Where we’re at with queer TV

Beware: This blog does contain spoilers.

The representation of gay, lesbian and queer stories on television has evolved quite a bit in the last few years – thank goodness. It still has a fair way to go, according to many, but I thought I’d take a look at some of the queer shows and characters we’re watching these days. And they’re not all about pretty young people; the stories are much more diverse.

Thanks to the wonders of streaming TV, we’re getting to see some pretty good – and diverse – queer content. Netflix has the following:

Grace and Frankie: Jane Fonda (Grace) and Lily Tomlin (Frankie)play sixty-ish women whose husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterson) have divorced them to marry each other after 20 years of an undercover affair. It’s a sitcom, of course, with Fonda playing an uptight ex-businesswoman and Tomlin playing a flaky hippy, but it deals with the issues that coming out later in life raise, for the wives, the husbands, and their children. It’s easy to watch, and like, but tells a story not often seen on TV.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Another sitcom, one that centres around Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), a girl rescued from an underground shelter where she’d been imprisoned by a doomsday cult leader for 15 years, and her efforts to come to terms with a very different world. She ends up sharing a New York flat with the ambitious but out-of-work actor Titus (Tituss Burgess), who is gay and black. It’s camp and silly and can be a little forced, but there’s enough sly humour to make it work. And Titus, while being an exaggerated stereotype, pokes fun and holes in the stereotype.

Orange is the New Black: This series, set, if you didn’t know, in a female prison, is four seasons in, and is not only full of strong performances and storylines, but, perhaps not surprisingly, features a whole range of queer characters, from trans-women to femme lesbians, butch lesbians, sometime-lesbians and every number on the Kinsey scale in between. And they’re all flawed, real characters who you love sometimes, and other times just want to slap.

London Spy: This British five-part series stars Ben Wishaw as Danny, a London gay man, who after a night out, has a chance encounter with a handsome man Joe (Edward Holcroft) jogging alongside the Thames – as you do. A whirlwind romance ensues, but Joe isn’t exactly who he says he is, and when he goes missing, Danny discovers he’s actually a spy. Also starring Jim Broadbent as Danny’s older gay friend Scottie, and Charlotte Rampling as Joe’s frosty mother, it’s a thriller where the characters’ sexuality is certainly part of the tale, but not the focus – thankfully.

Meanwhile, over on Stan:

Transparent: With three seasons now available, this show covers a lot of ground – in a very honest, uncensored and unfiltered way. It’s the story of Mort/Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), and older man who is transitioning from male to female, and how that affects his family. It’s an incredibly intelligent and complex exploration of sexuality and gender on a very personal level, and it does so with a remarkably neutral tone. It’s not preaching and not Queer Politics 101, but it offers a number of different opinions, experiences and responses from the very human characters. But it does treat transgender issues with respect, and that’s not something we’ve seen a lot of on television before.

UnREAL: Also on Stan, but SBS2 has broadcast the first season, this is a dark, dark mockumentary satire on reality TV, especially shows like The Bachelor. It’s not queer as such, but it does feature a gay producer, and one of the contestants in the first series comes out as a lesbian – quite prescient, given this year’s Australian series of The Bachelor saw two contestants fall in love with each other.

Elsewhere, via HBO, there’s Looking, with Andrew Haigh, who wrote and directed the wonder UK film, Weekend, as executive producer. It revolves around three close friends – all gay men – and their lives in San Francisco. Understated, and like Transparent, non-judgemental, it stars Jonathan Groff, Frankie J Alvarez and Murray Bartlett as the three friends, and features Russell Tovey and Scott Bakula, amongst others, as satellite characters and/or love interests. It ran for only two seasons, and a feature film in 2016 ties up all the loose ends, but it’s a shame that such an honest representation of gay lives on screen wasn’t given more room to breathe.

Closer to home, there’s not been much in the way of queer stories on commercial TV, biopics of peter Allen and Molly Meldrum aside. Even gay supporting characters have become thin on the ground in local drama, but SBS and the ABC have been more active.

Earlier this year, SBS broadcast the series Deep Water, a murder mystery set in Bondi about a series of murders of gay men that unearth unsolved murders from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Starring Noah Taylor and Yael Stone (Orange is the New Black) as police detectives Nick Manning and Tori Lustigman, the story is mostly told through Lustigman’s eyes, whose gay brother was murdered many years ago. An important story based on actual events, but there was some criticism that it was a ‘straight’ telling of a dark chapter in Sydney’s gay history.

The ABC has come to the party better dressed with a number of shows from Matchbox Pictures, headed by Michael McMahon and his partner Tony Ayres. Along with Glitch, an intriguing story of long-dead people climbing out of their graves in a country Victorian town – one of whom *Spoiler* is a young WWI soldier who’s gay, they also gave us Barracuda, based on the novel by Christos Tsiolkas.

It’s about Danny (Elias Anton), a working class teenager who wins a scholarship at an elite Melbourne private school because of his swimming prowess. Along with the difficulties involved in fitting in to such a smug and privileged social class, he’s also dealing with his emerging sexuality. So it’s a gay story told by a gay man and gay executive producers, and it aired in a primetime slot on ABC1. Being gay isn’t even a big part of the miniseries; it’s just one element, dealt with in an understated but effective way. And that’s a great step forward for Australian television.

Barracuda is not alone on the ABC. Josh Thomas and his series Please Like Me has just finished screening its fourth season on ABC1 – after previous seasons were broadcast on ABC2. In this latest season, Josh and his friends have had to grow up and become ‘adults’, and in doing so, the series itself has too.

While this continuing development and sophistication shows Thomas has grown as a writer and performer, one of the things that makes this series unique and refreshing is that it’s unapologetic and not issue-driven about Josh’s sexuality. His gay life, including family dynamics, friendships, relationships and sex life are presented frankly, but not milked for its sexuality. If anything, it’s more about mental health, and this is also expressed in a very matter-of-fact way. Even the surprising – and very moving – penultimate episode, where *Spoiler* Josh discovers his mother has taken her own life, is beautifully and sensitively understated.

Please Like Me celebrates gay life, but it also pokes fun at it, exposes its ugly aspects and recognises its sad times too, just like many other straight ensemble series have done. Being gay is not seen as something out of the ordinary, and really shows that Australian television has indeed come a long way. It, and the other shows included in this blog, just need to keep that momentum going.

Melbourne Queer Film Festival 2016 – part two

Proudly DifferentFor the second weekend of this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival, I headed across to Cinema Nova in Carlton on Friday night – the first time it’s hosted MQFF screenings – and saw In The Grayscale (Chile, Claudio Marcone).


Bruno likes Fer’s stubble against his cheek.

Architect Bruno has recently moved into his grandfather’s workshop, away from his wife and young son, because he’s got some stuff to work out. While researching a new building project in Santiago, he meets tour guide Ferdinand, openly – and black-and-white – gay, and of course, there’s an attraction.

Not surprisingly, that attraction ends up in a very steamy and erotic sex scene, and while it’s quite the revelation for Bruno, he’s still got some things to work out – including exactly what this new project will actually be. Ferdinand, however, isn’t really up for indecision.

All of this is not exactly new, but it does make for a thoughtful story, and even though the metaphor of a bridge to joing two different worlds comes close to overstatement, not everything is tied up neatly at the end, because life rarely is that tidy.


It seems very clear that Jim is definitely a beautiful… something.

Beautiful Something (USA, Joseph Graham) isn’t particularly tidy either – but it’s messy in a different way. It follows the activities of four gay men across one night in Philadelphia: Brian, the damaged poet; Jim, the pretty muse and model; Drew, the driven sculptor; and Bob, the restless talent agent. Paths cross, lots of sex is had, decisions are made and inspiration found.

Oh, Brian just reeks of damaged hipster poet, doesn't he?

Oh, Brian just reeks of damaged hipster poet, doesn’t he?

At times, the characters, especially Brian, veer towards stereotype, and the search for a real connection and acknowledgement is a little prosaic, but the film and the characters are admirably unapologetic, and there are some well observed scenes about love, lust and intimacy.

The same can’t be said for the Saturday night 10.30 session, Everlasting Love (Spain, Marcal Fores). Lecturer Carlos enjoys crusing the local forest-slash-beat, to watch and engage in anonymous sex, but his encounter with one of his students, Toni, leads him into disturbing territory. Because Toni has some very dodgy friends…
If you go into the woods today...

If you go into the woods today…

While I appreciate the programme note writer’s wish not to give the ending away, this film should have come with a warning, to be honest. It’s not that I’m averse to horror, or queer horror, but a heads-up wouldn’t have gone astray. And yes, there were walkouts when it became too gruesome.

Ah yes, this main image for the film is on screen for all of five seconds.

Ah yes, this main image for the film is on screen for all of five seconds.

All that aside, it wasn’t the best edited film I’ve ever seen. Following the plot wasn’t always easy, and some of it was just poorly scripted – in an effort, I imagine, to create the shock ending. Oh well, at least it was the only turkey I saw this year.

Greg Louganis - doing what he does best.

Greg Louganis – doing what he does best.


Back on Board: Greg Louganis (USA, Cheryl Furjanic), not surprisingly, is a documentary about openly gay and HIV-positive Olympian Greg Louganis. It explores his early career as a diver, and how he became the world’s greatest diver, with Olympic records still unbroken 28 years later. It also charts the more recent battle to save his houyse, and his reintroduction into the diving world.

Greg is now a handsome silver fox.

Greg is now a handsome silver fox.

With lots of archival footage, and frank and candid interviews with Louganis and his coaches, it’s an absorbing and well-crafted film. Louganis was – and still is, in his early 50s – an infredibly handsome man, and footage of his Olympic diving demonstrates his skill, grace and beauty as a diver. It also affirms that diving showcases the male physique at its best.

These white Speedos are just a little sexy...

These white Speedos are just a little sexy…

And of course, there were plenty of Speedos – including the very racy, slightly transparent white Speedos Louganis wore at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.



Our final session for 2016 was the Australian Shorts program – always on the list because it’s interesting to see what’s happening in our local filmmaking industry. This year featured a strong selection of films, covering a wide range of outlooks, experiences and approaches.

The Summer of ABC Burns

The Summer of ABC Burns



Winning the City of Melbourne Award for the Best Australian Short this year was Nineteen (Madeleine Kelly), the story of a vulnerable young man’s encounter with a rent boy. Taking the Film Victoria Award for Best Director was Dannika Horvat for The Summer of ABC Burns, a well-told tale of schoolgirl love and popularity. And the Shaun Miller Lawyers Award for Emerging Australian Filmmaker went to Joshua Longhurst for Oasis, an understated story of an awkward boy’s interaction in a caravan park shower block with the object of his desire.

Other notable shorts include Cake (Jacintho Muinos), a fun film about a Grindr hookup and its consequences, and Marrow (Stevie Cruz-Martin), a brave and confronting self portrait of sexuality and disability.



Each short film embraced and explored their sexuality and Australianness – voices that have not always been loudly proud. No cringe factor here, thanks very much.



And that’s it for another year – the first for Spiro Economopoulos and Dillan Golightly, and a successful one. let’s see what they present for us in 2017.



Melbourne Queer Film Festival 2016 – part one

Oh, I do love Melbourne in autumn. All the colours, the vibrancy…

Okay, that was a little cheeky – extra points if you can tell what Doctor Who story I massacred that quote from – but Melbourne really is alive in March and April, and the CBD is buzzing with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Melbourne Queer Film Festival creating a stimulating and often exhausting level of activity.

Proudly Different

I haven’t seen any Comedy Festival shows yet – I am planning to – but I have seen a few MQFF films over the past week.

First up in this, the first festival for new Executive Director Dillan Golightly and Program Manager Spiro Economopoulos, was the Opening Night film, That’s Not Us (USA, William Sullivan). Opening night films are tricky beasts, as I’ve observed before. It’s got to be something that’s going to appeal to a wide cross-section, and That’s Not Us certainly had all the right elements: three couples, a lesbian couple, a gay male couple and a straight couple head off together for a weekend away at an aunt’s beach house. Now there’s great opportunity to explore all sorts of dynamics: sexual, social and domestic. What a shame then that it didn’t exactly deliver.

Lesbians on the Loose. Well, almost...

Lesbians on the Loose. Well, almost…

Yes, each of the couples had their own issues to deal with – the girls hadn’t had sex with each other for quite a while, the boys were wrestling with the Chicago university offer one had received, and the straight two were grappling with gender role expectations, but the three storylines all operated independently of each other. And while they are all legitimate issues within a relationship, they’re not exactly redolent with dramatic potential and conflict. It all felt just a little… beige, to be honest.

I don't remember the boys playing football in the film, but that would have been more interesting than their argument about university

I don’t remember the boys playing football in the film, but that would have been more interesting than their argument about university

There were no real shouting matches or cross-couple tensions or bitch fights, and maybe that was the point of the film, but for me, it left me unmoved and ultimately I didn’t care for any of the characters. The after party in the Fed Square Atrium was a hit though.

Chemsex is definitely not an Opening Night film, but it is a good example of why we still need a queer film festival. It’s a UK documentary directed by William Fairman and Max Gogarty and it explores the rising use of drugs in London’s gay scene, the sex activity and rise in HIV infections that are intrisnically linked to it.

You may think this would make for an erotic and sexy film, and given its late-night Friday screening, a lot of the audience seemed to be up for that – but it was not sexy at all. It was sad, confronting and at times difficult to watch.

Some of the interviewees remained anonymous - understandably

Some of the interviewees remained anonymous – understandably

I’ve never been a drug user – pre-existing medical conditions prevent that – and I’ve never found the idea of chemsex attractive at all, but it’s going on here in Melbourne too, and apps like Grindr and Scruff are facilitating unsafe and addictive sex and drug use.

This documentary shows the effects that has on the lives of the men interviewed, and it is destructive. It’s a sobering, cautionary tale that despite its difficult content is a necessary film for most gay men to see.

On a much lighter note is Tab Hunter Confidential (USA, Jeffrey Schwarz), a documentary about the 1950’s Hollywood heartthrob. It charts the career of this impossibly handsome blond, blue-eyed man, from Z-grade movie actor to singer, star and household name.

Luckily, Hunter is still alive, so rather than just rely on the recollections of his co-stars and other celebrities, the filmmakers speak at length with him, and hear his stories first-hand.

Tab Hunter, the quintesential Hollywood heartthrob

Tab Hunter, the quintesential Hollywood heartthrob

What’s interesting is that while Hunter kept his sexuality hidden in the ’50s – necessarily, given the era – he wasn’t pretending to be straight, he just kept his private life out of the spotlight, and he talks quite candidly about that now, as an 80-something man.

He looks happy, and why wouldn't he? He's Tab Hunter!

He looks happy, and why wouldn’t he? He’s Tab Hunter!

It’s the innocence of a bygone era that’s the charm of Hollywood docos like this, and Schwarz has a lot of fun playing with that, using old footage and photos to ironic effect. And it certainly makes you wonder, 60 years from now, what Hollywood celebrities will we be watching with similar stories.



A world away from Hollywood is the Spanish film, Hidden Away (Mikel Rueda). Set in Bilbao, it’s about Ibra, a young Moroccan refugee who runs into Rafa, a young Spanish boy, in a nightclub. There’s an instant connection, especially for Rafa, who goes out of his way to seek out Ibra’s friendship. But both of them have to deal with prejudice in various forms: racism, classism and homophobia.

As far as plots go, it’s not exactly new – it’s a Romeo and Juliet scenario in many ways, but that storyline prvides a good framework for the more complex racial and sexuality themes. Interestingly, like last year’s Brazilian film, The Way He Looks, not once does either boy state they are gay, although some of Rafa’s friends are less than complimentary, and their attraction for each other takes a while to develop.

Ibra steals a glance at the sullen Rafa

Ibra steals a glance at the sullen Rafa

Thankfully, there are no sex scenes; it’s more about two teenage boys coming to terms with their feelings for each other and their own sexuality.



And that’s somewthing it shares in part with the festival’s Centrepiece Presentation, the local documentary Remembering The Man (Nickolas Bird and Eleanor Sharpe). It tells the not-unfamiliar story of Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo – immortalised in Conigrave’s memoir, Holding The Man, and its stage and recent screen adaptations.

Using archival footage – including home movies of the pair – and photos and interviews with the friends and colleagues of Conigrave and Caleo, it tells the story of their love, beginning as teenage boys at Xavier College, and their experiences with AIDS in a candid, heartfelt and moving way. It also provides aspects and anecdotes not heard before, and paints a respectful portrait of the men that works well as a complement to last year’s film version.

So young, so in love. A great way to remember Tim Conigrave and John Caleo

So young, so in love. A great way to remember Tim Conigrave and John Caleo

Even though it is a tender and emotional telling, there’s still a measured objectivity here that really makes it work as another part of a love story that has become part of Melbourne’s legacy and history.

And so, off I go, diving into the final weekend of MQFF films. Expect a report early next week. I promise!




Lisa Daniel, we salute you for 16 years as Festival Director

Lisa Daniel, we salute you for 16 years as Festival Director

2015 was something of a landmark year for the Melbourne Queer Film Festival – not only did it celebrate its 25th year, but it was also Lisa Daniel’s last year as Festival Director after 16 years in the position. Under her educated and keen eye for queer film, the festival has grown and become one of the largest and most respected queer film festivals in the world – something she should be very proud of, and Melbourne should really appreciate.

This year I decided to go for (mostly) quality over quantity of screenings, and took heed of some of Lisa’s recommendations, as well as seeing two Australian feature films – something that’s been very thin on the ground for some time now.

The Way He Looks

The Way He Looks

Opening Night is always a good night, and this year Lisa selected Brazilian film, The Way He Looks, to open the festival. And it hit the mark. In the past, there’s been negative responses to foreign language films on opening night, but not this year – which demonstrates that Lisa has indeed done a good job in educating Melbourne audiences.

Leo and Gabriel find themselves attracted to each other

Leo and Gabriel find themselves attracted to each other

It’s the coming-of-age/coming out story of blind teenager Leo as he becomes attracted to the new boy at school, Gabriel. It’s sweet and gentle, and affirming without preaching, and remarkable not only because its focus is not on physical attraction and there’s a pleasing lack of sex on screen, but also because the word ‘gay’ is never used, and the boys’ sexuality is not an issue to any of the characters, themselves included.

They may be wearing aussieBums, but Drown is not all about sexy men.

They may be wearing aussieBums, but Drown is not all about sexy men.

The first of two Australian feature films I saw was Drown, directed by Dean Francis, based on a play by Stephen Davis. I’ve seen a number of his short films, and they’ve dealt with homophobia and bullying in a dark and angry way, so I knew this film wasn’t going to be light and fluffy. This is the story of Len (Matt Levett), the local hero at a Sydney surf lifesaving club, until he’s threatened by new member, Phil (Jack Matthews), not only because of his physical abilities, but also because he’s gay, and that creates quite a bit of conflict for Len.

Len isn't having a great night

Len isn’t having a great night

Drown is a fascinating, often confronting, exploration of masculinity and sexuality and how they are expressed by both straight and gay men. There’s an inherent aggression here, for all the characters, and it demonstrates that at their most extreme, straight men and gay men aren’t that dissimilar; while straight men channel that aggression into sport and competition and fighting, gay men express it through dancing, drugs, seduction and sex.

Told through the eyes of Len, Drown has a heightened and often exaggeration perception of reality, and while there’s plenty of bare flesh and aussieBums on screen, it’s not a superficial or titillating film. Yes, some of the sex scenes are erotic, but for the most part, they’re overshadowed by violence and conflict. At times it is too violent, and some scenes could have done with an edit, but there’s also a lot of ambiguity and unspoken subtext at work here.

Just a bit confronting...

Just a bit confronting…

The fact that this film was produced quickly and through crowdsource funding is not evident on screen at all – it’s beautifully shot and has a polish and finish that belies its low-budget production. Let’s just hope that Francis’ next film isn’t quite as angry.

Jamie Marks is Dead... apparently

Jamie Marks is Dead… apparently

Jamie Marks is Dead is a US supernatural (I guess) directed by Carter Smith. When the dead body of teenage boy Jamie Marks is found in a river, the spirit or ghost of the bullied gay boy connects with Gracie, and straight boy Adam for help to cross to the other side. It’s a curious film, with almost incidental queer content. There’s a dark melancholy with a touch of whimsy at work here, but to be honest, I’m not sure that as a queer/supernatural crossover is works very well. Still, it was good to see an American gay film that didn’t follow the same tired formulaic story.

Barrio Boy

Barrio Boy

Cocktales was one of the short film packages and provided an interesting and varied mix of gay shorts. Like many queer films, the quality of the short films is much better than it used to be, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t get predictable stories, such as Dinner at 40 and Open Relationship, and mawkish ones like Pepper. But we also get the understated Searching and Barrio Boy, and the very silly and fun If We Took a Holiday. And interestingly, none of them actually featured an sex at all.

It's Mission: Impossible, gay-style!

It’s Mission: Impossible, gay-style!

Also silly and fun was the Dutch comedy, Queen of Amsterdam directed by Tim Oiehoek. Fluffy and far-fetched, and perfectly programmed at 6pm Friday night, it’s about the regulars of a gay bar in Amsterdam who concoct a plan to raise the money to buy back the bankrupt bar – and that plan involves a jewel heist and the Gay Pride Parade. Not necessarily groundbreaking but enjoyable nevertheless.

Ben Wishaw in Lilting

Ben Wishaw in Lilting

Onto something more grounded, Lilting is a British film directed by Hong Khaou, and is a beautiful portrayal of the awkward relationship between a gay man Richard (played by Ben Wishaw) and his recently-deceased partner Kai’s (Andrew Leung) Chinese-Cambodian mother, Junn (Pei-pei Cheng). To broach the language barrier, Richard brings in a translator and the two begin tentative steps to an understanding. It’s poignant and understated and a sensitive representation of a gay relationship. Once again, there’s no on-screen sex, but convincing post-sex discussions, and is much more powerful for what it doesn’t show or tell.

Unfortunately, that is something missing from the final film I saw, at its encore screening, the second Australian feature, The Dream Children, directed by Robert Chuter and based on a play by Julia Britton. It’s the story of a gay couple, Steven (Graeme Squires) and Alex (Nicholas Gunn), who live in St Kilda. Steven is a closeted game show host who nevertheless has a very active extra-curricular sex life, and Alex wants to adopt a child. Legal options are non-existent, so the couple explore black market adoption with predictable results.

Steven and Alex argue even at the pool while  swimming laps

Steven and Alex argue even at the pool while swimming laps

Chuter’s better known as a theatre director, and has quite an extensive back catalogue, including some well-respected outdoor period plays in the grounds of Rippon Lea, and more recently the divisive production of Teleny in 2014 (read my thoughts on that here), and indeed, he directed a stage production of this play in 2009. While The Dream Children‘s intentions are noble, the delivery is forced and heavy-handed. It opens with a fairly full-on sex scene between Steven and Alex which is decidedly unsexy and feels like it was included merely to shock. And many of its other sex scenes – and there are many, as well as a number of other scenes involving the trailer trash child surrogate and her cliched drug-addicted partner, feel contrived and gratuitous.

A rare tender moment in The Dream Children

A rare tender moment in The Dream Children

The relationship between Alex and Steven lacks intimacy and affection; they’re mostly arguing about the adoption arrangements or having mechanical, soulless sex, except for scenes where we see them enjoying time with their young son.

The dialogue is awkward and stiff and often didactic, the mood and the drama are overwrought and could really have done with a more delicate touch. Conflict and arguments don’t always equal good cinematic drama, and unfortunately there is too much of it. If only more time had been spent fleshing out the final ten minutes, where their relationship finally flourishes, rather than focusing on unnecessary and overlong scenes of conflict.

If only we'd had more of this and less conflict

If only we’d had more of this and less conflict


Having said all that, it’s an impressive looking film – Melbourne, especially St Kilda and Elwood, look great on film, and like Drown, is an independently-funded and produced film. Hopefully we’ll see more Australian queer features in the future – and heaven forbid, government funding bodies and local distributors may even look past their cautious and conservative choices and see the merit in backing films such as these.

And if that is something that Lisa Daniel has had more than a hand in changing, then that is legacy enough from her. But she leaves behind her a great legacy of which this will only be a small part. Congratulations, Lisa, on the 25th MQFF, and for 16 amazing years as Festival Director. You will be missed!



It’s dark in the woods…

I have something of a love/hate relationship with musicals. There are some I love, some I hate, and some I can take or leave. And that’s even more true of film adaptations. For instance, I love The Sound of Music in any form, Les Misérables does nothing for me on either stage or screen, and Mamma Mia! is much more fun on stage than its film version. But that’s no surprise – even Meryl Streep looked embarrassed in that. And let’s not even mention Pierce Brosnan’s singing.

So what did I make of Into The Woods then? I’m glad to say I really enjoyed it, because it ticked many boxes.

Darling, do you think it's safe, going into the woods? Not at all, but it'll make a great musical.

Darling, do you think it’s safe, going into the woods?
Not at all, but it’ll make a great musical.

Just quickly, for those who don’t know, it’s the story of a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt), who have been cursed by the Witch (Meryl Streep) and cannot have children. But she offers to lift the curse in return for some items to create the spell, and they involve other fairy tale characters such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack (of the beanstalk variety) and Rapunzel. So the Baker and his Wife head into the woods to find these items.

But back to the boxes it ticked for me.


Come here my pretty…

Box 1: The original Broadway musical was written by Stephen Sondheim in 1986. I’ve never seen it on stage, but many of the songs are familiar to me. Sondheim has, of course, a strong list of other credits, including the lyrics to West Side Story and Gypsy, as well as Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He writes intelligent,m complex and memorable songs that know how to tell a story, explore an emotion, often with wit and irony, and without talking down to the audience or labouring a point (unlike Herbert Kretzmer’s English libretto of Les Mis, which I find overwrought and overdone). And that’s why it ticks Box 2.

Suitably grotesque - Cinderella's step-bitches

Suitably grotesque – Cinderella’s step-bitches

Box 2: Despite its Disney association, and its fairy tale context, Into The Woods isn’t all saccharine and happy endings. In fact, the ending is far from happy, with a number of deaths, broken marriages and promises, and that’s the point. Sondheim takes these fairy tales and examines what happens after the ‘happy ending’. While the musical, from the start, has a sardonic and slightly satirical tone, the second act, as the characters go further into the woods, becomes much darker – but not as dark as the original stage production, apparently, where Rapunzel dies, the Baker’s Wife does more than kiss the Charming Prince, and her death is much nastier. The musical has been Disneyfied for film, but it still packs a punch. In the very full cinema we saw it in, children were asking if they could leave at the film’s darkest moments. Yes, this isn’t a kid’s film. It reminded me of The Sound of Music – a film as a kid I only ever saw up to Maria’s wedding to Captain Von Trapp. The Nazi invasion of Salzburg was far too dark.

He was brought up to be charming, not sincere...

He was brought up to be charming, not sincere…

Rapunzel lets her hair down... probably not a great idea

Rapunzel lets her hair down… probably not a great idea

A dashing prince in leather... so many gay men's wet dream

A dashing prince in leather… so many gay men’s wet dream

Box 3: A cracking cast delivers some great performances. Of course, Meryl Streep is getting plenty of kudos – deservedly so – for her portrayal of the Witch, breaking her own rule of never playing such a role, but there are other strong performances. James Corden is wonderful as the Baker; his well-meaning bumbling demeanour suits the character perfectly, and I wouldn’t be surprised if director Rob Marshall cast him after seeing him play Craig Owen in the 2011 Doctor Who story Closing Time. Emily Blunt as his Wife is also strong; Chris Pine’s Charming Prince is wonderfully complex, and he succeeds in taking a Disney stereotype and adding darker dimensions to the character. Even Billy Magnussen, as Rapunzel’s Prince, adds more to what could have just been an eye candy role. Anna Kendrick is great as an indecisive Cinderella, and Johnny Depp, for his short time as the Wolf, is perfect.

Bubble bubble toil and trouble, fire burn and Meryl bubble...

Bubble bubble toil and trouble, fire burn and Meryl bubble…

All of this sells it as a great musical film. They can be curious beasts, and often difficult to get right, but in this case, they have, and this will become one of the best remembered and loved movie musicals in the future. I can guarantee we’ll have it in our DVD collection.

21st Century Doctor Who – revisited: 2005

Series 1 hero image

Being a Doctor Who fan now for 34 years, it is one of my consuming passions – for good or ill, or sometimes both. As a teenager, like many others, I made copious lists and notes about the stories, the Doctors, the monsters, the novelisations… you get the idea.

This year, with a new Doctor due to hit our TV screens later in August, I’ve taken it upon myself to watch – in transmission order – all episodes of 21st century Doctor Who and its spin-offs, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, and review them in retrospect. Already it’s provided a few surprises – some pleasant, some disappointing.

Don’t expect any long dissertations into the merits of the episodes; just pithy and (hopefully) pertinent remarks on each episode. I’ve set myself quite a task – 172 episodes before mid-August. I’ve already made a start, but I’ll be watching at the rate of 12 episodes a week.

So anyway, here we go. From the very beginning in 2005, when Christopher Eccleston was the Doctor and Billie Piper played his new companion, Rose.


RoseEpisode 1: Rose

The one where Rose is threatened by Autons, meets the Doctor and embarks on a new life of adventure.

Energetic, cheeky – and fast! Russell T Davies is having a ball reinventing Doctor Who for the 21st Century, Eccleston and Piper get it right immediately, although Rose’s swing on the chain looks clumsy. Not sure about the burping wheelie bin either, but still, a promising start.

End of the World CassandraEpisode 2: The End of the World

The one where the Doctor takes Rose to witness the destruction of Earth, only to miss it, thanks to the bitchy trampoline Cassandra.

Davies brings on the aliens in another fun and audacious story showcasing how far aliens have come since 1989. Cassandra is camp, the cooling fan sequence is a bit dodgy, but Piper portrays Rose’s awe perfectly.

Unquiet DeadEpisode 3: The Unquiet Dead

The one where the Doctor and Rose meet Charles Dickens and dead bodies are possessed by disembodied gas creatures.

Of course it makes sense: a trip to the future, a trip to the past – that was the format back in 1963 too. Victorian Cardiff works well, there’s a lovely dark, macabre tone here, and a good use of a pre-credit sequence cliffhanger.

Aliens in LondonEpisodes 4 & 5: Aliens of London/World War Three

The one where the Slitheen try to invade Earth by wearing the skins of dead humans with an easy exit forehead zipper.

The Doctor returns Rose to London and her family, and the template for most contemporary Earth-based stories over the next four years is established. Great use of TV news, a return for UNIT, Jackie and Mickey’s characters are developed and become more loveable, and daring new monsters – even if the difference between the CGI running Slitheen and the cumbersome prosthetic costumes is very marked. The spaceship slicing through Big Ben is memorable for so many reasons. Oh, and Harriet Jones is a wonderful creation. The farting jokes have not dated well though.

DalekEpisode 6: Dalek

The one where the Doctor and Rose come face to face with a lone Dalek.

The Daleks are given a 21st century reworking, and regain their threat and menace – and that’s just with one, imprisoned Dalek! After the fun of the previous story, this is dark, gritty Doctor Who, and really cements this new series’ success.

Long Game 2Episode 7: The Long Game

The one where the TARDIS lands on Satellite Five and discovers the news is being tampered with.

Not a particularly memorable story, but one that begins setting up the season finale. Simon Pegg as the Editor is a little wasted, but Tamsin Greig explaining the info spike Adam (Bruno Langley) has fitted is beautifully deadpan. The Mighty Jagrafess is disappointing.

Fathers DayEpisode 8: Father’s Day

The one where Rose saves her dad’s life back in 1986.

Given the strong focus Rose’s family is given, it’s no surprise that a visit to the past so she can meet her dead father was going to happen. That doesn’t make it less powerful though. In fact, Father’s Day is understated and a little sombre, but not afraid to address the logistical and emotional complications. The whole cast are in top form. Except for the priest as he struggles with the CGI Reaper.

Empty Child 2Episodes 9 & 10: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances

The one with the gas mask child terrorising wartime London – and Captain Jack, of course.

The cheeky and at times immature tone of the first half of the season gradually morphs into something more adult from Dalek onwards, and while there are still wonderfully silly and funny moments, things start getting more serious and sophisticated, and as a result, what used to be an effects-driven sci-fi series in the 20th century is now remarkably complex, emotional and daring. And it works. Take Nancy’s confrontation with Mr Lloyd, as she calls him on his affair with the butcher – a wonderful moment. Or her role as an unmarried mother in 1941 passing off her son as her younger brother. Or Captain Jack, of course; the flirtatious, fluid 51st century conman. It’s all so masterfully done, no one batted an eyelid. As they shouldn’t. The plaintive calls of ‘Are you my mummy?’ are just as chilling and unnerving as they were on first broadcast.

Boom TownEpisode 11: Boom Town

The one where Margaret Slitheen turns up as the Mayor of Cardiff.

Boom Town is often overlooked as an inconsequential story; a low-budget filler, but I think it’s a lovely, quiet gem of a story. Annette Badlands is fantastic and gives depth to an otherwise cartoonish villain. Her banter with Eccleston over dinner is lots of fun, but dark as well, as she calls the Doctor to account for the consequences of his actions. The whole TARDIS Team – including Mickey – are on top form together.

Parting of the WaysEpisode 12 & 13: Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways

The one where the TARDIS crew find themselves playing reality TV games for their lives… or are they?

What a confident, brash and audacious finales to Davies’ first season this is. From futuristic send-ups of contemporary TV game shows (although The Weakest Link dates it a bit now) to John Barrowman’s nakedness, the awesome Emperor Dalek and thousands of insane Daleks – so much bigger in scale than anything Classic Doctor Who could ever do. And just as Bad Wolf is explained and various other elements peppered throughout the previous episodes finally pay off, the Doctor regenerates – explosively, like never before, and suddenly there’s David Tennant marvelling at his new teeth and Barcelona. What an emotional roller coaster – and a great end to a wonderful return to our screens.

Christmas InvasionChristmas Special 2005: The Christmas Invasion

The one where the Sycorax invade Earth on Christmas Eve while the Doctor recovers from his regeneration.

It could have been really twee; a Doctor Who Christmas Special. But this first of what would become an integral part of the show’s new life get it exactly right. The fusion of fun and fear is great to watch: deadly Santa robots, killer Christmas trees – and Harriet Jones , now Prime Minister. Yes, David Tennant’s first episode as the Doctor sees him out of action for the most part, but when he’s revived – by a thermos of tea, no less – we really see him at his best, all high-speed gabbling, action man without mercy, and a steely fury, most frightening as he takes down Harriet Jones with six words.

Gay theatre at two extremes

This week, the last week of May, has seen two new productions open at Chapel off Chapel in South Yarra. Both deal with gay culture, and couldn’t be any more different if they tried – in more ways than one.

"I want to welcome you to my home."

“I want to welcome you to my home.”

First up is Supergirly: Return of the Pop Princess. For those who don’t know who Supergirly is, she’s the alter-ego of Lulu McClatchy, and often performs at DT’s Hotel. Basically what she does, and has been doing since the late ’90s in London, is take pop songs and change the lyrics into smart and very funny pisstakes on the performers, their audience and the nature of celebrity in general. No one is safe, and that’s certainly true in this, her first theatre show. Now she has a set – a very glamorous set at that, a co-performer, Bradley Cooper (really it’s Lyall Brooks, but Supergirly thinks he really is Bradley Cooper), about 10 costume changes, and a storyline.

We are the Pet Shop Boys

We are the Pet Shop Boys

It’s a bit like Supergirly’s hosting her own chat show from her own home, and Bradley is her manservant. They often break out into song, Bradley tells Supergirly’s (mostly) fictional story from a fur-covered story book, and answers the door for her many (imaginary) celebrity guests (all played, of course, by Brooks as well).

Britney vs Britney

Britney vs Britney

Supergirly is wonderfully cheeky, snarky and deluded, and McClatchy and Brooks are more than happy to take the piss out of each other, themselves, the audience, the celebrities they parody – in fact, no one and nothing is safe. This approach gives the whole show a delightfully silly but grounded tone, and works perfectly with the songs and celebrities they target. Some favourites include the Pet Shop Boys, a clever Lady Gaga/Madonna mash-up (complete with some enormously silly back-up dancing from Bradley), a revealing Britney song-off, Lordes, and the Black Eyed Peas ‘Shut Up’, with Bradley providing some very impressive rapping.

Cats? Or Voguing? It's hard to tell...

Cats? Or Voguing? It’s hard to tell…

If you’re looking for a theme in the show, it’d be exposing the ‘truth’ behind the cult of the celebrity, and takes said celebrities down a peg or two. McClatchy and Brooks are both strong singers, seasoned performer,s and have great comic timing. They know how to bounce off each other and know how far to take a joke, and when to pull back – which is not very often.

Yes, the show could be a bit tighter, but it’s a wonderfully, chaotic, delirious two hours that keeps the audience laughing almost non-stop. And it’s great to see McClatchy’s talents shine in this context so we can really appreciate her skills.

I wish the same could be said for Teleny.

The main players in Teleny

The main players in Teleny

Teleny is a play written by Barry Lowe and directed by Robert Chuter, based on an anonymous late 19th century erotic novel purported to be the work of Oscar Wilde and his circle of friends. Here, however, it’s relocated to 1920’s Paris.

Camille Des Grieux (Tom Byers) attends a piano recital with his mother (Frederique Fouche) and finds himself fascinated by the exotic pianist Rene Teleny (Jackson Raine). The attraction is mutual, but Camille has trouble admitting his desires, but eventually succumbs and falls in love and into a secret relationship with Teleny. Soon the pair are exploring the underground ‘deviant’ world of their closeted and secret sexuality, thanks to the flamboyant Briancourt (Dushan Philips).

Tom Byers as Camille and Jackson Raine as Rene Teleny

Tom Byers as Camille and Jackson Raine as Rene Teleny

Now that’s all well and good – it’s a story that has some relevance and resonance with a 21st century audience, even as an historical record of such matters in less accepting times and societies, but it’s far too long for a play of this kind. It’s also too laboured, too heavy-handed and takes itself too seriously. The first act, at two hours long, is much too long, and moves far too slowly. And unfortunately, the main character, upper class Camille, who narrates his story, is too detached and disaffected, and not a particularly sympathetic character. At times, the dialogue, while clearly emulating the language of the literature of the period, leans towards the melodramatic, and its relocation to the 1920s adds very little, except for some impressive set design and costumes (and lack thereof).

Nudity abounds in the second act of Teleny

Nudity abounds in the second act of Teleny

Yes, there is plenty of nudity and simulated sex (of which we are warned before entering the theatre, along with drug use and coarse language), especially in the second act, but its impact and ‘shock value’ is soon lost and replaced by leaden expository dialogue and plot development.

Dushan Philips plays the flamboyant Briancourt

Dushan Philips plays the flamboyant Briancourt

Performances range from wooden (Byers) to brave (Jonathan Duffy in a gender-bending role), strong (Philips) and perplexing (Timothy Hare as a buff Turkish model), and the staging old-fashioned and slightly portentous. A lighter touch that doesn’t take itself too seriously, a brisker pace, less angst, and halving the 210-minute running time would have helped immeasurably. It’s no wonder that a third of the audience left at interval, and those that remained found humour in the uttering of ‘pianist’ and sniggered at the exaggerated and overwrought (anti) climax. Perhaps a warning of the three-and-a-half hour length and ponderous dialogue would have been more helpful.

Which is a shame, because Teleny should have been brave, strong and memorable theatre, but I fear it is the victim of its own excess – much like the characters in the story themselves are.



That Was the Midsumma That Was

Yes, Midsumma is over for 2014, and in some ways, this blog entry will be pretty irrelevant. But for the record, here’s Midsumma 2014 experience.

It all started with Carnival on Sunday, January 12 of course, back in the Alexandra Gardens after a few years trying to work in Birrarung Marr, and a welcome return it was too. It was wonderful to meet with friends and spread our picnic blankets under palm trees and chat, eat, drink, laugh and check out the passing traffic. Carnival’s one of those events where you run into people you haven’t seen since last Midsumma, except on Facebook, so it’s a very social and relaxed day. We even managed to make in into The Age’s online photo gallery doing exactly that, which was nice. I managed however to acquire a singlet tanline which is slowly being replaced with a full chest tan…

Palms, picnics and poofs! Courtesy The Age.

Palms, picnics and poofs! Courtesy The Age.


T-Dance returned as it was first conceived too, as a free dusk dance party, and that too had a great atmosphere – good music and sexy vibe, the perfect end to the day.

And so the festival was off, and we had a very busy three weeks ahead of us seeing shows. Not that we got to everything (by the time Pride March finished the festival, we were burnout – literally and figuratively), but what we did get to was consistently good quality entertainment, whether it was the Revolt Artspace in Kensington or the State Theatre in the Arts Centre. It was a broad range of shows, but surprisingly two distinct themes emerged: divas and the channelling thereof, and self-reflection. And gay marriage.


Rachel Dunham as Oprah.

We started off with Oprahfication at Chapel Off Chapel, a 90-minute musical speculation of What Oprah Got Up To Next. Rachel Dunham, who wrote the show with composer Shannon Whitelock, WAS Oprah as soon as she stepped on stage. The audience were, in effect, her studio audience for this ‘one-off ultimate interview’, and as such, it was lots of fun. It wasn’t satire, and not exactly a homage to the Queen of Daytime TV, but it was definitely an affectionate celebration of Oprah, her show, and her ego that wasn’t afraid to gently take the piss here and there.

Dunham channelled Oprah perfectly, and with her strong voice and the live band, she belted out some great original songs that sounded polished and professional. It’s no surprise then that Oprahficaction is aiming for something bigger – it’s Broadway or bust!

The very sexy Michael Griffiths.

The very sexy Michael Griffiths.

The following night it was off to fortyfivedownstairs to channel another diva with In Vogue: Songs By Madonna. With just a grand piano, smooth vocals and dry wit, Michael Griffiths inhabited the world of the Queen of Pop and her music. Like his other show, Sweet Dreams: Songs By Annie Lennox, which we saw last year at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, Griffiths didn’t imitate or impersonate Madonna; he adopted her persona and spoke and sand in the first person as if he were her. Loosely following Madonna’s career from her early days to who she is today, Griffiths made astute and sardonic observations about her music and acting skills (or lack thereof), and performed some great arrangements of Madge’s songs. But as good, and sometimes nostalgic as it was, In Vogue didn’t have the resonance or emotional depth that his Lennox show had. That probably says more about the two artists rather than Griffiths’ performance. Or maybe it’s just that I prefer Annie over Madge any day.

Sexy key art for Standing on Ceremony.

Sexy key art for Standing on Ceremony.

The week after, we were back at Chapel off Chapel for Standing on Ceremony – The Gay Marriage Plays, a much-publicised and anticipated collection of nine short plays on the theme of gay marriage. The collection premiered in New York in 2011 and is still very relevant, with some plays stronger than others. While they all had important things to say or observations to make, the more memorable plays involved a conservative housewife talking about the gay agenda, a Jewish mother and her made-up engagement for her gay son, both by Paul Rudnick, a dramatization of a Facebook post and subsequent comments, and the moving eulogy a gay man gives at his partner’s funeral. The strong cast included Spencer McLaren, Pia Miranda, Michael Veitch and Helen Ellis. Well put together, with live music linking the plays, Standing on Ceremony was thought-provoking, irreverent and well-considered. And not at all didactic or preachy, which is always a good thing on stage.

The cast of Standing on Ceremony

The cast of Standing on Ceremony

A young and innocent (hah!) Michael Dalton.

A young and innocent (hah!) Michael Dalton.

On to show number four – You’ve Got Male with Michael Dalton. This had been postponed for a week because of a death in the family, which is understandable, and actually made this first performance that little more poignant, given the show was a trip down memory lane as Dalton talked about his performance career, starting as a young boy in England. Dalton usually performs as his drag persona Dolly Diamond, so this sees him stepping out from behind the wigs and frocks to reveal himself – not an easy thing for anyone to do on stage. It was indeed very funny, mostly because Dalton happily made jokes at his own expense, but it also touched on darker issues such as self-esteem and body image. But it was a treat seeing archival video footage of Dalton performing ‘Believe It Or Not’ as a teenager on Young Talent Time.

Because this was the show’s first full run-through, and because Dalton was clearly enjoying himself on stage, he didn’t realise that the first act ran for almost two hours! Not that it wasn’t entertaining, but it was long. Luckily he kept the second act brisk and according to all reports, tightened up the first act the following night. Still it was a courageous, funny and revealing show for a born entertainer.

Michael Whelan, Glenda and I waiting to test teams' beer sculling talents...

Michael Whelan, Glenda and I waiting to test teams’ beer sculling talents…

The following day was DT’s annual Golden Stiletto Rally around the streets of Richmond, always a fun and out-of-control day. Like previous years, I was accompanying Glenda Waverley at one of the challenge pitstops, this year at Ost Café on Bridge Road. Teams had to volunteer one member to scull a Crownie, which may or may not have been laced with tabasco sauce, and most teams rose easily to the challenge. Bribes were a bit lacking this year (I attribute this to the number of first-timers), but there was a good-natured effort in dressing up and having fun. Some teams performed well, others gave up along the way. Bless.

Glenda is bribed with cream...

Glenda is bribed with cream…

Jonathan Duffy swanning around the streets going Bjork.

Jonathan Duffy swanning around the streets going Bjork.

The following week we were off to Jonathan Duffy’s show at Revolt Artspace, Without Me, I’m Nothing. Essentially it was a one-man show with stand-up comedy and music numbers as Duffy recounts his experiences with showbiz success, especially his documentary The Doctor’s Wife. What was most impressive though was his willingness to make himself completely vulnerable in front of an audience, especially when talking about his early sexual experiences, body image issues and self-doubt. The fact that he stripped down to his underwear for a costume change made his exposure both emotional and physical, and took a lot of guts. It was a funny, brave, poignant and very human show presented with a healthy humour and self-deprecating insight. It was refreshing to see on stage that life as a gay man is complex, and not just about sex, dance parties, Kylie and coming out. And Duffy finished with a wonderfully hilarious finale performing ‘Euphoria’ by Loreen, Sweden’s 2012 Eurovision winner, assisted ably by Daniel Witthaus, kicking off a new career as a back-up dancer. I hope to see more of this type of show in the future.

To finish off our Midsumma marathon, it’s back to diva-channelling with Diamonds Are For Trevor. We’ve seen Trevor Ashley in Liza on an E, Little Orphan Trashley and Priscilla: The Musical, but in this larger-than-life and lavish show, he becomes Dame Shirley Bassey. It was uncanny, and not in mimicking the Girl from Tiger Bay, but by getting to the essence of who Bassey is.

Diamonds Trevor‘Let’s Get This Party Started’ was an obvious but perfect way to start the show, and like all the songs Ashley performed with a 15-piece orchestra, incredibly faithful to Bassey’s own renditions. Other highlights included (as you’d expect), ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, ‘History Repeating’, ‘I Who Have Nothing’, and some amazing frocks, but his ‘Bassey doing Adele doing Bassey’ version of ‘Rolling in the Deep’ was clever and priceless. With talent like that, it’s no wonder Ashley sold out the State Theatre, and the audience clearly loved it. Maybe it was the two standing ovations that gave that away.

It was a perfect end to a varied but rewarding Midsumma Festival, and if this is an indication of the festival’s performing arts future, it’s going to continue to strengthen. Thank goodness – the festival is still an important outlet for queer art and community involvement.

Meeting my Teenage Hero – Peter Davison!

This week, the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular is back in town – and I got to meet and interview the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison! The interviews been published on the Doctor Who News website, but I thought I’d add it here as well, with added photos!

Even though Tom Baker was in the lead role when I became a teenage Doctor Who fan in 1980, Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor was MY Doctor. There was something about his portrayal that I identified with: his youth made him a more accessible ‘hero’ figure than Baker did; his preppy cricketing look influenced my own fashion sense; and his vulnerability was something I could relate to.

Time-flight book

The much-maligned Time-flight in novelisation form – all the way from 1983!

Davison visited Melbourne, Australia in 1983 to attend the Logies, Australia’s TV awards. As a giddy 16-year-old, I took the day off school and went into the city where he was doing a promotional book signing appearance in the department store Myer. In front of quite a crowd of excited fans, he tried hard to look enthusiastic as the matronly Myer book department manager, while chatting with him, gushed about the special effects in ‘Time-flight’, which was having a repeat screening on the ABC at the time, and everyone knew she was talking through her hat – even then, ‘Time-flight’ was considered naff. I did feel a little embarrassed that the book he signed for me was the ‘Time-flight’ paperback, just released, but I was too excited. I was there, on the platform, with THE DOCTOR!

Here's Peter Davison's autograph from 1983...

Here’s Peter Davison’s autograph from 1983…

Fast-forward 31 years, and I receive a media release email from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra publicity department announcing interview opportunities with Davison to promote his role as host of the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular’s Australian and New Zealand tour. Over the years as a freelance writer, I have interviewed many other Doctor Who stars, including Katy Manning, Elisabeth Sladen, Russell T Davies, David Tenant, Matt Smith and Steven Moffat, but this was different. You can imagine my excitement at the prospect of a one-on-one interview with my teenage hero. So I emailed the publicist, explained my position, and was kindly granted an interview with Peter Davison. And here it is.

Tim Hunter: It has been 30 years since your time as the Doctor on TV, but you’ve never really left the role, what with conventions, anniversary specials, audio plays, and now hosting this Symphonic Spectacular. Did you think, back in 1981, that’d you’d still be involved today?

Peter Davison: No. Well, because I really didn’t think that far into the future; you’d realise how old you’d be. I realised when I left it and Colin (Baker) and Sylvester (McCoy) took over that I was still carrying on making appearances as the Doctor, so it was obvious it was going to carry on at least as long as the show did. And I suppose when the show went off the air, I thought it would fade discreetly away, but it didn’t do that, and it’s kept me quite busy. So here we are, the longest-running job in show business.

TH: Do you enjoy it?

PD: I don’t mind it at all now. The good thing about when I left, I managed to move on very quickly to other things, like A Very Peculiar Practice, which meant I was then free to continue my association with Doctor Who; it wasn’t affecting my career, so I felt very happy about doing various things.

TH: Now with the show’s very successful return to TV, and the 50th anniversary last years, there’s obviously been a lot of exposure to the classic series and the new series, including your Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, which was a lot of fun – there are some people say it was more fun than the actual 50th anniversary special –

PD: Yeah!

TH: The thing I liked about it was that everyone was so keen on having fun with it and taking the mickey out of themselves, from yourself and Colin and Sylvester right up to Russell (T Davies), David (Tennant) and Steven (Moffat), which was great. Have you enjoyed that resurgence of interest? Has there been more phone calls and knocks at the door?

PD: Well, I realised that last year was going to be a year of Doctor Who, what with various conventions – we came here with The Four Doctors thing, and I was also filming The Five(ish) Doctors, if not writing and planning it, then getting everything together. Once everyone had agreed to do it, just the nightmare of trying to find a day when we were all in the same country proved to be quite difficult. But everyone was quite keen on doing it and sorting it out, and it all worked out very well. So last year was everything Doctor Who, although I did do two other series last year as well, which quite annoyed Janet Fielding (who played Tegan opposite Davison). But I did spend a lot of time on Doctor Who – which is fine and which I love doing.

TH: Apart from the difference in special effects and budget, do you think the new version of Doctor Who is essentially the same show as it was when you were in the role?

PD: I do think it is the same show. Obviously things have changed; not only the budget, but the fact that there’s so much more you can do with that budget, such as digital effects. The role of the companion has changed somewhat too; we were struggling to come up with a good companion character during my time. The difference is really is that where we had the occasional Doctor Who or science-fiction fan writing for the series, now you have exclusively Doctor Who fans and science fiction writers. The producer now writes an awful lot of the series; Russell wrote a lot and now Steven writes a lot; Mark Gatiss writes a lot, and they are all people who grew up watching the classic series. They haven’t come to it wanting to change it completely; obviously they have to update it, but they want to keep it the same – you couldn’t have a bigger fan of the classic series than Steven Moffat. He is the world’s biggest geek. So while he’s changed the way things are done and added various things, essentially, as far as he’s concerned, he’s making the same series.

TH: So what is it for you that indefinable quality of Doctor Who that remains the same?

PD: It started during my time; I tried bringing an area of uncertainty in the Doctor’s mind about whether what he was doing was the right thing to do. He certainly did everything with the best of intentions, but sometimes those intentions didn’t work out quite as they should have. I think that’s something that’s been built on in the new series; that area of doubt the Doctor has. Things go wrong, and it’s not all the Doctor coming in and going ‘Right, I’m doing this and this’. He’s operating on the skin of his teeth a lot of the time, and I like that. He has to pull himself out of the soup.

TH: And now you’re hosting this Symphonic Spectacular. How did you become involved in it?

Symphonic Spectacular 2014

PD: I was asked to take part in the Doctor Who BBC Proms in the summer, I introduced one segment. It was a great occasion, I loved it, because you go out there, and there’s such a vibrant atmosphere, and hopefully we’ll have the same here. And I was asked then if I would be interested in doing it, and I said yes, certainly. I’m very fond of the idea of what we call classical music, which encompasses a whole lot of orchestral music; it’s not strictly classical, but that’s a finer point. When I was growing up, I did music, and went to a lot of concerts, and early on I was aware of the power of a live symphonic orchestra. It’s something we take for granted; we often hear orchestral music as ‘muzak’, and for young people who don’t go to an orchestral concert, it’s a very good way of letting them hear what it’s like to experience it as a wall of sound.

TH: I attended the Symphonic Spectacular here two years ago, and it is a very vibrant atmosphere. We attended the afternoon session, so there were lots of family and kids, and not only were they thrilled with the live Daleks and Cybermen, but to see them enjoying the music, and the euphoria and emotion the music elicits from you. I was there with my partner and two other friends, and during one of the themes, we were all moved to tears.

PD: Yes, it’s powerful stuff!

TH: And now the orchestrated score is an integral part of the show now; it can be haunting, it can be stirring, it can be frightening, and it can be very moving. How do you respond to it?

PD: Music, in one form or another, has always been very important in Doctor Who. Early on it was the Radiophonic Workshop, which was similarly iconic, although you are limited with what you can do with that. So it’s wonderful that Murray Gold is writing amazing music for the show. Still I think sometimes the irony of music like this is the fact that when you’re watching the programme, it adds to things, but you don’t notice it particularly. What I noticed during rehearsals yesterday that you’re watching the clip, and you have the orchestra just below the screen playing the music, it really brings home to you what it does add to the scene.

TH: Actually last time when I saw it, there was a software glitch, and they were going to play the music live during the clip, and for some reason the clip started but the orchestra weren’t able to join in, so it was interesting watching the clip without any music at all – and the funny thing was that everyone in the audience pulled out their sonic screwdrivers and pointed them at the screen – but when the music finally did start with the clip, it was a really inadvertent but good demonstration of what the music adds to a scene and how the music tells the story, and you don’t realise how important it is. So, you’re hosting, Tom Baker’s doing a clip – is Matt Smith doing one too?

PD: I don’t think he is. He’s obviously on the screen, but he’s not doing something to camera, as far as I know.

TH: Well, he’s done with now anyway.

PD: Exactly. He’s old news. Matt who?

TH: So, any thoughts of what to expect from Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor?

PD: He’s a brilliant actor, and I think he’ll bring a lot, and I’m looking forward to it.

TH: In some ways, he’s in the same boat as you were.

PD: In that he’s different.

TH: Yes, but with All Creatures Great and Small, you were already an established actor, and Capaldi is as well. So like they did with you, and called you Doctor Vet, ha ha ha, they’re doing that with Capaldi and his role in The Thick of It, and saying he’ll be a loud shouty swearing Doctor.

PD: Hahaha, that’d be interesting. Yes, you’re right, and he’s also a complete contrast to the previous Doctor, as I was. But I don’t think there’ll be a problem. My son was very worried because he’s enjoyed dressing up as Matt Smith, but I’m sure it’ll take but a moment and he’ll be won over.

Here's Peter and I - he's looking a bit bemused; which seems appropriate.

Here’s Peter and I – he’s looking a bit bemused; which seems appropriate.

After the interview, Davison agreed to sign a DVD sleeve (‘Castrovalva’ this time, and he marvelled at the ‘Mild Violence’ classification) and have a photo taken with me. I showed him a photo on my phone of my signed copy of ‘Time-flight’ (he remembered the book signing and the crusty matron), we chatted briefly about Melbourne’s crazy hot summer (he’d arrived on a 40 degree day), how Katy Manning was as mad as a cut snake, and how gracious Elisabeth Sladen had been, and then it was over. Even though it was only 20 minutes, Peter was warm, attentive, articulate and candid – just as I expected him to be. I’m just glad I didn’t gush too much, or melt into a fan-geek mess. So thank you, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, not only for the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular, but for allowing me to me MY Doctor.

And Peter's 2014 autograph.  His handwriting hasn't changed a bit!

And Peter’s 2014 autograph. His handwriting hasn’t changed a bit!

Great Film Expectations met and missed

Every now and then, a film pops up that has a really interesting pedigree, and actually lives up to all expectations. Stoker is one of those films. Elysium isn’t.

Let’s talk about the second film first. Elysium is the follow-up to South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, a sci-fi film that was highly original and caught everyone by surprise. This is his first big budget Hollywood film, and while there’s some weight in the presence of Matt Damon and Jodie Foster in the cast, ultimately it all feels quite thin.

Come on, I had to include this gratuitous shot of Matt Damon undressed...

Come on, I had to include this gratuitous shot of Matt Damon undressed…

Elysium starts off promisingly enough. It’s the year 2154, Earth is overcrowded, and the rich and beautiful have created a lovely new life for themselves on the space station Elysium, while the poor and common struggle to live and work in overcrowded conditions with little in the way of money or benefits. As a vision of the future, it’s both fresh and not as far-fetched as many other celluloid scenarios. Blomkamp’s uncompromising gritty and grimy representation of the future does carry some credibility, and the concepts are reminiscent of quite a few Doctor Who stories. I was reminded of 1971’s Colony in Space, 1975’s The Ark in Space; there were echoes of the Cybermen, a touch of 1984’s The Caves of Androzani, and the David Tennant stories New Earth (2006) and Gridlock (2007). And Elysium was remarkably similar stylistically to the setting of The Girl Who Waited (2011).

RoboCop, Terminator, Borg or Cyberman? Take your pick as Damon gets ready for the big shoot-em-up finale.

RoboCop, Terminator, Borg or Cyberman? Take your pick as Damon gets ready for the big shoot-em-up finale.

The trouble is that the actual plot of the film doesn’t hold up to extended scrutiny. Max (Damon) and his story arc, exposed to lethal radiation and forced to don a computersied exo-skeleton to carry out a perilous trip to Elysium in the hope of ridding himself of the radiation (they have machines up there that diagnose and cure or heal humans of all injuries, diseases and conditions, naturally), are so heavily sognposted, it’s more like a Join-the-dots puzzle. And Foster, as the cold and ambitious Delacourt, is wofeully underused. But most disappointingly, the film’s climax is a full-blown CGI chase and fight sequence filled with numerous explosions, plenty of gunfire and an alarming body count, and what started out as an intelligent and intriguing premise ended up just as another Hollywood sci-fi action film. Which is disappointing.

Jodie Foster's looking good, but criminally underused.

Jodie Foster’s looking good, but criminally underused.

Not disappointing at all is Stoker, which is great news, because on paper, it sounds too good to be true. With the Ridley brothers Tony and Scott as producers, a script from newly-out Wentworth Miller and directed by Korean Chang-wook Park – his first English language film, it stars Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode, with a small part played by Jackie Weaver.

Grief-stricken Evelyn and India at the funeral. Evelyn's grief is short-lived once Charles arrives...

Grief-stricken Evelyn and India at the funeral. Evelyn’s grief is short-lived once Charles arrives…

Essentially it’s a psychological thriller, an American Gothic tale that has more than a touch of Hitchcock about it, especially Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and a shower scene reference to Psycho (1960), and a whoile lot of style. At the funeral of her much-loved father, India (Wasikowska) metts her far-too-charming uncle Charles (Goode), who she never knew existed before that day. India’s mother Evelyn (Kidman) takes a shine to Charles, but the truth behind him, and the sudden death of his brother are shrouded in mystery. Of course.

Evelyn has trouble coming to grips with her brother-in-law Charles.

Evelyn has trouble coming to grips with her brother-in-law Charles.

We may have seen variations on this theme before, but the style, the storytelling, and the performances in Stoker make a formidable combination. It’s interesting that for a standard American story, all the key players are not. A Korean director working with two Australian and one British leads are detached enough from the cultural and stylistic baggage than an American cast and director would have brought with them.

Wasikowska is mesmerising as the introverted and troubled 18-year-old, Kidman is statuesque amnd jaded, and makes good use of her own looks and icy reputation, and Goode’s smooth elegance works perfectly and makes his character a truly complex beast.

The very suave but mysterious Uncle Charles.

The very suave but mysterious Uncle Charles.

So thank goodness for films like Stoker, that demonstrate how remarkable collaborations can work, and show up films like Elysium that just miss the mark. But then, that’s the nature of filmmaking – there is no real and idiot-proof rule book. And that’s a good thing.