Bats, Vampires, and What We Do in the Shadows

Dusk, and the screen is soon to be lowered at Shadow Electric. Then the bats come out, hundreds of them, flying overhead. Unfortunately, it was too dark by then to get an image. Picture: ©Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

Dusk, and the screen is soon to be lowered at Shadow Electric. Then the bats come out, hundreds of them, flying overhead. Unfortunately, it was too dark by then to get an image. Picture: ©Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

As dusk was turning to night around 9pm, the screen was lowered and lit up. At the same moment, hundreds of bats filled the inky sky above the outdoor cinema.
Apparently, this happens every night at Shadow Electric Outdoor Cinema and Bar at the old Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne, Australia. But the bats seemed double spooky on this particular night, because the film we had come to see was the New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows.
Spooky, funny and ironic—the bats AND the movie.
Directed by Taika Waititi (Boy) and Jemaine “Flight of the Conchords” Clement, who also star in it, the film has received rave reviews and has been acclaimed at international festivals.
If you don’t already know, What We Do in the Shadows is about a group of vampires who share an apartment (“flat” in NZ talk) in Wellington. Rather than on plot, the film relies on its quirky hilarity and the juxtaposition of characters from classic European horror removed to far-off suburban NZ.
It’s not often I laugh aloud at a film at all, let alone from start to finish. But barely a minute of this 90-minute film went by when I didn’t LOL. It has a Pythonesque quality in that its comedy comes from a combination of clever lines, strangely lovable characters and utterly ridiculous slapstick.

One of my favourite lines is when the vampires, out for a night on the town, come across a gang of their arch enemies, the werewolves. Riled by the vampires, the werewolves utter some expletives, but are quickly reprimanded by their leader and agree with him not to swear: “We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves”, is their mantra.


I can hardly be said to be an objective observer, however, since the main reason I went to the film is because one of my oldest, dearest friends has a role in it. The New Zealand actor Yvette Parsons plays a witch MC at the masquerade ball towards the end of the film. It was exciting to see her up there on the big screen, and to hear the rest of the audience laughing uproariously, like me, at her comedic performance.
What We Do in the Shadows premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the US last year, and was named best comedy of the year by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian in November. Read his review here.
The film opens in Japan this week, and the producers are hoping to have it released in the US also. Good luck to them! There’s more on the film on their hilarious Facebook page.

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Long-ago interviews No. 3: David Soul and the difficult question

My TV Week story from August 6, 1994.

My TV Week story from August 6, 1994.

When I was a child in the 1970s, one of the cool American shows we all loved was Starsky and Hutch, starring Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul as Southern Californian detectives who were an unbeatable team.
I always liked Kenneth “Hutch” Hutchinson (Soul) best, though Starsky was the more stylish of the two with his chunky belted cardigan.
Starsky was the envy of young men everywhere, as was his Ford Gran Torino: one of my friends even bought a car painted like Starsky’s car, bright red with a white vector stripe along each side.
Anyway, many years later, when I was a reporter at TV Week magazine in Australia, I had the opportunity to interview one of my idols: Hutch—actor David Soul—was coming to town.
It was 1994 and Soul was no longer a big TV star, though he was still acting in films, still singing and writing. He had moved into directing, with episodes of Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues and China Beach to his credit.
Multi-skilled Soul had also gone into stage work, and at the time I interviewed him, was touring Australia and New Zealand with the play Blood Brothers.
Anyway, to me, he was still the star of Starsky and Hutch, so for the TV Week interview and photo shoot, I had a problem: though our amazing photographers always somehow made the stars look glamorous, our “studio” was a dreary, makeshift garage with a roller-door, in a back street behind our building’s car park.
There was no fridge, so you could only make instant black coffee or tea, though there was a shop over the road (which meant we then had to pay for refreshments ourselves).
The studio was cold and uninviting, and the door to the bathroom didn’t close.
Anyway, I had been told Soul and his PR person would meet us at the studio at the appointed time. I wondered if they’d find it, so, in case they came to the front of the building, I alerted the security guard at reception.
“If a guy comes in here looking for me, he’s an actor I’m interviewing and we’re round in the studio, so could you please direct him round there?” I said.
“Sure,” he said. “What’s his name?”
“David Soul.”
He laughed. “Well that’s a name I won’t forget,” he said. “What a coincidence. Like the Starsky and Hutch guy.”
“Not only that—he really is that David Soul!” I said. The security guard saw all the stars come and go and was usually nonplussed, but he was suitably impressed by this name.
Anyway, at the time Soul was due to arrive, I was back in the studio as the photographer set up for the shoot. The hair and makeup artist also awaited his arrival.
I thought I’d duck out the roller door to see if he was coming.
He was. In true Hutch style, he was strolling down the street in a black shirt and blue jeans, jacket slung over his shoulder, sunglasses on, and smoking a large cigar.
Yes, this was certainly a bit of Hollywood in West Melbourne.
I was quaking in my high heels a bit, as I knew I had to ask him some difficult questions about his history of alcohol abuse and violence (he had been ordered by the court to stop drinking and undertake two years’ therapy in the 1980s for assaulting his then-wife Patti Sherman).
I asked that the room be cleared while I conducted the interview. So it was just him and me.
What I found was a personable being who answered all my questions openly and candidly. It was and is quite unusual, for a start, for a big-name actor to agree to an interview without a minder being present.
Anyway, I asked him about alcohol and his violence, and what he had done to change his ways.
“The problem was never really alcohol,” he told me. “It was anger, hurt, loneliness, being misunderstood. Alcohol never dominated my life, but it is a mind-altering substance. I think I can honestly say I’ve become much more circumspect and much less desperate a man. With that, the problems themselves become easier to deal with.”
Then aged 50, Soul had four ex-wives and six children aged six to 30. He has since married for a fifth time, in 2010 to Helen Snell, whom he met in 2002 while working on another play, Death Trap, in the UK. I can’t find anything much about her, so I’m presuming she’s not an actor. Soul emigrated to England not long after I interviewed him and became a British citizen in 2004. Hilariously, he and Glaser returned to the screen in cameo roles parodying themselves in the 2004 adaptation of Starsky and Hutch as a feature film starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson.
But back to my interview with Soul in 1994. He had some interesting observations about fame, which he had experienced not only as an actor, but as a singer of mega-hits in the late 1970s such as Silver Lady and Don’t Give Up On Us.
“Celebrity is a bunch of crap, because it keeps you from seeing who you are as a person,” he told me.

“Fame is a fleeting thing. It can be here today and gone tomorrow. I’m still around.”
And that dreary photographic studio-garage I was worried about? He liked it! “I’ve been working in the theatre for years,” he said. “There’s certainly no glamour in the theatre and I don’t expect or want it.”

Long ago interviews #2: the celebrity who cared

 

There's my interview with Tim Ferguson for Don't Forget Your Toothbrush. You can just see it on the upper left of this collage of stories I did for TV Week in the 1990s

There’s my interview with Tim Ferguson for Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush. You can just see it on the upper left of this collage of stories I did for TV Week in the 1990s

You know when you’re miserable with a cold, but you either can’t take the day off work, or you have something so important to do, you couldn’t possibly stay home unless you were unconscious?

Through much of the 1990s, I worked as a journalist for TV Week magazine, which was then Australia’s highest selling entertainment weekly. One day, I had an interview scheduled with Tim Ferguson, a comedy star who had been part of the very famous and edgy group The Doug Anthony All Stars, which had toured nationally and internationally and had appeared regularly on TV.

DAAS had broken up, but Ferguson now had his own quirky game show series, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush. Modeled on the hit British show of the same name, it involved cheesy games and random travel destinations. Here’s a picture from the very kitsch launch party at Channel 9. I’m the one in the middle. Ferguson, smart man, does not appear in this photo.

Toothbrush-1995Anyway, in conjunction with the launch of this show, on another day I was to do an interview with Ferguson. This particular day, I had a heavy head cold, but we needed the interview for the next edition, and I couldn’t really get out of it. So I struggled on.

The interview was difficult: the cold was at its peak, and I had to keep leaving the room to blow my nose and cough. This was mortifying for me, such is the vanity of youth. I was rarely ill and saw it as a failing on my part. If only I’d known then what I know now about what Ferguson himself was going through privately.

Now, most celebrities, if you turn up with a cold, will look horrified, because they don’t want to catch it themselves. Witness the reaction of Katy Perry to Australian interviewer Jackie Frank when Frank reveals she has a cold (“Are you *gulp* contagious?”):

Ferguson, however, was different. “You poor thing,” he said. “I think you need Lemsip.”

He couldn’t believe I had no idea what this was. For the record, it’s a concoction of lemon-flavoured medication you add hot water to and drink. (This is not product placement, by the way, but it still does exist!).

Anyway, later that day, a package arrived for me: it was a packet of Lemsip and a cartoon by Ferguson that I still have, of me trying to do an interview with a cold. Well, I know I still have it somewhere. Unfortunately, with our recent move, lots of things whose whereabouts I thought I knew are not where I thought they were. Well, if I find it, I will update this post.

Little did I know back in 1995 that just the year before, Ferguson had been diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis), and of course had a huge upheaval in his life at the time because of it, including having to break up the fabulous group DAAS, because their touring and stage performances were too physically demanding. Beside what he was going through, my silly little cold seems just an embarrassment.

Ferguson kept the condition to himself and didn’t reveal it publicly until about 2010. But in his typical way, he has made the best of it, writing, lecturing and speaking, and even making light of his condition, performing a one-man show about life with MS called Carry A Big Stick. You can read more about his inspiring story here.

So thanks, Tim Ferguson: besides your talent and tenacity, you are officially the nicest, most empathetic celebrity I ever interviewed.

Felix, that wonderful cat with his bag of tricks

There are some animated characters that stay with you all your life. I was never much of a Mickey Mouse fan. My favourite character was always Felix the Cat.

The cartoons were very old when I was a child, being made in the 1920s, long before even my mother was born, but great animation always remains so. The song was what got me, too, and the idea of having a bag of tricks that you could reach into whenever you got “in a fix”.

I went to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) at Melbourne’s Federation Square recently. Having an interest in the history of film and TV, I kept meaning to go, and never quite got there. Fortuitously, this outing was part of a class trip I had to take some students on.

ACM’s permanent exhibition, Screen Worlds, is free, and it is packed with films, sound, interactive opportunities and memorabilia. How delighted I was to come across this little fella, then. Yes, it’s Felix, and it reminded me that it was an Australian cartoonist and silent film maker, Pat Sullivan, who was one of the originators of Felix.

Felix

This is controversial: although Sullivan (c1887-1933) was the owner of the character and the producer, he always said he had originated Felix.  US critics have usually credited his American employee, Otto Messmer as the original animator, but an Australian Broadcasting Corporation show, Rewind, in 2004 seems to have confirmed Sullivan as the originator. Whatever, Messmer and Sullivan drew the comic strip, which started in 1923, with another American animator, Joe Oriolo, later replacing Messmer. It was Oriolo who gave Felix his famous bag of tricks.

Felix started out as a character in the silent film short Feline Follies (1919), before being adapted for print and syndicated in hundreds of newspapers. He was around long before Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse. Ironically, a mouse often being the target of a cat, it was the popularity of Mickey Mouse that led to Felix’s demise in the 1930s, before he was reinvigorated by Oriolo for US TV in the 1950s and given that magic bag of tricks.

Some trivia: the original voice of Felix in the 1930s was performed by Mae Kwestel (1908-1998), who also did the voices of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl. She appears to be the only woman to have voiced Felix, with at least eight male actors to have played Felix over the decades.

Interestingly, DreamWorks Animation acquired the rights to the character this month (June 2014), with CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg quoted as saying his company will make Felix into ‘one of the most desired fashion brands in the world.” Oh no! I was hoping for a new Felix cartoon series also starring Felix’s nephews Inky and Winky.

For the record, Felix the Cat was ranked number 28 in TV Guide’s list of the “50 greatest cartoon characters of all time” in 2002. Well, Felix is still number one for me.

 

Sources:

ABC http://www.abc.net.au/tv/rewind/txt/s1229985.htm

ACMI http://www.acmi.net.au/screen_worlds.aspx

Felix the Cat official website http://www.felixthecat.com/history.html

The Wrap http://www.thewrap.com/dreamworks-animation-acquires-felix-the-cat/

Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felix_the_Cat

Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Sullivan_%28film_producer%29

 

Where are they now? Aussie stars of 1994

Through much of the 1990s, except for four years in Thailand, I worked for TV Week, which was then Australia’s biggest selling entertainment magazine (more than 500,000 copies a week). We also ran the TV Week Logie Awards (“the Logies”), which were, and still are, screened on Channel 9.

The Logies—named after the Scottish inventor of the TV set, John Logie Baird—were a big deal in those days, akin to the Emmys in the US. The televised live event was always one of the highest-rating shows of the year.

Of course, it is an invitation-only event, and in those days, we TV Week reporters received our own invitation and entered via the red carpet like anyone else. (Unlike the stars, however, we had to return to the office about midnight and write our stories. Later though, we were able to return to the all-night parties, and we got a hotel room each thrown in).

Logies

When I moved house recently, I found my invitation to the 1994 Logies, pictured above. It’s poster sized, came in a tube (which I still store it in) and featured illustrations of some of the top stars of the day.

It’s interesting, 20 years on, to see their younger selves and to reflect on the industry. Some of them are, sadly, no longer with us, including the irreplaceable actor Ruth Cracknell (left, next to my name), who I had the pleasure of interviewing about that time and who won the peer-voted award that year for Most Outstanding Actress. She died in 2002, aged 76.

The other who has gone is Graeme “Shirley” Strachan (bottom, third from right), lead singer of the 1970s group Skyhooks, who had become a lifestyle-show host. He was killed in 2001 at the aged of 49 when the helicopter he was flying crashed on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

There are many in this poster whose careers kicked on and who are still involved in the media or entertainment industries, I’m pleased to say: Garry McDonald, (Most Outstanding Actor), John Farnham, Georgie Parker, Wendy Harmer, Andrew Denton, Ian “Molly” Meldrum, Gary Sweet and Sonia Todd (Most Popular Actor and Actress, respectively, for Police Rescue), Red Symons, Melissa George (Most Popular New Talent), Libbi Gorr (as Elle McFeast), Ernie Dingo, Rob Sitch, Natalie Imbruglia. Cricketer Shane Warne, then aged 25, is there in his hey-day, too.

Ray Martin (centre right) not only hosted the show, he won statuettes for Most Popular Light Entertainment Personality and the big one, the Gold Logie for Most Popular Personality on Australian Television. He won many Logies, but he once told me every single one of them was precious to him and he loved winning them.

At centre left is Daryl Somers, host of the long-running show Hey Hey It’s Saturday, which ran for 27 years before being cancelled in 1999. Somers and the show made a short-lived comeback in 2010.

There are others there who we thought were big stars at the time but who perform only occasionally now or who have gone on to other things: Kimberley Davies, Dieter Brummer, Bruce Samazan, Scott Michaelson.

There are a few glaring omissions: It’s extraordinary that Bert Newton isn’t pictured. One of the best known Australian entertainers, then as now, he had hosted the show 18 times, including the year before.

The other omission is the great actor Bud Tingwall (1923-2009), who was inducted into the TV Week Logies Hall of Fame that year.

Agatha Christie and “the quiet moments of everyday life”

In her enormously entertaining self-titled autobiography, the 20th-century mystery writer Agatha Christie discusses a letter she rediscovered in old age that had been written to her by her father about Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

Forgotten by Christie: Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, 1897. Picture courtesy National Maritime Museum from Greenwich, UK, via Wikimedia Commons

Forgotten by Christie: Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, 1897. Picture courtesy National Maritime Museum from Greenwich, UK, via Wikimedia Commons

Young Agatha’s grandmother had arranged to take the six-year-old girl to the jubilee procession on June 22, celebrating 60 years of the Queen’s reign. Agatha’s father, who was away in the US at the time, remarks in the letter how lucky his daughter is to see “this wonderful show”, as he refers to it. “I know you will never forget it,” he adds.

Christie comments wryly: “My father lacked the gift of prophecy, because I have forgotten it. How maddening children are! When I look back to the past, what do I remember? Silly little things about local sewing-women, the bread twists I made in the kitchen, the smell of Colonel F.’s breath—and what do I forget? A spectacle that somebody paid a great deal of money for me to see and remember. I feel very angry with myself. What a horrible, ungrateful child!”

Mary_Cassatt_Young_Mother_Sewing

Remembered by Christie: sewing women. This painting, “Young Mother Sewing” (1900), is by the impressionist painter Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

She goes on to write much about memories from childhood that stuck most in her mind: a field of buttercups, the smell of lime trees and grass. The happiest memories, she says, “are almost always the quiet moments of everyday life”.

I agree with her: my most vivid memories are tiny snapshots, seemingly randomly selected from the millions that make up a life. I remember, for example, aged about 8 and going through what was then called a “tomboy” stage, running inside, highly excited, after playing “cowboys and Indians” (in our ignorant way then and meaning no disrespect, but emulating the movies of the day). My nana, who was visiting, exclaimed, “Gosh, you look exactly like a cowgirl!” I beamed with pride: it seemed like the most wonderful thing anyone had ever said to me.

Years before that, I remember the live televised coverage of the lunar landing in 1969, when the astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. It was extraordinary not just for the event itself, but for the amazing feat of broadcasting, which British broadcaster and science historian James Burke has called “the greatest media event of all time”.

In fact, I don’t actually remember the coverage itself very much because of something else that happened. My father must have got us all to sit in the living room and watch the event, but I didn’t understand why we had to sit so still or why it was important, even though it had been explained to me.

Suddenly, I thought of something more interesting to tell Dad, and, at what must have been a crucial part of the broadcast, I started yabbering on.

Uncharacteristically, he spoke very sharply to me, told me to keep quiet, and saying didn’t I realise this would be one of the most important events in history? I was so upset, I couldn’t speak for hours—upset and mystified as to why my lovely daddy had cut me off when he was usually so interested in what I had to say, why he would rather watch something on TV than listen to me. I was so upset, I didn’t really see or hear the event itself. I can still feel my hurt today, all these decades later. Funnily enough, when I mentioned it to my dad many years later, he didn’t remember me interrupting, but he vividly remembered watching the exciting telecast (grainy and in black and white as it was).

With thanks to the novelist Angela Savage, not only for urging me to read Agatha Christie’s autobiography, but for acquiring a copy of it for me. I’m 110 pages into the 551-page tome, and enjoying it immensely. Thanks again, Angela!

John Lennon —- conspiracy theories, a new photo and an imagined audition

What if John Lennon auditioned for The Voice? It’s true, these shows do foster a rather conventional idea of what a popular singer should be, a bit like saying that the only valid art is realism.

Bryan Patterson's Faithworks

John-Lennon-2297592

JOHN Winston Ono Lennon’s 73rd birthday today coincides with the publication in Britain of a rare Lennon and McCartney picture (above) taken a year before they hit the big time. The two were photographed in the summer of 1961, a year before the Beatles scored a record deal and became, well, rock and roll history.

MEANWHILE

A new US poll reveals that 12 per cent of American voters believe the government was engaged in the assassination of Lennon.

This supports the theory that you can get 12 percent of people to agree to just about anything.

MEANWHILE

Some smart cookie imagines what would happen if a young Lennon auditioned for The Voice.

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I, Robot or, “Danger, Will Robinson! (“Exterminate! EXTERMINATE!)

The Space-Robo, made in Japan by Tomy, 1969.

The Space Robo, made in Japan by Tomy, 1969, and bought for my brother.

When I was a kid, robots were all the rage. Before the digital age, before the time of personal computers, they had a kind of mystique about them.

This was encouraged by the romanticisation of robots on screen as either heroes or villains. The loyal bodyguard-type robot in the 1960s series Lost in Space, which I saw in endless repeats in the 1970s, was endearing and long-suffering, as Dr Smith referred to him variously as a “Neanderthal ninny”, a “blithering booby”,  a “nickel-plated Nincompoop”, a “tintinnabulating tin can” and many more sensational insults (you can see more of them here).

On the other hand, the robot-like daleks in Dr Who were just about the scariest things ever to me as a child. This is one of the earliest TV series I remember—and I didn’t even watch it. In fact, I refused to watch it with Dad, so horrified was I by it and everything about it—even the opening music. In the middle of the night, I sometimes awoke, imagining a dalek was coming to get me, screaming “Exterminate! EXTERMINATE!” as it came inescapably closer. Interestingly, although the daleks appeared to be robots, they were actually supposed to be cyborgs, that is a biological entity enclosed by a protective metal shell. Whatever—to me, they were robots.

Then there was the demonic H.A.L. 9000 in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey (“Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose any more. Goodbye”), which I didn’t see until the 1980s. Today in 2013, H.A.L.’s most chilling lines are featured on a phone app I have.

We imagined, in the 1970s, that by the year 2000, real robots would be attending to our every need. Robot servants would be cooking and cleaning for us, so we were free to go off to school or work in our personal flying car. Blame The Jetsons for that one!

I was reminded of “the robot age” of the mid-to-late 20th century yesterday, when I visited my mother. I happened to go into her spare room, where she stores toys from her three children’s youths. I spotted the robot pictured above, and it brought back memories of long ago. This one belonged to my late brother Phillip, and came complete with flashing lights and battery-powered action.

While researching this story, I came across The Old Robots Web Site, dedicated to the first wave of robotics. It includes an impressive array of “educational and personal robots” from the 1940s-90s, which you can see here. On this website, I discovered that the robot at my mum’s house is a Space Robo from 1969, made in Japan by Tomy, and part of the “Lighted Magic Dial” series.

We were living in England then, but Dad had been on a business trip to New York, and I think it was probably there that he bought the Space Robo, which is now, apparently, a rare collector’s item. I wish we had kept the box!