Friday, 28 April 2017

Friday Five (Seven Actually): Recent Theatre Excursions

I have seen a fair bit of theatre recently but have not had time to write full reviews, so here are some edited highlights:

Pip Utton as Winston Churchill
  1. Churchill & Maggie by Pip Utton, produced by Imagination Workshop and Street Contemporary Drama at Street 2 - Pip Utton performs solo shows on consecutive nights, portraying political giants Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. He weaves anecdotes, musings and facts into his 70-minute monologue on Churchill, a colossus of his time: "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." During his embodiment of That Woman he invites questions from the audience, while achieving the voice, mannerisms and dismissive tone so successfully it made my skin crawl. His enthusiasm is boundless and his knowledge equally indefatigable.  
  2. Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott, produced by Canberra Repertory Society at Theatre 3 - Jordan Best directs this classic thriller with attention to detail on a meticulous set (designed by Michael Sparks) as a blind woman (Jenna Roberts as Susie) comes under threat from unscrupulous criminals looking for drugs they believe are stashed in her apartment. The tension was lacking from previous productions I've seen perhaps because I knew the story so well, perhaps because Roberts never displayed any vulnerability or uncertainty, or perhaps because the villains were neither as charming or as threatening as they might have been.
  3. Cold Light adapted by Alana Valentine based on the novel Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse produced by Street Contemporary Drama at The Street - Trying to personalise politics in the most bureaucratic town in Australia is tricky. Sonia Todd plays Edith Campbell Barry, a (fictional - although many people are deceived) woman who tries to make her mark in international relations. It packs a great deal of history into a lengthy piece with multiple threads and tangents. The ensemble cast perform multiple roles with varying degrees of aplomb, but almost mimicing the projection of Canberra's street design, there is a feeling that we are being driven around in circles and getting lost in cul-de-sacs.

  4. The Age of Bones

  5. The Age of Bones produced by Satu Bulan, Teater Satu, Performing Lines and Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centres at Gorman Arts Centre - A mixture of Indonesian shadow puppetry, music, digital projections and contemporary satire tells the story of Ikan, an Indonesian boy who goes fishing one day and fails to return. He is imprisoned 'down under' in an oceanic world where he is befriended, pursued and judged by fantastical creatures (bubble-headed deep sea divers, a shark and an octopus). We are clearly meant to draw parallels with the plight of Indonesian boys incarcerated in adult jails throughout Australia for their involvement in human trafficking. While this is an original and commendable approach, certain technical aspects (such as the English surtitles failing to coincide with the spoken words) hamper the production, while the attempt to appeal to all ages (childlike repetitive motions alongside hard-hitting issues of abuse) means the production overall fails to connect with any particular audience.
  6. Chicago produced by Canberra Philharmonic Society at Erindale Theatre - Interesting staging and directorial choices (by Jim McMullen) highlight different aspects of the play to usual - including the fact that the characters really are all horrifically unpleasant. Vanessa de Jager and Kelly Roberts as Roxie and Velma are both excellent in isolation but their dancing duets remain individual; Shell Tully has a great voice but no depth as Mama Morton; Will Huang presents a lawyer who seems merely slightly smarmy rather than truly repulsive; and Miss Mary Sunshine (Ben WIlson) is utterly peripheral. Most of the songs are still good (although Class was especially disappointing) but other facets, such as the sloppy follow spots, are mediocre. Curious staging makes us question whether we are in a gaol at all, as the protagonists pop out to the lawyer's office in their underwear. The fact that there are far too many people unnecessarily on stage literally jumping through hoops spoils what should be tight choreography, and the hanging scene is hugely underwhelming. The menace and terror of being locked up and possibly awaiting the death sentence is entirely absent: it's more like a circus in which everyone gets to run around and show off how good they look in a corset. 
  7. Trelawny of the Wells by Arthur Wing Pinero produced by Canberra Repertory Society at Theatre 3 - Tony Turner directs a spirited cast in this touching and amusing late-nineteenth-century drama. The revolving set (designed by Ian Croker) allows for all the scenes to be played in the balance of affectation and naturalism which was becoming popular at the time and which is crucial to the play's ethos. Deliberately bombastic performances from the flamboyant characters such as Sir William Gower (Jerry Hearn), Mrs Mossop (Elaine Noon) and  Avonia Bunn (Jess Waterhouse) provide a delightful counterpoint to the more subtle sentimentality of Rose Trelawny (Alessandra Kron) and Tom Wrench (Robert de Fries). Slapstick extremes are tempered with emotional speeches, and the entire effect is a beautiful piece about acting and performance. 
  8. Richard III by William Shakespeare, produced by Bell Shakespeare at the Playhouse (Canberra Theatre Centre) - Bell Shakespeare have taken the history out of the history play and turned it into a tragedy, in which the lead performer (Kate Mulvany as RIII) hams it up deliciously as Tricky Dicky, and the rest of the cast frolic about in a drawing room, like one of those frightful parties where you don't really like the host. As the actors do not leave the stage, there is no difference between intimate and group scenes, leading to a lack of tension and confusion as to the identity of many of the characters. The political is no longer important; it's all about the personal. This is the modern world, where I fear we have lost more than we have gained.
Kate Mulvany as Richard III

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Fishing for Compliments

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
(Bantam Press)
Pp. 251

This book was published shortly before Carrie Fisher died, which gives much of it added poignancy. It is mainly about her experience filming Star Wars; her youth and her inability to deal with unanticipated fame; her affair with Harrison Ford; her reaction to the conventions; and her irritation at being expected to still look the same now as she did then. The book is not particularly well-written, but it is honest and candid – the inclusion of her diaries and poetry written during the filming of Star Wars is a brave move – and ultimately very readable.

No one was prepared for the reception that Star Wars would receive. Her life was changed forever by the film refused to remain on screen. She was defined by one character with whom she has a love/hate relationship. “I had never been Princess Leia before and now I would be her forever. I would never not be Princess Leia. I had no idea how profoundly true that was and how long forever was.”

She writes with attempted nonchalance and sangfroid and is candid about her own drug addiction. Her style is deliberately self-effacing and jocular in tone, and although she presents her thoughts as raw and elemental, she has clearly polished the words into something she imagines is witty. There are a few insights into the behind-the-scenes goings-on during filming (such as the fact that due to her grimacing each time she fired the laser gun, she had to take shooting lessons from the man who prepared Robert De Niro for his role in Taxi Driver), but film geeks will probably know all of these already.

Her renowned advocacy for gender equality is evident and she had crippling anxiety about her looks, relating that she got the part in Star Wars on the proviso that she would lose ten pounds. But she also confesses she enjoyed the one-sided nature of the film, and to loving the male attention that came from being “the only girl in an all-boy fantasy.”

The main thing to emerge from this book, however, is her affair with Harrison Ford. She mockingly refers to their relationship as ‘Carrison’ and, although it comprises over half of the book, she pretends to dismiss it; forty years afterwards, she still tries to downplay it, which conversely gives it excessive importance. Obviously, this is one-sided account, but Harrison Ford doesn’t present very favourably. He seems like a predator from the first time he takes her home drunk from a cast and crew party. She was young and naïve, and he was careless of her sensitivities and her desperate neediness. She fixated on him like a smitten teenager.

He doesn’t talk to her, make her happy or feel good about herself, and he exacerbates her insecurities and anxiety. It seems that he is cold towards her, but perhaps that is just his nature? She records in her diary, “I act like someone in a bomb shelter trying to raise everyone’s spirits.” While it is brave to include the diaries and gauche poems, they are excruciatingly painful to read. Every teenage girl has written self-indulgent nonsense like this, but not always about Harrison Ford. One could argue that she knew the situation – he was married – but she tries to manipulate the reader into feeling sympathy for her.

She concludes with her feelings towards the fans at Star Wars conventions, and it is clear that she is not comfortable with the entire charade. It’s fair to say that Carrie Fisher’s relationship with Princess Leia and Star Wars in general, is both complex and unresolved, which is distressing as it will now forever remain that way.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Politics and Parenthood

Dad Joke written and performed by Mark Swivel
The Street, 21-23 April

Describing himself as something between a storyteller and a stand-up comic, Mark Swivel commands the small stage of The Street 2. His premise is that he has to deliver a speech on the event of his son's 21st birthday and he is a little nervous. They have a perfectly fine relationship (about as good as a father can have with his son who lives on the other side of the world), but he claims to be struggling with the fine line between proud dad and aged embarrassment. He asks the audience to help as he runs through his rough draft, and he is so personable and charming that we all comply with his request.

Of course this is all a ruse, designed for Swivel to show off his intelligence, humour, range of subjects, and even a pretty decent singing voice. His renditions of Russian folk songs - "we have no idea what the words mean, but they sound good" - segue seamlessly into musings of political icons both Australian and British - "Anyone remember David Cameron?" He regales us with tales of his own upbringing in the days before one had to engage with one's children, and during which his dad used to drop cryptic one-liners when he came in from removing leaves from the pool "like a wistful gondolier". His reminisces are touching and remarkably poignant, especially when he talks about dealing with a parent toward the end of their life. 

There are many different styles of parenting these days: snow-plough; free-range; helicopter; attachment; cotton wool; combine-harvester... okay, I admit I made that last one up. Although the first recorded use of the word in this sense comes from the 1660s, the word 'parent' was not widely recognised as a verb until recently. It stopped being a thing one just was, and became a thing one had to do, and at which one could be judged. And boy, how we love to judge! There is so much expectation and pressure involved that the whole business (and it is increasingly a business - isn't everything?) becomes quite stressful. One of the best ways to deal with pressure and stress is to laugh at it, and ourselves, and Swivel does that expertly.

At the end of the evening we have learned a lot about Mark Swivel and his family. He cleverly polishes the poignant memories and anecdotes, mining them for the humour without discarding the essence. But this is more than just personal, or political, or even social (and there is a social justice warrior lying very close to the surface). It is an engaging evening such as you might have with your mates down the pub as they confide their hopes and fears to you. I haven't got kids; I didn't grow up in Australia and I haven't had to bury my parents (although even thinking about it brings a lump to my throat), but I was fully engaged throughout the hour-long "slightly inebriated TED talk". Mark Swivel's riffing on parenthood and politics crosses continents and generations - it's a great night out and highly recommended.

Monday, 27 March 2017

A portrait of an author ahead of her time

Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton
Pp. 160

Margaret Cavendish was a poet, philosopher and visionary. As a child she created imaginary worlds (populated with thinking-rocks, humming-shoes, her favourite sister and Shakespeare, Ovid and Caesar) and stitched little books together with yarn. “Eventually she achieved fame, but it was not necessarily that which she sought, as children chased after her carriage calling out to ‘Mad Madge’ and she became a cautionary tale for young girls who dreamed of becoming too intelligent.

With the civil war raging, she joined the court of Queen Henrietta Maria and followed her into exile in France, where she met and married the much older William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle. William was generally very supportive of her work and encouraged her to speak up and express her thoughts. Through him, Margaret came into contact with many of Europe’s leading thinkers; but she was bashful and awkward in society. When she was invited to speak at The Royal Society (the first woman to be so invited, and the last for 200 years) she could only stammer appreciation and rush away; causing Samuel Pepys to write, “A mad, conceited, ridiculous woman. I do not like her at all.”

As a woman who published books of her thoughts, she was considered doubly shocking. First that she had them, which was scandalous enough, but to voice them was even more so. Furthermore, she was childless, attempted cures for which included syringing herbs into her womb and “a drench that would poison a horse.”

Many of her thoughts centred on the physical world. As well as poetry and philosophy she wrote and published works of extraordinary utopian science fiction and fantasy. In her book, Philosophical and Physical Opinions, 1655, against the prevailing ideas of the time, “I argued all matter can think: a woman, a river, a bird. There is no creature or part of nature without innate sense and reason, I wrote, for observe the way a crystal spreads, or how a flower makes way for its seed.”  

In contrast with much current weighty (in size) historical fiction, this short novel (160 pages) covers historical events in brief detail; The English Civil War is dealt with very succinctly:
“The King of England was convicted of treason. Then the King of England was dead. It was Tuesday. It was 1649. Parliament hacked off Charles I’s head outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall.” Halfway through the novel, Danielle Dutton changes from first-person to third-person narration. This ambitious move reflects the fame Margaret sought as people began to talk about her after the coronation of Charles II, and the Cavendishes’ return to London.

While Danielle Dutton doesn’t claim Margaret specifically as a proto-feminist, she does dwell on her issues with equality, or the lack thereof. Indeed, the title comes from her own self-honorific. “Though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First”. She was far from saintly, however, and, jealous of William’s success, she upstaged him at the opening of his play by attending the theatre with her breasts bared and her nipples painted.

Margaret Cavendish was a remarkable woman. She has been championed by Virginia Woolf and deserves wider renown. Unfortunately, with society’s attitude towards women, she will be better remembered for her outfits and her manners than her literary and artistic achievements.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Exposure to the elements: Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery

Rick Ball in front of three of his paintings
The artists featured in the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery are unsurprisingly obsessed with the elements - many of the works incorporate earth, wind, fire and water (or rather, the lack of it). The area relies heavily upon the water found in the Murray Darling River systems, and it is diminishing rapidly. Apparently, when full, the four lakes of the Menindee Lake System hold more than three times the volume of water of Sydney Harbour.

Curiously, there has been a lot of rain recently, and Lake Menidee is full for the first time in three years. This does not lessen the ecological crisis gripping the region and environmental concerns for the future of the towns. When we visited, the exhibition, Contemporary Primeval, highlighted the work of Rick Ball and Ann Evers, and through paintings and sculpture they both addressed this issue.

Rick Ball's expansive canvases relate in an abstract fashion to his surroundings. Having lived in Broken Hill for the last 25 years, he also acknowledges the influence of mining in his images. He claims to be an interpreter for the land rather than a painter, and he layers natural pigments and substances onto each creation. Paint, sand, crushed shells, vermiculite and tennis-court whiting are all present, recalling handfuls of colourful mining deposits thrown against the linen.

Many of his works are triptychs or multiple canvases positioned side to be side to try to capture the enormity of the landscape. Sydney and the Bush is awash with purples, pinks, reds; great gobs and streaks of oil as the city seems to emerge from the bush over it's iconic bridge, or is it being swallowed up and returned to nature? In Evening stroll beside Lake Menindee before the water disappeared we see long human shadows at sunset, or are these aerial images of dried-up riverbeds? Questions are left unanswered, but the physicality of the work is unmissable. In a co-operative touch, each artist has supplied a brief introduction to the other's art.
“All ideas of art being a ‘beautiful illusion’ have been banished from the room. Instead we are surrounded by images that are both strange and familiar in equal measure. One is reminded of the stories of those first Europeans as they confronted this continent’s trees, animals and human culture. While very young, Rick says that he felt inundated by the ancientness of the natural world, while his human world was generally obsessed with newness.” – Ann Evers 
Singing in the Barrier Ranges by Ann Evers
In turn, he writes of her art;
Ann Evers’ unusual fibre art holds the element of surprise. Her clever use of materials as a weaver is like a bird’s use of skin, bones and feather for flight. Evers is no mere basket-maker. Each piece of her work, large or small, is a story of time and of place. She is a weaver of stories and materials, of nature and culture. She weaves the north to the south. Sharp humour abounds alongside an equally abundant earthy circumspection, obvious in any exhibition of her work.– Rick Ball
She incorporates found objects into her sculpture giving them elements of both traditional and contemporary reference. Into pit-fired pots woven with natural fibres, bark and wire, she places bones, sticks, rocks and seeds. Three tall twined vessels of Singing in the Barrier Ranges include arid land snail shells, baby clams, local seedpods and capsules; all held together with rock sida, lignum and sedge, used as uprights. 

Ann Evers with some of her creations
Waiting for Water comprises six figures in flight made from handmade paper and pigment, handmade string and linen thread. All other materials are collected on and around the beach of the "now-empty lake Menindee". Serving as monuments to times past and receptacles of foretold growth, these creations hang from the ceiling indicating impermanence and fragility. 

Waiting for Water by Ann Evers
The gallery is housed in the former Sully's Emporium and has won numerous heritage awards for the restoration and refurbishment of the building. Its wooden floors and dramatic staircases provide a fantastic counterpoint to the artworks. There are all the usual still lifes; portraits; landscapes; naïf art; abstracts; Aboriginal animal spirits; story poles; dot art and granite sculptures, but some pieces stand out to make a statement. 

Clarendon Spring, Make Sure the Sun Wipes It's Feet (1984) by John Olsen
I love the riot of colour primarily mustard yellows – as swirls and tendrils connect like cells in John Olsen's vivid Clarendon Spring, Make Sue the Sun Wipes Its FeetLana Roberts has rolled up ties and stitched them together, separated by beads, into a series of necklaces called Men’s Dress Ties Revisited­. Sidney Nolan's Little Boy Lost is both disturbing an uncomfortable as a small child all in white and wearing a sunhat stands starkly against a background of red earth and ominous sky, calling to a primal fear in all of us of alienation and abduction.

Little Boy Lost (1983) by Sidney Nolan
Another iconic Australian artist, Kevin Charles (Pro) Hart is featured with The Yabbie Catchers, as little figures in bright colours both stand out from and are dwarfed by the enormity of their environment - the trees and river are far more timeless and enduring than their uncertain activities.

The Yabbie Catchers (1987) by Pro Hart
Images of Broken Hill itself range from the sublime to the surreal. Sam Michael Byrne gives us bright colours and highlighted dots to display prosperous streets with a Toytown perspective in Silver City (1957), whereas Eric Minchin's North Mine (1970) is in bleached tones with dramatic greys and streaks of orange. Meanwhile the houses in the foreground of May (Florence) Harding's Broken Hill, Nocturne (1967) are all but overshadowed by the burning orb and the looming mine, which dominate the landscape. 

Silver City (1957) by Sam Michael Byrne
Broken Hill, Nocturne (1967) by May (Florence) Harding
A spectacular red gum sculpture highlights the work of Badger Bates and his symbolic lino cuts. Plesiosaur and Ngatyi: The Past, the Present and the Future (2003) represents the future of the Darling River through the fact that an opalised Plesiosaur was found at White Cliffs, bringing tourists, scientists and historians to examine the archaeological marvel. Ngatyi is the Rainbow Serpent of Aboriginal mythology; a creator god, which gives life through its association with water, but acts as a destructive force when angry - once again reminding us of the elements and the regional geography. In this carving the two beasts are intertwined with their heads together symbolising reconciliation, as we must work together to protect our country. 

But I'll finish this post with this powerful picture of a flood of pink flowers in calming, swirling patterns; blooming with unexpected beauty in the middle of the desert - just as Broken Hill itself is a small oasis of society in the middle of a vast swathe of nothing.

Wildflowers Dreaming by Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Monday, 20 February 2017

Middling Mediterranean Novel

Not Quite Nice by Celia Imrie
(Bloomsbury) Pp. 326

This is the passable but not outstanding writing debut from the superb actor, Celia Imrie. It centres on a group of ex-pats living in Bellevue-Sur-Mer, a town near Nice in the South of France. The cast of characters are dealing with marriage break-ups, awful children and failed careers; most are retired and all are attempting to start a new life. In a 2015 Guardian interview, Celia Imrie said, “All the parts I’m writing are parts I’d like to play”, and that is obvious in this mixture of Marigold Hotel and Year in Provence.

The fluffy, comfortable, undemanding style of writing envelops unrealistic, pantomime characters and ludicrous plots. The women: Theresa, Sally, Carol and Faith are practically interchangeable, and the men include a gay couple, an ex-con and current fraudster, and an Australian lothario who refers to the set as “mollycoddled or henpecked men [and] their female jailors” – he’s not far wrong. There are dramatic events but they are all resolved with no lingering ramifications, and everything seems a little too easy. When one of the characters sets up a cooking class to make a little extra money, it all goes wonderfully, and of course the recipes are included, which is all a bit passé.

A resounding theme is that the younger generation are all mercenary and mean, and the older generation struggles to come to terms with the way they have turned out. A couple of the women are bullied mercilessly by their children and are tied to their lives to the exclusion of their own. They are obsessed with their offspring, and this is pointed out to them by those who don’t have any. “You never stop talking about your children. You spend your hours tirelessly maundering on about your tiresome adult offspring. Don’t you realise that there is nothing so boring as other people’s children, except, perhaps, other people’s dreams?” Quite.

It’s unsurprising that Celia Imrie writes about women of a certain age rediscovering their sense of self rather than their obligations to others, and all of these characters have come to this village for a fresh start and to lead the life they want. Of course the towns are picture-perfect and delightful. Her descriptive passages are derivative and it’s depressing to think one can publish any old tosh as a celebrity, whereas this would never be accepted from an unknown author.

There is an element of that smug middle-class Englishness that is inherent to these living-abroad-with-all-the-charming-but-peculiar-foreigners novels. None of them speak French, quite patronisingly expecting the French to speak English to them, and to mix with their ‘own people’. Why don’t they either move somewhere English-speaking or make more of an effort? A few sentences later they are declaiming, “What made Bellevue-Sur-Mer so nice was that it still kept hold of an everyday reality – the majority of shops and restaurants were for locals, not tourists.”

Celia Imrie may want to play these people, but they are quite ghastly and snobbish; hard to like and harder to care about.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

My Newest Favourite Thing: The Royal Flying Doctor Service

The Royal Flying Doctors Base and Bruce Langford Visitor Centre at Broken Hill is a place of information and inspiration. The film showing in the theatre combines tales of remarkable heroism with the history of the service, tributes to the doctors, pilots and flight nurses who work for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), along with the outback folk who rely upon their skills and expertise in everyday situations.

The mission of the RFDS is to provide excellence in aeromedical and primary health care across Australia. The RDFS is one of the largest and most comprehensive aeromedical organisations in the world. Using the latest in aviation, medical and communications technology, they deliver extensive primary health care and 24-hour emergency services to those who live, work and travel throughout Australia.

The base is the headquarters of the South East section, covering all of NSW, Tasmania and Victoria. All of the administration, medical, and aviation teams pertaining to this area are centred here along with the tourist facility. While the RFDS is best known for emergency retrieval work, they also provide GP clinics, telehealth, dental care, mental health services, rural women’s health services, aboriginal health services, health promotion and education, patient transport services by air and road, as well as research into rural health issues.

The friendly tour guides are happy to supply statistics and figures, including the fact that the RFDS national fleet has 66 aircraft, 23 aero-bases, and 48 road patient vehicles, and that they had over 290,000 patient contacts in 2015. I think their favourite facts, however, are that in the last year they flew the equivalent distance of seven times to the moon and back (26,157,502 kilometres), and that the RFDS helps someone every two minutes of every day.

Viewing the planes from the platform in the hangar brings everything a little closer. In Qld, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania, the planes used are the King Air B350 C and the B200 C. Each of these specially modified aircraft is like a flying emergency room. As well as carrying medical equipment like resuscitation devices and neonatal incubators, RFDS aircraft are also fitted with an additional battery to provide medical power, a medical oxygen and suction system, and a special communications system for interaction between the pilot and the medical staff in the cabin.

As well as the medical knowledge of the RFDS personnel, the organisation also relies on the expertise of the pilots who have superior flying skills, dealing with extreme weather storms and rudimentary airstrips without lighting, which have to be cleared of wildlife before landing. The official handbook explains, “The presence of holes, cracks and ruts will degrade the aircraft's performance and handling and will increase the possibility of structural damage. The smoothness of the surface can be tested by driving a fully laden 3 tonne vehicle along the runway at a speed of 80kph. If this is accomplished without discomfort to the occupants, the surface can be considered satisfactory.

The Mantle of Safety Museum contains examples of early communication, medical and aviation equipment as well as a plethora of pictures and information to explain the history and progress of this phenomenal organisation, beginning with the founder, the Very Reverend Doctor John Flynn, OBE, DD. Born in 1880 at Moliagul, Victoria, he worked as a country teacher and missionary before training for the Ministry of the Presbyterian Church. Following his ordination in 1911, he took up an appointment to the Smith of Dunesk Mission in the Northern Flinders Rangers, S.A.

The Very Reverend Doctor John Flynn
Within a year Flynn was commissioned to survey Northern Australia for the Presbyterian Church. This led to the establishment in 1912 of the Australian Inland Mission, of which he became founding superintendent. Opening under the motto ‘For Christ and the Continent’, the mission’s objective was to administer to the spiritual, social and medical needs of outback people. As he worked in rural and remote Australia setting up hostels and bush hospitals for pastoralists, miners, road workers, railwaymen and other settlers, he witnessed first-hand the rigours of outback life.

Increasingly ‘Flynn of the Inland’ as he was known became aware of the need for an aerial medical service, and developed a vision to provide a ‘mantle of safety’ for the people of the bush. His revolutionary scheme was realised in 1928 when Flying Doctor operations began at Cloncurry, Queensland. The growth of the RFDS in those early days was rapid and soon reached right across the vast continent. By the late 1930s there were sections of the RFDS operating in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia, New South Wales and Northern Territory as well as Queensland. By the 1950s the RFDS was acknowledged by former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies as,

“perhaps the single greatest contribution to the effective settlement of the far distant country that we have witnessed in our time.”

After his death in 1951, John Flynn was succeeded by The Very Reverend Dr Fred McKay, AC, CMG, OBE, ME, BD, Hon. LLD, who himself became an outback legend. In 1934 as a student Presbyterian minister, McKay was planning to pursue theological studies abroad, until a visit from John Flynn changed the course of his life. Flynn’s vivid descriptions of the Australian Inland Mission’s work persuaded McKay to become an itinerant parole padre. 

Ordained in 1935, McKay spent the next six years on the track in Western Queensland becoming Flynn’s principal assistant. His parish, extending from Innamincka to Cape York, included Cloncurry, nerve centre of the newly established Flying Doctor Service. After serving as a RAAF chaplain in WWII and a brief ministry in Brisbane, McKay succeeded Flynn as Superintendent of the AIM in 1951, and retained the post for 23 years. He died in 2000 aged 92.

The Flying Doctor radio network was used also for education. In 1934, the inventor of the pedal wireless, Alfred Traeger, spoke of constructing ‘a suitable set for the children of the interior at very reasonable cost.’ (Fred McKay, who was also a keen historian, wrote the book, Traeger the Pedal Radio Man, which was published in 1955). The first to take up the idea of using two-way radio for the education of isolated children was Adelaide Meithke, a South Australian educationalist and friend of John Flynn.

In 1944 while travelling to Alice Springs as a councillor of the Flying Doctor Service, she noticed the shyness of the outback children. Seized by the idea of ‘bridging the lonely distance’ she set up, as a branch of the Flying Doctor Service, the world’s first School of the Air. It began operating from Alice Springs in 1950 and was officially opened the following year.

The experiment was repeated elsewhere and soon children once solely dependent on correspondence lessons could now speak directly to teachers and interact with other children. By the end of the 1950s there were already three more Schools of the Air operating in Australia: at Broken Hill; Port Augusta, SA; and Meekatharra, WA. Since then the schools have proliferated across the continent.

Over the years the school has bridged the isolation of many outback children but, thanks to recent advances in communications, no longer depends on the Flying Doctor network. In 2003 radio communication was replaced by a satellite system enabling students to talk to teachers using computers. This has allowed them to experience visual learning while improving their technical skills.

On 10 August 1955 the Flying Doctor Service added the prefix Royal to its name. This honour was granted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of the Service’s outstanding contribution to the Outback. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh witnessed the Service’s work first-hand during their visit to Australia in 1954. On this, the first visit by a British monarch, the royal couple spent two months touring the continent, visiting 58 centres from Cairns to Fremantle. On Thursday 18 March 1954, the Queen and Duke arrived at Broken Hill, the 45th stop on their tour, and visited the Flying Doctor base, where the Queen spoke over the radio network, saying 

“I have heard so much of the Flying Doctor Service, and of the security and comfort it brings to the Outback. I would like to take this opportunity of paying a tribute to its founder, the Reverend John Flynn, and for expressing my admiration for those, past and present, who have contributed to its splendid work.”

The Flying Dentist also became involved in this organisation. Until relatively recently, professional dental services were beyond the reach of most people in the Outback. Here dentists were even scarcer than doctors, and people accepted dental problems as a fact of life, to be endured with the aid of oil of cloves or a mouthful of rum. When pain became unbearable, a sufferer would have a tooth extracted with a pair of pliers or treat an abscess with battery acid; there was no thought of ‘conservative’ dentistry.

In 1960 the NSW Flying Dentist Service was established to bring relief to the people of the far west, a co-operative arrangement whereby the Department of Health provided a dentist while the RDFS Base at Broken Hill supplied transport and clinics where the dentist could operate. Initially children were targeted, with the dentist making systematic visits to schools and townships in the area.

During his first visit to Wilcannia, Dr Bob Burns, the first flying dentist, filled 120 teeth in a day. Not surprisingly, his leg gave out after working the treadle drill for hours and the Flying Doctor pilot, Vic Cover, had to take over; until his leg, too, failed and he ended the day down on his knees, working the treadle with his hands. Later the dentist’s drilling equipment was powered by a 12-volt battery, but this also had a limited life and sometimes it had to be replaced with car batteries.

In collaboration with the NSW Government, the dental service has expanded, now providing regular clinics and services to remote communities. As well as treating cavities and disease, dentists educate patients on oral hygiene and preventative dental care.

The Mantle of Safety Museum has an interesting display on the development of the RFDS logo, which has transformed eight times over the last eighty years to reflect the changing nature of the Service and to modernise its look. It was originally black and white featuring a Maltese cross (to represent medicine), wings (aviation), zig zag flashes (radio) and the map of Australia (although Tasmania was omitted). Over time medicine came to be represented by the caduceus and aviation by eagle’s wings. The design incorporated a propeller and a laurel wreath, Tasmania was added to the map, and words were placed around the symbol.

The modern logo (most recently updated in 2009) acknowledges historical associations with earlier logos by retaining the traditional symbols of medicine (the caduceus), aviation (wings) and the map of Australia. The wings have been softened to better express the sense of caring and protective mantle of safety, compared to the militaristic association of the earlier eagle’s wings. The design incorporates the national colours of red, white and blue, and the contemporary font has an increased weighting between the symbol and the words.

In 1994 the Reserve Bank of Australia included the image of the Reverend John Flynn on the $20 note. Other images on the note include the fabric bi-plane ‘Victory’, which flew the first Flying Doctor mission from Cloncurry, QLD on 17 May 1928, a camel signifying the five camels Flynn purchased in 1913 so that his Patrol Padres could complete their mission work throughout Central Australia, and the pedal radio invented by Alfred Traeger in 1929 enabling the people of the outback to call on the Flying Doctor for assistance. The body chart depicted was created by Sister Lucy Garlick in 1951 and is still used today. It enables patients to describe the region and intensity of their pain or injury during a remote telehealth consultation.

The RFDS has been recognised as Australia’s most reputable charity for the last five years running, and is registered with and regulated by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission. Naturally, none of this medical or aviation equipment is cheap, and the organisation relies on donations to keep it flying. The Bruce Langford Visitor Centre has a variety of merchandise on sale, the proceeds of which all go to the RFDS.

For the past six decades, the Broken Hill Women’s Auxiliary Members combine hundreds of kilos of fruit, flour, spices and eggs into 2,000 Christmas puddings. These puddings are in such demand that they sell out each year while raising many thousands of dollars for the RFDS. There are also delightful calico tea-towels commemorating this feat of home economics, and last year the Women’s Auxiliary raised over $75,000.

RDFS Christmas puddings
Other community groups and benefactors include the RideWest Charity Bike Ride, which covers 1,237km over seven days as fundraisers cycle from Brisbane to Longreach. The terrain they traverse typifies outback Queensland, and all the corporations and individuals ride to give something back to the heart of Australia’s community culture. Further awareness of the organisation comes from the sale of DVDs of The Flying Doctors TV programme (all 221 episodes), which is particularly popular in the UK and Netherlands, leading to large charitable donations. As stranded tourists and ‘grey nomad’ travellers become an increasing subject of the RFDS rescue missions, it is fitting that they make these contributions.

This is now my newest favourite charity and I urge you to donate if and when you can to keep these secular angels in the sky.