Dunno about the Pharaoh’s Curse, but beware of Phillip’s. Its power became evident when guest after guest died within weeks of an interview. They’d shuffle off this mortal coil, join the choir invisible and all the other terms deployed for the dreaded deadings in the Roget’s roll-call of the Dead Parrot sketch. Bereft of life, resting in peace, we had a pandemic of ex-guests.
Arthurs seemed particularly susceptible. After a reverential chat with my favourite playwright and lifelong hero Arthur Miller… he died. After social intercourse with Arthur C. Clarke, Kubrick’s collaborator on the Space Odyssey movies… he died. Ditto Arthur Schlesinger, official historian for Kennedy’s Camelot. We chatted, he died.
Morris West. Colleen McCullough. Manning Clark. Nugget Coombs. Brett Whiteley. Don Dunstan. Word got around and guests got harder to get. Particularly ones called Arthur. Finally we were forced to make house calls and some tried to die before I knocked on the door. On arriving at the Harvard mansion of John Kenneth Galbraith, I found them carting him out on a stretcher. JKG rallied and we did the interview later – but a few months after that, he was dead too. OK, he was 97, but that was only an excuse.
Due to the fact that most people worth talking to were no longer talking, I came up with a program called Dead People, in which I’d converse with past-tense persons. Working with Peter Faiman of Crocodile Dundee notoriety, we envisaged a chat show where, for example, you’d have Hitler, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt sitting talking to me about World War II. Or Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X discussing the fight for human rights (Nelson Mandela was still alive). Or in lighter mood I’d have Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde discussing comedy – with Marcel Marceau miming amusing silences. I looked forward to saying, “Be quiet, Hitler! Stalin’s talking.”
The other trick for the show? Every word they’d utter they’d actually have written or said. It was on the record. We did an experiment on Late Night Live with Adolf Hitler sitting in the studio, taking the minimalist John Clarke approach. No German accent, just a matter-of-fact conversational tone. Stripped of all that Nuremberg theatricality, he seemed even more monstrous and chilling.
Peter wasn’t sure about the look for TV, but in the end we favoured look-a-liking the famous or notorious guests, getting a doppelganger for Hitler, artfully made-up actors for Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt. And the show could run for years, decades, with the ranks of the departed forever growing.
These days we could cast Mandela or the recent pantheon of Australia’s RIP PMs. Imagine a Dead People episode starring Whitlam, Fraser and Kerr arguing about the coup. Or Nixon, LBJ and JFK on presidential power. I’d like one on invasions of Iraq with Christopher Hitchens, George H. Bush, Saddam Hussein and a million dead people. You get a hint of my idea in Armando Iannucci’s masterpiece The Death of Stalin, in which 90 per cent of the wild improbabilities actually occurred, the film transforming historical events into political satire.
But our timing was out. Our pitches fell on deaf ears – or ears turning to hear about that approaching misnomer, reality television. No one was interested in our most dazzlingly original concept, even though our unreality television was far, far more real. So Dead People joined the choir invisible, along with the dead parrot.