover from this. He seems like a fool now, the Barnaby Joyce or Bill Heffernan or Wilson Tuckey or Campbell Newman kind of fool the Liberal Party usually demotes or sidelines or sends, like Alexander Downer, to Cyprus to fondle his hangover.

He is gone for all money, and will not see out the year.

And Bob Carr will be the reason.

He is our Better Angel, and it is good to have him back.

An Open Letter To Nick Clegg

Dear Mr Clegg,

You will note that your Liberal Democrat Party lost half its vote after you went into government with the Tories. You will note that the Labour Party has been leading the Tories by six or twelve percent, and the Liberal Democrats by thirty or thirty-five percent, for a year.

Is it your sincere belief that if Assange is martyred, shot dead while ‘resisting arrest’, as the SAS is currently planning, your party vote will stay the same? Or improve? It is my belief that vote will vanish, and your party never rise again.

What do you think you are doing? Whom do you think you are helping? Not David Cameron, who is doomed anyway. Not the reputation of Britain, which refused to extradite Pinochet, a mass murderer, yet wants now to send into torture, nervous breakdown and forty years in a blank cell naked and sobbing Assange, the co-auteur of the Arab Spring, who has been charged thus far with no crime anywhere on earth and is thought by a billion Third World people a hero. Do you really think his persecution and maddening is worth the extinction of your party and your nation’s once good name? Why do you think this?

I suggest you talk to Cameron, and ask him to ask the Swedes to come to London and get their evidence from him there, and then charge him if they will, or no. And if they refuse to do this, let him go. And I suggest that if Cameron refuses to go along with this, you should walk out on him and become Prime Minister yourself, in rotation with Ed Miliband, in a Lib-Lab coalition.

Or, if that is your inclination, commit hari-kiri.

It would be a curious thing to do.

I remain, sir,

Yours,

Bob Ellis,

A writer lately hailed as ‘better than Shakespeare’.

Springing Assange

Here’s how.

Get Mads Mikkelsen and a lawyer to go to the Embassy and on film ask Assange what happened with those two women; then go to Sweden and interview the women. Broadcast the film and ask the Swedish government to charge him, or not. If they will not charge him, ask Bob Carr to ask David Cameron to let him go.

If he won’t, get Kenneth Branagh to go through the same process, and ask Cameron again.

Then Benedict Cumberbatch. Then Dan Craig. Then Michael Moore.

Do it until the Cameron government falls.

Homage To Montezar Bakhtiyari (1): The Bottom Line

‘Hey, Nauru doesn’t sound too flash, let’s go back to the village where Uncle was beheaded and look for work.’

The above reaction is what Australia’s refugee policy is based on. It is both morally disgusting and logically idiotic.

Discuss.

Shakespeare The Movie, Shooting As We Speak And Looking Good

The filming of Shakespeare In Italy continues in the hours the actors have off their day jobs and it is clear we have invented, inadvertently, a new kind of movie, the fifty-thousand dollar Ben Hur, part theatre, part up-close intimate performance of classic heroic drama. Lucy and Jordan are ripe for Oscars; or in a just world they are; and, if he turns up for work today, Steve Parker, our ginger-bearded chunky bass baritone, a mysterious recluse with the impact on stage of Brando. It is a measure of Adelaide that these world standard actors — and Wayne Anthoney, Bruce Venables, Nathan whatsisname, John Paisley and Roger Newcombe are among them — must work in other jobs than acting to make ends meet in this, the crucible of Australian cinema in the nineteen seventies (Picnic, Sunday, Storm Boy, Breaker, The Club) and now alas no more than the sandpit of the sluggardly Dutch creep Rolf De Heer, whose Dr Plonk grossed less than any film in history since Edison’s Electrocuting An Elephant did less well than expected in 1909.

It is a measure too of Adelaide that the heads of the South Australian Theatre Company, the South Australian Film Corporation, the Adelaide Film Festival Film Fund and Arts SA have refused to come to the play although it has been hailed as the best in English in four centuries, a joy to be at and ‘the most significant artistic event in Adelaide in many, many years’.

I had hoped it might open the Adelaide Film Festival in October next year but if none of them turn up tonight I will withdraw the offer. The London Film Festival, I think, with a season at the Globe or Stratford just before it, seems a better option than enriching these ingrates.

Very slow people, these Adelaide bureaucrats, yawning and turning away from their salvation. As they do, as they do. It is their way.

I will see them at the show tonight, or they can forget it.

And so it goes.

The Silence Of The Williamsons (21): The Shakespeare Comparison Revisited

I again invite Kristin Williamson to name a play by David better than Shakespeare In Italy or travel south and see it and review it in these pages or elsewhere.

If she will not, I invite her to start giving back some of the money the Williamson Brand Name gazumped from fifty-seven better playwrights, in a Fellowship or Scholarship or funded theatre, and do it soon.

For some of us are dying, and some of us are dead, and she and her longsuffering scribbler David have delighted us long enough, I think, and should gracefully vacate the stagep and leave it to their betters.

Or perhaps you disagree.

Ellis Better Than Shakespeare? Seems So (2)

‘This week I had a pleasure of experiencing the best artistic event in Adelaide in many years. Shakespeare In Italy is intelligently written, superbly directed  and fabulously played at Holden Street Theatres.’ — Leszek Pilch, Klemzig. (Letter to the Adelaide Advertiser)

‘Delightful trivia … performances enjoyable … some of the dialogue is irrelevant though undoubtledly clever. A nice feeling of the uncertainy of the times coupled with a strong sense of intrigue. Wayne Anthoney an excellent scheming cardinal, Bruce Venables a bluff merchant spy and, later, a boisterous pirate.’ — Myk Mykyta, Radio Adelaide.

‘Uncannily Shakespearian writing, and perfectly delivered by a great cast.’ — David Russell, poltical advisor. More to come

Assange: The Way Out

A reasonable way to save Assange now would be to ask Max Von Sydow to visit the Ecuadorean Embassy and in a videotaped interview seek Julian’s version of the events he is accused of. Broadcast the interview world wide, and defy the Swedes to charge him. And if they do not charge him ask Britain to let him go. This will bring the Liberal Democrats to crisis, and their vote to a new low. They will then pressure Cameron to let him go. And he will.

Or it could be Sir Ken Branagh, the well-known Scandinavian inspector. Or Mads Mikkelsen. Or Scarlett Johanssen.

Pretty soon he would be laughed out of there.

Or perhaps you disagree.

Assange, 40, Awaiting Execution

The Lee Harvey Oswald Moment of Julian Assange approaches apace as the SAS plans to storm the Embassy and inadvertently kill him as he resists arrest. I predicted this two months ago.

If it happens it will be a stinking albatross about the neck of my friend Bob Carr for all of his notable posterity: an Australian hero guiltless of any crime gunned down in public whom he could have saved.

I urge him, as I have in private, to go to the Embassy and ask there the questions the Swedes want asked of Assange and grant him asylum here, or not.

Infamy awaits, or glory.

Seize the day.

Shakespeare In Italy: A Mathematical Appreciation

Dear Mr Anthoney,

I know that in some countries in Europe your “show” would be played in big theatres, and all the tickets would be sold months in advance. I know it because it is about understanding and appreciation of real art, which is about our expression of beauty and sorts and shades of creation. To put it simply, art should make us be in awe of its beauty, and/or inspire us to think and feel beyond our imaginations. And I was transcended yesterday into another world of imaginative reality, which, so clearly based on historical connotations, was more and more looking like an intelligent insight into our modern civilisation.

Albeit, I am afraid that to recognise the value of your art a certain level of knowledge, wisdom and maturity is essential. Correspondingly, not everyone can understand the beauty of the Cauchy-Riemann differential equation without intrinsic knowledge of complex analysis. How can an ordinary man see that a function satisfying the Cauchy-Riemann equations with a nonzero derivative preserve the angles between curves and the plane? However there are some people who can do it. Therefore, I was so grateful that you and your colleagues still believed that it was worthwhile to deliver clever entertainment.

After the show we were asking ourselves what was wrong with people in Adelaide? How could such a pearl be ignored by more than one million people? Are intelligence, wisdom and professionalism not fashionable enough? I hope you will not stop doing what nobody else is doing in such a magical way.

Yours sincerely,

Leszek Pilch

Ellis Better Than Shakespeare? Seems So.

‘A hit, a very palpable hit.’ — Peter Goers, ABC, Adelaide.

‘Better than the Olympics.’ — Chris Schacht, former Senator from South Australia.

‘Better than 27 of Shakespeare’s plays, but not 37.’ — Paul Cox, film director.

‘A worthy addition to the Stratford canon.’ Bob Carr, Minister For Foreign Affairs.

‘Written beautifully in fine declamatory style … Ellis himself directs splendid performances from spirited locals, especially Wayne Anthoney and Jordan Fraser-Trumble as old and young Shakespeare, and Lucy Slattery as a scheming poetess reeling in Will’s affections. Anthoney does double duty as a cunning cleric who murders his way to the top.’ — Peter Burdon, Adelaide Advertiser.

‘A delightful, witty and comical piece of theatre that succeeds on virtually every level…an audience-pleaser which is deftly written and neatly acted with a mixture of sonnets, acute dialogue and songs … fully immerses its audience in its world. Great fun.’ Independent Online.

‘Slattery and Fraser-Trumble are the next Streep and Crowe.’ — Craig Lahiff, film director, Swerve.

‘If history is any measure of the classics of literature, the names Ellis and Lawrence will be referenced for centuries to come.’ Ben Paltrow, student activist.

‘A lovely piece of conceit and whimsy, of jest and speculation … superb writing … subtle and enlightening songs … sure and expressive performances.’ — Mark Batistich, Independent Australia Online, see full review below.

‘A most glorious little fancy; a fun and febrile romp through an imagined life of Shakespearein Italy … a delight to both Ear and Mind .. a wonderful imaginative oastiche of history and fiction. Utterly convucing. Uterrly entertaining.’ — Fedallah, blog repondent

‘I’d like to see it again. I expected a farce, but it was serious, close and persuasive. Also funny.’- Brian Miller, audience member.

‘I hope you will not stop doing what you are doing in such a magical way.’ Leszek Pilch, mathematician. See above.

Ellis Better Than Shakespeare? Perchance, My Masters, It Could Be So

(A review by Mark Batistich, former speechwriter to South Australian Premier Mike Rann, published today in The Independent Australia Online)

Of Loves And Labours Found – Or At Least Imagined

A play about Shakespeare, written and performed in the manner of Shakespeare, seems an obvious artistic endeavour.

But surprisingly few seem to have attempted it – and certainly none with the originality and playfulness evident in Shakespeare In Italy, which recently premiered in Adelaide.

Written by long-time collaborators Bob Ellis and Denny Lawrence, Shakespeare In Italy is a lovely piece of conceit and whimsy, of jest and speculation.

Its premise is that, given the Bard set more than 10 of his plays in Italy, and that they are historically detailed and accurate, Shakespeare must have spent some time in the country and learned much of its ways.

With the use of a range of Shakespearean dramatic devices, the play places the young Will in Rome, in the 1580s, where he becomes involved in society intrigues and with the beautiful and feisty Julia, the “open-marriage” wife of the English ambassador.

Tortured and taunted, he manages to resist attempts by the cruel but often genial Pope Sixtus and Fifth to recruit him as a Papal spy.

Though the allure of Julia is strong and the noose is placed around his neck at least once, he escapes Italy in order – so we might imagine – to write the plays, sonnets and other works that made his reputation.

The superb writing in Shakespeare in Italy is complemented by the subtle and enlightening songs, and by the sure and expressive performances.

Lucy Slattery, who plays the red-headed Julia, is strong and sexy as a woman ahead of her time.

Jordan Fraser-Trumble gives us a Shakespeare who is modest, wily and charming when necessary, and determined to write and – above all – to survive.

Wayne Anthoney – the veteran Adelaide actor who plays Sixtus and is the head of the Wooden O Players that constitutes the cast – looks remarkably like Shakespeare and seems imbued with his spirit.

Shakespeare in Italy deserves a vastly bigger audience than is being drawn to Adelaide’s Holden Street Theatres.

Its imagining of Shakespeare’s “lost years” is at times funny and ribald, sensitive and chilling, and such a glorious fabrication of what might have occurred in 16th Century Rome is a brilliant and very enjoyable caper.

May it one day travel long distances and enjoy long runs – not just across Australia, but perhaps in Britain as well.

(Shakespeare In Italy is at the Holden Street Theatres, Adelaide, until 25 August 2012.)

Shakespeare In Italy The Movie: The Countdown

Fifteen of the forty-two shares in Shakespeare In Italy are now gone.

Hurry hurry.

Classic Ellis: The Wowser Dialogues, 2008

A nice conversation with Emilio, the burly, big-faced, homely Spanish-Australian economist keen on Borges, Bunuel, Sherlock Holmes and Socratic dialogue.

‘Whose was the theory’ he asks me, delving among the lollies, ‘of the wowser and the larrikin? Was it Robert Hughes?’

‘I don’t know, I never heard of it.’ I take a mint leaf.

‘In this theory,’ Emilio took takes a red frog, ‘and it explains everything, Australians only ever elect a wowser or a larrikin.’

‘That sounds right.’

‘Of course it’s right, you do the numbers.’

‘Fraser . . . was a wowser . . .’

‘And Hawke a larrikin. Keating was a larrikin.’

‘And Howard a wowser.’

‘And Rudd . . .’

‘A wowser. There’s no getting out of it.’

‘Wran was a larrikin, Unsworth a wowser, Greiner a wowser, and . . . what’s his name, he chundered on me in Vietnam.’

‘Fahey. I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘Carr was . . .’

‘A wowser. He was. He is. He chews carrots and drinks pure water.’

‘Iemma a wowser . . .’

‘And Nathan a larrikin.’

‘Do the people always vote for larrikins?’

‘No, no. That’s the point, you see. That’s the theory. They vary according to the era, the zeitgeist.’

‘But . . .’ I dared a chocolate bullet, inflamed with this new dialectic. ‘Beazley was neither. Whitlam was neither.’

‘They were a mixture.’

‘That’s right, they were a mixture.’

‘And they both lost.’

‘This is very good.’

‘It’s excellent. But who thought of it first?’

I went back to my office with its blocked-off water view of Pinchgut and thought of the convicts (larrikins) and the warders (wowsers) guarding them and of Peter Ustinov’s famous exchange while filming The Sundowners with a shy Australian stockman.

‘I hope,’ the stockman said, with gruff slow delicacy, ‘you don’t think worse of us because we’re descended from convicts.’

‘No,’ said Ustinov, ‘no, no, no . . . What does concern me, however, is that about half of you are descended from warders.’

I imagined Fraser, the ascetic, puritan screw, turning the key in the lock of the cell of the drunken Bob Hawke, and Howard the short-arse hangman slipping the rope over the blindfolded Mark Latham and it became very clear.

What a wonderful idea. I wonder whose it was.

Ellis Better Than Shakespeare? Perchance, My Masters, It Could Be So

(A review by Mark Batistich, former speechwriter to South Australian Premier Mike Rann, published today in The Independent Australia Online)

Of Loves And Labours Found – Or At Least Imagined

A play about Shakespeare, written and performed in the manner of Shakespeare, seems an obvious artistic endeavour.

But surprisingly few seem to have attempted it – and certainly none with the originality and playfulness evident in Shakespeare In Italy, which recently premiered in Adelaide.

Written by long-time collaborators Bob Ellis and Denny Lawrence, Shakespeare In Italy is a lovely piece of conceit and whimsy, of jest and speculation.

Its premise is that, given the Bard set more than 10 of his plays in Italy, and that they are historically detailed and accurate, Shakespeare must have spent some time in the country and learned much of its ways.

With the use of a range of Shakespearean dramatic devices, the play places the young Will in Rome, in the 1580s, where he becomes involved in society intrigues and with the beautiful and feisty Julia, the “open-marriage” wife of the English ambassador.

Tortured and taunted, he manages to resist attempts by the cruel but often genial Pope Sixtus and Fifth to recruit him as a Papal spy.

Though the allure of Julia is strong and the noose is placed around his neck at least once, he escapes Italy in order – so we might imagine – to write the plays, sonnets and other works that made his reputation.

The superb writing in Shakespeare in Italy is complemented by the subtle and enlightening songs, and by the sure and expressive performances.

Lucy Slattery, who plays the red-headed Julia, is strong and sexy as a woman ahead of her time.

Jordan Fraser-Trumble gives us a Shakespeare who is modest, wily and charming when necessary, and determined to write and – above all – to survive.

Wayne Anthoney – the veteran Adelaide actor who plays Sixtus and is the head of the Wooden O Players that constitutes the cast – looks remarkably like Shakespeare and seems imbued with his spirit.

Shakespeare in Italy deserves a vastly bigger audience than is being drawn to Adelaide’s Holden Street Theatres.

Its imagining of Shakespeare’s “lost years” is at times funny and ribald, sensitive and chilling, and such a glorious fabrication of what might have occurred in 16th Century Rome is a brilliant and very enjoyable caper.

May it one day travel long distances and enjoy long runs – not just across Australia, but perhaps in Britain as well.

(Shakespeare In Italy is at the Holden Street Theatres, Adelaide, until 25 August 2012.)

Nauru 2

It should now be explained why incompetent Chinese waitresses are let in and persecuted Hazara peasant farmers fleeing decapitation by the Taliban kept out.

Who is at the head of the queue? And why?

Why is every Syrian not automatically let in? How can he/she not be said to be a ‘genuine refugee’? How?

That said, it is a good chess move, and Abbott has nowhere to go now, and other things will be talked of, in arguments he will mostly lose, and he will fall because of it, all of his moral eggs having been in this basket.

The Prime Minister’s utterance about ‘I tell you what’s harder, it’s watching people drown’ is idiotic. This could equally be said when banning the Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race or gaoling teenage girls for sailing small craft round the world. Or travelling on any ferry in Bangla Desh. Or evacuating Dunkirk.

The Lieutenant-Governor of South Australia came here on a leaky boat on which some of his relatives in big storms died. And he should not have come; is that the argument? He should not have come? Please say yes or no, so he can sue some of you.

The true solution is to let in a hundred thousand fewer incompetent Chinese waitresses next year and instead let in a hundred thousand Hazara and Tamil refugees and thus abolish the queue, and twenty thousand a year thereafter, flying them here on their last hop at government expense, a far far less expensive destination than Nauru, whose time frame amounts to child abuse, and save our taxpayers a lot of money.

What a stupid, stupid episode.

And a vile stain on our name.

Saving Ryan’s Privatisations

Romney’s veep Paul Ryan is exactly the same mistake John McCain made picking Palin: to activate the base he has picked the partner most likely to alienate the middle.

Is anyone in America in favour of privatising Medicare? A few, probably. Maybe a half million rural nutters, Chicago academics and fourth-generation billionaires.

But three hundred and seven million Americans will very much want to keep it, not just because it saved their parents’ lives, but because the Meltdown showed, and showed forcefully, how much a corporation can lose when the wind changes, and they’d prefer on the whole not to die of poverty in their seventies or eighties when they might have been saved from death, free of charge, by the taxes they paid when they were younger, the money they gave to Medicare.

And there has never been in any country on earth a fifty-one percent vote in favour of privatising anything.

There has not even been a five percent vote.

It is something governments only ever sneak through, as Keneally did, and Blair did, and Iemma tried to, and Bligh did, and fall from power because of. Without the privatisations that did for them, Bligh’s party and Keneally’s party would have five times as many seats as they do now. And Blair’s party still in power. And everybody knows it.

Except Andrew Fraser of course, the esteemed young Queensland suicide bomber. What a fool he is, and always was. See my chapter Shame, Fraser, Shame in Goodbye Babylon.

So Romney has signed his death warrant, by embracing policies most Americans abhor.

It’s possible the jig is up in America, and the rich after 2008 aren’t much admired any more.

We shall see in November anyway. Obama was always lucky, and the tide is once again with him in the home stretch.

We shall see.

After Hughes Two

The Robert Hughes arrest is troubling in a lot of ways, to me especially. My daughter Jenny nearly got that role (the character, Jenny, was named after her), and I’m glad she didn’t. The rumours about Robert were pretty ferocious a few years into Hey Dad’s run, and it was said the show, though still top rating, was cancelled because the rumours were true.

A lot of adults have been in the situation Hey Dad’s producers were in when that happened. Nearly all of us have known of an uncle who was kiddy-fiddler or a priest who liked that sort of thing, or an older brother abusing his sister. Nearly all of us have not reported it. And nearly all the children we knew of were hurt because we did not report it. Because we kept silent. The Catholic Church is full of tales of suicides long after because of child abuse that was not stopped though it was known of, years before. It is a human tendency not to look at the ugly, nor talk about it much, nor call the police nor be a witness at the trial.

This is largely because the law is an ass when it comes to pederasty. The law aberrantly holds that a man is sane when he is sodomising a baby and so must stand trial before a jury. But he is not sane. How could he be.

It is in part because of this that reports of assault are rarely made. The witnesses realise the accused may be beaten to death in prison, it happens quite a lot, and they do not want that. So they keep silent.

I have kept silent about a man in our neighborhood, now dead. It is a very, very exhausting thing to make a charge like this, knowing the culprit will be out in ten years from now and may have a go at you or your family. Burn your house down, or whatever,

If they were given medical treatment and locked up in a comfortable asylum or hospital, that would be good with me. But gaol … I’m against gaoling anybody. A dentist’s drill applied for four minutes without anaesthetic would be punishment enough. Gaol is just a waste of breath.

Who is with me on this?

Ellis Better Than Shakespeare? Seems So.

(I will put up in this place the various responses to Shakespeare In Italy as they come in.)

‘A hit, a very palpable hit.’ — Peter Goers, ABC, Adelaide.

‘Better than the Olympics.’ — Chris Schacht, former Senator from South Australia.

‘Better than 27 of Shakespeare’s plays, but not 37.’ — Paul Cox, film director.

‘A worthy addition to the Stratford canon.’ Bob Carr, Minister For Foreign Affairs.

‘Written beautifully in fine declamatory style … Ellis himself directs splendid performances from spirited locals, especially Wayne Anthoney and Jordan Fraser-Trumble as old and young Shakespeare, and Lucy Slattery as a scheming poetess reeling in Will’s affections. Anthoney does double duty as a cunning cleric who murders his way to the top.’ — Peter Burdon, Adelaide Advertiser.

‘A delightful, witty and comical piece of theatre that succeeds on virtually every level…an audience-pleaser which is deftly written and neatly acted with a mixture of sonnets, acute dialogue and songs … fully immerses its audience in its world. Great fun.’ Independent Online.

‘Slattery and Fraser-Trumble are the next Streep and Crowe.’ — Craig Lahiff, film director, Swerve.

‘If history is any measure of the classics of literature, the names Ellis and Lawrence will be referenced for centuries to come.’ — Ben Rillo, student activist.

‘A lovely piece of conceit and whimsy, of jest and speculation … superb writing … subtle and enlightening songs … sure and expressive performances.’ — Mark Batistich, Idependent Australia Online, see full review above.

Going, Going

There are thirty-two shares in Shakespeare In Italy The Movie left. Each costs a thousand dollars, and gets you one percent of the money the movie makes once forty-two thousand dollars has been recovered from the theatre box office or from sales to television, DVDs, film festivals or cinemas.  If the film makes a million dollars you get ten thousand; if twenty million, and this is quite likely, two hundred thousand. My partner Wayne Anthoney, a respected septuagenarian actor-manager of small fringe events, will collect what money comes in and send it out.

Since I began writing this, two shares were sold, to Patric Juillet, of Galway, and Luke Walladge, of Perth.

Hurry hurry.

Vivat Vivat Lucy Slattery

It is plain by now that Lucy Slattery is the finest thirty-five-year-old Australian actress now working (Blanchett is forty-two and Wasikowska twenty-two but neither better than she) and the doubtless good work she does at The Smelly Cheese in her day job is, or seems to me, a kind of national tragedy.

In Shakespeare In Italy she gives us a range of emotion unavailable in any other role and bewitches us with her infinite variety (seductive, stormy, coquettish, calculating, murderous, true-hearted, treacherous, fanatical, deceitful, delectable, wounded, soft, romantic, wifely, revengeful), her howls and whispers and tempestuous, groping carnality.

But … like many talented women so placed, and aged, she is considering, lately, giving up acting. Ten years in Melbourne after a stuffed-up Taming Of The Shrew, a role that else would have made her, drove her after slim pickings home to Adelaide, where she has fifteen more performances as Julia Ascombe — which she calls ‘by far the best Shakespearean woman, ever’ -  and then a tour to Sydney with it, a reading or two, and then (perhaps) oblivion.

She, I think, and others, many others, of comparable early promise add up to not so much a national tragedy as a cultural crisis. Two hundred good young actors come out of NIDA, WAPA, the VCA and the lesser acting academies every year and a hundred and ninety three end up in hotel management or waitressing or teaching. One great actor I know, Danny Mitchell, Warren’s son, assists infirm old men into showers and toilets and stands outside the door awaiting their eructations and dreams of playing Prospero.

And it’s a pity.

The solution to all this is plain: an acting school and four performing spaces in each of our fifty bigger country cities — Albury, Mt Isa, Broken Hill, Alice Springs, Port Pirie, Broome, Albany, and so on — and a contract obligating graduates to stay there for three years and tour shows round the district, and films made like ours of the better productions and sold world wide.

It is ridiculous that NIDA graduates after their final student performances fly directly to LA to audition there when we have, as Lucy shows, and Jordan Fraser-Trumble, our young Shakespeare, Oscar-worthy talent we should keep onshore.

Pray God she is still acting this time next year. I so beseech her, humbly now in prose, and will in a sonnet later.

And so it goes,

A New Theatre Company: The Launching Speech

It is out of love of language and old friendship that Wayne and I conceived in panic, in passion, and in a welter of improvised finance, this company in our eighth decade, looking forward to a kind of George Lucas empire, or an Enron, or a Globe Theatre in flames in our ninth.

We are of the Elizabethan Tendency. We believe in big casts, small budgets, multi-purpose actor-manager-playwright scene-shifters and ticket-sellers and NO BUREAUCRATS, to bring in on budget and in profit shows like this one for under forty thousand dollars, and passionate evenings like The Word Before Shakespeare and All My Love and Bingo and Be Your Age for one quarter of that sum.

We seek no subsidy, only an audience, and applause, a shout at the bar, and a transfer to Sydney, or New York, or the Edinburgh Festival, for work that remembers English in its better days, before the focus groups began to write it.

You can buy shares in this company, and for a thousand dollars get one percent of the profits of Shakespeare In Italy The Movie, to be shot next week by Kubrick’s cameraman Mick Molloy and bound for a BSFTA or two for Jordan, Lucy and Wayne, and for Pegge, now at long last replacing Sir Donald Sinden and hourly expecting a knighthood himself for his services to language in schools, and his audacity of hope in Adelaide, a town long illuminated by his thundering, ramshackle presence in it; or for Bruce Venables, well known in harsher climes as the King of the Primates, and well cast in the role of a blundering pirate uncertain of the gender of his bedfellows but keen for another drink and a song and a lament for times lost.

For a mere thousand dollars: a limited offer. And if the film of this play makes back what Baz Luhrman’s Romeo And Juliet earned worldwide you will get three million dollars back. Hurry hurry. Form an orderly queue. There are only twenty-seven such shares left.

It is good to be here; and, in a rehearsal period that saw the back of Jonathan Hardy, and Gore Vidal, and Simon Ward, and Maeve Binchy, and Robert Hughes, to have made it alive to opening night, and to have joined in the measureless heartfelt adventure of this first apparition of The Wooden O Players, a midwinter night’s dream, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, on this Nagasaki Day, here launched.

The Silence Of The Williamsons (24): Emulating Shakespeare

No word from David after my challenge that he write a play as good as Shakespeare or give back some of the millions he made keeping greater talents off the stage, fifty-seven of them by my count.

He will be interested to hear of the opening night of Shakespeare In Italy and an audience that had no difficulty in comparing it with Shakespeare nor in judging it better than Measure For Measure, Troilus and Cressida, Pericles Prince of Tyre, Cymbeline, Two Gentlemen Of Verona, A Comedy Of Errors, Much Ado About Nothing, A Winter’s Tal and, The Tempest; and even Nothing Personal. So will his good wife Kristin who in these pages called me a ‘poor, sad man’ of no great theatrical talent forever waspishly envious of David’s genius and bank balance.

She should come to the show. Lucy Slattery’s close physical resemblance to her in a n Oscar-worthy performance of what is already being called ‘the best woman’s role in English drama’ might wonderfully focus her attention, and tempt her to invest a hundred thousand or so in our company, The Wooden O Players, which is looking to BAFTA awards and Olivier Awards in the next two years not just for this but for Neon Street and Intimate Strangers and Shakespeare In Yorkshire and Shakespeare In London. She seems really interested in money and she could make a lot more if she swallowed her pride and did this.

I invite her to reply, or to see the show.

Or to say why she won’t see it.

Shakespeare In Italy: The Countdown

The Preview went well before a small audience of incensed Oxfordians uncertain of whether to laugh or throw stinking fruit and it looks like a success of some dimension between local enthused old Adelaide fools and an BAFTA for Jordan, Lucy, King Bruce and me and a knighthood for Pegge, a British citizen who deserves it for his work among disabled children igniting them into poetry and a fine performance as an affable drunken cuckold worthy of Donald Sinden.

The point anyway has been proved: that it was Shakespeare’s theatrical method, and not his particular poetic gifts, that underlay his success and we were fools not to write in his way in the 347 years since Cromwell closed the theatres. And if Denny and I can do it anyone can.

I look forward to a James I, and a Henry VII, and a Ralegh, and a De Vere, and a Wyatt, and a Sidney, and a Simon Forman, and a Guy Fawkes, and a Richelieu, written in this way. The Elizabethan age need not be over, and there is much to do.

Much ado, you might say. Much ado about Theatre.

I urge my fellow scribblers Brenton, Stoppard, Sewell, Bennett, Mamet, Hare and Kushner to get to work.

And David Williamson, if he is game; but of course, of course, of course he is not.

And never was.

The Usual Murdoch Dirty Tricks (63): The Good Newspoll

Labor on 46 in yesterday’s Newspoll has been explained by O’Shannessy as people ‘turning off politics’ during the Olympics.

A better explanation is that it is the first honest Newspoll in quite a while, because people were home — watching the Olympics — to take the call; as never before in the last four years they were home to take the call, and not out on their mobiles uncontactable.

Though it shows Labor’s primary vote up by 600,000 votes and its two-party-preferred, possibly, on 49 when you allow for the margin of error, the accompanying headlines were of Labor’s coming ‘rout’ and the many explanations for this; and though another poll shows Campbell Newman losing his seat the Murdoch papers have only one story to tell, that of Labor’s extinction, not the LNP’s. This is what Rupert wants, and it must be performed. He is the naked emperor, and you must therefore believe what he believes. This is Press Freedom, Newscorp style, and its imperium is undiminished by the arrest and shackling of its principal courtiers.

Why is a swing to Labor ‘turning off politics’? Onto politics, surely.

But the Murdoch Big Lie that Labor is doomed goes on. Say anything in a confident voice and fools will believe you, and the fools, the fools are many in this, the second Murdoch Century. Labor gains 600,000 votes and is therefore expecting a rout. Oh boy.

Newscorp lost a billion dollars last year.

And it’s not hard to see why.

Hamlisch

The Great August Harvest continues. Marvin Hamlisch added much to our life on earth and he is gone. I remember of course ‘Everything Was Beautiful At The Ballet’ and ‘Tits And Ass’ and note that he is, was, two years younger than I who am putting on my first musical show now, at seventy. Time presses. It really does.

His collaboration with Neil Simon, They’re Playing Our Song, inspired Chris Neal and me to our two-hander Opening Night, previewing soon. Our curtain song ‘Or So The Story Goes’ will be, henceforth, dedicated to him.

Next!

The Shakespeare In Italy Dossier (1)

It’s clear now that Shakespeare In Italy will be a success if none of the actors falls ill and the theatre doesn’t burn down, and that level of success may go up to BAFTA awards (Kubrick’s cameraman is shooting the film of it and Lucy Slattery seems as good as Judy Davis in the meatiest female role in world drama thus far) or even Oscars, but it could also do less well and be deemed no more than a local success like Honk If You Are Jesus or Dr Plonk. And in show business you never know.

But it’s also clear that many of the rules the theatre lives by are arrant nonsense. One of these rules is that you can have three actors on stage but preferably not ten. Another is that a theatre’s bureaucrats must outnumber its actors by three to one.

In this exercise there were no bureaucrats but eight actor/managers and a couple of scene-shifting backstage people and a budget of around thirty-five thousand including the filming. More to come.

Robert Hughes, Acquaintance

The Great August Harvest of my friends and heroes continues as the opening night of Shakespeare In Italy on Thursday nears, a play that Hardy, Vidal and Hughes would have liked. My first experience of theatre in Sydney was Hughes’s blank verse Orwellian play Dead Men Walking, starring John Bell, Dick May and John Croyston, in the Wallace Theatre, its text lost now, and I remember being impressed by its craft and annoyed by its pretension in almost equal measure and being startled by Bell, a pale thin pimply boy I knew from English tutorials, being so magnificent in voice and appearance up on the stage.

I wrote something about Hughes I’m looking for now and will put up when I find it. He was Lucy Turnbull’s uncle and Bryan Brown’s cousin, and they were pen friends in the sixties, and Noeline Brown’s lover (wait for me, he said, I’ll send for you, and he never did) and these close connections of blood and romance in Australia startle even now. My episode with Charmian Clift. Charm’s with Peter Finch. Peter Porter’s eith Sally Lehman. The succession of famous girls with Frank Moorhouse. And so on.

I see now the piece I was after was cut out (by me, for length) of And So It Went and I’ll retrieve it with Annie’s help after next weekend when the play is settled in.

Hughes was almost the best of us as a writer. But he was a fine painter too — and a painting-forger I hear tell — a good playwright, and he could have been a great cartoonist, and was for a while.. But largely because of an article by Geoffrey Lehmann that I and Laurie Oakes published in honi soit — called, I think, Robert Hughes: The Phenomenon Of Subconscious Recall — alleging, and proving, some instances of plagiarism in his poetry he fled the country without taking a degree and by accident became, after European travels and humiliations in London (his wife Danne persisted in gang-banging the Rolling Stones), the best-known art critic of the recent century and a great occasional historian and television star.

But he could have been much more. As his friend Clive James, who was better at career, so tirelessly proved.

And it’s a pity.

A Shakespeare Sabbatical Foreboded

Cromwell closed the theatres in 1642, and no-one since then has attempted a play in the true manner of Shakespeare, and it is hard to see why.

This is not to say that it’s easy. But Shakespeare’s mixture of ghosts, soliloquies, revenges, plays-within-plays, songs, narrations, shipwrecks, adulterous lovers, demented monarchs, prison cells, hangmen, sword-play and meditative sonnets, is there for the taking; and not until this week, when our play Shakespeare In Italy opens at the Holden Street Theatres, Hindmarsh, on Thursday at 8, has it been essayed.

Elements of his method are in Game of Thrones, Deadwood, Rome, Les Mis, Cloudstreet and The Sopranos, but the full Shakespearian weaponry, which Hamlet had, and Twelfth Night and King Lear, has not yet occupied for two hours in a live theatre an audience newly experiencing it.

This week will show I think that it can be done, and if two writers of Number 96 can do it, others can.

But this then raises the question of how good Shakespeare is. If Denny and I can do it, and the authors of Les Mis can presumably do it, and the adaptors of Nicholas Nickleby and Cloudstreet, is this awed worship and repeated production of the Stratford Man justified? Many more evenings are spent watching Shakespeare than watching, say, Nick Enright, whose talent was huge and in Cloudstreet, Country Music, Blackrock and Mongrels, comparable.

Should a new production of Troilus and Cressida go on instead of A Hard God or Too Young For Ghosts or Hotel Sorrento? Why?

Why, exactly, are we doing this? The myth of the unsurpassable Bard has overwhelmed all cultural sense, and in Melbourne Queen Lear is occurring instead of, say, Angels In America, a far greater experience and in my view a better play. Or Black Watch. Or Gatz.

It is said we stand on Shakespeare’s shoulders but he too stood in his time on greater shoulders — Malory, Tyndale, North’s Plutarch, Montaigne, Boccaccio — as our other evening of theatre, The Word Before Shakespeare, opening on August 28, likewise demonstrates. It is hard to find in Shakespeare a passage better than Sir Bors’ lament for Lancelot in Morte D’Arthur, or Tyndale’s lament for Jonathan in Tyndale’s Bible, or Lancelot Andrewe’s Ecclesiastes 12.

Worship of anyone is nearly always a silly option, and few who have sunk to their knees have done so to any good effect. Twelve of Shakespeare’s plays are very good, and about eight rubbish, and several comparable modern plays — The Crucible and Man For All Seasons, Paul, and Victory, are better than thirty-three of his, and Shakespeare In Love — and Shakespeare In Italy — at least as good as, well, Much Ado or Measure For Measure.

We should think on these things. It may be time for a Shakespeare Sabbatical, when for a year no Shakespeare plays are put on anywhere, and other writers in his style and his attempted grandeur given a go.

See Shakespeare In Italy and its Oscar-worthy performances, and see what you think.

Bookings at venue*tix. www.venuetix.com.au

The August Primates Poem

(Bruce Venables, King of the Primates, opens tomorrow in Shakespeare In Italy, playing two big medieval roles)

Behold the King, in motley clad,
In Act One sane, in Two half-mad,
Beset by Popes, hermaphrodites and rogues,
With Adelaide accents like Lionel Logue’s,

He boasts, he blusters, drinks bad red,
Stands the universe on its head,
Secretes a ring in a nice girl’s twat,
Holds court in prison, snores a lot,

Makes mockery of all there is,
Condemned to hang, says ‘That’s showbiz!’,
Struts his hour upon the stage,
Sings and mugs and gives road rage

Just like at any Primates do,
Ignoring every hiss and boo.
He dominates. He snarls and sneers.
Tapdances till the theatre clears.

He knows his place, it’s way up there.
We kneel to him. It’s only fair.
All hail King Bruce! In swish chain mail!
An Oscar for King Bruce! Wassal.

A Ban On Swimming, Discuss

The reason why we aren’t doing well in the Olympics is we are a reasonably civilised people, and it’s become clear to some of us that many sports involve the inflicting of protracted pain on children for years on end and this is child abuse.

Competitive swimming is child abuse; javelin-throwing; weight-lifting; high-jumping; shot-putting; hop, step and jumping; competitive diving. Any sport that does not involve a ball or a tactical contest with other people is, in its early stages, child abuse and like smoking for children should be outlawed. It stunts their spiritual growth. Two hours a day that might be spent reading or yarning or acting in Gilbert and Sullivan is spent staring at the bottom of the pool. That, over ten years, adds up to a year of childhood lost and ends in tragedy, usually, a third place or no place at all in the Olympics and one’s life purpose over at 27.

All these races against the clock should be outlawed, like bullfighting, and all these heavings against gravity. They are not what a civililised people do.

And we are doing it, thank heaven, less and less.

Vertigo Acclaimed In Error By Old Perverts, Discuss

I note that Vertigo has been voted the best film ever made.

It beat, somehow, Army Of Shadows, the Russian War And Peace, The City Of Life And Death, Rashomon, Wild Strawberries, Armacord, In Which We Serve, The Tin Drum, The Lives Of Others, The Best Years Of Our Lives, Flags Of Our Fathers, The Hustler, Downfall, Danton, Daniel, The Road To Perdition, The Seven Samurai, The Seventh Seal, The Syrian Bride, Lebanon, The Hurt Locker, Jarhead, Jules Et Jim and my current favourite A Royal Affair, apparently. Can’t see how.

The trouble with Vertigo, Hitchcock’s most gorgeous-looking (each frame an Edward Hopper painting) and most lushly-orchestrated (Benny Herrmann’s yearning, remorseful, searching soundtrack still unsurpassed in cinema, and lately used, correctly, to climax The Artist), and the first thirty-seven weren’t all that good, Craig Lahiff having lately surpassed them all with Swerve) is that it’s a fraud.

It’s a fraud because the story makes no sense at all. If Kim Novak is, as she seems, twenty-eight and Scotty, Jimmy Stewart, is (as he seems) fifty, it makes no psychological sense. A man thus obsessed is usually an ageing homosexual keen on a fifteen-year-old boy or a Humbert Humbert stressed by a teenage girl. It is the story of Howard Hawks, fifty-one, and Lauren Bacall, eighteen; Peter Bogdanovitch and Cybill Shepherd; Minnelli and Judy Garland; Duigan and Nicole; Henry Higgins, in short, and Liza Doolittle. It is a Liza story, a Gigi story, a Lolita story, an Ashby story, and the girl has to be under twenty. You don’t dress up a thirty-year-old woman as your ideal dead love. You just don’t.

And this accounts for the old perverts of American criticism having chosen it as their best film — above, say, Pretty Baby, Malle’s film about a child prostitute learning the ropes, or Little Miss Sunshine perfecting her bump-and-grind at eight, or Gigi, or Daddy Long Legs, or Beautiful Kate.

It’s the love that dare not speak its name.

Hitchcock’s best film is North By North-west, a genial touristic thriller and cliffhanger which foreboded all the james Bond films and was, at its heart, a jest, like a Preston Sturges love comedy. A wacky thriller if you like. Vertigo, in territory like Nabokov’s Laughter In The Dark or Joyce Carol Oates’s A Fair Maiden, was Hitch’s most pretentious, most French film, and loved by the Cahiers De Cinema gang therefore. But it’s at its heart a paperback romance, really.

And they should hush their mouths.

Last, Shakespearian Lines From Gore Vidal

It saddens me that one of the last things Gore said to me was, ‘Sir, we must be better strangers.’ We were reading As You Like It and he was playing Jacques, a role he was born for, in a cafe in Double Bay. And so it came to pass.

I note with spleen but no amazement that The Drum Unleashed asked me for a piece on him and I sat up all night writing it though I was directing Shakespeare In Italy and mourning Jonathan Hardy and they refused to publish it or pay me for it. This may have no precedent in world history, but there you go.

I’ll publish the piece they rejected in a day or so.

They think Peter Reith is a better writer, apparently.

What fools they are,

Shakespeare in Italy: Some Appreciations

Some judgements thus far on Shakespeare in Italy, to open next Thursday 9 August in the Holden Street Theatre, Hindmarsh, South Australia.

‘A vastly entertaining series of cliffhangers.’ – John Bell

‘A worthy addition to the Stratford canon.’ – Bob Carr

‘Better than twenty-seven Shakespeare plays, but not thirty-seven.’ – Paul Cox.

‘Better than twenty-nine Shakespeare plays, but not thirty-seven.’ – Rhys Muldoon.

‘A startling insight into Europe in the sixteenth century and its religious divisions.’ – Bill Shorten.

‘Slattery and Fraser-Trumble are the new Streep and Crowe.’ – Craig Lahiff

‘A hit! A very palpable hit!’ – Peter Goers

‘Stratford, Ontario, shall be informed.’ – John Ralston Saul

‘Ellis inhabits the mind of the Bard to bring Papal and political intrigue to life, five hundred years on. It will be a classic. I prefer it to Don’s Party.’ – Mike Rann

Shakespeare in Italy: A Programme Note

After thirty years of uncontentious collaboration (Goodbye Paradise, Warm Nights on a Slow-Moving Train, Intimate Strangers, Neon Street) on musicals, plays, miniseries and screenplays, Denny Lawrence and I suddenly realised that no-one since 1632 had actually written a play in Shakespeare’s manner – with soliloquies, ghosts, songs, murders, Renaissance rogues, adulterous lovers, hangmen, pirates, divided rulers and prison cells – that was an actual serious play and not a humorous sketch or a Beckettian by-blow like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

So in one of Denny’s fortnight stays in Australia – he worked for six years in New York – we wrote rapidly in nine days the first act of this explanation of Shakespeare’s twelve Italian plays (he set no plays in Moscow, Madagascar, Virginia, Beijing or even Dublin) and his absence from Stratford and London from 1585 to 1588. Three months later, in four days, we did a second act, and, a year later, in five days, after spirited criticism from John Ralston Saul, Bruce Beresford and Stephen Ramsey, a much-revised second act. John Bell was keen to do it but his Board said no play written after 1620 was within their mandate. The cast size daunted other managements; and, frankly, the audacity of taking on the Bard, whoever he was, head to head, and using all his devices, including sonnets, plays within plays, and, like Hamlet, a murder mystery.

I then turned seventy, and, thus focused, asked Wayne Anthoney, who I have long suspected of being Shakespeare’s reincarnation, to do an Adelaide reading of it. He cast it, then made me direct it. I have directed no plays since 1957 at high school but found it surprisingly easy, and the two leads, former students of Wayne’s, world class. We then did a budget, sold some shares, asked some old friends for five hundred dollars each, and, pushing our luck, decided to make a feature film of it also (hiring Kubrick’s old cameraman Mike Molloy) and, with only two weeks’ rehearsal, an actor with shingles who dipped out and an ailing Shakespeare who might not make opening night, here we are.

‘Make voyages,’ Tennessee Williams once said, ‘attempt them.’

And here we are.

Classic Ellis: Abu Graib and The Maze, 2008

We go to the Opening Night of the Sydney Film Festival and endure a shallow, ill-wrought, lump-witted Mike Leigh comedy Happy Go Lucky, then we are nearly killed on the escalator up to the party, which keeps force-feeding compressed celebrities upwards into a crush of screaming film buffs and heaping them up on a balcony and does not relent until somebody hits the reverse switch and the escalator then force-feeds aghast celebrities, tumbling backwards, into the crowd below. ‘The Clare Stewart Effect!’ I humorously yell above the mounting carnage, a reference to the female artistic director who haunts and lessens human happiness most years as a point of principle, but Annie, sobbing, seems to have a life-threatening back injury and we go home. Our chiropractor Anton saves her from twenty years as a cripple and I return alone to the State for the next two weeks, keeping a sharp eye out for Clare and her gremlin ways, and enjoy myself immensely, seeing many wonderful films. Of one of these I later write:

The Abu Ghraib photo of the standing black-hooded man trailing wires on a box Ted Kennedy described as what, instead of the Statue of Liberty, America would be known as in the coming years. Other images of shamed male suffering – the pile of nude buttocks and shoulders, the leashed man crawling, the black dogs snarling at a screaming prisoner’s genitals, the battered corpse in the ice and the pretty, smiling girl with thumb upraised above it, the masturbating line of men and a pretty girl pointing – quickly disabled, and largely ended, any reputation Americans had as decent, liberty-loving saviours of the poorer nations from tyranny and added a kind of millennial Guernica to human memory.

Errol Morris’s meditation on the photos and the ordinariness, ignorance, banal motivations and essential innocence of the young American torturers and their complicit girlfriends, shows that context is everything and in any killing ground patriotic words, however lumpwitted, trump conscience every time.

They believed they were only ‘softening up’ the bad guys for the real torture that would follow in other cells when the nameless, anonymous CIA ‘interrogators’ began the bashing and waterboarding. They believed the information they might extract would save American lives, prevent another 9/11, ensure the capture of Saddam. Also they were bored, and craved a little ‘fun’ on the long night shift between insurgent shelling and screams of ‘Allah! Allah!’ from the cells.

It’s hard not to like them, when Morris has given you the treatment. Decent, good-humoured, unlettered souls at the end of their tether, they made what happiness they could out of a deathly, difficult situation.

No combination of mere words describes what Morris does with images, music, computer print-outs, cell-phone videos, edited close-up faces talking and remembering, ghosts assaulting other ghosts in grimy cells, ghosts looking out of barred windows at birds departing, and the onrushing, algebraic tunnels of numbers and factoids with which he assaults the mind. Like Eisenstein he has invented a new film language. Like T.S. Eliot he has made a new jazz of colliding words and subjects. Like Disney he has pushed a medium beyond imaginable boundaries.

What results, on screen, is a Shakespearian enormity of character. This dull, snickering bunch of bemused young people and their wiser elders, trapped inside a gigantic military mistake and shrugging, joking, making do, become Hamlets, Romeos, Rosalinds in our minds and their own flip lingo a kind of epic verse, in particular the letters home from Sabrina Harmon who took the photos, to her ‘wife’ Katie, expressing her helpless hatred of what she saw. They seem like soldiers in another Trojan Horse awaiting battle. I doubt if a better documentary about the changeable human soul was ever made.

Later: I see Hunger, one of the best ten films, and write about it.

Bobby Sands was the first of the IRA men to go on hunger-strike in the Maze Prison in Belfast in 1983, and the first to die there, and be elected a House of Commons M.P. for South Down while he was dying. Steve McQueen the black English director and Enda Walsh the female Irish writer have made a film that goes beyond ideology and jingoistic foolishness into the dark heart of torture itself and why Empires need it; the proud cold voice of Margaret Thatcher speaking of ‘terrorists’ who were now ‘devouring their own’ augments the batterings and bloodyings and bangings of heads into walls we see full-on; McQueen, an Iraq war artist, knows about these things.

No better prison film has been made, and its award of Best Film here in Sydney is deserved. Most notable is the fifteen-minute two-shot in which Michael Fassbender as Sands, in dialogue better than Shaw’s, discusses with his priest the political necessity of his unCatholic, suicidal, hell-defying masterplan; and, equal to it, Sands’ slow, regretless dwindling to a skeleton as the actor, too, starves himself, and death comes quietly in medically noted stages, kidney-failure, liver-failure, delirium, childhood memories, a ceasing heart.

After this film we really must look on suicide bombers – their land, too, invaded, their cousins likewise tortured – in a different way. That such foul things happen to people who speak English makes a big difference in the quality of our knowing. We know now that humanity is multinational, torture a crime, and patriotism not just the fraudulent waved flag of an addled scoundrel, but now and then, as here, something primal, to die for.

The Silence Of The Williamsons (15): And Now, At Last, The Shakespeare Comparison

David and Kristin have not yet supplied details of the Williamson Fellowship they promised in January to have up and running by now. Since then I have put my money where my mouth is, unlike them, employing eleven actors and five backstage technicians to put on a play by me and Denny Lawrence in Adelaide, opening next Thursday.

Called Shakespeare In Italy, it has attracted the following comments from those who have read it or seen a performed reading of it:

‘A vastly entertaining series of cliffhangers.’ – John Bell

‘A worthy addition to the Stratford canon.’ – Bob Carr

‘Better than twenty-seven Shakespeare plays, but not thirty-seven.’ – Paul Cox.

‘Better than twenty-nine Shakespeare plays, but not thirty-seven.’ – Rhys Muldoon.

‘A startling insight into Europe in the sixteenth century and its religious divisions.’ – Bill Shorten.

‘Slattery and Fraser-Trumble are the new Streep and Crowe.’ – Craig Lahiff

‘A hit! A very palpable hit!’ – Peter Goers

‘Stratford, Ontario, shall be informed.’ – John Ralston Saul

‘Ellis inhabits the mind of the Bard to bring Papal and political intrigue to life, five hundred years on. It will be a classic. I prefer it to Don’s Party.’ – Mike Rann

It is hoped that Kristin can supply the name of a play by her husband that is better.

Or else explain why Nothing Personal was put on instead of this one.

She could fly south, perhaps, and do a crit of it.

After Annan, The Holocaust

Kofi Annan’s resignation shows I was right four weeks ago and thousands have died because no-one bit the bullet and offered Assad a deal, imagining he would be shamed, somehow, into giving himself up to his executioners and going quietly.

No ruler so placed does that, a second-generation Middle Eastern ruler especially. He will have seen what happened to Ghadafi, Milosevic, Pinochet, Goering. He is not a fool.

And he would have accepted what Idi Amin was offered, a luxury compound in Saudi Arabia — or Nevada or St Petersburg or New Zealand — and a heavily armed guard for himself, his women, his children and court favourites. But no-one made it. The result has been, and will be — as I warned — the slaughter of Syria’s Jeffersons, Guevaras, Indiras, Orwells, Clintons, Keatings and Bob Dylans for eighty or ninety more years, because Assad is heavily armed with gunships and tanks and poison gas and they are less well armed, and there is no mechanism now that will stop a Damascus Holocaust which has years and years to run.

I suggest that our Government offers automatic asylum to anyone from that country.

How could we do else?

Classic Ellis: Gore Vidal, 1997

After it all had ended I wondered why so many of my friends had refused my offer of tickets (thirteen, I think) to Gore Vidal’s one Australian lecture, and I came up with the answer ‘fear of excellence.’ For all of them knew he was not just a Man of Letters but, in our time, a Prince of Letters and that was pretty scary. Screenwriter, dramatist, New Novelist, historian, political philosopher, actor, stump orator and, almost certainly, the deftest essayist in the English language since George Bernard Shaw. One’s ego tends to shrivel in such golden glare; one tends to stay home, watch Foxtel and think of lesser things.

Vidal attempted, for instance, a novel in which one character meets in one lifetime Zoroaster, Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, and he brought it off; and a six volume saga of United States history since the War of Independence (involving deep-etched portraits of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Henry Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Woodrow Wilson, Hearst, F.D.R., skilfully mixed with fictional characters) and brought this off too. His essays on Maugham, Dawn Powell, John Horne Burns, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Mishima, Calvino, Burroughs are classics now; his personal memoirs of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy (his semi-half sister), Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles, Ronald Reagan (the Acting President) and Truman Capote (‘Truman never told the truth,’ he said, ‘and Tennessee never told a lie’) teeter on the edge of the definitive. His double act with Noam Chomsky about America the Imperial Marauder has altered the way we think of the world. His Broadway plays Visit To A Small Planet, The Best Man and An Evening with Richard Nixon (science fiction, comedy, political fiction, political documentary) made money. His screenplays The Left-Handed Gun (on Billy the Kid), I Accuse (on Dreyfus), Suddenly Last Summer (a favour to Tennessee) and A Catered Affair (a present for Bette Davis) touch (at the very least) high excellence in that form. His work on the Philco Playhouse helped pioneer (with Paddy Chayevsky, Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer) television drama on earth. His contribution to Ben Hur (a sweaty homoerotic reunion scene) was very effective. His novel Messiah, on a fundamentalist death cult, predated Jim Jones by thirty years. He pioneered the homosexual novel in English (The City and the Pillar, A Thirsty Evil.) He has mastered in his time the anti-Christian Roman emperor novel (Julian), the post-modernist sex-change novel (Myra Breckenridge), the end-of-the-world novel (Kalki), and the Internet Black Farce (Live From Golgotha). He ran for Congress as a Democrat and in Duchess County in 1960 outscored Jack Kennedy. He appeared effectively in Tom Roberts as a senator like Eugene McCarthy, and in Fellini Roma as himself. He is, by repute (and also demonstrably) the most accomplished conversationalist of his time and his literary feuds have good punchlines. When Norman Mailer, for instance, slugged him in the CBS Green Room he remarked, ‘I at last encountered Norman’s tiny fist. As usual, words failed him.’

It was therefore with some trepidation I co-wrote with Bob Carr the letter that invited him (again) to Australia (he opted out last time after being sent customs forms to fill in) and with some amazement read his acceptance, and with stark fear approached the Harbour wharf where I would meet him. I need not have worried. Though large, florid, stiff in movement, jet-lagged after eight hours in Bangkok airport and unamused by the boat captain’s loud unceasing commentary on the Harbour’s wonders he proved, well…generous and courtly; the memorable eyes of his photographs were large, including, assessing and kindly.

He spoke of Lincoln being lately dug up (again) and ‘looking still pretty much like Lincoln’; of Lincoln’s probable syphilis and Mary Todd Lincoln’s consequent howling madness and death; of the excellence of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson; and the mediocrity of Updike, ‘who stood for everything I detest’; of having met in their decayed old age a few of Proust’s original characters, elderly duchesses in musty hotel rooms, and a conversation with Gide about his lover Oscar Wilde of which he recalled, now, nothing anymore. He explained with patience to John Bell, who was on the boat, why Coriolanus (which Bell disliked) could be a rewarding role. He recalled meeting Lady Fairfax in Venice and being dizzy with boredom at her conversation (about her son Warwick, the genius) and how, thus goaded, he sourly predicted the boy would be broke in six months (and of course he was). He didn’t recall having said of Australia in 1974, ‘I have seen the past, and it works: Cleveland Ohio, 1945, I’d put it, and it’s looking great,’ but he was pleased to think he might have.

His voice, an iron-and-violet light baritone, unforced and East Coast mandarin (somewhere between F.D.R. and, say, Lord Olivier’s James Tyrone), was clear and emphatic and bore no gay inflections; he seemed in personality and in body language more like a heterosexual English aristocrat with a young wife. His long liaison with Anais Nin and the plot of Two Sisters (a character called Gore Vidal successively beds, and loves, and loses, a brother and sister, twins) argues at least some variety of response in these matters, one he would argue is common to humankind. I asked if his illegitimate son in that novel had any basis in fact. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it was a daughter, but I never discovered finally if she was mine; her mother was, among her other virtues, a dedicated liar.’

Bob Carr, ever the deferential young reporter, shepherded him off the boat (‘This man,’ Gore said, ‘should be your first President’) and I saw him briefly at the opening of Writers’ Week the next night (‘I’ve never been to a Writers’ Festival before,’ he said, ‘and I was uncertain what I should bring. A series of Writers’ Blocks perhaps: labelled Joan Didion 1976-81, and so on’), then I went to his lecture-and-interview at the Town Hall and so supper afterwards with him (and Carr and Schofield and Pounder and Freudenberg and Evan Williams and, by accident, Geoffrey Rush) which added up to one of the better nights in my life.

He mimicked expertly, and with an exactitude as deft as Mike Carlton’s, Katherine Hepburn, Eleanor Roosevelt, the Duchess of Windsor, the Duke of Windsor (‘A P.G. Wodehouse character, utterly harmless, no intelligence at all’), Marlon Brando (who, he said, when acting on stage would have a woman between act one and two, another woman between act two and three, and another after the curtain ‘and that was just the matinee’), Princess Margaret, Ronald Reagan and J.F.K. He explained the facts behind the Dallas murder (a Mob hit by Joe’s old boot-legging partners after Bobby in a hot flush of righteousness began arresting the Holy Family’s former providers). I asked if it was true his close friend Princess Margaret was known at Buckingham Palace parties to sing unasked, ‘I’m Just A Girl Who Cain’t Say No’. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that was part of her repertoire.’ He was fond of Princess Margaret, he said, and amazed us by revealing her family was Jewish (via Prince Albert, bastard son of the House of Hanover’s randy tailor).

He hated the word ‘arguably’ and preferred in his writing verbs, not adjectives: verbs advance the story. He improvised, while Hall boggled, a perfect verb-heavy paragraph in the style of Dickens. He upheld his view that Lincoln was the US’s greatest prose writer, but yielded with amusement to Freudenberg’s plea that Ulysses S. Grant get a close second place. He and I did contesting Olivier imitations; I lost.

The night was long and pleasing (and at one point disorderly when Pounder kissed him on both cheeks to his visible dismay) and then prolonged when he invited the Premier and his wife to a further hour of ironic chat and whisky in his hotel. He favoured whisky after midnight and suffered no hangovers, once alarming the throbbing Kenneth Tynan by ‘speaking in perfect f…ing sentences at 7 a.m.’. His memory for names was fading, he said, but he woke each morning to find the mislaid ones all lined up, smiling, at the end of the bed.

He was guilty, he told the Town Hall, of intervention in world history. When casting his play The Best Man (where presidential aspirants such as Richard Nixon and Adlai Stevenson connive and bicker in hotel rooms at convention time) he rejected out of hand one Ronald Reagan, who wanted the Stevenson role because he was too ‘gee willikers’ and ‘gosh all Friday’; too innocent, in short, to be plausible as a presidential candidate. This meant that during the play’s run, from 1960 to 1962, Reagan had nothing to do at all and was tempted therefore into politics.

His likes and dislikes were unpredictable – George C. Scott, not Olivier: Ramona Koval, not David Marr; Jack, not Bobby (Jack was marvellous company, though swinging wildly in personality – pacifist, warmonger – because of the drugs); Henry James and Edith Wharton, not Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; and so on. He hated Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (which he offered to adapt for free) because he got the people, his people, East Coast old money and their poorer cousins, so very wrong.

Carr found magnetic his intimacy with legend. His blind grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore, for instance (who pretended to look at speech notes lest his condition become known and prove a political setback)knew Robert Lincoln, son of the president. Vidal knew General Douglas MacArthur, who was ‘superintendent at West Point when I was born. My mother would park her grey Plymouth in his parking space and there was nothing he could do about it because she was the daughter of the powerful Senator Gore. There was an unsmiling bald major in his outer office. His name was Eisenhower.’ In another demi-monde, he once had sex with Jack Kerouac (to Kerouac’s retrospective annoyance) and spent long afternoons immersed with Orson Welles, ‘like two Talmudic scholars’ in successive sea-changing memoirs from Rudy Vallee, his neighbour in the Hollywood hills. And so on.

I saw him once more at a lunch with the Carrs before he flew out and I tried to work him out. He was, I decided, very like a Shakespeare character – Jacques, perhaps (I told him so, and he did some lines in character), or Hamlet, with a lemon slice of Iago. He yearns, I think, like that thwarted lieutenant, to have led great armies in time of war. ‘Nineteen-seventy-six,’ he said sadly to Carr, ‘that should have been my year. The presidency.’ He admired, he told me, the rogue survivors of history – Aaron Burr before Alexander Hamilton, Gore before Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt before William Jennings Bryan – and found most martyrs ‘tiresome’. He believes in success, endurance. He felt shamed, I suspect, by his grandfather’s eyeless eminence; after such an example, and such dark victory, mere sexual imprecision was no excuse.

His mind roved easily over centuries and dynasties and came back always to his first love, Washington politics. He mourned the Roosevelts, Eleanor more than Franklin: her he adored more than any other person, as East Coast puritan like himself, concerned with doing good.

He mourned, too, for what the security State and its maintenance had cost the US. ‘I look at Arlington,’ he said to Carr one morning, ‘and the graves spilling out into the surrounding streets. This is the price of having an empire.’ A price, too, in money unspent on public education. ‘The public education used to be good. It produced people with knowledge. Now they just get USA Today and CNN.’

He mourned most the loss of knowledge in the world and its replacement with distractions, clever new toys he calls them. He loves the Roosevelt America – literate, communitarian – that probably died at Chappaquiddick. He is in his heart, he confessed once, an unreconstructed Scandinavian socialist of the dullest, most hopeful kind. He believes, like his beloved Eleanor, that human good is still possible.

On the pavement I asked him what he thought of Australia. ‘A good place,’ he said. ‘You do look after your needy. That old crippled couple, the Whitlams, for instance, down to their last cup of caviar. And how you care for them.’ He got into the car, very stiffly. I was distressed to see him go.

Classic Ellis: Some Dialogue Tips for James Ashby, May 2012

James Ashby has less experience than me in the writing of plausible dialogue and he should have have come to me, or to somebody like me, before he put up as evidence the following exchange:

SLIPPER: Have you ever come in a guy’s arse before?

ASHBY: That is not a question you ask, Peter.

As dialogue the question is fine, but the answer is all over the place. No Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Celt or Aussie Bloke in an intimate situation addresses the person before him, an inch or two away, or even three feet away, by their Christian name. To do that is to show aggression — as in ‘Thank you for that question, Kerry. Let me first say, and I want to make this perfectly clear, that I have NEVER, EVER’ … and so on.

You call a person by his name if you are having a fight with him, or if he’s two rooms away, and he can’t hear you and you’re trying to achieve his attention. But no-one, no-one does it when the two of you are one-to-one and up close; except for Jewish mothers, who are always angry with their progeny anyway, and shout at them most of the time.

To show how implausible it is, let us rewrite the dialogue just a little, adding only one more word.

SLIPPER: Have you ever come in a man’s arse before, James?

ASHBY: That is not a question you ask, Peter.

The superfluity of the two Christian names is hereby demonstrated. They are vividly unnecessary, both times.

So it’s likely — though of course, m’lud, not certain — that the Ashby line was made up, or misremembered. What he probably said was either ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘don’t ask’ or ‘Are you asking me were you my first? No, you weren’t, Sweetness, you most certainly weren’t.’ His line as written would have made Terence Rattigan aghast, and, if kept in the script, would have caused him to leave the production.

Another line he is SAID to have said is ‘I am openly gay, Peter’. Even with the ‘Peter’ left out (if that’s the phrase I want), this phrase as a self-description has no precedent in human speech or animal grunting since neolithic times.

It is possible, of course, it was Ashby who said it first. He is a bit of a trend-setter. He is, for instance, the first thirty-four year old homosexual male to file a civil suit for sexual harassment in world history, I would think. I may be wrong about this. But he is a trail-blazer.

And how sinister and silly and sneaky this is getting. It has what we know in the trade as the Salusinski Stain all over it, and the puppet-strings of a man unfit to run an international corporation.

You’d think Rupert could afford a better dialogue writer than this. Or would understand the need.

But perhaps he was inattentive that week, learning and rewriting and re-rehearsing his own lines, which he did rather well.