The Age

My epic year with Lawrence of Arabia

Author: MICHAEL SHMITH
Date: 11/01/2014
Words: 1525
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: Summer Age
Page: 22
Proust may have had a nibble of tisane-soaked madeleine to bring back his past, but I had a whole film: 227 minutes or so of Lawrence of Arabia, which I saw again, for the first time in many years, only a couple of weeks ago to honour the death of Peter O'Toole. It is a movie I first saw in the summer of 1963, when I was 14. It transformed the plains of hot and dusty old Melbourne into the Sinai desert.

In fact, I saw Lawrence far more than just the once. Over that year, I think I visited Melbourne-Arabia at least 20 times. It probably worked out that I spent longer watching the film than Lawrence spent in Arabia. This pilgrimage (the precursor, I guess, to the Wagner fixation that would come years later) was to the long-demolished Chelsea cinema in Flinders Street, just west of the Forum, across Hosier Lane, which was graffiti-free and not advisable for short-cuts.

The Chelsea was a traditional picture palace whose provenance dated back to 1915, when it was called the Majestic. By the time Lawrence opened there, in November 1963, the Chelsea had long been refurbished to cater for the age of 70mm, when screens were wider-than-wide and (pre-Dolby, this) the sound spat and hissed forth from speakers concealed throughout the capacious auditorium. The Chelsea screened big, long movies in the tradition of Spartacus and 55 Days at Peking. David Lean's masterpiece therefore found a natural home. Even the curtains were sand-coloured. By intermission (it was that sort of film in that sort of time), I could knock back, without flinching, two Cokes, a lime milkshake and a Streets Heart.

It is still a mystery to me why I became hooked on Lawrence of Arabia. Indeed, it took many years before I could fathom the story of the film. I can tell you the plot in a sentence: T.E. Lawrence, who extinguishes matches between his thumb and index-finger, goes to Arabia, leads Arabs to victory over the Turks, comes home, dies in motorcycle accident (this happens first in the film). Along the way, Lawrence upsets his British lords and masters, is beaten by a sadistic Turkish bey, hangs out a lot with Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn, orders two glasses of lemonade in the officers' club in Cairo, and, astride a camel, charges into battle clothed in ever-white Arabian robes and headdress.

Did the deeper details of T.E Lawrence's curious life really matter to me then? Did I care if he was homosexual? I didn't even know how to spell it, let alone what it meant. All I knew was that Lawrence of Arabia was a marvellous film, and its heavenly length provided solace on those many magical afternoons at the Chelsea. While outside, Melbourne's humdrum life went on, inside, I was catching up yet again with the invasion of Aqaba across the Nefud desert.

But the summer of '63 was not entirely devoted to Lawrence's campaigns. Indeed, I was deeply involved in a campaign of my own: stuck halfway up Mount Macedon, trying to be an actor.

By comparison, Lawrence had it easy. Or at least Peter O'Toole did; in striking it lucky with his first film, he spent the rest of his career trying to elude the role that made him. He was a great actor, that's for sure, but for me he will be for ever T.E.

As for me, my one, and so far only, acting role has been the Professor. This pseudo-intellectual prodigy in check-shirt, jeans, slouch hat and glasses with no glass in the frames was one of the so-called Terrible Ten - a television series filmed in and around Macedon in the early 1960s, with interiors shot at GTV9's Richmond studios. I joined the cast (there were never 10 of us, by the way: we just looked busy) in mid-1962. By that time, the show was in its second series, and its name had been changed to The Ten Again.

That great pioneer of Australian children's television, the late Roger Mirams, was the genius responsible not only for The Ten Again, but a string of series that included The Magic Boomerang and Adventures of the Seaspray. He was always "Mr Mirams" to us, and only much, much later, when we had a reunion in the late 1980s, did I call him, with great effort, "Roger".

The idea behind The Ten Again can also be told in a sentence: 10 children from a country town called Wallaby Creek build a town out of wooden packing cases that signifies their quest for a perfect world and something to do at weekends. In various episodes, the Ten got into all sorts of scrapes. We fought bushfires, saved runaway children, raced a souped-up jalopy around Calder Raceway, were marooned on a raft at Half Moon Bay, and tried (but failed) to launch a space rocket. The budget for the series was minuscule, with every expense spared. One old Holden station wagon served duty as cop car, ambulance and, I think at one stage, a hearse. Our salaries, though, were not that bad. I received #2 a day. I imagine the adult actors got slightly more.

Who cared that we weren't on the same money as John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe? I know I didn't. What The Ten Again did for me was beyond price: it brought me into contact with a creative and energetic and mad world - half make-believe, half reality - that would determine the person I would become.

Where else would I have had the chance to learn to ride a horse, not look at the camera, how to use a clapper-board, look out for the microphone at the top of frame, and employ at least some method acting by attempting to look intelligent. I was not seeking to be an Olivier, but the few years I spent in my professorial role (for obvious reasons, not one viewed through rose-coloured glasses), encouraged my own creative side - even if I was to turn away from acting.

In truth - this is based on watching surviving fragments of my performances - I was an excruciating actor. My biggest problem was learning lines. Even today, the sight of a script instils brain-numbing fear: Pavlov's dialogue. It's like one of those dreams where you're on stage and the audience is silently waiting for the line you know you can never deliver. The Professor might have been a childhood genius - Ten Town's acting mayor, chief justice, chemist, psychologist, architect, etc - but his memory for scripts was tragic. I doubt if any of my scenes is longer than a minute-and-a-half.

In 1964, Ten Town moved location, and Pacific Films moved holus-bolus to Woodend, establishing a studio in the old Mechanics' Institute. We stayed next door, at the old Devon Lodge, and (very Ten-like) waged gang wars with the local kids who thought we were all a bunch of city tossers. I had to ask Mr Mirams what "tosser" meant, and he said, "Oh, don't be silly". He wore the same expression as he did when he discovered we had refilled an empty pineapple juice tin with a similar-hued, but warmer liquid.

By early 1965, I became Professor emeritus. Previously, The Ten Again had been shot in black-and-white; but the company was about to launch into a full-length movie in colour, which was about three times the cost per foot. Besides, there was a starlet recruited from daytime television who had to be paid properly. I'm not sure if Olivia Newton-John appreciated the efforts involved. Therefore, the Professor's absent-minded script-recall had simply become a luxury the company could no longer afford. I found out from one of my colleagues in the late summer of '64. "You're not in the film," he said.

It was a thunderbolt. I recovered, with few after-effects. Most of the rest of the Ten went on to jobs outside acting: one became a policeman, another an economist who ended up running Westpac (yes, David Morgan, that's you), and one who moved to the US years ago and is still one of my best friends. That's Rodney Pearlman, whose screen role as Bubla, the smallest man in the world, was no impediment to his walking tall as a PhD and genetic scientist. There was professor material in us all.

It was a funny time, when I think back on it. Although over several summers acting changed me and made me bolder and more inquisitive about the world, I knew it would never be the profession of a lifetime. I was certainly no Peter O'Toole.

But he was an actor through and through. I was a dabbler. Yet, even O'Toole had a begrudging admiration for his craft. As he said, "The love of it is great, huge and it will be with me for ever. I blundered into it, found I could do it well. It has raised me from nothing into something, not a lot, but something. If you do something well and you enjoy it, what more can you bloody well ask?"

This makes me wish - even five decades later - I had been better at it.

 
 
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