Saturday, July 28, 2012

Work in Progress

When I first met the Australian cookery superstar, Margaret Fulton, it didn't occur to me that I would one day write a musical about her. My job at the time was to propose to Margaret the idea of doing a TV special about her.  This was long before all the Masterchef and celebrity cook TV shows existed. I was working in TV for Steve Vizard, and we wanted to produce a series of shows about 'Australian icons'. As I spoke with Margaret it became obvious that one show might not be enough. As we sat in her Balmain house, enjoying views of Sydney Harbour and eating Anzac biscuits, Margaret told me story after story about the mini-adventures that were all part of her life. Margaret was bright, funny  and sharp. She spoke clearly and proudly about a remarkable career that covered five decades. (Some of these were later compiled with her favourite recipes in a biography called I Sang for my Supper.) I'm not sure Margaret actually wanted to be part of our proposed TV series. I quickly bought the rights to the biography because, even though Margaret wasn't so keen on the TV idea, I suspected  that I would one day dramatise the story, though the idea of making a musical about Margaret's life didn't occur till years later.

When I was no longer working full-time for Steve Vizard, I pitched the idea of a Margaret Fulton musical to Simon Phillips, who was then the artistic director of The Melbourne Theatre Company. Simon liked the idea and gave me a little bit of money to present a 'treatment'. I contacted TV colleague and composer Yuri Worontschak to help me with the songs. We recorded five in all, to give Simon a taste of what we wanted to do. (By this time, the successful musical Keating was up and running, and doing very well. I've also blogged about that.) It was a slow process. When I eventually had the presentation ready for Simon, he had made a decision to move on from the MTC, so the whole project was 'put on the back-burner'. I was over thirty, so quite used to projects going nowhere. I tucked the songs and the first act away on my hard drive, and didn't give it much thought until I met young produce/director Bryce Ives. We were lucky enough to work together on Tracy Harvey's musical comedy set in a call centre: 'Call Girl'. (I mention this elsewhere on my blog.) It was a show that made no money and disappeared but left everyone feeling energised and optimistic for some reason. It probably helped that most of the cast and crew were young. And the show was good.

Bryce Ives was under thirty, so he was a lot less jaded about the business than I was. I passingly mentioned the idea of the Margaret Fulton musical and he was instantly enthusiastic. He kept coming up with ingenious ideas about how such a musical could be staged. He just wanted me to finish the script and let him sort out the other stuff. I contacted Margaret, who gave her blessing to the script and songs thus far, and seemed equally keen for me to finish the project. Margaret was always supportive. She sent me a card from Scotland when she went to visit family over there. The card contained a sprig of Scottish heather for luck. 
A greeting card from Margaret.
Unfortunately, the heather never arrived because it's extremely illegal to send plant matter through Australia Post. When the card finally turned up on my doorstep, it was wrapped in adhesive tape informing me that it had been inspected by the customs department, the heather had been removed, but the card was still okay, if a little bent and battered. So I returned to writing the show, since Margaret had allowed me to take such liberties with her life. Using the biography, and my regular recorded interviews with Margaret, along with a heap of transcripts I found on-line, I wrote the rest of the songs and compiled a second act. People's lives rarely obey the laws of drama. When Alfred Hitchcock said that drama was real life with the boring bits cut out, he really knew what he ewas talking about. But there seemed few boring bits in Margaret's life; there was no deadly struggle facing heartless villains and an eventual triumph. Margaret seemed successful from day one. It was, I suspect, due to her optimistic personality. She did, however have one or two secrets to tell, and with her permission I included these in the script, which she has now approved. Bryce Ives organised a place for our production in the Theatreworks 2012 schedule. (Theatreworks is a small theatre based in St Kilda, and originally set up by students from The Victiorian College of Arts, my old school.)
Then Bryce, who remained hugely enthusiastic about the project, went about getting some funding together.

An early read-through of the production. Sean Bryan, our  production manager, is the one sitting cross-legged with the notebook on his lap. I'm the guy in the middle background on the right, being my usual ebullient self

Bryce also had a network of very gifted theatre mates who came on board to help with the project. Nate Gilkes joined us as musical director, and Andrew Bellchambers signed on as designer. When you work with someone like Bryce you can't help but be swept up in his enthusuiasm. I'm over fifty, and going out to see live shows at night is usually a pain for me. I'm always worried that I'll be bored. AFter having the stroke, I tend to nod off. Bryce's crowd were out at shows most nights. They never got bored. I liked hearing their opinions of the various shows they saw. They rarely trashed anything. They always seemed to find positive things about the shows. It was a whole new approach for me. Then I realised that it wasn't new at all. I had been the same in my twenties. When I was the dramaturg-in-residence at Playbox, I was out most nights and was probably La Mama's most reguklar customer.  La Mama, in Faraday Street, Carlton, like many of the other theatrical venues in Melbourne at the time, had not been built as a theatre. It was a small warehouse that had been converted into a performance space after some determined fund-raising. I still go there, but my over-fifties side kicks in. I always sit up the back because of my fear of boredom. And at La Mama, the actors can see you, the audience is so close. I went to a very good one-woman show by Rachel Berger. Someone in the front row was playing with a lolly wrapper and the noise was irritating Rachel. Rather than heckle the audience member, which actors are sometimes forced to do, Rachel went quietly up to the lolly-wrapper fiend in the front row and quietly took away his wrapper. Theatres like The Pram Factory were the same. These were not big spaces, the stage rarely had wings and the auditoria were generally small. Audiences were just as exposed as performers. Then there was The Flying Trapeze on Brunswick Street. Absolutely Tiny. This was a shopfront (I think it had once been a fish and chip shop) with an audience area so small that people walking down Brunswick Street could stop outside the shop window and watch the show. Whenever comedy duo Los Trios Ringbarkus performed a late show, the demand for tickets was high, and I remember joining the groups of people standing outside the shop window late at night and and looking in for free. Owner Ralph Kerle could probably have charged us, and I'm surprised he didn't. I was never 'worried' about being bored, because I so rarely was. It helped me get a writer-in-residence gig at The Playbox Theatre Company. When I left Playbox after a year and went to work in TV, I stopped all that theatre-going. I got old and tired. In my thirties, I rarely went to live theatre. I'd be more likely to go to a comedy club, or The Melbourne International Comedy Festival, to see if there were any new local talents that I could plunder for TV.
The icon herself.

In short, The Margaret Fulton Musical project exists because some talented young people were enthusiastic and thought they should put it on. The theatre where the show will be staged later this year was not originally built as a theatre. It's the old Parish Hall on Acland Street in St Kilda, but right now Bryce and the gang including (young and energetic) designer Michael Bellchambers are working out how to make this space work for us. Fortunately, Margaret Fulton herself has a lot of fans and there has been much interest in the production, which will happen in November. I’m still in stroke recovery, so writing is hard for me, but the team remains so positive and devoted to the project that I'm trying extra-hard to make it good. We've had  few run-throughs of the songs, and they've been great. The song about when the first Margaret Fulton cookbook was published really rocks, thanks mainly to Nate's ingenious arrangement. I think that when you get older, it's vital to work with young people, who teach you enthusiasm. It's going to be a great show, folks.

Monday, July 9, 2012

You have to be kind, dammit!

's why.
Here is something I didn't say. It's from an articlre in the Melbourne The title for today's post comes from Kurt Vonnegut, as a sort of survival guide to life.

Here below is something  I didn't say. It's from an article in the Melbourne Herald-Sun concerning the Margaret Fulton musical that some friends and I are staging at Theatreworks in St Kilda later this year. I never made the comment that Simon Plant attributes to me. I haven't spoken to any journalist about the show. It's probably on a press release that someone put out with the best of intentions. It's just annoying to have this bit of stuff on the web, and to have people infer I said something when I patently didn't. It's also a little worrisome because, while Margaret has always been open about her peripheral invovement with the fledgling communist party in Australia, before it all went horribly wrong in Russia, she didn't want me to make a big deal about it in the script. I complied, but the article makes it look like I'm going back on my word. It also makes me into a gushing threatre lovie by having me apparently spew endless superlatives about the quality of the show, and people who know me also know that I don't tend to talk like that. The show's good. Come and see it. There it is.
Here is something I didn't say. It's from an article in the Melbourne erald Sun, about the musical about mArgaret Fulton that Theatreworks are staging later this year.But I never made the comment that Simon Plant the journalist attributes to me. It' s a little worrisome, because while Margaret has always been open about her involvement with the fledgling communist party in Australia, before it all went horribly wrong in Russia, Margaret has requested that I don't make it a principle feature of the show. I've rewritten some of the script accordingly, because I wanted Margaret to be happy with result.  I think she is happy. But I 

's why.

When you work in TV, some people get the wrong impression that your life must be interesting, even if you are just behind the scenes, as I am.  In 1988 and 1989 I was stupendously lucky to be part of a group that formed an Australian TV show called The Comedy Company. I was the head writer, though many of the performers wrote their own material. As head writer of a popular show (covered elsewhere on this blog) I was often approached by journalists asking for my opinion on matters comic. And because I was hungry for recognition (I'd practically starved before getting the Comedy Company gig, working for theatre restaurants and theatre companies for very little money) I was quite prepared to put in my two cents' worth. This was a bad thing. My views were often ill-advised or just plain wrong. Perhaps it isn't surprising, therefore that some of the country's leading comedy practitioners, such as Red Symons took the occasional dig at me.

Ah yes, The Red Symons thing. It all happened after I asked Red to help me out with the charity, Comic Relief. I was working at the time for Paul Jackson, one of the leading TV producers in England. (Think 'The Young Ones') Paul had been involved in the famous Comic Relief charity over there. In fact, I believe he was the one who shot the 1993 footage of Billy Connolly running naked around Trafalgar Square. Paul was so keen to get the charity up and running in Australia, comedians seemed to think this was a good idea, and I wanted to be a part of it, but I didn't want to produce another bloody big sketch show because they're a huge headache. Channel Nine had given us an unofficial commitment that they would devote a night of their programming to Comic Relief. They were very impressed by the tape that we sent them, full of clips of famous English comedians larking about, trying to convince viewers to give money for Comic Relief, money that would be passed straight onto charity. At the time I was producing a 'Bob Downe' show for TV1.

 Mark Trevorrow (Bob Downe) and I would write the scripts together each week. One of the sillier jokes was that Bob Downe had his own line of greeting cards for very special occasions, that he would read to viewers. Here are two examples:

We're sorry you're in hospital
And think of you each hour.
We hope they can remove that thing
You fell on in the shower

Or …

Have a happy Mardi Gras
Although you say you're straight
There's seven boys who say you aren't,
Can I be number eight?

Not Wildean, but it got its laugh. Because we were forever searching for material to fill the half hour, I wrote quite a lot of these verses (see more scans from the book below), which Bob Downe delivered extremely well. It occurred to me that a book of verses like this might be a good Comic Relief idea, and I wouldn't have to produce a TV show at all. I ran the idea by Paul Jackson, then my publisher (Penguin). Paul was enthused, I started writing a lot of extra material and trying it out on kids. The response was positive. One of the conditions of Penguin taking the book was that it would tie in with the proposed TV presentation. Paul Jackson told me he would even get Billy Connolly to write a foreword. All very exciting, especially when illustrator Craig Smith came aboard. Paul Jackson handed over the executive producer role to a couple of guys I have never heard of. They ran a promotions company called Roar and were equally enthusiastic about the project and did the broadcasting negotiations with Channel Nine. I wasn't a part of these negiotiations, so I don't know went wrong. But someone caused offence and Nine decided to back out. The book was no longer such a desirable commodity but Penguin still boldly agreed to go ahead with it, even though there would be no TV broadcast to help promote the book. There would also, it seemed, be no Billy Connolly who was uncontactable, as he was filming somewhere in frozen Eastern Europe. So I asked Paul Jackson if he could chase up the Ben Elton option. That also fell over, because Ben didn't get the message, or was having a sex change or something. So I plumped for an Australian comic personality to write the foreword.

Red Symons was the first famous person I ever met. I was sixteen, and a big Skyhooks fan. My first book had just been published - and Skyhooks and I had the same publicity agent, a company called Propaganda. Red was sitting in the foyer of their office on Lonsdale Street when I met him. We started talking, he asked me what royalty I was getting for the book. I told him ten percent and he told me I was being ripped off, it wasn't enough. Then he asked to have a look at the book and I handed it over. He flipped through it. 'I was wrong,' he said, 'Ten percent is enough. You aren't being ripped off.' It was a very funny thing to say, and I probably laughed, even though I was still gobsmacked to be on the same settee as one of my heroes.
Twenty years later, I thought that Red, also a Penguin author, would be perfect  to write an excellent, silly foreword for the book of unlikely greeting card rhymes that we came to know as On The Cards.
So I sent Red the On The Cards manuscript with beautiful sketches from Craig Smith, and he said he would be happy to write a foreword and that he would make it part of his weekly column in The Melbourne Age newspaper and that it would be funny. Penguin seemed happy because Red had good credentials. I was happy and I waited for the column to appear, so we could sign off on the book. The column did appear, but it was a damning piece which more or less accused me of being a show pony and doing the book merely to energise my backlist. (I didn't even have a backlist at the time.) It was a terrible piece, that misquoted me and basically attributed the work I'd done with Craig Smith and Penguin's editorial staff to the most cynical of motives. Using a charity for nefarious purposes. How dare we! (It might have been funny if Red were actually saying the words aloud, in the way he dissed my first book. In black and white print it was pure vitriol.)

I rang Alice Ghent at The Age to voice my upset. Alice was Red's editor, and she was clearly horrified to learn that Doug MacLeod was a real person. She had assumed that I was someone invented by Red as a sort of punching bag on which to inflict his own brand of insult comedy. (Red lists one of his favourite comedians as Don Rickles, who specialises in insult comedy, which I've never been crazy about.) When I asked if Red could write a retraction, Alice told me that she couldn't possibly ask Red to do that. (I think she might have actually been scared of him) but I was given the option of writing a letter of rebuttal or clarification that would be placed on The Age letters page, three days after the offending article had appeared. I did something incredibly stupid. I wrote the letter while still angry and sent it to Alice before I had calmed down. (It didn't help that my dad was ill at the time, so I was naturally stressed about that.)
Now, the Letters page is/was the most-read part of The Age. And so, my cynical rebuttal to Red was placed among letters on far loftier subjects. Most people reading the letters page would have had no idea of what my letter referred to and it all came across as very nasty, even cruel. My 'Age' letter to Red is still on line somewhere. But I'm not including a link because I can't bear to read the letter again. Perhaps there was an element of truth in what Red had written. Perhaps getting the book together really was an ego-trip on my part. I'm not sure, but even though the book is a beautiful  little thing with a laser-foil cover, I can't bring myself to read it out loud to kids in schools, because the memory of Red's insult column is so painful. I haven't spoken with him since.

The moral of this post is to take a deep breath and relax when someone flames you like that. I'm certainly not going to complain to Simon Plant about the Margaret Fulton gaffe. Simon's a nice guy, and I remember him from yesteryear when I was being consulted by journalists on any comedy issues of the day. He even came to a 'comedy-writing workshop' that I unwisely agreed to do for the Australian Writers Guild. I still haven't been paid for that, but it was back in 1989 so I don't think I'll chase it up. Peace, love and happiness, everyone, and be careful about what you put on the Internet. You have to be kind, dammit!
(Here, as promised, are some scans from On The Cards. Apologies for the poor quality.)