Twists and Turns – Matthew Mitcham Cabaret

I think Matthew Mitcham is stalking me. I wish. On Tuesday we jockeyed for position in the coffee queue at the ABC cafe, ahead of his appearance on Midday Interview with Margaret Throsby. This afternoon, he was in the reception of 702 ABC Sydney, ahead of his appearance on “Thank God It’s Friday”. “I loved your show last night”, I told him.

Indeed I did. He has a cabaret show – songs, stories, acrobatics – based on his autobiography, which I read a couple of years ago. At the time, I observed how amazing and complex was his life story, moving me in many ways.

As I read about his early years in Brisbane, I couldn’t help but be connected to his story. “Oh my goodness, he lived around the corner from my aunt”, I noticed. And the gay bar he went to where they allowed him in as an underage patron? I’d been there too. With a good cultural knowledge of Brisbane, I knew instantly where that was, even though he failed to name it (for obvious legal reasons). I’d also been an under-age entrant to a gay bar in Brisbane many, many years ago. I was fifteen at the time, and was accompanied by a slightly older friend. Not much older, but old enough to be able to whisper in the ear of the bouncer and guarantee me entry. Twenty years later, and it seems little had changed when Matthew found himself in a similar position. Unlike Matthew, however, I was never accompanied by my mother.

His mother was in the audience at last night’s show, along with his diving coach, and seemingly, several hundred of his closest friends because there was a lot of love in the room. There were lots of people who have obviously followed his story ever since Beijing, which, by contrast I completely missed, as I backpacked my way through Europe at the time.

Matthew’s quite a good singer, with a reasonable vocal range, and with dramatic qualities, brings life to a range of songs, many written for the show, along with others such as “True Faith” by “New Order”. He’s also a talented story-teller, and displays a charming self deprecating sense of humour. One of the highlights was a mood-lighting re-enactment of his perfect 10 dive at Beijing, accompanied by Matthew singing a rather haunting song.

At the end of the show there was a 15 minute or so Q&A session. He was asked whether or not he would be going to any of the Mardi Gras parties. “Oh no, I don’t know how to party safely”, he told the audience, showing a greater level of self-awareness than I did at that age.

After the Q&A everyone wandered outside for selfies with Matthew, and for the purchase of a range of signed merchandise. A fun evening was had by all.

Behind Bars

It’s thirty years since the decriminalisation of consensual male sex in New South Wales, and “some of the leading figures responsible for that change have all died in a six month period”, we were told by Murray Maclachlan at the Australian Homosexual History Conference held at Sydney’s University of Technology. He was referring to former politicians, Gough Whitlam, Neville Wran and Ron Mulock, and to the academic and homosexual activist, Lex Watson.

As a young man thirty years ago, first becoming aware of homosexual liberation politics, Lex was a name I knew well. He was the “go to” person for the mainstream media for discussion about homosexual law reform. It’s amazing to think it was only thirty years ago that you could go to gaol in NSW for gay sex. In fact, the laws were so incredibly odd that the penalty for homosexual rape in NSW was seven years, whereas the penalty of consensual homosexual sex was fourteen years (I don’t think I’ve misrepresented the case there).

At the conference a series of speakers spoke about the moves to homosexual law reform in the different states and territories during the 60s, 70s, and 80s. In some states and territories, the changes were as the result of the state government leading public opinion, in others, the politicians had to be dragged along by the sentiment of public opinion. In others still, it was a combination of both. And then you have Tasmania, where it was the result of strong action by a small group of activists, who had to take their battle internationally, before the long overdue change could occur back here.

The keynote speaker for the conference was the former politician, and now Age Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Ryan. She told the conference she had grown up in a fairly conservative Catholic family, and so it wasn’t until she went to university that she learned about homosexuals. “Camp as a row of tents was a phrase that was used at the time”, she told us, reflecting on both the negative and positive use of the phrase. Feminism informed her understanding of sexuality, she added. She spoke early in the piece about the political turmoil of early to mid 1970s, and how there was deep distrust of her in the heavily male-dominated Australian Labor Party. “There was a general view in the ALP in support of homosexual law reform, but there were fears about the political consequences”, she said. Forty years later, she pondered the opinion gap between the public and politicians on the issue of homosexual marriage, with a clear majority of Australians in favour of making the change. “The community won’t go backwards so the politicians will need to go forward”, she said. Now, as the Age Discrimination Commissioner, one of her major concerns are the issues facing older homosexual Australians in faith-based aged care. Though she says the sector says they don’t discriminate, she thinks that needs to be tested, though noting “there haven’t been any complaint yet”. During her speech, she reflected on the massive changes which have occurred in the last forty years, saying with a grin, “We used to say in the women’s movement how come they’ve done better than us?”.

Charlie Hides

Charlie Hides has one of the funniest live shows I’ve seen in ages. He’s an English comedian – though originally from the United States – who dresses up and impersonates (with humour and affection) some of the great modern pop divas, including Cher, Madonna and Lady GaGa.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been enthusiastically sharing his Youtube videos with friends. The first one that made me laugh was a sketch about the apparent rivalry between Madonna and Lady GaGa. Since then, he’s gone on to incorporate a bunch of other characters including Lana Delray, Joan Rivers and others with the same level of affection and humour. Unlike many other comedians, I don’t think there’s anything nasty or malicious behind his humour.

In the last year or so he’s been doing live shows in London, and I’ve read about this development with a sense of longing and wonder. “There has to be a lot of video in his live shows to achieve what he does”, I whispered to Graeme in the minutes before his live show at Sydney’s “Gingers” began. There is. There are also lots of costumes changes, and a comedy routine which continues to shock and surprise over the course of about ninety minutes. He works hard.

The comedy of his live show was far more cutting edge, and definitely less politically correct, than you see on the Youtube clips. Overall it was a fantastic night which we both enjoyed very much. Hopefully he’ll be back for Mardi Gras again next year.

Privates On Parade

“Meet the gang cos the boys are here, the boys to entertain you…” Nearly forty years after having first watched “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum”, the 1970s BBC sit-com, I can still remember and sing-a-long with the opening theme song.

Having spent most of my formative years just a few feet away from a 26″ Chrysler colour TV, it’s no surprise. Along with “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum”, there was a steady regular Friday night television diet courtesy of the ABC which included Dave Allen, The Two Ronnies and “The Trots”. And when I say “The Trots”, I mean trotting. Horses. Yes its true. Every Friday night, ABC TV in NSW (and probably elsewhere) used to regularly feature live coverage of trotting. They might have been done “The Dogs” also, though I don’t have that memory.

Yes it was a different world back then. Although it wasn’t evident to my young eyes, I’m sure if you looked closely at “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum” these days, there would be more than a hint of racism. I don’t think I will. But going to see “Privates On Parade” has re-ignited in me an interest in some of those BBC comedies of my youth.

The subject matter of “Privates On Parade” is similar to “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum”: both are based around the activities of a 1940s English Army Entertainment Troop. Although I’m sure the original play was the basis for the television show, the subject matter of the play is much darker, dealing openly with homosexuality (whereas it was only really hinted at in the TV show), and with death.

I thought the production by New Theatre (as part of Mardi Gras) was excellent. It’s a well written play (of course), though perhaps a little dated. so the company had good material to start with. While there could have been a propensity to ham things up a little, I thought the company did an excellent job in playing it straight, and allowing for the depth of the characters to show.

Croc-a-Dyke Dundee

Years ago I remember watching a really fantastic documentary about the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras called, Feed Them to the Cannibals. As I recall, the title was a reference to the words of an Australian government official, who was asked what he thought should be done with those engaging in homosexual behaviour in the early days of European settlement here.

For me, that 1993 film was also an introduction to the larger-than-life character of Dawn O’Donnell, the subject of the movie I saw tonight, Croc-a-Dyke Dundee. For many years, a friend and I developed quite a routine between ourselves, as we remembered and laughed about some of the classic lines delivered by Dawn in that early film.

Co-incidentally both films were made by the same person, Fiona Cunningham-Reid. At tonight’s screening she mentioned how she had asked Dawn many years ago if she would participate in a follow-up documentary about her own life story. For many years, Dawn and her partner, Aniek Baton both refused.

At the Q&A session which followed tonight’s screening, Aniek explained what finally brought her around, was recognition the telling the story of Dawn’s life goes some way to telling the history of Gay & Lesbian life in Sydney in the last fifty years or so.

That said, the film also gives a really lovely insight into her life before she became a nightclub owner on Oxford Street. The film explains she was the daughter of a single parent, growing up in Sydney in reasonably rough circumstances, until she was sent to a convent school to “smooth off the edges”. She had an early passion for ice-skating, which eventually took her to live in both London and Paris, until an accident cut short her career.

On returning to Australia she married a man which, in the film she says, “lasted for about two months”.The film then goes on to explain how she made her career mostly in real estate, and then later in nightclubs.

The film doesn’t shy away from the more suspect parts of Dawn’s life. The film talks about her connections with the convicted criminal, Abe Saffron; the many allegations of nightclub arson; and even the suggestion she murdered someone. The film offers no new evidence on any of these allegations, but that’s okay, it wasn’t that type of film.

For me the really interesting insight into Dawn’s life, of course, came from Aniek, Dawn’s partner. They were together thirty years, and it sounds like they had an amazing series of adventures together, particularly the travel. Dawn died five or six years ago, and Aniek was left out of the will. At tonight’s screening she said she was still involved in a complex legal battle tonight which was “ongoing and private”.

Though the film wasn’t as ground-breaking and as memorable for me as “Feed Them To The Cannibals”, I really enjoyed it. I hope one day it will get a television screening as well.

Boyers and Bitches

There was a real moment of history being in the audience for the speech delivered by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, as part of The Boyer Lecture Series.

In the midst of a speech about celebrating the diversity of Australian life, the two most news-worthy (and much quoted comments) concerned her (hinted) support for same-sex marriage, and her low-key support for the transition of Australian from Constitutional Monarchy to Republic.

As was reported by ABC News…

Ms Bryce, delivering the final Boyer Lecture of the year on Friday night, said she hoped Australia might become a nation where “people are free to love and marry whom they choose”.

“And where perhaps, my friends, one day, one young girl or boy may even grow up to be our nation’s first head of state,” she said.

As I personally support both things, it was a welcome affirmation, though you can understand why those opposed to such things, and those who have differing views to my own about what a Governor-General should and shouldn’t say, have expressed their concern. It was a moment of history, and it was good to be there.

The Bitch Is Black at Corroboree Festival
The Bitch Is Black at Corroboree Festival

“Do you think we’re the only ones here tonight, who are about to head off to see an Indigenous drag show…?”, I asked my friend. We both giggled out loud, as the contrast between the two audiences could not have been greater. The Boyers audience was very Anglo, very top end of town, very serious. In contrast, the audience for “The Bitch Is Black” was very irreverent, very Indigenous, and featured a greater variety of people attending, though we did have a drink or two with a former Federal Minister of the Crown who was there with his Indigenous partner.

The basic premise for the show (re-titled after the Elton John song, once covered by Tina Turner) was a drag tribute to the great black American female singers of the last fifty years. Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Janet Jackson… you get the idea.

“Oh my goodness”, it’s my record collection”, I realised at one point. But for the three men performing the drag show (who said they grew up like lots of people singing along to their songs as teenagers), I’m guessing these artists had a lot of additional cultural significance due to the colour of their skin.

“We’d like to take the show on the road”, one of the guys told us later in the night as we chatted. Based on the reaction from the crowd – pure joy – I reckon the show would do well.

Though completely unplanned, we ended the night doing a bit of our own lip-syncing to great pop songs as Palms, the club on Oxford Street.

As we waited in line to enter the club we had a really bizarre conversation with a couple of guys. One of them was a little drunk, and so, a little unashamed blurted out, asking one of our friends if he was Aboriginal. When he replied yes, the guy then went on to say his grandmother was black, his father was black, his brothers and sisters were black, his cousins were black, and “some of his best friends” were black, but that HE wasn’t Aboriginal. “I think you might want to think that one through a bit…” we said to him. Life’s rich tapestry…

Jamie, Liberace and Me

Sitting On Top Of The World
Sitting On Top Of The World

Many years after I left Lismore, I remember being back there and going through a box of my things which included a pencil-case from my early years at primary school.

In those days, pencil-cases also usually contained pens, textas and rubbers/erasers. They were usually made of vinyl, and it was all the rage to use your pens and textas to cover the vinyl pencil-case in personal graffiti. Generally at that age you would write down the name of your favourite pop group or sports team, or you might secretly write the initials of the person you had a crush on.

Imagine my surprise all those years later to discover the seven-year old James had in fact written the phrase, “I love Jamie Redfern” on his pencil-case.

It was through Jamie Redfern that I discovered Liberace. Famously, Liberace came to Australia, discovered Jamie Redfern and invited him to return to America and go on tour. In 2013, there would be outrage at the idea of a young boy going back to America with a middle-aged musician who was gay. Back in the early 70s, however, we were probably all a little more “trusting” than we’ve become in the wake of revelations about paedophile priests and so on.

Jamie Redfern
Jamie Redfern
I suppose in a way I probably did have a crush on Jamie Redfern, the star of “Young Talent Time”. First and foremost I really loved YTT, and Jamie was by far my favourite on the show. He was my answer to Justin Bieber, I guess. I bought all of his records, and strongly remember standing outside in the rain waiting as he performed at the Lismore City Hall.

Years later when Liberace died, and it was confirmed he died from AIDS complications, and years after the famous legal case where he denied being gay, we all knew he was, the media once again took an interest in Jamie Redfern (whose career had, by then, faded into obscurity). Don’t quote me on this, but my re-collection was that Jamie Redfern as an adult said “nothing untoward happened” and that he maintained a great deal of respect for Liberace.

Were it not for Jamie Redfern I probably wouldn’t have discovered Liberace until later in life. But having discovered him, I learned a little about his career, watched a few of his earlier movies on television, and of course took a great interest when he died and when it was revealed, against his wishes, that it was through AIDS complications.

In a similar position, Rock Hudson who died through AIDS a few years earlier, and who had maintained a heterosexual persona for years, finally came out shortly before his death and received a lot of support. Liberace never did that, and as I watched “Behind the Candelabra” today I began to understand the reasons why.

First and foremost, Liberace was from another era. An era where your sexuality remained private and where you didn’t use your celebrity to campaign for issues. There’s one point in the movie where, talking about Jane Fonda, the Liberace character says he was so pleased Jane had forgotten about all of her causes and had made a “lovely movie with her father”, referring to “On Golden Pond”. Liberace was also from a “humble” working-class Catholic family. As I watched the film I got the sense he thought all of the success he had achieved might suddenly disappear, as if he didn’t “deserve” the success he’d achieved. Thirdly, and related to the idea he could suddenly lose everything, was the fact in the 1950s he’d successfully sued a London newspaper which had suggested he was homosexual.

Behind The Candelabra
Behind The Candelabra

But wouldn’t you think on your death-bed, you might have reached that point of personal comfort and happiness you could at last be honest? Maybe it wasn’t his choice? As portrayed in the film, the manager seems to have had a strong hold on Liberace’s life, both personally and professionally. The manager was the guy who “cleaned up” Liberace’s life when things went wrong in his personal life. Or at least that’s how it’s portrayed in this film which was very much from the perspective of Scott Thorsen, Liberace’s partner for a number of years.

I really enjoyed the film. I thought Michael Douglas and Matt Damon were both excellent in their roles. From time to time I thought they were a little “too camp” but then I remembered – this is a film about Liberace. He wasn’t exactly John Wayne, was he?

I thought the film moved along at a nice pace, and never once did I think “hurry up and die”.

All of that said, I wasn’t really “touched” by the film. I guess the issue was I never felt strongly for any of the characters. Both Liberace and Scott have major flaws, but not the kind of flaws which might endear them to you. They’re both portrayed in the film as very superficial, materialistic, and self-obsessed individuals. That Liberace paid a plastic surgeon to have work done on Scott’s face so he could look more like him is a sign of a strangely sick puppy. And Scott went along with it! And Rob Lowe as the very creepy plastic surgeon who did it! These were all seriously weird people who I failed to understand why they made the decisions they did.

I guess that’s why, despite the strength of the acting, direction, writing and film-making, “Behind The Candelabra” never really moved me.