Vale Victoria Wood

Writer, comedienne and actor Victoria Wood passed away this week aged only 62. A certified national treasure in the UK, she has never had the profile in Australia of a Dawn French or a Jennifer Saunders. As much as I love the work of both aforementioned women, Victoria Wood, along with playwright Hannie Rayson, are two of the earliest and most profound inspirations for my decision to  write for performance.

Today, my heart, along with many other admirers of her work, is a little bit broken.

I can still remember the first time I saw Victoria Wood on television. I was 16 and we had not long had a video recorder. It was huge silver National NV 300 VHS with a remote control on a long cord. I came home one night from a school activity and my mother said “I taped a show for you tonight. Julie Walters was in it with another woman. It was hilarious.”  It was “Victoria Wood – As Seen on TV”. My mother was right, it was hilarious but it was also clever, absurd and often incredibly poignant.

It was the first time that I understood the tragedy that is often at the heart of the best comedy. As I laughed at Victoria Wood’s more insane characters (Mrs Overall, Miss Babs and Miss Berta of Acorn Antiques) my heart ached for many others. I will never forget her amazing turn as Chrissie, the lonely teenage girl who dreams of swimming the English Channel and meeting Bonnie Tyler. Setting off alone while her utterly indifferent parents watch television and remain resolutely unconcerned, when she hasn’t arrived on the coast of France, eight days after setting off. If it doesn’t sound like the stuff of comedy, in its execution, it absolutely hits the mark and the humour has a fundamental humanity that still resonates 31 years later.

For a teenage girl in the 1980’s, the arrival of Victoria Wood along with French & Saunders denoted a mini revolution. They were smart, funny and unapologetic. They didn’t conform to conventional notions of women on television and while they may have  recalled the comic heyday of women like Joyce Grenfell and Hattie Jacques, they were also completely unique in their own right. With their different approaches, Victoria Wood and French & Saunders were the first female comedians I can remember on television who celebrated the idiosyncrasies, brilliance, ridiculousness, absurdity, triumph, tragedy and humanity of everyday life. All the while making you howl with laughter and sometimes, shed genuine tears.

It is no stretch to say that Victoria Wood had genius about her. She wrote comedic songs, plays, sketch comedy, situation comedy, documentary and recently longer form drama and musicals. She had brilliant and long standing collaborators in Julie Walters, Celia Imrie and Duncan Preston. Their ability to do her writing justice and make the characters indelibly theirs at the same time was the beginning of my love for actors and their craft. Her “An Ordinary Man” sketch was the first thing I ever saw Jim Broadbent do on television and I have never forgotten it or him.

Her work never stopped being funny and brilliant and if anything it gained a greater poignancy and depth as her career matured (Pat and MargaretHousewife 49, Dinnerladies). Over the years I have never stopped occasionally recalling  some scene or sketch or periodically rewatching my favourite moments. In my immediate family we have almost unconsciously purloined a couple of her characters’ more distinctive phrases over the years that we still use amongst ourselves.

Victoria Wood has gone too soon. Far too soon. At 62 there was undoubtedly so much more to come and it is manifestly unfair that we have been robbed of an artist with so much art still to make.  For my part, I am just grateful to my mother and a circa 1984 National VHS recorder for introducing me to an artist whose work has always inspired me and made me chuckle almost every day since.

Vale Victoria Wood.

…..and thank you.

Things that go bump in a childhood : The Babadook

This will be a relatively short post because to say too much would potentially spoil elements of The Babadook for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Suffice to say it is one of the most intelligent, fascinating, genuinely unsettling films I have seen in some time. Writer-director Jennifer Kent, adapting her short film, Monster, evokes a gothic atmosphere that verging on expressionistic as the widowed, Amelia (Essie Davis) negotiates the day to day rituals of everyday life and motherhood to 7 year old Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel is an intense child. Highly intelligent, hyper aware and constantly on the look out for monsters that he believes threaten the safety of his mother. When the film opens, his insomnia, constant questions and outbursts of aggression are literally wearing out, the already exhausted, Amelia.

Samuel and Amelia don’t fit in with their social milieu or each other. The narrative establishes very early on that Amelia’s husband, Oscar (Ben Winspear) died the day Samuel was born and this has left mother and son with an awkward, slightly resentful co-dependency that suffocates and sustains them. Amelia loves her son but his vivid imagination, behavioural issues and constant demands are a weight that she has all but ceased being able to carry.

One night Samuel selects a strange, beautiful but frightening book from his bookshelf for Amelia to read as part of their nightly bedtime routine and the film commences to chronicle an eerie exploration of fear, dread and isolation. Director, Kent cleverly exploits all of our childish fears of things that go bump and the darkness at the bottom of the stairs.

Essie Davis gives a near perfect performance as Amelia. The character is lonely and alone but too exhausted to do anything about it. Everything about her in the early part of the film suggests the very essence of grief, fatigue and defeat. Her demeanour is of someone who is either on the verge of sobbing or has just ceased. The irony is that she never does and Davis expertly conveys the internal conflict for Amelia in loving Samuel while being completely drained by his presence.

As Samuel, Noah Wiseman is all at once infuriating, sympathetic, alienating and endearing. He strikes exactly the right note as he wearies even the audience with his anxiety and demands and then breaks our hearts with his vulnerability. Wiseman is one of those child actors that seem, at times, older than his years and then so child like that you realise he couldn’t be anything other than a 7 year old. Samuel never loses our sympathy as a character because he is completely aware that his very existence is contributing to his mother’s emotional decline. When he talks about protecting her, you sense, part of that protection is from him.

The film’s design is a feature particularly worthy of note. The production team has created an odd anachronistic, stark, old fashioned world occupied almost exclusively by Amelia and Samuel. The only glimpse we see of the touch points of contemporary society are when Amelia visits her sister or goes to the supermarket. Otherwise she and Samuel appear to live in a world, not to mention a home, that is unembellished, lacking colour, comfort and modern convenience.

There is not much more that can be said about The Babadook without giving away too much. It is a strange, absorbing, unnerving and incredibly well made film. It uses elements of allegory and expressionism to explore grief, loneliness, isolation and obligation. Part of its success as a thriller is that rather than rely on blood and gore for shock, it references our memory of the things that haunt us from childhood. That thing we know is behind a creaking door, the lights that mysteriously flicker and the monster we are sure hides under our bed at night.

Reflections and Respect

Just over 11 years ago I had surgery. I don’t want to over dramatise as it wasn’t life threatening but it was a big deal for me. I had a longish recuperation period and it had ongoing significance for some aspects of my life.

The doctor who treated me was an intelligent, compassionate, warm and witty woman. She approached all of our interactions with good humour and patience. This sounds easy but, she needed every ounce of all of those virtues considering that I told her within two minutes of our meeting that, “I am the worst combination possible. A total hypochondriac and a librarian. I have far too much online access to Medline”. She told me she had seen it all and that some patients even brought in print outs from the Web with a diagnosis.

She was brilliant through the whole surgery, recovery and follow up period. I felt relieved and confident because she was very practical, honest and never dismissive. She was just a really great doctor which, I imagine, is as hard to achieve as it sounds simple and having a great doctor is an incredibly important thing when it is your health  in someone else’s hands.

I was therefore shocked and sad when I learned that two months ago,  she passed away. She was only in her very early 60’s. It seems hideously premature and very unfair as any death of someone in their early 60’s always is.

She should still be treating hypochondriac librarians and patients with their print outs. She should still be doing the thing that, judging by the photographs covering the walls of her consulting rooms, she really loved, delivering babies. She should be planning a well earned retirement and time spent with her family.

The last time I saw her, about 4 years ago, she told me that her children had bought her and her husband tickets to a comedy festival show. Due to their schedules, this was not something they did often and after they got dressed and were ready to leave, they realised the tickets were for the night before.

I don’t want to pretend I knew her at all. We had a normal doctor-patient relationship but I am incredibly sorry to hear of  her passing. My condition was trivial in the scheme of medical conditions but it was important to me during that specific time. It was part of her job every day and she treated me using an expertise, good humour and compassion that I appreciated and that I really needed at that particular period in my life. I have never forgotten it and I will always feel grateful for her care.

Sometimes, it just seems important to reflect on the impact that people have in your life, even if they are people you don’t really know at all, and pay respect to it. It is just unfortunate that this opportunity is often associated with their passing.

Farewell to a really great doctor.

Better late than never : We need more characters like Janet King

I start this post by admitting that I am always way late in catching up on movies and television that most people have seen, discussed and enjoyed months, sometimes years, earlier.  So it is with a certain sheepishness that I say, that while I know it aired on the ABC in early 2014, I only recently watched and absolutely loved Janet King. It had me gripped from beginning to end and I watched it in two sittings via Netflix. I get that two sittings may not be a true binge by most standards but it’s as close as I am likely to get on a work night.

Why did I enjoy Janet King so much? It has an intriguing, fast moving, suitably coincidence-laden, compelling plot and above all, it is simply very well written. I loved that it is Australian, with a large cast of brilliant local actors (including Peter Kowitz, Vince Colosimo and Hamish Michael) and that I sat enthralled by its 8 episodes the same way I am by my favourite Scandinavian dramas in The Bridge, Borgen and The Killing.

Of those dramas, Janet King, as a character, probably has most in common with Borgen’s Birgitte Nyborg. She is a determined, smart, confident, accomplished and, occasionally, flawed woman. She is excellent at her job and conflicted by her post maternity leave return to work. Her relationship with her partner is refreshing in that it is inherently part of the character’s trajectory but not the primary object of the narrative. Janet and Ash (Aimee Pedersen) juggle the day to day stresses of work, home, and parenting like many couples but the issues that  the show presents as occasionally dividing them are largely external. It is refreshing to see a couple portrayed on television where the focus is not on the machinations of the relationship or whether it will survive. As an audience, we accept Janet and Ash as a given and none of the challenges the storyline  throws in their path seems intended to shake our conviction in this regard.

As a character, Janet is easy to identify and empathise with. While most of us aren’t even remotely senior prosecutors, we recognize the pressures and politics of the workplace, any workplace, and then forgetting to do the shopping on the way home. It is the familiarity of these elements that anchor the story when the narrative heads full speed into more heightened mystery- thriller territory. It is the striking of a balance between the tropes of television story telling and the creation of recognisable, empathetic characters, that Janet King does particularly well.

Marta Dusseldorp in the title role is excellent. She suggests Janet’s professional confidence and determination while remaining self-effacing enough to make her a complex, vulnerable and completely engaging presence. There is something heartbreaking about how exposed she is when circumstances (and bad guys) separate her from her partner and children. As an audience, we are with her every step, as she attempts to solve the central mystery, in order to facilitate a reunion with them. The justified fierceness of her indignation at the threat to her family is palpable.  It is a confident, compassionate performance that results in a complex and relatable character. In Janet King, Dussledorp and the production team create a heroine as nuanced yet admirable, albeit in very  different ways, as Sarah Lund of The Killing or The Bridge’s Saga Noren.

While mystery at the series’ centre is completely absorbing, I admit (or do I boast?), I suspected the identity of the villain/s in slightly before the end.  If anything, this increased my investment in the piece as an elaborate cat and mouse game.  It is worth noting that I second-guessed and revised my theory multiple times until the final denouement and remained totally engrossed to the conclusion.

I have no doubt that I am not alone in hoping to see Janet King have a second season. It is easily as good as any of the multi part international dramas that are justifiably, and sometimes not so justifiably, hyped in this country. It is exciting to see an Australian drama that speaks to us with our own voice while absolutely holding its own, in terms of quality, in an international market.

I might be 12 months late but I enjoyed Janet King as much as anything I have seen on television over the last couple of years. We need  more characters like her on Australian television. More strong women who are recognisable, complex, confident, witty, passionate, smart, over 30 and not necessarily obsessed with finding their next relationship.

Janet King is available on IView until May 1 and currently on Netflix. Catch it if you haven’t already.

 

True Love Travelled …

So after two years, three readings and a three week season at fortyfivedownstairs, “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road” is done for now. Hopefully it will go on to have another life and we get to tour it (thanks in large part to the amazingly tourable set designed by Christina Logan-Bell) but we saw this phase of its life out with a lovely last performance that capped off a season that I am really proud to have played a role in.

I can’t speak for all writers but I imagine it is the same for most people. I am incredibly invested in every piece I write. Whether it be the short plays, collaborations with other people or the few short films I’ve done but my two full length plays have my absolute heart and soul in them. “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road” started life for me as a couple of scenes for a project that didn’t go ahead and grew into something that I could never have anticipated. It has been simultaneously one of the best and most terrifying experiences of my life. Some days I felt like I was on a tightrope and I have absolutely loved every minute of it, laughed a lot and been moved by the beautiful work of the cast and creative team. I have also felt incredible moments of responsibility, fear and self doubt which is all about me and nothing to do with the reality of the production and the amazing team behind it.

My overwhelming feeling is that my script and I have been absolutely blessed. We’ve had a dream run I am so thankful to have been able to share the journey with Beng, Emily, Glenn, Marnie, David, Chris, Liz and in it’s earliest incarnation, Lily and Laura. They are an incredibly talented,generous, funny group of artists and one of the things I will miss most now that the production is finished is that I will no longer have the luxury of hanging out, playing four square with them and having my work in their hands on a daily basis. Each and every one of them showed me new, undiscovered things about the characters and the script and for that, as well as a million other things, I am very grateful.

We were also blessed with a fantastic creative team, stage manager and venue. Fortyfivedownstairs and the people who run it are so dedicated and welcoming. Having our work there was wonderful for Beng and I and I am thrilled that as this is our third collaboration that we got to share that experience.

I don’t’ want this to sound like some sort of thank you speech. It is really just a reflection on a 2 year creative process in which I got to collaborate with a director and 8 actors on a play that for me, had a little bit of my DNA in every single line. The fact that the development process ended in a successful, happy, smooth production with lovely, appreciative audiences is a testament to the work of all of those people.

This experience will be hard to let go but that is the beauty of being a writer. One of the reasons I think I keep writing is that I need to try to fill that little piece of my brain and heart that has been occupied with a particular work for such a long period. Sometimes I felt like I had two full time jobs which was exciting but tiring. My next project won’t take the place of “Happily Ever After” or “True Love Travels” but hopefully it will be its own, different thing and I know I’ll be forced to start working on it again because of the nagging, little ache I’ll feel for the culmination of this premiere season of “True Love Travels”.

If my next writing experience gives me even a small portion of what this play and working with these people has, I will continue to consider myself absolutely blessed.

Disappointed

I am disappointed.

It has been, I believe, a disappointing few days for Australia among a lot of other disappointing days over the last 3 years.

I was born in 1968.  I have been fortunate enough to follow a long line of women who have been pioneers for the rights and roles of women. I have been so fortunate that until recently I believed that sexism and the treatment of women as second class citizens was so much a thing of the past that I regarded it as almost totally irrelevant to my life. I have always known that this wasn’t the case in a lot of other countries and I am almost ashamed to say that knowledge of this made me almost more complacent about the situation in Australia.

In Australia, I thought, in my adult life time, gender is never an issue.

I was wrong. On Wednesday night we saw one of the clearest indications that gender is very much an issue in Australia and that we are capable of extraordinary social and political immaturity when it comes to accepting a woman as the leader of our nation.

Disappointing.

Many people will say that it isn’t a gender issue and that Julia Gillard made critical errors in judgement that brought about the events of Wednesday. I don’t disagree that she made a number of significant errors. Tying herself to a surplus that no-one thought would ever be achievable as well as not admitting that she had indeed changed her mind on a carbon tax because she now had to balance the interests of her partners in a minority government, are two such mistakes. I also don’t believe for one minute that she doesn’t believe in marriage equality. She painted herself into a corner on the issue and never effectively found a way out. At the same time, however, I don’t believe that Kevin Rudd had a sudden epiphany and turned around on the issue. His recent announcement is the most obvious kind of political opportunism but like most people, that aside, I hope he puts his words on this issue into long overdue legislative action.

There were mistakes. No question. However,  I would ask  what term of office has not had its share of mistakes? Terrible mistakes. Worse than mistakes. Children overboard, apparently non existent weapons of mass destruction, home insulation schemes. Aren’t all of those mistakes at best  and in some cases, much worse?

This was not only about mistakes or analysis of policy. It was about a climate of the worst kind of bullying, disrespectful,intolerant and invective-ridden commentary that I can remember. The comments about what the Prime Minister wore and  her hair were bad enough but it was the complete lack of any respect for both her and her office that reflects most disgrace on the media and us as a supposedly sophisticated society. I cannot remember Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard or Rudd ever being subjected to the tone of questioning, commentary or speculation that was a daily event for Julia Gillard.

It was a theme for her whole time in office but it became most overt last September when a right wing Sydney broadcaster thought nothing of using the death of her father to make personally devastating comments criticising her. He was condemned in some quarters but is still on air today which says much about our tolerance for mistakes of older white male Australian media personalities. Prior to that he had felt free to address her as “Juliar” and again, it was and has been repeatedly tolerated.

More recently  another  commentator  questioned her about her partner’s sexuality. What is so appalling about this line of questioning is not only the obvious double standard , bigotry and narrow mindedness associated with even asking it, it is once again that her integrity was being questioned but this time in regard to her private life. The inference was that her relationship is a sham. She is a political liar so couldn’t she be lying about other things? Why shouldn’t we be able to ask incredibly irrelevant and invasive questions about the most private aspects of her personal life?

When was the last time that a male politician who has made mistakes, changed policy or misled a colleague, was asked about the nature of their relationship with their female partner?  That a commentator felt that he could casually canvass such a rumour with Gillard demonstrates a level of disrespect that is not only completely shameful but fairly indicative of the level of discourse that has punctuated this entire period. How genuinely remorseful was the media in both of the high profile vilification cases?  I would argue not at all. Both commentators  might have provided perfunctory apologies but even the loss of a job for one of them has only served to firm him as a martyr in his and a percentage of the general public’s mind.

The fact that much of way, for this environment, was paved by the current Prime Minister is one of the worst elements of this whole tale. It is  particularly galling to hear  Kevin Rudd now praise Julia Gillard’s legislative achievements as well as his plea for a kinder, gentler political environment. Yes, he was prematurely and brutally removed from office in 2010 but it is an office determined by a party and not a right. Like it or not, in this country we vote for a party not a person.  Rudd has spent the last 3 years devoting himself almost exclusively to restoring his place in the office of Prime Minister at the expense of the Labor party. He has consistently demonstrated many of the qualities and the hubris that supposedly motivated his demotion from the leadership in the first place.  He and the media have had a 3 year unspoken conspiratorial love-in that has depicted him as the people’s Prime Minister and Gillard as some kind of soap opera style Lady Macbeth. It is no surprise  that he polls better than Gillard,  he has been aided and abetted by a  media who clearly didn’t think Gillard paid them the homage they deserved. The public and media hero worship of Rudd appears to be based on little of anything substantial in the way of past legislative achievement.

Ultimately Julia Gillard was in no way a perfect Prime Minister. She made many mistakes and didn’t take a step backward at times when she clearly should have. She was, however, incredibly hardworking, legislatively reformative in a minority government, brave and negotiated changes to the policy around disability and education that hopefully will last long into the future. Without her undoubted ability to broker deals, it is likely we would now in the midst of a Coalition led minority government which is something that the most ferverent Rudd supporters seem almost oblivious to.

In the end, however the saddest outcome of the events of Wednesday is that the Australian Parliament has lost someone of enormous capacity and talent who, at only 51, had so much  more to contribute.

The message of what has occurred over the last 3 years is that it is acceptable, even expected. for a male politician to make significant errors of judgement, equivocate, be aggressive and participate in the darker machinations of political life. It is clear, however,  that if you are a woman and do exactly the same things, the political context becomes a justifiable free-for-all and no aspect of your life is off limits.  You should and can expect to be openly disrespected, denigrated and vilified.

Disappointing.