Saturday, March 28, 2015
Methylated in the Blue Mountains
My nine month tour of Australia did teach me a lot of other important lessons in the life of a jobbing actor, apart from the previously mentioned one of being a complete eejit. It was, in these tender years, that I was introduced to passion fruit, Brian the snail and learnt a great deal of the Australian lingua-franca.
Our company had been invited to the Adelaide Arts Festival, and with a Labour government in power, the British Arts council was offering an extra bonus which was expressly to be used for, “Extending British culture to the Commonwealth” Tandem productions of Shakepeares’s “King Lear” and “Loves Labours Lost” with lunchtime productions of Samuel Beckett’s “End Game”, “Escurial” by Michel De Ghelderode, and Peter Handke’s “Offending the Audience”, the stage was set.
What British culture was to be found in an Irish-Frenchman’s play about men in dust bins, a Belgium’s playwright’s farce and a German’s hour-long polemical improvisational lecture was anybody’s guess.
But the two Shakepeares and the star-studded cast which included, Timothy West and wife Prunella Scales and at-the-time boyfriend of Vanessa Redgrave, the yet to be James Bond –Timothy Dalton, attracted the attention of the Adelaide festival organisational committee. We arrived in Adelaide flying BOAC as it was then known.
The flight lasted well over twenty four hours with touchdowns in Zurich, Tehran, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Perth, Canberra and a short hop to Adelaide. Ourreturn flight took seventy two hours, - but more of that another time.
For a young actor on his first visit to a foreign clime beyond the borders of Eastern Europe the trip was an adventure of my life. On our second evening after a long day’s rehearsal we were invited to the residence of the British high Commissioner. Brian the snail as he was affectionately named after his look-alike in the then very popular kiddies cartoon show called the Magic Roundabout.
Brian moved at speed of a tortoise carrying a snail with ten ton of Mafia-styled concrete blocks on its head. Meaning, - he didn’t moved at all. He lounged on a recliner in his vast back garden whilst costumed butlers and maids scurried about delivering excellent G&Ts and schooners of Australia’s finest beers on silver trays.
As is normal at these soiree gatherings thespians know when they are onto a good thing. Free food and drink was on offer, oysters, prawns,clams, salmon and a lavish spread of every roast of meat, game and poultry. Entertainment expenditure is listed very high on the budgetsheet of the diplomatic service and the scene was set for a good old thrash.
We had all been instructed to be on our best behaviour by our company manager. We were and the rest of the six weeks performances in Adelaide were booked out. All the shows, including out lunchtime sessions, received critical acclaim and we played to full houses, so we were suddenly informed that we’d been invited to Sydney and Melbourne and the tour was to be extended.
We were all delighted at the thought of having work for another nine weeks. However the tricky question was raised about where we were going to stay and the even trickier question of “per diems” was raised by our union representative. These added engagements were not part of the original contract and we were told that new ones were being drawn up and the company manager would let us see them as soon as we arrived in Sydney.
A friend of mine at the time was a Mr James Snell, a fellow junior actor who was also in the lunchtime productions. A fellow imbiber of alcoholic beverages and a partaker of the dreaded weed, as it was then known. James was an avid smoker of what the Aussies called “Mull”.
During our stay in Adelaide he had made contact with a dealer in the product and established a rapport with him. So on our last night in the city we arranged a drink with him to find out where we could get the “Mull” in Sydney. He gave us several telephone numbers and two addresses.
This set our young excited minds to work now that we had some contacts in Sydney. If, as had been suggested by the company manager, as long as we gave him our contact details we could stay with friends or relatives and not in the hotel which was going to be booked by the company. We had name names and addresses. So James suggested we take full advantage of this.
The added incentive was an increased “per diem’ – the daily allowance. We would get one hundred and fifty Aussie dollars per week as compared to fifty if we stayed in hotel and had our meals with the rest of the cast.
The die was set for naughty times.
On landing in Sydney we said farewell to our fellow thespians and took a taxi to a suburb called Paddington which was quite close to the area known as Kings Cross, a bohemian suburb which at the time was a chosen place for American service-men taking R&R from the war in Vietnam. Restand recuperation for the Yankee soldiers meant being stoned out of their tiny minds for as long as possible.
James had definitely chosen the right place to assuage his addiction to the dreaded weed. On meeting the long haired hippy residents at the address we were given it was almost as if we had arrived back at our dingy basement flat in Hampstead London.
“No worries mate’ said Geoff, “you can doss down here, 20 dollars a week, take the end room next to the back door, the showers outside, and so’s the Dunny, the great white telephone!” I was just becoming accustomed to the Aussie dialect and lingua franca.
He meant the toilet.
After the second week in Sydney James and I had settled into our routine. Understudy rehearsals in the morning, lunchtime performance sessions which turned out to be a lot more violent than in Adelaide.
The police had to be called twice to the bar next to our venue to separate the warring factions that the Pieter Hanke play created. Thetheatre going liberals tended to be pro-Pom and the anti-royalty factions would make any excuse for a punch-up, a “Blue” as they called them, usually close to the two o’clock closing time.
It all worked out well for everybody as the Landlord would then complain that his licensed selling hours had been disrupted and the police would allow him an extra half an hour to serve his last round. James and I would then return to our doss-house have a sleep and prepare for the evening’s Shakespeare.
Like all neo-colonial countries, Australia has added national day holidays. Anzac day was around the corner. This is a day of remembrance for the fallen soldiers of bothworld wars and those who had died fighting in Vietnam alongside the Americans. It fell on a Monday so that meant we had a forty eight hour break before the Tuesday’s performances. The hippies suggested that we take a tour to the Blue Mountains, a wine farming area of the country about a two hour drive outside Sydney, if you take the national highways.
They arranged with a couple of friends who had an old VW – “Dub” to take us. We went the long way round, along Bell’s Line Road from the suburb of Richmond, through to Mount Tomah and across to Mount Victoria and covered most of the vast Blue Mountain National park.
After about three hours we found ourselves at the weathered limestone peaks of the The Three Sisters, one of the iconic landmarks of the Blue Mountains. They tower more than 900 metres high among the cliffs of the Jamison Valley.
These unusual formations watch over the land of the traditional country of the Darug, Gundungurra, Wiradjuri and Dharwal Aboriginal people. According to one Aboriginal legend, the pillars were once three beautiful sisters named 'Meehni', 'Wimlah' and ‘Gunnedoo' who were turned into stone by a powerful tribal elder.
The women had fallen in love with three brothers from another tribe, but were forbidden to marry under tribal law. The brothers decided to capture the three sisters, causing a major battle, and the elder turned the women into stone to protect them.
He had intended to reverse the spell when the battle was over, but was killed himself. As only he could reverse the spell to return the women to their former beauty, the sisters remain in their magnificent rock state as an eternal reminder of this battle.
The character of the Three Sisters changes throughout the day and throughout the seasons as the sunlight brings out the magnificent colours. Our hosts then decided we should get down to the serious business of wine tasting and we drove off to Hunter Valley, which is Australia's oldest wine growing region. It is also boasts fine dining, cooking schools, galleries, health spa retreats and golf courses. These later four offerings were outside the reach of our limited budget, so we concentrated on the freebies.
All the wineries offered samples of local cheeses, hand-made chocolates, charcuterie, dairy goods, sourdough breads and olive oils. Finally at about three in the afternoon we joined a wine tasting master class and sampled a varied selection of wines at one of more than forty cellar doors. We learnt that the first vines in the Hunter Valley were planted by families in the 1820s. The Hunter Valley semillon is widely considered the iconic wine of the region, but the Hunter also produces wine from a wide variety of grapes including shiraz, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and verdelho.
As the sun set Tiny, a massive rugby playing lock forward, who was driving said he heard of a “B & S” going on in a small town called Wollombi and we should “Give it a thrash.” “What’s a B & S?” I asked.
“A Batchelor and Spinter’s or Shelia’s bash.’ answered Tiny.
“A Great place for us Root-Rats.”
“Root-Rats?” I questioned.
“Horny males, Bruce!” and the other two males Gary and Tony laughed. “A good place to pick up Shelias! Time to have a naughty!”
So we stocked up in next town with “BYOs”, because the “B & S” was a “bring your own booze” party. I made sure Toddie was full to the brim with a delightful Aussie gin, which was made, I was told, from Juniper berries similar to an old Dutch brew. It was light blue in colour, and mixed well with tonic water it made a delightful drink.
The gathering was in full swing when we arrived with about a hundred mostly youngsters cavorting about, twisting and shouting to the music of Chuck Berry, the Beatles and the Rolling stones. James immediatelyfound his fellow “Mull” smokers and proceeded to get stoned out of his tiny mind.
I decided to chase the Shelias and spent most of the night dancing under the star lit sky, hoping I could “Pull a Shelia and have a naughty.”
At about three in the morning my legs were beginning to give way and all the Shelias I’d tried getting plastered on my blue gin had disappeared, leaving Toddie empty and my “Donger’ unused.
James sidled onto the dance area carrying a plastic bottle containing a bluish liquid, and joined in the remaining few dancers. He was taking what appeared to me as constant slugs from the bottle, and with a devilish back swing as The Stone’s “Fuck the star” blasted the air waves, he passed me the bottle screaming, “I found some of your gin.” I took the bottle and had mighty gulp, which I immediately tried to spew out of my mouth.
James laughed hysterically like only a stoned person can.He had been faking the drinking, and had handed me a bottle of Methylated spirits.
I never again drank gin until I travelled to Malawi, as every time I burped I had to “Chunder” in the nearest “Great white Telephone”, and for the next three days the horrible taste of the Meths stayed in my mouth.
I cursed him for the rest of the tour after which our friendship ended.