After I first Ieft home I never watched much television. It was as though I had absorbed as much as I needed from Route 66, Combat, The Fugitive and The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, so that my own life thereafter could become a sort of canvas on which to apply and test the profound lessons to be gleaned from the home-spun American experts starring in those shows.
But, it’s funny how things that go around tend to come around again and, these days, I find myself struggling to imagine what to do in the evenings when, for the intervening years, I would have been so busy, out and about doing this and dodging that. Of late, we have become addicted to The Good Fight — which I would describe as The Wolf of Wall Street for the faint-hearted, since neither of us even try to follow it, assuming that it embraces no inherent coherence whatsoever. Perhaps I’m missing something but it seems to be little more than an amusing pastiche of weird, chaotic one-liners to fill up 60 minutes on cold evenings.
The sentimental in both of us has also been drawn to a recent addition to the ABC stable, The Recording Room, wherein all sorts of wannabes and once-weres make a pilgrimage to the ABC studios at the Ultimo Centre to lay down tracks of their favourite pieces — for family, posterity, the scrapbook, or whatever it is that touches the music in their souls. One of the recent showings was quite memorable, when we saw Toni Lamond, now well into her 80s recording (sitting down!) ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ for her middle-aged son, the very song she had wowed them with 60 years earlier as the star of Oliver. It was an awesome moment to hear her hit the high notes without the hint of a crack in her voice.
To us though, the star of the episode was a 15-year-old named Sam Sargood from Tambo, a tiny town in western Queensland (not far — by bush standards, that is — from Barcaldine) who wanted to record the country song ‘Head Over Boots’ for his family, who proudly travelled the 1,400 kliks to Sydney with him. It was inspiring to watch the production gurus in Studio 227 drawing out the potential of this lad, so successfully that you could visibly see the young man emerge from the boy as his confidence grew. Not only did one admire Sam’s determination and the professionalism and sensitivity of the musoes, but it was also a gentle reminder of how much better it is to encourage than to criticise.
Mulling over it later, I could not help but remember an epochal moment in the brief interlude that was my own musical education, when I had foolishly taken part in various amateur opera productions scattered across the suburbs of Sydney. By this time I had done a few shows with one particular company whose director was a former professional with a CV that included performances in Britain but, alas, he was well past it before we aspiring tyros darkened his doorstep. We often wondered why he kept going, especially as the standard of the productions was in visible decline, along with his own singing ability.
It was during this unfortunate phase that we were ‘doing’ The Marriage of Figaro and a group of us were watching sullenly from the wings while the lead tenor was being put through his paces on stage, leaping around like a balletic elephant, cape flowing from his back, his sword waving frantically like a light saver in an electrical storm, when Doctor Bartolo leaned across to me and in his dense Spanish accent, wickedly inquired: “Senor Count, ees zat Superman?”
The ensuing peals of tension-relieving laughter were cut short by the appearance before us of the director, his face contorted with rage and disgust. Barely able to control his words, he spat at us: “Don’t you people understand it’s an honour to sing Mozart?” As we used to say when I was a teenager, you felt so small you could dangle your legs over the side of a five-cent piece without touching the ground.
Well, if any effect was intended by the director, it certainly happened, for a bedraggled, rag-tag pack of whingers instantly became a cast transformed. We put our own beings into the production, even throwing ourselves into Mozart’s sublime ensembles as though a thousand years of culture must be transmitted through our own very-average throats and diaphragms.
I don’t know what the audience thought of it, and I do remember a prominent judge staring in bemusement, but it brought tears to our own eyes as we concluded the performance with that most heart-rending finale that begins when the rakish count seeks the forgiveness of his oft-cuckolded wife: Contessa perdono, perdono, perdono. Pure magic.
Since that moment, I’ve never been one to belittle the best intentions of the amateur, which puts me neatly at odds with the most powerful impulse of our times — the adulation of the celebrity. It seems to me that only when what they celebrate — beside themselves, of course — has any intrinsic value, something special that we can still admire long after we leave their suffocating aura, can there be anything worth a second glance in the celebrity culture.
Hats off to the folks in Studio 227 who recognise that it is the belief and the process that matter, enriching lives and setting an example, not of arrogant success or the relegation of the also-rans to the status of mere cheer-squad members, but of trying and trying and trying again. Above all, of actually having a go, instead of pontificating about it.