The Sydney heats of the 2004 Melbourne International Comedy Festival Raw Comedy Competition came to an end March 31, and while I feel I should provide some kind of ‘review’ of the final (or at least, a review of what of the final stood out enough that I may remember it nearly a week down the track) I would much rather convey the joy that was the first semi, which took place two days earlier. I can’t for the life of me remember much about the contestants (apart from the ones who made it through to the final – and only then because I got to see them again so soon afterwards), but the evening’s jollity began with a call from Andrew Taylor of Access Entertainment, the company that in addition to managing many great acts, runs the Sydney competition.
“Guess who the guest judge is for tonight,” Andrew began. I couldn’t, so he told me. “Julie Dawn Cole.” I suppose this was a kind of test, and I failed. I couldn’t get excited until I was told that Julie Dawn Cole had appeared in the cinematic classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in the role of Veruca Salt. Then boy, did I get excited.
“She doesn’t mind talking about the film,” Andrew continued, “but she hates being referred to as ‘Veruca Salt’.” He advised that I should probably behave myself and not say anything stupid.
“Can I do my Roy Kinnear impression?” I asked, demonstrating it for him with the kind of expertise that, I dare say, would have fooled Kinnear himself, were he still alive to hear me do it: “Ve-RU-ca!”
“No, you can’t do your Roy Kinnear impression.”
“What about my Veruca Salt impression?” In perfect ‘Veruca Salt’ voice: “I want it now, Daddy!”
“No, don’t do your Veruca Salt impression.”
It turns out that Julie Dawn Cole is out here to appear in stand-up comic Matthew Hardy’s live show Willy Wonka Explained [The Veruca Salt Sessions]. It’s about his lifelong infatuation with Veruca Salt and the actress who played her. He approached Cole out of the blue and, amazingly, Cole said yes. If she has a history being contacted by weird guys who grew up infatuated with that saucy pouting princess (a kind of Hayley Mills gone bad), I’d love to know the vetting process she uses that enabled her to realise that Hardy was the safer, saner variety of the archtype.
The show apparently opens with both Hardy and Cole on their respective analyst’s couches. Hardy is in therapy because he never got over his infatuation with Veruca Salt. Cole is in therapy because she never got over playing the character.
Although I convinced myself that I would behave throughout the evening, by the first interval Julie had her script out and was telling us about what a lovely time she was having after accepting a questionable job offer on a whim. But it was all kind of fitting: Cole landed the role in Willy Wonka – her first acting job – after a mere few weeks at drama school. She had plenty of fantastic stories and shared them with little prompting.
Like the time she was told she wouldn’t be needed for the next little while, and encouraged to sit on her own on another set, away from the cast and crew. Suddenly a production manager-type flew in telling her that director Mel Stuart needed her immediately and was furious that she wasn’t on-hand. It’s been said that Stuart could be a bit frightening on set – so much so that Peter Ostrum, starring as principal character Charlie Bucket, allegedly turned down a subsequent five film deal as a result of his experience (although, now a practicing vet, Ostrum claims the experience was fun, but not what he wanted to do for a living). Swallowing whatever fear she had of facing the director, Cole hurried to join the rest of the cast before him, where she discovered a birthday cake. Julie had just turned thirteen.
“It was a chocolate cake, and I don’t like chocolate,” Julie confessed. “Imagine being a kid in a film that’s set in a chocolate factory, and not liking chocolate.” She has fond memories of her birthday, and fantastic photos: although it was customary for stills to be taken in black and white at the time, Gene Wilder, who played the lead role of Willy Wonka, organised colour photographs to be taken of that occasion.
Not all of Julie’s memories are as pleasant. There was the meeting during which she was scrutinised intently and spoken of in third person while the powers-that-be decided whether or not her newly developing bust required taping down for the sake of continuity.
Julie’s sweetest story is of her reunion with Gene Wilder a few years ago. He was appearing on stage in England and Cole left Wilder a message requesting a catch-up after a performance. Assured that Wilder never met people backstage after a show – “He has left the theatre before the patrons have begun filing out,” a stage manager assured her – Julie was pleased to discover that Gene Wilder would receive her backstage. Recalling her character’s exit from the film – trying to intercept the golden egg that she wants “now, Daddy!” Veruca lands on the apparatus that determines the value of the eggs, receives a poor rating and is duly disposed of – Wilder took a step back and acknowledged that Julie “hadn’t turned out to be a bad egg” after all.
Hopefully Willy Wonka Explained [The Veruca Salt Sessions] will do so well that Matthew Hardy and Julie Dawn Cole can take the show on the road. In the meantime, I’m trying to land some interview time with Julie for ABC NewsRadio and FilmInk.
However, before moving on from this topic, I want to briefly consider the name ‘Willy Wonker’. As a character name in English children’s literature, Roald Dahl’s creation is up there with Dick and Fanny, who appeared in Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. It is only one vowel away from being the sort of a character in a Carry On film that would well and truly have Kenneth Williams ‘oooo-errrring’. However, I assume the name was derived from the slang term ‘wonk’ which means about the same thing as ‘swot’ – a boring person who studies too hard and is too caught up with facts and figures to have a life or a personality. Willy Wonka, embodying the traditional eccentric English boffin archetype, is imbued with some of the ‘wonk’ characteristics: a genius who knows all there is to know about his work and more besides. When he first meets Veruca, for instance, he absent-mindedly asks himself if she doesn’t share her name with a kind of wart that grows on the sole of the foot [a ‘verruca’ is in fact “ a firm abnormal elevated blemish on the skin caused by a virus”].
I recall a time during the earlier stages of the Clinton administration (actually, during his 1992 presidential campaign) when Bill Clinton was described as a ‘policy wonk’ because he was a politician who could “spout data and statistics nonstop, a man with a quick answer for every question.” Isn’t it a pity that nobody had the brainwave to write a piece on this and name the article, and the presidential candidate, ‘Willy Wonker’, or, at the very least, ‘Billy Wonker’. Then his political campaign could have involved voters holding the ‘Bill Clinton How To Vote’ pamphlet, with the box next to Billy Wonker ticked, singing, ‘I’ve got golden ticket…’ Clinton could have done a television spot likening the USA under the Republicans as a paddle steamer that had lost its way, insanely intoning the words, “there’s no earthly way of knowing… which way the river’s flowing…” Of course, this would have proven damaging in the long run: it wouldn’t have taken the Republicans long to liken Clinton to ‘The Candy Man’, even if he never did inhale.
Amongst her souvenirs, Julie Dawn Cole has retained a golden egg, two golden tickets and an everlasting gobstopper, not to mention a multitude of fans that share comedian Matthew Hardy’s obsession for the first character she ever portrayed on screen.