One of my early cartoons created a big hoohar. Gough and Margaret Whitlam were in China, when a big earthquake struck the town. My cartoon showed them cuddled up in bed, with Margaret asking Gough “Did the earth move for you too dear?” Talkback went ape and many people wrote to the editor, saying they would cancel their subscriptions because the cartoon was in such poor taste. Whitlam announced he liked the cartoon, and later would refer to the whole incident as if it somehow reflected favourably on his potency.
In 1979, I went to live in Italy for a year with my wife and three small children. I wanted to get a broader education, especially about art, and do lots of drawing to improve my eye and my illustrative skills. We rented an small cold ancient stone apartment right under the shadow of the wall of the Castello di Bracciano just north of Rome. This was our base to travel around the county studying Italian art, architecture, scenery, food and wine. I filled countless sketchbooks with drawings of markets, buildings, Italian scenes, leopard-skinned bikini clad women on the beach at Lake Bracciano, and yahoos in the street and cafes. We came back to Australia in 1980, smarter and poorer.
I got my job back at The Age and inspired by Italian art and the famous French cartoonist Honore Daumier, I started doing caricature sculpture to enhance my drawing skills. Next thing I was making caricature puppets, recruited by the innovative and energetic ABC producer Ian Carrol. But the programs that used the puppets got axed, so I pitched a different idea – a five minute filler program – to the Light Entertainment section of the ABC where there was a brilliant producer called Kris Noble. Kris had the masterstroke of introducing me to Paul Jennings, the master voice imitator, who basically earned a good living doing lunch and dinner speeches where he did voice imitations of politicians and celebrities that were so good that people could hardly eat their food for laughing. Kris gave me a small weekly budget and 600 feet of 16mm reversal stock each week and said “Go away and see if you can produce a five minute program and if it’s good enough we’ll put it to air every Monday after Rumpole of the Bailey, to fill in time because the ABC has no ads”. The program would be made outside the ABC. I started my own mini film studio in my sculpture studio, and produced the first 13 part series five minute programs, completely topical, which rated astonishingly well right across Australian. Kris Noble later left the ABC to play an instrumental role in developing reality TV in Australia and the Light Entertainment department was apparently disbanded in Melbourne. I could not get the ABC to pick up the program again. Eventually a home was found for it in “Transmissions” and someone in Sydney decided it belonged when Four Corners, late at night. Four Corners ended at a different time each week, and it was very late at night, and was long so people were ready to go to bed.In short it was a programming disaster, but it remained popular. After a year they dropped it and I desperately tried to get the ABC interested in a new series. I was told they had no money and would not talk to me. As it broke the rules of the ABC by being produced outside the ABC they had no real idea how cheap it was. Apparently they thought the production budget for the program was a talent fee for me. This would have been a generous fee. In fact I was paid virtually nothing, and had to keep the studio alive with commercial work. This was before the days of Andrew Knight and “Sea Change” when the ABC started to allow outside productions. When the ABC refused to talk to me, I took Rubbery Figures to Steve Vizard’s Fast Forward on Channel 7. If I had not done this I would have had to close the studio. It was not a good fit, as Steve Vizard did not really want topical political material. After two years we parted company. In the recession 1990 (“the recession we had to have”) the commercial work of the studio ground to a halt. One day Cynthia Mann, my chief of staff came to work and found me sitting in the lane outside the studio door at 550A Queensberry Street. I could not bear to go in. I just wanted to have a rest. I should have had a months holiday but instead I closed the film studio. Ten years work down the drain.
In 1994 a one-man show of my work was put on in an empty hallway of the National Gallery of Victoria, thanks to the imaginative entrepreneurship of gallery director James Mollison. It was called The Rubbery Years, and was later taken up by the National Museum and toured all around Australia. (For more about this, click on Sculpture in the menu). I concentrated on my cartoons and illustration and one year won two Walkleys on the same night … one in the cartoon category and one in Illustration for life-size sculptures of Jeff Kennett and Joan Kirner.
In 1994 I joined The Australian, drawing for the letters page. This was a great time for me. I had great freedom to express my views under Paul Kelly as Editor. In my last years there I found there was an increasing mismatch between the views of the paper and my own on political issues and I asked to be moved to the business section of the paper. In 2016 I retired from daily cartoons at the age of 70.
Since then I have thrown myself into developing my cliff-top garden at Mornington as sort-of botanical garden. Unlike a normal botanical garden which cultivates plants from all around the world, my garden consists only of plants that are indigenous to that exact area, namely Coastal Headland Scrub. Although crowded by weeds, Almost the entire suite of Coastal Headland Scrub plants existed on the block under a layer of weeds and Agapanthas. I became involved as an organiser of the Friends of the Beleura Cliff Path. This group is re-vegetating and looking after the path which is an historic 100 year-old public walk that passes the front of my block.
For more, visit www.beleuracliffpath.com or Google Beleura Cliff Path or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/beleuracliffpath/