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Photo finish


Nonsmoking1

Let me begin by explaining that this photo was taken in the afternoon on Wednesday 30 December 2009, and admitting that it would have been better if I’d taken the time to switch the ‘date and time’ setting on. But I have to add that I was taken the photo on the fly; I’d already been admonished for taking photographs in this shopping centre.

Point is, it’s a large shopping centre, and I’ve only seen this sign once, in one place, on Wednesday 30 December 2009. I’m not going to rant about hypocracy – “What, smoke free? Is the tobacconist closing? Will the supermarkets and newsagencies cease selling cigarettes?” – but I will suggest a couple of options of what the sign is actually saying. Like, perhaps:

Nope, we still haven’t twigged that the day after 31 December 2009 is in fact 1 January 2010.

Or maybe:

Yes, we’ve spotted the typo. We’re just too cheap to bother correcting it.

Or perhaps it’s not a typo; perhaps the shopping centre ceased to be ‘smoking’ in January 2009 and they’ve only just started getting the signage out now. This would also explain why they still haven’t put any other signage saying, ‘this shopping centre is non-photogaphing from the date of a certain unfortunate up-skirting event’.


A Ward Winner (A Brief History of Felicity Ward)

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That Was The Week That Was, also known as ‘TW3’, was a weekly television show in England that was fronted by David Frost (a Cambridge graduate whose laconic speaking voice is said to be based on Peter Cook’s EL Wisty character), employed a small army of writers (some  of whom would be Pythons and Goodies), and though not actually responsible for launching the so-called 'satire boom' of the early 1960s, certainly provided evidence that it was truly underway. There was also an American version of the show. A clever singer-songwriter (who would give up writing clever satirical songs and touring the world performing them in order to return to lecturing mathematics at university) called Tom Lehrer used to write a clever song each week for the American edition and went on to release an album of the best bits, called That Was The Year That Was. It was much better than the single released as the 'theme' of the British version of the show.

For the second year in a row, the Sydney Opera House is home to a gala comedy event looking back satirically at the year that was, tipping its hat to the satire tradition from which it borrows its name: That Was The Year That Was. This year's line-up features Wil Anderson, Eddie Perfect, The Scared Weird Little Guys, Mikey Robins, Wendy Harmer, Flacco and the Sandman, Felicity Ward and Celia Pacquola, to name but several, and the poster suggests there are more, yet to be announced.

I'm taking the opportunity to present an interview with Felicity Ward, who appeared to come not quite out of nowhere and be brilliant in the shortest period of time. One minute she was producing Heath Franklin's Chopper shows, the next she was the talk of Melbourne Fringe.

This interview took place midway through 2009 after Wardy had enjoyed excellent festival seasons in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney with Ugly as a Child, the show that had won her ‘Best Newcomer’ at Melbourne Fringe in 2008. At the time, wanting to try to develop my writing style, I decided to take on a proper in-depth profile – with a view to one day tackling a full-blown biography. Clearly,  I bit off more than I can chew;  it contains a heap of Wardy’s – and a certain period of Australian comedy's – history, but really should have culminated in more of a portrait of what it is she does. Or at least, what it was she was doing at the time. Rest assured, Felicty Ward is nothing short of brilliant. An hilarious comic, a worthy guest on your show and the perfect person to spend an afternoon chatting to in a café. She’s certainly less melodramatic and less highly strung than when first invited to guest on a live late night variety show at a comedy festival!

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“I was so nervous before I went on. I got so worked up that I honestly thought – and I say this without any exaggeration – ‘when I get off stage I will probably kill myself, so it doesn’t matter what I do on stage’. I just hated myself. I thought, ‘This isn’t funny, I don’t know what I’m doing. This is just terrible’.”

Okay. Let’s backtrack a bit. It’s just gone 4pm and I’m sitting in a café – two doors up from a primary school – that specialises in hot chocolate. Sitting opposite me is Felicity Ward, a comic I was first aware of on the Channel Ten sketch show The Ronnie Johns Half Hour, where she was responsible for characters like cute little Poppy, the girl who innocently explains away inadvertently dodgy photographs, and scarily angst-ridden existentialist Gretchen. Nowadays, Felicity’s a stand-up comic. A good one. She made her festival debut at Melbourne Fringe last year where her show Ugly as a Child earned her the ‘Melbourne Airport Best Newcomer Award’. At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the show played to mostly sold-out houses. Somewhere in between Ronnie Johns and Ugly as a Child, Felicity started appearing on Spicks and Specks and proved to be nothing short of bloody good on that, too. Not long after we caught up for this conversation, she made her debut appearance on Thank God You’re Here. And guess what? She absolutely blitzed it.

But according to Felicity, her very first stand-up gig was going to be her last. While many a comic may fear ‘dying’, metaphorically, on stage, she wasn’t fussed; she reckons she was happy to do so literally, after she got off stage. What’s more, she’s dead serious. But school has knocked off for the day and we’re surrounded by a multitude of kiddies peaking on a sugar rush, their mums seemingly indifferent to the chocolate stains that will have to be removed from uniforms later on, so now’s not quite the right time to chase down the suicide story – lest a multitude of ‘Poppies’ repeat it for ‘show and tell’ tomorrow morning.

So. First things first: Ronnie Johns. “That was a big accident,” Felicity insists. “I had never done comedy in any sort of form.”

Oh. Okay. Looks like we need to backtrack even further.


Wardy portrait


Giving Wardy The Third Degree

It was 2004. Having attended performing arts schools growing up, Felicity Ward was momentarily distracted with an interlude of Music Business Skills at Wyong TAFE – (“I was gonna be a band manager or event manager because in some part of my history, that’s what I wanted to do...”) – before acting won out. Wardy moved to Sydney to be an actor, getting involved with ATYP (Australian Theatre for Young People), an entity run as a professional theatre company –with set and costume designers, actors and directors – by the Sydney Theatre Company. “They put on really great plays, specifically for young people. The people you were working with were really professional so you treated it like a job.”

Felicity appeared in an ATYP production of The Musicians, directed by Tim Jones for that year’s Sydney Festival. One of Felicity’s fellow cast members, Benedict Hardie, was directing the University of Sydney’s Arts Faculty Revue soon after and asked Wardy if she’d be in it. The fact that Felicity didn’t actually go to Sydney Uni wasn’t a problem. “There were twenty people in the cast,” Felicity says with typical modesty. “Not that it wasn’t a big deal, but lots of people got into that.”

The previous year, a couple of clever people from Macquarie University had acknowledged that university revues mostly follow the same pattern: a handful of awesome sketches appear in a show surrounded by the same old stuff. These guys – Chris McDonald and Heath Franklin – decided it’d be really cool to take just the awesome sketches from a handful of different university revues and combine them into really good show. The cast of the show would similarly consist of some of the best performers from those various revues. That show was called The 3rd Degree: Generation HECS, the ‘3rd Degree’ nicely referring to comedy derived from university revue (not unlike The D-Generation, from two decades earlier) as well as offering a pun on intense interrogation, the final stage of initiation and the most severe type of burn (they’re all known as ‘third degree’).

Successful enough to warrant a second year on the festival circuit, The 3rd Degree came together for the show Eskimos with Polaroids at the 2005 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Having appeared in the 2004 University of Sydney Arts Faculty Revue, Felicity auditioned for that 3rd Degree show and “got in, somehow”. That second incarnation proved successful at Sydney’s Big Laugh Comedy Festival as well as the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.


On to the next stage

Someone who had noticed The 3rd Degree in Melbourne was comedian Glenn Robbins. He’d had a history of fostering up-and-coming talent with Headliners, a live stand-up show devised and taped for the Comedy Channel. He also had a history of sketch comedy, with Comedy Company, Fast Forward and Big Girl’s Blouse. When, he says, Channel Ten approached him enquiring if he “knew of anyone” worth developing, he pointed the network towards The 3rd Degree. Channel Ten liked the idea. Powers that be suggested Robbins ought to mentor the young comedians, and though initially reluctant – there was plenty of work coming through with the likes of The Panel, Russel Coight’s All Aussie Adventures and  Kath & Kim – he realised “it’d be unfair to block that opportunity” for the up-and-comers.

The ‘up-and-comers’ were selected by Chris McDonald from the cast of both shows: Dan Ilic, James Pender, Becci Gage and Caz Fitzgerald, who’d been in the show’s first incarnation; Jordan Raskopoulos and Felicity, who had been in the second; Heath Franklin, who’d helped create the show with Chris, had been in both. (In fact, prior to The 3rd Degree, Pender, Franklin, Gage and Ilic had appeared in a Melbourne International Comedy Festival show called The Beatification of Newt Berton and the Great Viagra Robbery, written and directed by McDonald.) But according to Felicity, news of Channel Ten’s interest came as a surprise:

“About three weeks after the Melbourne Comedy Festival had finished, we get this call: ‘Channel Ten want to give you a writing workshop’. It was unheard of; it meant we would be employed as writers. I was a waitress; Heath was a labourer; I think Dan was working in a computer shop; Jordan was working at his dad’s dry cleaners; Becci was becoming a teacher; Caz and James Pender were studying to become lawyers. This was none of our professions so that was really, really cool.”

For two months, the team just wrote. “‘Let’s see what the funniest shit we can come up with is’ – that was our job description,” says Felicity. “No promise of anything at the end: no promise of even an episode; of employment with Channel Ten; nothing. It was just, ‘let’s see what you can do’, which was so cool, now that I think back to it.” During this period, Robbins would spend a day each week workshopping their material. “We’d talk about how we could hone the characters and improve it. Because none of us had any idea about TV, or that there would be any kind of transition to make from the page to screen.”

Glenn says it was as much of a learning experience for him. “I don’t actually know how I do most of my stuff – I just write it and do it. Putting into words the reason why they should be editing something or doing something a different way was hard.”

After two months of writing, the day came to pitch to Channel Ten. “We just went in and said, ‘this is what we do’ and had all these different scene ideas and recurring character ideas,” Felicity recalls. “About a month later they were sort of saying, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna do something, yeah, we’re gonna do something’, and I thought, ‘It’s not gonna happen, but that’s okay, I had a really cool time’.”

A month after that, Channel Ten offered the team a pilot, which they spent a fortnight filming. “We handed the pilot in on the Friday and on the Monday, got a call saying we had six episodes of a TV show. And then got a call on the Tuesday saying, ‘Actually, you’re going to have 13 episodes’.” And so, The Ronnie Johns Good Times Campfire Jamboree Half Hour Show (Now On Televison) – to give it its full title – was underway. All told, Felicity calculates about “thirteen months in total” from her first performance, as a Sydney Uni Arts Revue ring-in, to her first day of proper work on a TV show. “It was… kind of inexplicable, really,” She says, and then corrects herself: “Not even ‘kind of’; it was inexplicable. Wonderful. All the superlatives. Because I’d tried for a really long time to be an actor and just couldn’t get parts in anything. But as soon as I started comedy, it was easier. Not ‘easier’ – Ronnie Johns was really, really hard work. But it just seemed to progress quicker.”

True enough. All the character roles Felicity failed to land while slogging away as an actor suddenly appeared more-or-less at once on Ronnie Johns. Some were her own. Some were devised by others, but brought to life by Felicity. Others still were people she just happened to notice.


Poppy

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There was the deceptively innocent little girl, Poppy, with the photo album, whose explanations were a little bit disturbing. It turns out Poppy grew out of the first week of writing workshops. The rule was, everyone had to arrive each morning with five things: “They could be a funny line, a joke, a sketch, a funny character, a concept, a clipping from a newspaper that you wanted to satirise, anything, but you just had to come up with five of them. Often, four of them were absolute rubbish.” Felicity, having trouble coming up with stuff, noticed her dictionary.

“I started flicking through. It fell open on the page with the word ‘macabre’ and I thought, ‘It’d be kind of cool if there was a little girl who read out really dark definitions from the dictionary.’ Messing around with voices and characters, she realised the definitions themselves weren’t so funny. But what if she had pictures… say, of animals… that she could define…? Then there’d be room for humour. “I showed it to a network executive and he went, ‘A six-year-old showing pictures of animals is cute, but it’s not really that funny; it needs a spin.’” So Felicity came up with the spin. In the pilot episode, Poppy shows us a picture of a woman snorting a line of cocaine off a mirror, and explains, in her cutest little girl voice: “This woman likes to look at herself through a straw in a mirror and she does that sometimes for money but she won’t kiss a boy on the lips because it means something.”

“I remember writing that and thinking, ‘That’s rather dark, Felicity; we’ll see how that goes.’ That ended up being a flagship character for me.” Poppy would go on to offer innocent explanations for photos of Ku Klux Klan members and prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib.


Underground Girl

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Justin Heazlewood – also known to comedy fans as ‘The Bedroom Philosopher’ (and more recently, for playing the role of young John Safran in Race Relations) – served as one of the show’s ‘non-performing writers’ and he came up with ‘Underground Girl and Underground Guy’. These were a pair of emo kids who essentially talked about “how ‘underground’ they were”. Felicity played Underground Girl while Jordan was Underground Boy. The quality of Justin’s writing was such that, when she read it, Felicity reckoned – adopting the emotionless emo tone ¬– she “could, like, tell they were, you know, like, not really into each other”. Adopting, along with Jordan, the appropriate nonchalant tone, they “tried to out-nonchalant each other”. The sketch came at the end of the first season and proved extremely popular on YouTube – so much so that Underground Girl and Underground Guy became recurring characters in the second season.


Gretchen the Nihilist

Gretchen

Felicity’s favourite character was the Nihilist, Gretchen. Dressed in black and flanked by similarly clad Simon (Heath Franklin) und Sigmund (James Pender), they were a trio of emotionless existentialists who somehow end up where colourful, exuberant, larger-than-life characters ought to be: hosting kids’ shows, exercise shows, playing Santa Clause in department stores…. Although the Gretchen character wasn’t devised by Felicity – the Nihilists originated in the Macquarie University Revue that Heath, James, Dan and Chris were involved in – she took to it immediately. “For some reason, it was one of those characters that, as soon as I read it, I knew exactly what to do and where to pitch it. Sometimes you just read stuff and it’s like a present: ‘There you go!’”

The initial gift was a sketch in which the Nihilists host the equivalent Playschool. It appeared in the live 3rd Degree show as well as Ronnie Johns. Felicity loved the way they “got darker and darker” as the love story developed between Gretchen and Simon in subsequent sketches. “Well,” she corrects herself, “not between Gretchen and Simon; Gretchen was in love with Simon.” Her affections were not reciprocated. In fact, the sketches “turned into a big ‘shitting on Gretchen’ competition” as Simon and Sigmund set up Gretchen in order to cut her down. “It was so much fun to do,” says Felicity. “It was great.”


The Inbreds

Some characters didn’t make it from stage to screen, like ‘The Inbreds’ – hillbilly characters who were brother and sister as well as boyfriend and girlfriend. “I didn’t really understand the concept of things being ‘too big’ for TV,” Felicity says. “I had no idea it could be an issue. They were really funny and good on stage, but they were just too big for television.”


Judy de Groot

Another character who never made it to air was Judy de Groot, a school counsellor. “I’d written heaps of sketches for her. We would read them around the table and everyone was laughing and I was laughing. We’d do the scene, and that was fine as well. And then we’d put it in front of a live audience and it didn’t breathe – for some reason, in a studio it was just weird. So we thought, we’ll pre-record it on location somewhere. We did that, and then played that back to the audience in between the live sketches, and again it just didn’t work, and we didn’t know why. That’s something we really had to learn: we had characters that were hilarious in the room, but – I don’t know what happened between the room and filming – some just didn’t make it.”


Heidi

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One character who did come to life – and continues to live on for fans – was lawn bowls instructor with the serious speech impediment, Heidi. “She’s not a character,” Felicity insists. “I met her in real life. She was just ‘ready to go’.”

At a bowling club for a friend’s party, Wardy confessed utter ignorance of the ways of lawn bowls. “This bowling instructor stepped up – she was so awkward: about my age, and had that strange dichotomy of being very womanly while living just for sports – and said:

“‘Okay, we have four teamsh – you have to take a shilver band, or an oranshe band, or a…’.

“I was just looking at this woman, going ‘are you for real…?’

“She was wearing zinc, Steve Waugh sunglasses, blue knee-length shorts, and a blue polo t-shirt that said ‘rock’n’bowl’ – it’s all in the show. I just… it was… just incredible. There was nothing about the character that I made up physically.

“She went through and explained the rules about how this hilarious lawn bowls competition was gonna go for about five minutes, and then at the end, she goes, ‘of the two teamsh, the winner getsh the ashesh…’ – she had this little trophy of ‘the ashes’ – ‘… and the losher getsh the donkeysh arshe…’ – and there was this little picture of the donkey’s arse. And she lost it – she just thought it was the funniest thing.

“I didn’t think, ‘I’m gonna make a character out of her!’ I just went to work the next week and went, ‘My god, it was so funny – there was this chick… blah, blah, blah…’ and Chris said, ‘You should write a sketch about it’. ‘Oh… okay!’ We ended up writing about five or six more of those in the second season.”

I let Felicity know how much this reminds me of that story Garry McDonald occasionally tells of the airline stewardess with the ‘shot jaw’ and bogan accent who gave him and David Frost some grief. Her name was Norma Gunston…

“There are moments like those where my eyes just sparkle now,” Felicity says, “because I had no experience writing comedy or doing comedy before Ronnie Johns. It didn’t occur to me that everything that I see every single day is a possibility.”


On-Air Outrage

Like all successful television sketch comedies, some items were outstanding; a few were painful; many were somewhere in between. But like all successful television sketch comedies, few agree on which sketches fall into which categories. I recall 2GB talkback radio host Ray Hadley, who trades professionally in perpetual outrage, being particularly gobsmacked by a Ronnie Johns sketch. Specifically, he was flabbergasted that Channel Ten would put to air a sketch that involved the cast spitting food onto one another. Essentially, it’s a dinner party that falls to pieces with a food fight.

“That’s what he got worked up about?” Felicity demands incredulous. I take her point. When I saw it on DVD I found it ever-so-slightly reminiscent of the Australia You’re Standing In It ‘Chunky Custard’ sketch, and more importantly, utterly hilarious.

“This sounds sentimental and daggy, but that was the last scene that we filmed for the last episode of the first season, and at the end of that sketch was the moment where I looked around and went, ‘Oh my god, I get paid for this’. It was really one of the best moments of my whole life: just sitting there, spitting food at my mates.”

She elaborates: one of the team’s policies, established early on, was to avoid ‘corpsing’ – the breaking of character by laughing, or causing other cast members to laugh. “We didn’t like it. We wouldn’t film it; it wouldn’t go to air. Not to say that we never broke character and never laughed, but in the beginning, we were quite hard on that. We didn’t want the audience to think that we were having more fun than they were.”

According to Felicity, that was one of only two scenes ever retained featuring the team corpsing, and the DVD contains an extra thirty seconds of them losing it. “There was supposed to be this carry-on effect where someone said something offensive and Jordan spat onto James, James spat onto Heath, Heath spat onto me, I spat onto Dan and Dan spat onto Caz. There were so many disgusting bits – it was one of my favourite sketches that we did. There’s a bit where ham lands in Pender’s mouth – it’s so disgusting. It’s gross. So much fun.”

That was a gross moment in a sketch from the final episode. There’s a similarly golden ‘gross’ moment for Felicity in a sketch in the first episode, in which she ‘hosts’ a kids’ show with a puppet frog and they ‘get to know’ each other very well in the process. “I don’t know if I would do that again,” Felicity admits. “There was a lot of stuff that, if it made us laugh, we just did it. We didn’t really think of the consequences. I was a pretty big attention-seeker and I was like, ‘that’ll make 200 pople laugh in a sudio audience’, forgetting that everyone would see it.” Forgetting, perhaps, that ‘everyone’ included people she also knew. That first episode went to air with Felicity’s family watching proudly.

“My sister rang me the next day and went, ‘Grandma and Grandpa came over to watch the show last night, and I had to sit there while you received cunnilingus from a frog. I am gonna kill you!’” Understandably, Felicity avoided visiting her family for a while. “Poor Grandma! All she wants is to be proud of me. She wants to tell all her friends, but usually I’m doing things that she can’t brag about. Grandma’s not any less proud of me but she couldn’t go to a CWA meeting and go ‘my granddaughter’s on a lovely program called The Ronnie John’s Half Hour…’.”

‘Everyone’ also included people Felicity didn’t know. “About six months after we’d filmed it, this guy leaned over to me in a pub – it’s so clear in my mind; I don’t get recognised very often, which is good and fine and appropriate – but this guy leaned over to me and went, ‘Hey, hey, are you from Ronnie Johns Half Hour?’ I went, ‘Oh, yeah!’ He goes, ‘I loved the frog sketch’. I’m like ‘Oooooooh… Yuck, yuck, yuck.’”


Wardy on board

Ronnie Johns came to an end with the clearest path appearing almost immediately before Heath Franklin: his ‘Chopper’ character clearly had a life on stage beyond the show. And despite initially sussing Wardy out as a bit of a trouble-maker – (“I am a bit of a trouble-maker; he wasn’t too far off the mark!”) – Heath hit it off very well with Felicity, so Chris McDonald, as producer of Franklin’s Chopper tour. made Wardy an offer.

“I didn’t really have a job,” Felicity recalls. “Well, none of us had jobs – but Chris said, ‘You wanna be tour manager?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ He went, ‘You wanna be stage manager?’ and I went, ‘Yeah, all right!’”

Despite utter inexperience, Felicity helped Heath and Chris organise a 90-city national tour. “It meant four months of living in each other’s pockets. And it was the first tour, so we didn’t know if it was going to be successful or anything, so often it would be me and the two boys sharing a hotel room. Not like a hotel apartment, where we’d each have our own room – we would literally be sharing a room. I was going through a tough period of my life and it was really, really hard work and we just knew each other inside-out.” The following year, Felicity served as production manager for Heath’s comedy festival Chopper shows.

That still doesn’t explain how she got back on stage. As a stand-up comic in her own right. In fact, initially, Wardy considered cobbling together a character-based show. But she gave up on it. “I’d started writing one but I just couldn’t get it together in time for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival because it would have been me producing, writing, directing, all of that stuff, and it was just too much for me.”


Enter. Stage right.

What happened next, Wardy explains, is that following the first Chopper tour, she travelled overseas and ended up in Edinburgh the year Phil Nichol was directing a production of Breaker Morant for the Fringe Festival (that is, 2007). In addition to Heath Franklin, the cast included the likes of Brendon Burns, Sammy J and Adam Hills. Hanging out with Heath meant, at times, hanging out with Hillsy. So Wardy got to know Hillsy well enough to be hanging out with him while he toured Australia subsequently with the live Spicks and Specktacular.

“We were out and at a pub with Adam and he said, ‘Do you want a drink?’,” Wardy relates. “I said, ‘No, I’m fine’. He said, ‘It’s on me’. I said, ‘No, I don’t drink’. He said, ‘Really? If you’re like this when you’re sober, we’re gonna get you on Spicks and Specks; If you can be half as funny as this…’.”

Hearing the words coming out of her mouth, Wardy checks herself with her customary modesty: “I sound like a real dickhead saying this. Sorry, I’m not trying to say I’m funny or anything like that. I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure Adam, nicest guy in the world, that’s a really nice thing to say’.” In Felicity’s head, Adam was paying her a nice compliment; she never expected to be invited onto the show. But she was:

“I get a call two weeks later saying, ‘Hi, I’m calling from Spicks and Specks, Adam’s recommended you, I’m just wondering if you’d be interested in coming on the show…’.”

Felicity finds it a bit hard to believe that she was asked onto the show for – she says – “no better reason” than she’s “a friend of Adam’s friend”. Sure, she’d appeared on Ronnie Johns, but she herself is the first to acknowledge that since it was “quite ‘culty’”, nobody really watched it (except Ray Hadley, during a slow week, when sport was rightfully getting more press than the arts, and for the right reasons). And furthermore, even if she was “a funny sketch comedian” (which she is), it doesn’t necessarily follow that she’d be “funny in real life” or “ enjoyable to watch” or “affable” or, she concludes, “any of those things”. (Felicity Ward is in fact all those things.) “So it was a pretty big risk.” (Actually, it wasn’t – not as far as Hillsy was concerned, clearly.)

“Then I went on and it was great. I had lots of fun. They got me back a couple of times and every time I finished there I thought, ‘Maybe it’s all right that I’m just me; maybe I don’t need to do character stuff.’”


Variety - the spice of taking your own life

That is the plain truth of it: some people really are natural born entertainers whose best work is pretty much whatever they do when they’re being themselves – but learning how to just be yourself on stage is one of the most difficult things to do; often it is other people around you who recognise the natural talent people you have just being yourself.

Hillsy wasn’t the only person who recognised Wardy’s talent and sought to include her in his show. Ali McGregor, the operatic soprano and singer of burlesque who has been hosting a late night variety show on the festival circuit for the last few years, encountered Wardy at Adelaide Fringe in 2008 and, with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival to follow shortly thereafter, asked her if she might “want to do something one night”.

“I’m like, ‘Um… yeah, okay, sure!’” Felicity relates, not having thought anything of it at the time. “Then I ran into Ali again in Melbourne and she’s like, ‘When do you want to come on?’ I’m like, ‘Um… oh… like… er… whenever?’ She said, ‘Well… just tell me when.’” A couple of weeks later, with the festival almost over, Ali saw Wardy in the street and said, “We’re running out of slots; do you want to do something?” Felicity had to agree, she says, “because I knew that if I didn’t, I would really hate myself”. So Wardy was locked in for the final night of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

“I didn’t have to do comedy or anything like that,” Felicity says. “I could do anything, basically.” Jordan Raskopoulos, Felicity’s old Ronnie Johns colleague and himself a veteran of several subsequent festivals, both as a solo act and as one third of The Axis of Awesome, had some remote control toy tanks that, when ‘fired’, resulted in giving the user electric shocks. “I thought, what I should do, I should order these electrocuting toy tanks online and use them in the show,” Wardy decided. “I will pick someone from the audienc, ask them trivia questions, and if they get them wrong, I’ll zap them – and vice-versa. I don’t know where that idea came from but that was the idea.”

Electrocuting tanks were duly ordered and arrived on the Friday. Felicity’s gig, as a guest on Ali McGregor’s Late Night Variety Show, was on the Sunday. But Felicity happened to be on the phone when the postman buzzed her, and even though she instructed him to “just bring them up”, it was ages later that she finished her phone call and realised he hadn’t come up. “I was staying in this little apartment in Melbourne,” Wardy says. “They weren’t outside my door, they weren’t in the foyer, they weren’t outside… he must have just stolen them. I was like, ‘Oh no! Oh no! What am I gonna do now?’ I just started freaking out.”

With twelve minutes to fill on Ali’s show, never having done stand-up before, and not much more than two days to write something, Felicity began to have a breakdown. Or would have, had she not been keeping notebooks full of ideas since her Ronnie Johns days. “I just started writing furiously – anything I could think of. I ended putting together ten minutes.” It was at this point that Felicity Ward began planning her own demise, as outlined at the beginning of this piece. It was her coping mechanism: it didn’t matter how bad her performance would be – and she was certain it was going to be terrible – because she’d already formulated her exit strategy. She was going to take her own life. And then…

“It was amazing. It went really well. I thought, ‘Why have I been waiting so long to do this?’”

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Just like a Hollywood film

Two weeks later, Felicity decided to move to Melbourne, started doing stand-up and began creating her first festival show. Four months later she was the talk of Melbourne Fringe with her award-winning show Ugly As A Child.

“I figured out the other day, I did less than twenty stand-up gigs before the first show at Melbourne Fringe, which is not enough time to run-in a craft…” Wardy says.

Yeah, okay, Felicity. Shut up. Except that, being so humble, down-to-earth and modest, talk about it all you like. Wardy’s welcome to say whatever she wants about her comedy because she’s not only good, she’s also right: she did take less than twenty gigs before she was clearly being acknowledged as brilliant. And although it ‘should’ take more time to run-in a craft, it is a craft, not a science, so none of the laws or rules have to hold in every situation. You can know all there is to know about comedy before realising that irrespective of what you know, if you get in front of an audience and fail to make them laugh, in that moment, you know nothing…

Wardy, on the other hand, knows she’s onto something good. Or at least, she should. Ugly As A Child is hilarious, involving singing, characters, acting, absurdism, audience participation (with the trivia quiz-based electrocuting tanks) all based on an uncomfortable trawl through an awkward childhood. I can’t help wondering if I can detect autobiography done up as fiction.

“There’s nothing fictional about it! It’s just autobiography,” Felicity admits. And then qualifies her statement. There are a couple of elements that aren’t based on fact. Judy de Groot, the school counsellor character who never quite worked on Ronnie Johns, works a treat in Ugly As A Child. And in the first, Melbourne Fringe incarnation of the show, a segment called ‘Meat Dad’, that didn’t make it to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival version, isn’t real. Although it did grow out of a real element of Felicity’ life. “Basically, my dad used to go out west and sell vacuum cleaners for a living, so he’d be gone for weeks at a time,” Wardy explains. “I thought it would be funny if I had this puppet called ‘Meat Dad’ which was two steaks stuck to a ruler with a face on it, and I would talk to him while dad was away. That and the school counsellor were made-up, but apart from that, everything in the show is true.”

Felicity-jpg_w800_h600_fit

Ugly in Sydney

After a successful Melboure Comedy Festival season that saw Wardy make the shortlist for ‘Best Newcomer’ – the award she won at the Melbourne Fringe late last year – she brought Ugly as a Child to Sydney for Sydney’s Cracker Comedy Festival. “I was really nervous,” she admits. “I said, ‘Look, Grandma, I really want you to see this, but I have to let you know there is some really full-on language in it and I don’t want you to be offended. Come if you’d like; I want you to be there. But…’

“After the show, I came out and I was so nervous. She just came up to me and said, ‘I am so proud of you. I thought it was wonderful’. It was like, ‘It’s okay, Gran’s proud of me. Good.’” Of course, Gran also enjoyed Wardy’s turn on Thank God You’re Here – it’s a family show, so there’s no swearing.

The question, at the time of our conversation, is: what next for Felicity? She already had her next show planned. It was to be about hedonism. But before doing a hedonism show, she was going to engage in some travelling to the UK for pleasure. Which meant she wouldn’t have time to work on a new show for the 2009 Melbourne Fringe Festival and beyond. “I’m not comfortable having a half-baked show,” she says. Thankfully, ‘plan b’ made itself apparent instead.

“What happened,” Wardy eplains, “was I did this gig at a Bar Mitzvah. It was the worst gig I’ve ever done – excruciating from start to finish. The whole story of how it happened was a mess.” Despite going home from the Bar Mitzvah “devastated”, she decided to write about what happened. She ended up with a story, two pages long, which she delivered as stand-up. “And then I just started writing essays because I really like doing them,” she says. One of them was about the time she attended a poetry night. “That essay’s called, ‘I forgot to tell you, I hate poery!’” she says.

What’s amazing is that it took friend and producer Chris McDonald suggest “Why not just do an essay show?” After all, says Felicity, “ they’re crafted, well-written and humorous. I feel comfortable doing that. So that’s the next adventure.” That essay show was lovingly entitled Felicity Ward Reads From The Book Of Moron, and has served Wardy well: it was her 2009 Melbourne Fringe show, in preparation for the Aussie festival circuit of 2010. Meanwhile, the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe was impressed by Felicity Ward’s Edinburgh Season – the most recent incarnation of Ugly as a Child.

Meanwhile, that hedonist show may be developed down the track – which means Felicity can finally rest easy. Although she was once terrified that she’d “used up” all her “good stuff” early on, and now, unable to ever write another funny joke, it was time to “pack it up and retire undefeated,” she knows it’s not the case. “Things have been happening lately that I’ve been writing about and trying nervously, and they’ve been great. As in, the audience is responding very well. So that’s a relief I’m not ‘all out’ after thirteen months of stand-up.”

Indeed. Rest assured, even if she was one of the last people to realise it, Felicity Ward is here for the long haul.

Book of moron


Peter Helliar - Nautical but Nice




It's been a pleasure seeing and hearing him regularly on Rove and radio, (not to mention his regular turn as Strauchanie), but it's been a few years since Peter Helliar has properly graced a stand-up stage - although the 2007 Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala is a nice gig to have remembered as your last before taking a break to make a feature film. Back, if not with a vengeance, then at least with a new bunch of stand-up, Pete's playing the Sydney Opera House from Jan 5th with his Dreamboat Tour. In the meantime, here's an interview from a Sydney visit ages ago. It is from a time when Merrick & Rosso ruled drivetime radio with their shift on Triple J, and if it's too long ago for you to remember, rest assured, it seems like a life time ago for me, too. But even at the time, it felt like a particularly golden age of Oz comedy - Tripod appearing regularly with Peter on Merrick & Rosso's Triple J show. I know one day people will look back at a golden period just ended, when Ben Ellwood and Dave Jory would appear regularly on Dools's drivetime show. As it happens, Dools is now hosting Breakfast at Nova with Merrick Watts, all of which deserve a whole other bunch of blogs... for now, here's an early interview with Peter Helliar.


Helliarbw2

For Pete's Sake

“I saw Greg Fleet at the Comedy Club in Melbourne when I was 15 and I thought that that would be a kind of cool thing to do,” Peter Helliar offers as explanation of his comedic inspiration. “That, of course, was when I thought everyone was making huge amounts of money doing comedy.”

A deep desire to perform, too many beers, boisterous mates and the refusal to “get a proper job” actually led Helliar to adopt this ‘cool’ way of life. Eventually.

“It took me a good seven years to get off to it,” he admits, having opted for travel after finishing school. In fact, Helliar almost worked up enough nerve to have a go at comedy overseas: “I was in London and thought, ‘maybe I’ll try here, where I won’t be humiliated in front of people I know.” The London debut never eventuated. Helliar instead returned to Australia where he finally got up on stage to start telling jokes at Melbourne’s legendary Espy comedy club (in St Kilda's Esplanade Hotel). “The rest,” Peter assures me, “is history. Not an awfully interesting history, but a history nonetheless.” Helliar finishes his story by revealing just how huge the amounts of money to be made in comedy are: “The harsh reality is that it’s only a couple of million a year.”

Only a couple, Peter?

“Um. Slightly less.”

Although he’s only been joking for the last two and a half years, Peter has been to Sydney about six or seven times. However, if you have yet to see him live, you may be more familiar with the contributions he regularly makes to Merrick and Rosso’s Triple J drivetime slot as Peter Helliar, PI. Merrick Watts and Peter Helliar were already familiar with each other by the time Helliar had started making with the funny business; they’d been introduced by a mutual friend. However, a “mutual admiration society” quickly developed between Helliar and the grouse duo, Merrick and Rosso soon inviting Peter along to fill the support slot at their Christmas and grand final shows in Melbourne.

“They were the first people who could give me a real break,” Peter acknowledges.

Recognising, no doubt, a kindred spirit as well as talent, Merrick and Rosso continued to send breaks in Peter’s direction. Last year they asked him to contribute to Hair of the Dog, the Triple J Sunday slot they were then filling while Roy and HG were overseas. When they had landed the drivetime shift, they likewise brought him on board.

Merrick and Rosso left Pete's exact role on the show pretty much up to him; their first question was, ‘do you have any ideas?’ Peter confessed to harbouring only the one and it involved him being “a ‘PI’ kind of guy,” mainly because the idea of ‘a race against time’ appealed. Thus, each week, Peter pits his wits against all manner of challenges within certain time constraints, for the entertainment of the Triple J-listening masses.

“It opens itself up to so many different possibilities,” he explains, “from tracking various people down to professing my love to certain people to singing songs like the one I did with Steven Gates from Tripod recently.” Part of the attraction that such a role held was that it would be so different; it would not require Helliar to either pen ten minutes of new material or use up dependable chunks of his stage show each week.

In his capacity as ‘Peter Helliar, PI’ Peter has established a very good track record, having ‘failed his mission’ only once, and even then, under “reasonably dubious” circumstances.

“I had to write a poem about the town of Orange, NSW, to the tune of ‘The Man from Snowy River’. ‘Orange’ had to rhyme four times within that poem. For those who don’t know, ‘Orange’ is one of few English words that has no rhyme.”

Geez, I offer, if that’s the only time you’ve failed, don’t be too hard on yourself. It was a pretty hard ask to begin with.

“Oh, thanks mate,” Peter replies, “but I do strive for a one hundred percent record.”

It appears that the “other hiccup” Peter Helliar, PI encountered involved Olympics commentator Bruce McAvaney. “We wanted Bruce to sing ‘Islands in the Stream’ because I’m a big fan of Bruce’s work. He refused. But Matthew White from Sports Tonight was great enough to step in and take over the mantle and he loved it.”

According to Peter, Sydney crowds often emanate “the right kind of vibes” for comedians who would otherwise avoid trying out fresh material. Thus, Helliar’s Sydney shows will be an amalgam of his recent Melbourne Comedy Festival show, This Much is True, and what will eventually become next year’s Comedy Festival piece.

“Just on the topic of this year’s show, This Much is True, Peter,” I ask. “How much of it was actually true?”

“Three percent,” Peter answers without pausing.

“That’s pretty good,” I acknowledge. “There are reconstituted  orange fruit drinks that cannot boast as high a content of actual orange juice." And it's certainly greater than the comic's - or, let's face it, anyone's - hit rate at rhyming the town Orange in a parody of 'Man From Snowy River'...


Good Evans

Happyxmaswarisover


“I didn’t have any grand plans for a solo career, as such – I’ve really just kind of developed slowly and organically,” offers Kevin Mitchell, the artist occasionally known as Bob Evans, before confessing that the reason he “wanted to do stuff as ‘Bob Evans’” was so he could draw his own specific audience to the distinctly different songs he was writing for himself, rather than for Jebediah, the indie band he’s fronted as singer and guitarist since 1994. “People could find me without having that ‘Jebediah’ thing in their heads,” he says. But I suppose I’d really ought to backtrack…


Spector of Christmases Past

There’s a rather spiffy sounding Christmas show playing the Sydney Opera House Tue 22and Wed 23 December called Happy Xmas (War Is Over), based on Phil Spector’s legendary Christmas album A Christmas Gift For You. Well, that’s the point of departure: the classic album the genius producer put together featuring his most successful artists at the time – Darlene Love, The Ronettes, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans and The Crystals. That was around about when Spector was, as Tom Wolfe dubbed him, ‘the first tycoon of teen’, rather than, as a jury more recently found him, guilty of second-degree murder. His Christmas album, released 22 November 1963 – the day of President Kennedy’s assassination – was and remains a classic release that, like so much of his work, inspired many peers. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson was in thrall to Spector’s studio work – the so-called ‘wall of sound’ created by massed musicians and vocalists. He borrowed from the Spector blueprint for many of the Beach Boys’ hits – and they released their own Christmas album Christmas Harmonies.

The Beatles also found Spector’s work inspirational. It was unto Spector that John Lennon entrusted the dispiriting Get Back tapes. After much studio editing and the overdubbing of choirs and orchestras, they were issued as the Beatles’ swansong, Let It Be. While the Beatles’ label, Apple Records, would reissue A Christmas Gift For You (with a different cover – and title: Phil Spector’s Christmas Album ), both John Lennon and George Harrison would work with Phil Spector during their initial post-Beatle years. Harrison even wrote the song ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ for Spector’s wife, Veronica (or ‘Ronnie’ – hence the band name The Ronettes). Of course, John & Yoko’s Phil Spector-produced Christmas single of 1972 was ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ – from which these Sydney Opera House concerts take their name.

So, back to the show. Following a great tradition of an Aussie all-star cast recreating entire albums on stage, the line-up for Happy Xmas (War Is Over) includes the likes of Tim Rogers, Bob Evans, Paul Dempsey, Jade MacRae, Mahalia Barnes and Gin Wigmore delivering the Spector Christmas album – plus a bunch of other Christmas songs. So of course, the obvious course of action is to try and interview someone. Tim Rogers, my first choice – as a You Am I fan from my student days, when most of the band lived in Newtown and they’d play Sydney Uni regularly – is unavailable, but Bob Evans is up for a chat.

First thing’s first: time for some close listening to his most recent album, Goodnight, Bull Creek! I pay a visit to an old mate Nigel, who still owns and runs Sandy’s Records in Dee Why to discover he still has a copy of the limited edition two-disc version which includes the eight-track Morning’ Richmond! Live at the Corner Hotel. As I hand it to Nigel at the counter, a very chatty lady who happens to be Christmas shopping asks, “so what’s Bob Evans like?” Before I start explaining, Nigel – an example of a fast disappearing type of music shop owner worth his weight in rare, valuable, pink label pressings of early Island releases who can provide the sort of info off the top of his head for which a newer breed of surly, sullen shop assistant has to google or consult an iPhone app. – steps in: “He’s a fine songwriter from Western Australia who was in Jebediah…” Lady Chatterly, not so down with the peeps, quips, “They must be a bit before my time!” (Shellac 78s were not quite before her time – but close! – god bless!)


Interview

Goodnight, Bull Creek! is a gorgeous album of songs that hark back to a kind of timeless retro style that keeps coming back into fashion: good melodies, heartfelt words, thoughtful – and at times, delicate – arrangements.  “Um…” I begin tentatively when I get to talk to the artist occasionally known as Bob Evans. “I don’t know what to call you – should I address you as ‘Bob’ or ‘Kevin’?”

“‘Kev’,” he says, laughing. “You can call me ‘Kev’.”

In the late-’90s, Kev found himself writing songs on his acoustic guitar. “They weren’t Jebediah songs,” he says, “but I wanted to perform them. So I decided I’d start doing some gigs. I didn’t want to do it as ‘Kevin Mitchell from Jebediah’. I wanted to give myself a name so that people wouldn’t come expecting to hear Jebediah songs.”

According to Kev, “the ‘Bob Evans’ thing” comes from a T-shirt he used to own – possibly, according to some sources, endorsing a chain of American ‘homestyle cooking’ restaurants that also bear that name. Whether or not said shirt is connected to the Bob Evans restaurant chain, Kev was wearing it the day he needed to add his gig to the gig listings in the local street press. “It was literally the first name that I saw. I said, ‘I’ll be Bob Evans’. When I chose the name for that first gig, I didn’t know if I’d even do another one.”

But that was a decade ago now – three albums later, Bob Evans is alive and gigging. The question is how does a song writer who leads a band as well as a solo career delineate between ‘solo’ songs and ‘band’ songs?

“I write a song on an acoustic guitar and as I develop the song I decide where I’m going to put it,” Kev explains; “whether I’m gonna present it to the band or whether it sounds like a Bob Evans song.” Of course, he points out, a lot of Jebediah’s material is written by the band when they’re “all in a room together”. Only occasionally will he write a song at home that “feels like a Jebediah song, not a Bob Evans song”. Also worth noting, according to Kev, is that Jebediah and Bob Evans have both evolved and developed so much that the sort of music they now produce can and does have “moments that overlap… probably”.

“When Bob started out, it had to be acoustic-based. It fitted into a narrow kind of world. It was the same with Jebediah. But these days, both Jeb and Bob are capable of doing virtually any kind of song and making any kind of sound. They’re getting close – certainly a hell of a lot closer than when it started – and that could continue to happen.”

If the musical concerns of ‘Jeb’ and ‘Bob’ overlap, it’s because Bob Evans really developed during Jebediah’s hiatus following the 2004 album Braxton Hicks. Bob may have come into being in the late ’90s, but his first album, Suburban Kid – a collection of songs embodying “youthful instrospection, love and loss” – was released in 2003. In 2006 a bunch of Bob Evans demos, discovered by record label Capitol, were considered so good as to warrant a new album. Kev sent the demos to some of his favourite producers around the world and was contacted almost immediately by Nashville producer Brad Jones – (his previously clients include Josh Rouse, Yo La Tengo and Sheryl Crow) – who went on to produce the ARIA Award-, Australian Music Prize- and J Award-winning Suburban Songbook. Goodbye, Bull Creek!, name-checking the Perth suburb in which Kevin Mitchell lived as a kid and ending the so-called ‘suburban trilogy’, was also produced by Brad Jones. It’s a heavier, rockier album and the best Bob Evans offering yet. Kev says that with this rock album, he’s “saying goodbye to the suburbs”:

“I feel like I’m not so much putting the book away, as closing a chapter, so to speak. I’m closing a chapter and moving onto the next one. Bull Creek’s always going to be the place that I came from and grew up as a kid and all that stuff, but with this album, I’m feeling a little bit like it was time to move on and let go of things. You’re probably going to ask me for specifics…”

Ha! If I was – and the temptation was there – I’m not now. Kev clearly doesn’t want to give specifics. He does, however, reveal that he is in the process of recording the next Jebediah album with the band. So of course, by now, Jeb and Bob have influenced each other, and may just have more in common now, than they had, different, to begin with.

Indeed, rather than the specifics of ‘putting away youthful things’, so to speak, I’m more interested in what it was like to be recording in Nashville. Did Kevin Mitchell ever, as that 13-year-old kid taking guitar lessons long enough to learn the chords to Nirvana and Ratcat songs ever in his wild dreams imagine he’d be in Nashville recording some day?

“No,” Kev admits. “God no. Not at all. I couldn’t even tell you for sure if I’d heard of Nashville back then. I’d like to think I was aware that there was a place called Nashville… But yeah, it’s unfathomable. Being able to go to Nashville twice to make records, it’s a pretty magical experience. It rates right up there with some of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Nashville Cats

Of the series of events that led to Brad Jones producing Suburban Songbook and, more recently, Goodbye, Bull Creek! Kev considers it “one of those freaky times in life where everything falls into place”. Perhaps it’s a result of hindsight but, he says, it felt like “it was the right thing to do” – as though that initial album was “destined to be successful in some way”. Admiring Jones’s work, Mitchell was prepared to record “anywhere in the world” Brad was placed – it just so happened he was based in Nashville, which is the perfect place to go and make this kind of record.”

Nashville certainly brought the best out of Bob Evans for this record. Or at least, Brad Jones brought the best out of Kevin Mitchell: “What a producer can do is take what you’ve got, understand what you really want to do and point you in the right direction,” Kev explains, using the beautiful ‘Power of Speech’ to illustrate his point. It’s in the style of ‘bossa nova’ (a Portuguese term meaning ‘new trend’, initially used to describe a kind of samba-based musical genre that appeared in Brazil the late-’50s), so its breezy, up-tempo jazz feel makes it stand out.

“I wrote the music and it was in the bossa nova time signature. Then I wrote the words and demo’d the song.” As with all the demos given the ‘thumbs-up’ by Brad, it was considered for the album and worked on during the pre-production phase of the recording sessions (Kev: “a fancy way of describing me and Brad playing through the songs, turning ’em inside out”), at which point – Kev adopts an American accent to quote – Brad said, “This song’s great, and the way you’ve recorded it, it’s kind of like how a Hawaiian would play it. But if you were going for a real bossa nova thing, you would kind of play it like this…” and demonstrated on his guitar. “He pretty much played my song back to me, finger picking all these Latin jazz chords,” Kev recalls. “I was like, ‘That is exactly how it’s supposed to sound!’”

As well as helping an artist realise the vision, creating – or literally ‘producing’ – the sound that, up to that point, only really existed in the musician’s head, a good producer challenges a good musician to progress. “I had to re-learn how to play my own song and it took days of just playing constantly, because that style of playing was so foreign to me,” Kev admits. “I’d never played anything like that before. It was a real struggle but it turned out to be one of my favourite songs on the record because of that.”

Although Kev’d “love to do more bossa nova songs”, he suspects that if he attempts to write another, it’ll just end up sounding the same as ‘Power of Speech’. “So,” he concludes, “maybe that’s where my exploration of bossa nova will end”.

Also contributing to the beauty of ‘Power of Speech’ – along with perfect percussion and flutes – are the harmony vocals of Melissa Mathes, originally brought in to contribute to the wistfully beautiful ballad ‘Winter Song’ – which Kev had intended to be “a true duet” after demo-ing. “Brad had two different people he knew with different vocal styles. I picked the one that sounded the best to me.” Meliss proved so “fantastic” on arrival that she contributed to a couple of other tracks. “We weren’t intending on having any female vocals on ‘Someone So Much’,” Kev admits, “but we were working on it when she arrived and ended up singing on the end of that song, as well.”

I do feel as though I hear distinct influences on other parts of the album. Guitar tone, production values and backing vocals on ‘Nuthin’s Gonna Tear Me Away’ suggests the Electric Light Orchestra – or at least Jeff Lynne’s production of the Traveling Wilburys. That feel is also present in ‘Pasha Bulker’, a song that seems to speak of the end of a relationship through the metaphor of the massive ship that ran aground on Newcastle’s Nobbys Beach in 2007. In fact, I would go as far as to say a lot of guitar tones – slide, twangy rhythm, warmly distorted lead – as well as the downright ‘Blue Jay Way’-type backing vocals of ‘Brother, O Brother’, are George Harrisonesque in the extreme. When Kev says towards the end of the album’s sleevenotes that he bought himself a copy of Harrison’s All Things Must Pass – (“a wonderful record that has taken me far too long to finally purchase”) – I suspect he might be a bit of a fan.

“I’ve been a big Beatles fan for ages,” Kev confirms. “There’s probably been a bit of George Harrison stealing on the last two records that I’ve made,” he says, but I’m quick to point out the correct word is ‘homage’. “Yeah, ‘an homage’ – that’s a much better way of putting it. He’s got a pretty distinctive style, so it’s pretty easy to hear it when it’s being copied, I guess.”

On the Record

other suspicion about Kevin Mitchell’s inspirations proves less well founded. Looking at the artwork of the CD – the fact that the track listing on the back is split into two distinct ‘suites’ or groups of tracks, the presence of sleeve notes and interesting art – seems to suggest to me a touch of the ‘record collector’ in Kev. He’s old enough to have experienced buying actual records, or ‘vinyl’ (as apposed to the term ‘vinyls’, a give-away that the speaker was never an avid record buyer or collector.

“I buy a lot of CDs,” Kev informs me. “I have a relatively small record collection. These days I download a lot of songs off iTunes. I call myself a music fan, not so much a collector.” Though not an avid record buyer, he certainly does “love the aesthetics of vinyl”, and so “nods” to “old school vinyl” in the CD artwork design. “I’d love my records to be released on vinyl, but it’s just so difficult to get a record company to do it these days.”

The sleeve notes, edited from the blog Kev was maintaining while recording the album, were inspired by an album called Dear Catastrophe Waitress by Scottish indie band Belle & Sebastian, whose sleeve contained one of the bandmembers’ diary entries. “I liked the idea of having a bit of text in the booklet, giving something more for people to read or give them a different insight into the record.” Kev says it “also made sense on a purely artistic level” to include pictures containing “an almost ‘children’s storybook’ quality” with the text.

The images are illustrations – given depth with watercolours – showing Kevin Mitchell with various cute animals. They are accompanied by ‘storybook’ captions: “Bob ran into Badger at Melrose Billiards, where they shared a quiet pint”. Turns out, the images began as photographs, inspired by one of Kev’s Perth mates – Andrew Christie, the photographer credited in the sleeve, I assume – who’d “found this taxidermist” with “hundreds of all sorts of animals”:

“It was his idea to get these stuffed animals out and to take photos of me with them, in realistic situations. There’s a camel and there’s a little donkey. But the photos didn’t get the feeling across, so I came up with this idea of getting an illustrator…” – Karenna Zerefos, according to the sleeve – “…to do illustrations of the photos that we’d taken. It worked beautifully.”

It does work beautifully. What with the splashes of watercolour throughout, the captions and the images themselves suggest – and I use the term in inverted commas – ‘psychedelia’. Of the British variety. See, British psychedelia – unlocking the inner visions of the mind and soul – tended so often to reflect childhood toys and memories, vintage clothing and the Victoriana of World War I army uniforms (before moving on to the eastern mysticism of the exotic lands once owned – and then lost – by the British Empire) because LSD and its ensuing ‘acid trip’ tended to encourage its users to mentally revert to a more playful, childhood state. The childhood of a mid- to late-’60s musician was all about ‘rooting around’ nana’s house, where pictures of her favourite poor brother Wilfred – who died before his time in battle at Ypres or The Somme or some other theatre of battle from the ‘Great War’ – sat atop a mantle. One of the seminal records of 1967 was the Beatles single ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ with ‘Penny Lane’ on its flip side, one inspired by John Lennon’s childhood reminiscences, the other, by Paul McCartney’s. Pink Floyd’s first album, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn – on which ballads about travelling by ‘Bike’ share grooves with songs about travelling into space – takes its title from the heading of one of the chapters of Kenneth Graham’s seminal none-more-English-kids’-book Wind in the Willows… The artwork of Goodnight, Bull Creek! – particularly with its badger – seems, at least in part, to suggest all this to me. And Kevin doesn’t automatically dismiss this theory.

“Both my parents are English,” he says. “I was probably given quite an English style of up-bringing – all the books that we had were English books. Time and time again, there are things I find myself doing unconsciously that people point out have this British connection, so there must be something to say for it, whether it’s in your blood…”

Quite an in-depth look at Goodnight, Bull Creek! in a relatively short interview. Before I let Kev go, we should at least mention Happy Xmas (War Is Over), the reason I now own a copy of Bob Evans’s latest and – to date – greatest offering.


Happy Xmas (War is Over)

“I got a call from the people who were putting the Opera House show together,” Kev says. “They told me Tim Rogers had put my name forward. They’d already been talking to Tim about doing this Christmas concert, and Tim threw my name in the ring as someone they might want to have involved in it.”

That’s pretty cool – and that Tim Rogers is a clever guy – not only choosing a fine and fellow-talented musician with whom to collaborate, but also one who can give good interview in his own absence. (So  we both owe Tim a favour.)

“It’s going to be the Phil Spector record from start to finish in the first set, with different people singing, and the second set is a mixture of different Christmas carols and modern Christmas pop songs. I’ve never stepped inside the Opera House before, so yeah, this is a pretty unique opportunity for me.”

Nice. I’m tempted to ask whether, in addition to the obvious show-closer, John & Yoko’s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’, the second half might also include Paul McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’ or, at Kev’s insistence, George Harrison’s 1974 festive season single, ‘Ding Dong, Ding Dong’. But I don't wanna push it.

Ironic Acronym

Hey boys and girls, this week’s ironic acronym is ‘MILF’. It doesn’t stand for ‘Muslim I’d Like to Friend’ – (although where Michelle Leslie is concerned, it might – image pilfered from The Age):

MILFelle Leslie


No, according to news reports of a recent Philippine jailbreak, it stands for Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an Islamist military group from the southern Philippines initially accused of and subsequently denying any  involvement.

So just be careful which curvaceous burqa-clad form you declare a ‘MILF’. Or ‘da bomb’, for that matter.


(Comic) strip search proves fruitful

I wonder how extensively Kevin Costner researched that epic cinematic masterpiece that established him as an auteur? No, not that post-apocalyptic romp we all ignored that is starting to come true, Waterworld, the other one.

I found an old paperback compendium of the  Tumbleweeds comic strips – the work of T. K. Ryan (who only retired a couple of years ago, it turns out). One of the strips is clearly Dances with Wolves:

Tumbleweeds


The next NSW Premier?

KorrisIemeally,jpg


I didn’t realise this image would be so prescient when I first blogged about it, but there you go: with Kristina Keneally tipped to be in with a good chance to be our next premier in New South Wales, as well as our first female and first American one, all I can say is, “perfect!” It’s pretty much always been the case that there should be only a couple of degrees of separation – if that – between our state leader and allegations of corruption. At least we know she gives excellent interview.


Addendum: Less than an hour after writing this blog, early results on Twitter suggest Keneally’s ahead by two votes.

And, half an hour later, expected to be installed as fourth premier in as many years, at a meeting this evening.


Return flight

It was Tuesday December 1, 2009. The Liberal Party spill had taken place  and their new leader, Tony Abbott, had been elected. Many of the tweets emanating from Australia were commenting upon it.

Meanwhile, the ABC’s North American correspondent, Lisa Millar, reported at 10:30am EST that Prime Minister Rudd’s plane had been grounded.

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Almost immediately, I offered my reply:

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SBS must have also tweeted the Rudd grounding because later in the day, my favourite Twitter-using SBS journo re-tweeted the news:

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And, still having a good reply to it, I repeated it, again, almost immediately:

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Now New Matilda emails me today’s Daily Cartoon, by Tim Hall. Hilarious and visually stunning, it still kind of reminds me of something I may have read elsewhere…

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Return of the Ocker Bastard Yob

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When Chris Franklin first appeared on the scene, it clearly marked the return of the ‘ocker bastard yob’ comedy persona – following on from the likes of Bazza McKenzie, Hoges, Crocodile Dundee. So it was the perfect title for my first interview with him.

Some time later, after that initial flush of success, Chris was back, either touring or with a new single. I interviewed him again. And noting his return, I came up with the perfect title: Return of the Ocker Yob Bastard. It was a great idea for a title; I’d just somehow managed to not realise that I’d used it before.

Chris thought it was a cack, and when I interviewed him a third time, he encouraged me to use it again. This time, I was fully aware, and tried to go with a self-conscious acknowledgement that I had mistakenly used the same title. I took a leaf out of Frank Zappa’s book, who likes to tip his hat at b-grade horror movie motifs: those initial three albums of guitar solos were called Shut Up And Play Your Guitar, Shut Up And Play Your Guitar Some More, and, most importantly, The Return Of The Son Of Shut Up And Play Your Guitar.

So the third Chris Franklin interview should have been called The Return of the Son of the Ocker Bastard Yob. The editors didn’t share my particularly idiosyncratic, Zappafied view of the world. So it went to print as, you guessed it, Return of the Ocker Bastard.

But most of this is irrelevant, since what I’m presenting here is my first ever interview with Chris Franklin. It was undertaken at a time when Barry Humphries – creator of Barry McKenzie – was visiting Australia.

Enjoy.

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Barry Humphries once pointed out that Sydney was a city whose inhabitants were inclined to eat while walking down the street, a city whose lifts often bore the aroma of sausage roll and tomato sauce. How fitting that Humphries is currently in Sydney, for if his observation were ever true, it is certainly moreso now with Melbourne comic Chris Franklin in town.

Wearer of flannelette shirts, blue singlets, thongs and a beanie, owner of sun-damaged skin, a mullet and unkempt facial hair, Franklin follows a long line of comics who embody the ocker bastard yob persona. However, Chris Franklin is more than that. With his quick wit and pithy observation, he is the thinking man’s drinking man. He is also the drinking man’s thinking man. His career is still on a steep trajectory: in the brief fifteen months during which he has been in the game he has won such accolades as “Best New Comedian in Australia” in the National Triple J Raw Comedy competition, “Best Up & Coming Comedian” in the 1997 PBS Radio Awards and has taken out the National Green Faces competition in Canberra.

A former naval chef (that is, cooker for the navy rather than cooker of belly buttons) who has helped prepare a fine sea food repast for one of Her Royal Highness the Queen’s visits (it’s not his fault nobody bothered to warn them that Elizabeth Windsor is allergic to seafood), a former paver and all-round beer enthusiast, Franklin claims that he “still hasn’t decided” to make comedy his career.  “It’s been decided for me and I’m pretty happy with that.”

Chris still thinks that the idea of being payed to get drunk and talk to people, indeed, to be flown around the country to be paid to get drunk and talk to people, is pretty cool. “Before that started happening, I was doing the same thing. Only I’d be paying for the beer.”

Chris came to comedy by recognising comedian Chris Bennett in Edward’s Tavern, in Prahran, Victoria. the night after Bennett had appeared on Hey, Hey It’s Saturday. “I thought, ‘that’s that funny bloke’,” Chris says. “I decided to go over and annoy him for the next eight hours!” Chris Franklin spent the rest of the evening giving Chris Bennett pointers, the way drunken punters are wont to do to professional comics: “Here’s one you can use, here’s one you can use, here’s another one you can use, here’s a song I sing.” The comic eventually invited the punter to his next gig. Upon Franklin’s appearance, Bennett informed him it was a good thing he’d arrived, he was due on stage any minute. Thus Chris Franklin made his debut as an open mike comic, delivering for his virgin ‘five minute’ slot nearly twenty minutes of vintage Col Elliott jokes.

“Thankfully it was a young audience who didn’t know the jokes, and enjoyed them. During the whole time I’m up there I can hear Bennett standing in the wings going, ‘Here’s one you can use, here’s one you can use, and here’s one you can use.’ But the crowd loved it, and I came off stage and said to the guy who books acts, ‘How f*ck*n good was that?’ He said, ‘yeah, it wasn’t too bad. Just, next time, write your own stuff.’”

Chris Franklin was an ‘accident’ born eight years after the youngest of his two sisters. He was brought up in a close-knit family. “Mum’s got four brothers and three sisters who are all married with grown-up children themselves,” he says. “That whole nucleus is like a mafia.” While Chris grew up listening to Col Elliott with his dad, his mum used to wake him up “at 11 o’clock at night on a school night” to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus. “She’s very comedy orientated,” he says. “She’s a good old bird, my mum!” Chris knows his mother is proud of him because she keeps all of his press clippings. She won’t tell him herself, however, most probably because of routines are coarse and close to the bone. “A lot of my stories are about family members,” Chris admits. “I’ve been doing them for years without getting paid for it.”

Franklin’s fan-base may be fellow flannelette-wearers, but he enjoys playing posh venues because the patrons look at the guy in the thongs and beanie with distrust – until they realise that he’s the man they’ve payed to see. “They think I’m going to rape their mobile phones or pinch their girlfriends,” Chris laughs. “At the end of the night they come up to me in their ties and suits and everything and try to be cool: ‘excuse me Chris, my sister was engaged to someone whose brother knew someone who lived in the same street as a Westy once.’ I go, ‘yeah, good on you mate, buy me a beer.’” More often than not, they do.