Nowhere to hide

There’s no es­cape from the the­atre for John Doyle, writes Ros­alie Higson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

HEN it comes to gen­tly mock­ing Aus­tralian speech, hu­morist, writer and broad­caster John Doyle knows how to put the jum­buck in the tuckerbag. ‘‘ I’ve al­ways loved colour­ful lan­guage,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s a great source of amuse­ment. It’s like a wardrobe, re­ally. You se­lect the clothes to wear on a par­tic­u­lar oc­ca­sion and you se­lect the lan­guage you will wear on a par­tic­u­lar oc­ca­sion. I just love to see lan­guage as cloth­ing, and I love it when peo­ple are in­ap­pro­pri­ately dressed.’’

The se­ri­ous side of Doyle — best known as sports com­men­ta­tor Ram­pag­ing Roy Slaven, co­hort of HG Nel­son ( Greig Pick­haver) — will be fore­most when The Pig Iron Peo­ple, his first script for the stage, opens in Novem­ber at the Syd­ney The­atre Com­pany.

It’s a re­turn to the the­atre for Doyle, 55, af­ter a pro­longed ab­sence. In the late 1970s he ran away from his job as a high school teacher in New­cas­tle. ‘‘ The­atre, I thought, was the vo­ca­tion, the call­ing,’’ he says, sit­ting in the STC cafe,

Wlook­ing out at a glit­ter­ing har­bour on a bright spring morn­ing. He spent a cou­ple of years full time with the Hunter Val­ley The­atre Com­pany, un­der Aarne Neeme, then came to Syd­ney in the early ’ 80s and ‘‘ bummed around, as job­bing ac­tors do’’. He ap­peared at the STC and the Stables in Syd­ney, and with John Gaden at the State The­atre Com­pany of South Aus­tralia, tak­ing any roles that were go­ing. ‘‘ That was the great lux­ury of work­ing in Aarne Neeme’s com­pany. He’s now di­rect­ing Home and Away,’’ Doyle says. ‘‘ It was a small en­sem­ble of six and we would do roughly 10 pro­duc­tions a year, any­thing from Shake­speare to ( Ge­orges) Fey­deau farces; we just had a stab at any­thing. You would be re­hears­ing one while do­ing the next. It was the most in­ten­sive work I’ve ever done in my life.’’

Ev­ery­thing changed when he met Pick­haver dur­ing film­ing of the SBS chil­dren’s mini- se­ries Five Times Dizzy. They are both tall men with a wicked sense of hu­mour and a knack for the ver­nac­u­lar: ‘‘ We didn’t have an enor­mous amount to do but we had to be there ev­ery day for three months. The adults were back­ground action as much as any­thing else. So, as one does, over a long hot sum­mer we amused our­selves in the car­a­van; we amused our­selves might­ily.’’

They in­vented and de­vel­oped the opin­ion­ated mo­tor­mouths HG and Roy, be­gan do­ing short seg­ments on the Triple J break­fast show, and when they called the rugby league grand fi­nal in 1986 a new era be­gan. Their an­nual Fes­ti­val of the Boot ( AFL and rugby league grand fi­nals) be­came en­shrined at the end of the foot­ball sea­son.

In their com­men­tary they in­vented cheeky nick­names and drew on a long tra­di­tion of lo­cal sport­ing cliches.

In 2000, they raised the bar with The Dream, their tele­vi­sion show that gave a round- up of the Syd­ney Olympics each evening. They did much to pro­mote the ob­scure sport of greco- ro­man wrestling and put a new twist on gym­nas­tics with their in­spired de­scrip­tions of moves such as the bat­tered sav, the party date, the dutch wink and, every­one’s favourite, the hello boys.

Since then they’ve called ma­jor sport­ing events across the world, from Wim­ble­don to the Rugby World Cup. To the great dis­ap­point­ment of their fans, the dream died and the pair were not in­vited to cover the Bei­jing Olympics.

That was a small blip in the mighty ca­reer of Roy and HG. We still do ev­ery Sun­day on the ra­dio,’’ says Doyle. ‘‘ We’ve never stopped; this is our 22nd year of con­tin­ual com­mit­ment on the youth net­work. It’s a great joy. Oh my word.’’

Doyle con­tin­ues to be sur­prised at the turn his life took. I thought the life of a job­bing ac­tor was go­ing to be the one,’’ he says. ‘‘ The work with Greig came as a mas­sive in­ter­rup­tion. It was one of those hap­pen­stances; one of those ac­ci­den­tal things where the route taken changed enor­mously.’’ Chance played a part, too, in the cre­ation of the The Pig Iron Peo­ple, when Doyle sat next to then STC head Robyn Nevin in the the­atre a cou­ple of years ago.

‘‘ Robyn ca­su­ally said, ‘ Have you ever thought of writ­ing some­thing for the stage?’ and in­deed up to that time I hadn’t. But as I sat en­joy­ing the re­vue, part of me was al­ready for­mu­lat­ing, think­ing back to th­ese char­ac­ters I’d had parked for all this time,’’ he says. ‘‘ Th­ese par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ters had been in my mind for the best part of 20 years, just wait­ing.’’

The char­ac­ters seized the day, and Doyle was con­sumed with ‘‘ tremendous en­ergy’’ day and night for months un­til he pro­duced a rough draft.

‘‘ Rather than the over­ar­ch­ing themes bear­ing down on the play, it was built in the op­po­site di­rec­tion,’’ he says. ‘‘ I had the char­ac­ters first, pas­tiches, bits of lan­guage, speeches that I wanted to use, and I built the play in that way. There are speeches that haven’t changed since day one when I sat down.’’

While Doyle wel­comed the chance to reen­gage with the the­atre, he has found the ex­pe­ri­ence ‘‘ threat­en­ing and dif­fi­cult’’.

‘‘ Writ­ing for the­atre, there’s nowhere to hide,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s the finest wire of the finest tightrope. With writ­ing for tele­vi­sion, some judi-

cious skill in edit­ing and di­rec­tion can cover flaws in the writ­ing, but the­atre doesn’t al­low that at all. It’s tremen­dously ex­cit­ing at the same time.’’

Set on a quiet sub­ur­ban street with not quite enough park­ing for the res­i­dents, The Pig Iron Peo­ple ex­am­ines two gen­er­a­tions and the way the pol­i­tics of their time has shaped them.

A young would- be writer, ( Glenn Hazel­dine) moves to a house on Lib­eral Street. It is 1996, the day of John Howard’s first elec­tion victory. Al­though he wants to be alone, he falls in love with a young ac­tor ( Caro­line Craig) and strikes up a bumpy re­la­tion­ship with his nosy old neigh­bours: Doyle’s pig iron peo­ple, the gen­er­a­tion who grew up un­der con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter Robert Men­zies ( known as Pig Iron Bob af­ter a dis­pute with water­side work­ers who re­fused to load a ship with scrap iron for Ja­pan in 1938).

The play will be di­rected by Craig Ilott ( Hed­wig and the An­gry Inch, The Pil­low­man) with a cast in­clud­ing the­atre vet­er­ans Max Cullen, Judi Farr, Bruce Ven­ables, Jacki Weaver and Danny Ad­cock.

Th­ese are char­ac­ters, with a style of lan­guage I don’t think is very of­ten seen on stage. Re­ally, if any­thing, it’s a play writ­ten for ac­tors,’’ says Doyle. ‘‘ I know that sounds a silly thing, but it’s the per­for­mance of the ac­tors that drives the thing, and it’s specif­i­cally about act­ing and the mir­ror that the­atre holds on so­ci­ety.’’

At­ti­tudes and opin­ions that were formed in the 1950s are echoed in the ’ 90s. ‘‘ It’s th­ese rep­e­ti­tions that I’m in­ter­ested in. There was a lot about Howardism that echoed Men­zies- ism, and quite con­sciously. That’s not to make judge­ments about it, that’s just an ob­ser­va­tion. I’m more in­clined to al­low an au­di­ence to de­cide. Any­thing too polemic or di­dac­tic is a turn- off: the prin­ci­pal thing is to en­ter­tain peo­ple, and pro­voke them at the same time.’’

Doyle has an honorary Doc­tor­ate of Let­ters from the Uni­ver­sity of New­cas­tle and an en­vi­able swag of awards, in­clud­ing a Lo­gie, a cou­ple of AWGIES and com­edy awards with Pick­haver. His out­stand­ing minis­eries Changi won a Lo­gie and an AWGIE, and his next minis­eries, Mark­ing Time, picked up an AFI, a NSW Premier’s Lit­er­ary Award and an AWGIE for its screen­play.

Changi and Mark­ing Time were writ­ten as com­pan­ion pieces that ex­am­ine the Aus­tralian char­ac­ter: the sweet and sour jour­ney to­wards the hard­en­ing of its heart’’. Changi cel­e­brated the de­fi­ant at­ti­tude of Aus­tralians im­pris­oned by the Ja­panese dur­ing World War II; Mark­ing Time is the love story of a young Aus­tralian boy and Mus­lim asy­lum- seeker, set at the time of the Tampa cri­sis when asy­lum- seek­ers be­came queue jumpers. The Pig Iron Peo­ple is an­other ex­am­i­na­tion of the state of the na­tion: Doyle is ob­vi­ously con­cerned about the di­rec­tion Aus­tralia is go­ing, po­lit­i­cally, en­vi­ron­men­tally and so­cially.

The play is to do with his­tory re­peat­ing it­self, the cy­cles of his­tory, how the choices peo­ple make are de­ter­mined by where they ap­pear in the his­tor­i­cal pe­riod, and it is also about lan­guage. Work­ing class lan­guage, that is uni­formed but ex­tremely con­fi­dent,’’ he says.

That may sound like a cue for ver­bal py­rotech­nics a la Roy Slaven, but Doyle is more in­ter­ested in re­flect­ing the real lan­guage of an older gen­er­a­tion of Aus­tralians.

HG and Roy in­vent lan­guage, they put lan­guage on an anvil and smash the bug­gery out of it, re­ally, through be­ing long­winded and ec­cen­tric,’’ he says.

Here, I’m far more in­ter­ested in verisimil­i­tude, in the way peo­ple ac­tu­ally speak. That’s far more in­ter­est­ing to me, as a lis­ten­ing wit­ness to a style of lan­guage that is fused with the times, and a style of lan­guage, an as­pect of Aus­tralian ver­nac­u­lar that is dis­ap­pear­ing.’’

Lest he sound too nos­tal­gic, Doyle re­it­er­ates that peo­ple are prod­ucts of their time, flawed in their own way. We are dif­fer­ent now, not bet­ter or worse. One thing that hasn’t changed all that much is our sense of hu­mour. We still laugh at tragedy.’’ Doyle him­self has a rather old­fash­ioned way of speak­ing: ‘‘ Oh yes, yes, yes, yes, yes’’ he says. ‘‘ No, no, no, no.’’

His voice is qui­etly mod­u­lated and he oc­ca­sion­ally harks back to teacher mode, in­vok­ing the def­i­nite ar­ti­cle and Venn di­a­grams. He also has a way of ob­serv­ing his in­ter­locu­tor, ex­actly as a teacher eyes a stu­dent mak­ing ex­cuses for not hav­ing done her home­work — that tol­er­ant yet per­cep­tive gaze.

He puts this per­sona to good use in part­ner­ship with his old friend, sci­en­tist Tim Flan­nery, for a new se­ries on ABC1: Two in the Top End is the fol­low- up to Two Men in a Tin­nie , their jour­ney along the en­dan­gered Dar­ling River. This new show has Doyle and Flan­nery driv­ing from Cooktown to Broome, ex­am­in­ing the ecol­ogy and eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity of the deep north: min­eral rich, an­cient and mys­te­ri­ous, and where the abun­dant rain­fall gives the il­lu­sion it could be­come a bread bas­ket for the rest of the drought- rid­den coun­try, even the world. They look at some of the loony de­vel­op­ment schemes — rice grow­ing, dams and so on — as well as the creep­ing plague of cane toads. ‘‘ It all beg­gars be­lief. But it was a lovely trip to see the sa­van­nah which stretches for­ever, and the ge­ol­ogy of the Kim­ber­ley is ex­traor­di­nary, so I’d rec­om­mend any­one go there — and just leave it alone.’’

Fol­low­ing Doyle’s suc­cess with com­edy, drama and doc­u­men­tary on ra­dio and tele­vi­sion, the ob­vi­ous ques­tion is when can we ex­pect his first film. ‘‘ Well. Hmm. There are a lot of is­sues here,’’ he says with a grin. ‘‘ Rightly or wrongly we de­cided to go down the track of the au­teur, where the writer of the film di­rects the film. The jury is out whether it works or not, but the op­por­tu­ni­ties for writ­ers are very re­stricted.’’

Of course he’s had a go, but even some­one with Doyle’s track record strug­gles to get scripts read. ‘‘ But as we speak, I am work­ing my way through the first draft of a film about role mod­els, about how im­por­tant the re­la­tion­ship is be­tween young boys and role mod­els. So af­ter open­ing night here, that will be the next thing.’’

Ra­dio ragers: Greig Pick­haver ( HG Nel­son), left, and John Doyle ( Roy Slaven) in the Triple J stu­dios

Cy­cles of his­tory: Ac­tor Max Cullen harks back to the Men­zies era in The Pig Iron Peo­ple

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