Monday, July 9, 2012

You have to be kind, dammit!

's why.
Here is something I didn't say. It's from an articlre in the Melbourne The title for today's post comes from Kurt Vonnegut, as a sort of survival guide to life.

Here below is something  I didn't say. It's from an article in the Melbourne Herald-Sun concerning the Margaret Fulton musical that some friends and I are staging at Theatreworks in St Kilda later this year. I never made the comment that Simon Plant attributes to me. I haven't spoken to any journalist about the show. It's probably on a press release that someone put out with the best of intentions. It's just annoying to have this bit of stuff on the web, and to have people infer I said something when I patently didn't. It's also a little worrisome because, while Margaret has always been open about her peripheral invovement with the fledgling communist party in Australia, before it all went horribly wrong in Russia, she didn't want me to make a big deal about it in the script. I complied, but the article makes it look like I'm going back on my word. It also makes me into a gushing threatre lovie by having me apparently spew endless superlatives about the quality of the show, and people who know me also know that I don't tend to talk like that. The show's good. Come and see it. There it is.
Here is something I didn't say. It's from an article in the Melbourne erald Sun, about the musical about mArgaret Fulton that Theatreworks are staging later this year.But I never made the comment that Simon Plant the journalist attributes to me. It' s a little worrisome, because while Margaret has always been open about her involvement with the fledgling communist party in Australia, before it all went horribly wrong in Russia, Margaret has requested that I don't make it a principle feature of the show. I've rewritten some of the script accordingly, because I wanted Margaret to be happy with result.  I think she is happy. But I 

's why.

When you work in TV, some people get the wrong impression that your life must be interesting, even if you are just behind the scenes, as I am.  In 1988 and 1989 I was stupendously lucky to be part of a group that formed an Australian TV show called The Comedy Company. I was the head writer, though many of the performers wrote their own material. As head writer of a popular show (covered elsewhere on this blog) I was often approached by journalists asking for my opinion on matters comic. And because I was hungry for recognition (I'd practically starved before getting the Comedy Company gig, working for theatre restaurants and theatre companies for very little money) I was quite prepared to put in my two cents' worth. This was a bad thing. My views were often ill-advised or just plain wrong. Perhaps it isn't surprising, therefore that some of the country's leading comedy practitioners, such as Red Symons took the occasional dig at me.

Ah yes, The Red Symons thing. It all happened after I asked Red to help me out with the charity, Comic Relief. I was working at the time for Paul Jackson, one of the leading TV producers in England. (Think 'The Young Ones') Paul had been involved in the famous Comic Relief charity over there. In fact, I believe he was the one who shot the 1993 footage of Billy Connolly running naked around Trafalgar Square. Paul was so keen to get the charity up and running in Australia, comedians seemed to think this was a good idea, and I wanted to be a part of it, but I didn't want to produce another bloody big sketch show because they're a huge headache. Channel Nine had given us an unofficial commitment that they would devote a night of their programming to Comic Relief. They were very impressed by the tape that we sent them, full of clips of famous English comedians larking about, trying to convince viewers to give money for Comic Relief, money that would be passed straight onto charity. At the time I was producing a 'Bob Downe' show for TV1.

 Mark Trevorrow (Bob Downe) and I would write the scripts together each week. One of the sillier jokes was that Bob Downe had his own line of greeting cards for very special occasions, that he would read to viewers. Here are two examples:

We're sorry you're in hospital
And think of you each hour.
We hope they can remove that thing
You fell on in the shower

Or …

Have a happy Mardi Gras
Although you say you're straight
There's seven boys who say you aren't,
Can I be number eight?

Not Wildean, but it got its laugh. Because we were forever searching for material to fill the half hour, I wrote quite a lot of these verses (see more scans from the book below), which Bob Downe delivered extremely well. It occurred to me that a book of verses like this might be a good Comic Relief idea, and I wouldn't have to produce a TV show at all. I ran the idea by Paul Jackson, then my publisher (Penguin). Paul was enthused, I started writing a lot of extra material and trying it out on kids. The response was positive. One of the conditions of Penguin taking the book was that it would tie in with the proposed TV presentation. Paul Jackson told me he would even get Billy Connolly to write a foreword. All very exciting, especially when illustrator Craig Smith came aboard. Paul Jackson handed over the executive producer role to a couple of guys I have never heard of. They ran a promotions company called Roar and were equally enthusiastic about the project and did the broadcasting negotiations with Channel Nine. I wasn't a part of these negiotiations, so I don't know went wrong. But someone caused offence and Nine decided to back out. The book was no longer such a desirable commodity but Penguin still boldly agreed to go ahead with it, even though there would be no TV broadcast to help promote the book. There would also, it seemed, be no Billy Connolly who was uncontactable, as he was filming somewhere in frozen Eastern Europe. So I asked Paul Jackson if he could chase up the Ben Elton option. That also fell over, because Ben didn't get the message, or was having a sex change or something. So I plumped for an Australian comic personality to write the foreword.

Red Symons was the first famous person I ever met. I was sixteen, and a big Skyhooks fan. My first book had just been published - and Skyhooks and I had the same publicity agent, a company called Propaganda. Red was sitting in the foyer of their office on Lonsdale Street when I met him. We started talking, he asked me what royalty I was getting for the book. I told him ten percent and he told me I was being ripped off, it wasn't enough. Then he asked to have a look at the book and I handed it over. He flipped through it. 'I was wrong,' he said, 'Ten percent is enough. You aren't being ripped off.' It was a very funny thing to say, and I probably laughed, even though I was still gobsmacked to be on the same settee as one of my heroes.
Twenty years later, I thought that Red, also a Penguin author, would be perfect  to write an excellent, silly foreword for the book of unlikely greeting card rhymes that we came to know as On The Cards.
So I sent Red the On The Cards manuscript with beautiful sketches from Craig Smith, and he said he would be happy to write a foreword and that he would make it part of his weekly column in The Melbourne Age newspaper and that it would be funny. Penguin seemed happy because Red had good credentials. I was happy and I waited for the column to appear, so we could sign off on the book. The column did appear, but it was a damning piece which more or less accused me of being a show pony and doing the book merely to energise my backlist. (I didn't even have a backlist at the time.) It was a terrible piece, that misquoted me and basically attributed the work I'd done with Craig Smith and Penguin's editorial staff to the most cynical of motives. Using a charity for nefarious purposes. How dare we! (It might have been funny if Red were actually saying the words aloud, in the way he dissed my first book. In black and white print it was pure vitriol.)

I rang Alice Ghent at The Age to voice my upset. Alice was Red's editor, and she was clearly horrified to learn that Doug MacLeod was a real person. She had assumed that I was someone invented by Red as a sort of punching bag on which to inflict his own brand of insult comedy. (Red lists one of his favourite comedians as Don Rickles, who specialises in insult comedy, which I've never been crazy about.) When I asked if Red could write a retraction, Alice told me that she couldn't possibly ask Red to do that. (I think she might have actually been scared of him) but I was given the option of writing a letter of rebuttal or clarification that would be placed on The Age letters page, three days after the offending article had appeared. I did something incredibly stupid. I wrote the letter while still angry and sent it to Alice before I had calmed down. (It didn't help that my dad was ill at the time, so I was naturally stressed about that.)
Now, the Letters page is/was the most-read part of The Age. And so, my cynical rebuttal to Red was placed among letters on far loftier subjects. Most people reading the letters page would have had no idea of what my letter referred to and it all came across as very nasty, even cruel. My 'Age' letter to Red is still on line somewhere. But I'm not including a link because I can't bear to read the letter again. Perhaps there was an element of truth in what Red had written. Perhaps getting the book together really was an ego-trip on my part. I'm not sure, but even though the book is a beautiful  little thing with a laser-foil cover, I can't bring myself to read it out loud to kids in schools, because the memory of Red's insult column is so painful. I haven't spoken with him since.

The moral of this post is to take a deep breath and relax when someone flames you like that. I'm certainly not going to complain to Simon Plant about the Margaret Fulton gaffe. Simon's a nice guy, and I remember him from yesteryear when I was being consulted by journalists on any comedy issues of the day. He even came to a 'comedy-writing workshop' that I unwisely agreed to do for the Australian Writers Guild. I still haven't been paid for that, but it was back in 1989 so I don't think I'll chase it up. Peace, love and happiness, everyone, and be careful about what you put on the Internet. You have to be kind, dammit!
(Here, as promised, are some scans from On The Cards. Apologies for the poor quality.)

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