Let us Celebrate Leo McKern – a day in Canberra

I bumped my head on the beam of my own absurdity as I walked around Canberra’s great big lake. I risked a walk without hat or factor 50 unaware of the high, hot sun. You think I’d have been aware of the Sun after two weeks touring with a cosmologist. I sensed I must be purpling by midday and scurried, bad temperedly, for shade. Fearing sunstroke, I skipped the gym workout and hid under a sheet for a while, then went off to the galleries.

Australian cinema was exotic and arcane when I was young.
The seventies had seen Australian filmmakers making their mark internationally and so by the 1980s, BBC2 would run series of Australian movies. They were arthouse by the very virtue of not being in the usual language of Hollywood or Ealing. Generally, the BBC would skip Alvin Purple Rides Again, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own and Mad Dog Morgan, in favour of Heatwave, Picnic at Hanging Rock and My Brilliant Career.
The National Gallery in Canberra currently has an exhibition of on set images, movie fan scrapbooks and the occasional spangly dress, from Australian movie history.
It was a reminder both of youthful favourites and also of how parochial film distribution is. Many photos on the wall were from films that have never made it to a UK cinema screen with the exception of specialist festivals at the Barbican or NFT.

I have only recently seen Wake in Fright, a revered and loathed thriller involving a teacher who finds himself trapped in an outback town where seamy criminality is the norm. It’s images of festering immorality outraged some Australians in the same way Les Patterson did.
At an early screening, one infuriated audience member stood up and declared, “that’s not us.”
Australian screen icon Jack Thompson yelled back, “sit down, mate, it’s us.”
As The Cars that Are Paris and Wolf Creek have shown, the long tracks of arid loneliness in Australia are good for creating threat to outsiders unused to a fragmentation of urban civilisation.
Meanwhile, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock demonstrated, one of the works more heavily illustrated in the exhibition top, this is a landscape where the uncanny may never be that far away.

Many great Australian films are represented – The Getting of Wisdom, Shine, Don’s Party and I was glad to see the inclusion of Howling 3: The Marsupials. Directed by Philippe Mora, he was also responsible for Christopher Lee’s finest filmed singing performance.
The Year my Voice Broke is one of my favourite Australian films of the 1980s and the reason I own four Lawrence Durrell books, none of which I have read.

I still consider Mad Max 2 one of the greatest limited dialogue, maximum action movies and the image of the beaten, bruised, leather clad, knee callipered Max Rockatansky staring belligerently at the camera is an iconic memory. Oh when would the video rental shop believe I was 18.
This exhibition also reminded me that I needed to watch The Last Wave, Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and The Getting of Wisdom. The one failure of the exhibition was the lack of any reference to Razzle Dazzle: A Journey Into Dance (screenplay by Carolyn Wilson and Robin Ince)

It is always good to see an exhibition with some framed images of Leo McKern, who I was fortunate to see on stage in Jean Anouilh’s Number One at the Windsor Royal (adapted by Michael Frayn).

Now, I have to continue my search for those elusive Ozploitation boxed sets I’ve been seeking for three years.

I was reminded that I still haven’t seen The Cars that Ate Paris, stuck in my mind since I was nine due to the image of a multi-spiked VW beetle that appeared in one my Lorrimer books of horror, perhaps it was in Speed, Savage Cinema or maybe even David Annan’s Robot: The Mechanical Monster. The Peter Weir boxed set was immediately ordered, to be enjoyed in the cold, long dark nights I am returning to.

Then, I returned to the hotel and we all ate cheeses, had 5 puddings and finished the day watching my favourite short film of the year, Brian and Charles. Now, I need to watch Muriel’s Wedding and Turkey Shoot. (And maybe Patrick, too. Where were the spooky pics of the haunting ballet dancer, Red Shoes star and child catcher Robert Helpmann? My favourite Helpmann story is when a friend rang him after taking his children to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “Robert, you are coming to dinner on Sunday, but you have just scared my kids witless as the child catcher. Could you just have a quick word with them on the phone and explain you are an actor?” “Of course,” he replied, and once the children reached the phone he cackled, ‘I’m coming to get you, kiddies!” Oh the cruelty of ballet dancers.)

The exhibition was also a sad reminder of the shortness of John Hargreaves’ life, a wonderful presence in many movies including Long Weekend, one of the most regularly shown Australian films on the BBC in the 1980s. Oh how the animals had their day.

Monkey Cage book is out now.

I am back on tour in UK soon – Bordon, Totton, Dartmouth and across the UK.

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