The Covid lockdown has confined me to the house for long periods. My wife is downstairs working on a new novel. I’m upstairs working on film scripts. Often days go by when we meet only in the evenings, though I sometimes phone her and suggest we have lunch together on the verandah. I have spent most of the lockdown either writing scripts or else working with American writers, emailing notes back and forth and having interminable Zoom calls. A proposed film about Buddy Holly seemed to be all set to go into production when my Los Angeles agent had a call from a producer (who chickened out of contacting me directly) with the news, ‘We’ve decided we want a black director’. I pointed out that Buddy Holly was not black, that I had spent a year working with the writer and had done a huge amount of research. The response was that the decision was made because a key part of the script featured a rock tour Holly made with black musicians. I suppose I could’ve claimed Aboriginal ancestry, a popular move these days, but, on reflection, decided that a legal tussle with studio lawyers would be interminable and absurdly costly.
In an effort to maintain or, hopefully, improve my magnificent physique I visit a gym around 7am most mornings. Aware that there is nothing more boring than weightlifting (except rap music), listening to BBC podcasts goes a long way to banish the tedium. I switch between ‘In Our Time’ and ‘Desert Island Discs’. The former is a discussion programme with experts in various fields, along with moderator, Melvyn Bragg, who does a fine job keeping the chat lively. I’ve heard hundreds of episodes and am knowledgeable about such essential subjects as the Rosetta Stone, the 12th Century Renaissance, George Sand, Seneca the Younger, Middlemarch, etc. ‘Desert Island Discs’ has been on the BBC since 1942 and many thousands of people – celebrities in virtually any field – choose seven pieces of music they would take with them if incarcerated on a desert island. Having listened to a vast number of the stranded guests I can say with certainty that sports stars make the worst music choices – almost invariably forgettable pop songs. Actors and politicians are marginally better, while writers tend to select appealing popular or classical music. The interviewers have changed over the years but are invariably very well informed about their guests – which prompts fascinating discussions. My favourite interviewees, so far, are my old friend Clive James and the poet John Cooper Clarke. Clive’s selections, as I recall, were nearly all opera arias while Cooper Clarke’s nearly all superior popular songs, including Ella Fitzgerald’s incredible ‘Skylark’ and Elvis Presley’s stunning, ‘How Great Thou Art’.
A confession. The only interview programme I have ever contacted about the possibility of being a guest is ‘Desert Island Discs’. I phoned the BBC after my film ‘Breaker Morant’ was shown in London in 1980, convinced my modest celebrity would qualify me for the programme. (I had already spent an absurd amount of time selecting my seven music choices.) I was rejected, quite curtly. Nearly twenty years later I applied again, this time believing that having directed a film, ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, which won the Academy Award, I naively imagined my celebrity status had made a leap forward. My research revealed that not all of the interviewees were world famous or even all that well known in the UK. Guests have included a dressage rider, an illusionist, a make-up artist and a gardener. Surely, an award-winning film provided me with some cachet. Again, no luck. Now, at 81, I’m about to return to London, despite the raging Covid plague, and am considering making a third attempt. My choices will vary from Mozart arias to Benjamin Britten and Willie Nelson.
Now that the Covid shackles have been removed – though I have a feeling this is temporary – some family trips to the countryside have been achieved. A long drive to the south coast and to Canberra (to see the superb Jeffrey Smart retrospective) was a pleasant relief from locked-down and gloomy Sydney. I was puzzled by the absence of kangaroos. A trip to Mildura a couple of years ago was similarly kangaroo-free. Where are the kangaroos? An internet search provides various estimates which suggest their numbers hover around thirty million. This means there are more kangaroos than people in Australia. Well, where are they? Thirty million is a lot of kangaroos to be invisible. Other statistics puzzle me. I was startled to read that 44 per cent of Australians are ‘functionally illiterate’. This means they can read only short simple sentences. Can this figure be accurate? I grew up west of Parramatta, in one of the poorer areas of Sydney, but don’t recall meeting anyone who couldn’t read. Is the current illiteracy something recent? Is the education system collapsing? Or has it collapsed? Further, after seeing some ads on TV showing appealing but grimy, unhappy waifs in a school yard, a title provided the information that 2.65 million Australians live below the poverty line. I hope the unhappy little girl in the ad was given a first-rate meal at the end of the filming. All these revelations startled me. They appear to be accurate. Am I so privileged that I simply never come into contact with any illiterate and desperately poor Australians? Nor do I ever see any of the 30 million kangaroos who must be jumping around somewhere in the countryside.
Of the three scripts I’ve completed while locked in my study, two are for American producers and the third is set in Australia. Will they find finance? So difficult these days as the actors all seem to be busy in interminable, well-paid series on Netflix and similar production entities. Cinema attendances are still very low with only the new Spiderman film drawing crowds. Even last year’s acclaimed Academy Award winning ‘Nomadland’ has grossed only $US3.7 million in North America. My trip to London is mainly for a series of meetings about the production of David Williamson’s witty script about Isaac Newton – ‘Nearer the Gods’. Among the many problems are the fact it doesn’t feature improbable action scenes and is about someone of whom, unsurprisingly, most film financiers have never heard. They are quick to point out that movie audiences will be similarly ignorant. My standard reply is that we can’t make films only about pop stars or superheroes.
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