The sound of the clapper board had been silent for too long in Australia

Interview with Phillip Adams by Mark Roeder

“Do you have anything that’s not 5,000 years old I could rest my coffee cup on?” I asked, furtively searching for a coaster before the interview began.

“Use this.  It’s only a few hundred years old,” said Phillip Adams without blinking, whilst passing over a small blackish looking plate that he had extracted from the nearby pile of terracotta.

Adams was in the middle of taking another delivery of antiquities at his rather palladian style home in Darlinghurst, a former residence of an early Governor of the Bank of NSW.  The street itself used to be Darlinghurst’s most notorious – a former haven for transvestites and street ‘trade’.  Now the area has gone respectable ex-bohemia, complete with up market art galleries, and sprinkled with apartments selling for prices only investment bankers can afford.

Naked Bunyip photo Adams and MurrayInside Adams’ house the ‘stuff’ was everywhere.  Wall to wall icons, statuettes, murals, paintings, old clocks, antique guns, pre-Columbian and Hellenistic art, Egyptian mummies and sarcophagi galore.  And this was just the living room.  The rest of the collection was upstairs; whole rooms full.  You seriously start to wonder whether you are in a house or a museum.  On most weekends, Adams (known locally as ‘The Darlo Lama’) leaves his Darlinghurst address to stay at his 1600 hectare property at Scone, a few hours drive north from Sydney, where he moves into another, less frenetic world.  No doubt, more private too.

Down to business.  That is, the role he has played in creating ‘mirrors’ in our life – particularly through film.  And the effects of mass communication on the way we behave, a subject that Phillip Adams knows more about and has more to say about, than most.

After all he has run the Australian Film Commission, the Commission of the Future, co-founded the largest Australian Advertising agency, was President of the Arts Council of Victoria, hosts his own radio show, and sits on dozens of influential committees.  He is a man whose words are transcribed and amplified by countless newspapers, magazines and microphones each week.  Words that one critic described as the ‘unwholesome waffle of the unspeakable Adams’.

Nevertheless, this bearded ‘Walking Oracle’ (who prefers to dress in black) is sought after by politicians, tycoons, artists, curators… all seeking his ideas on everything from Egyptian icons to missile bases.

Why do people gravitate towards him?  You won’t get any answers from Phillip because he is the first to admit he doesn’t know.  Perhaps the best clues come from what he has to say.  The way he discovers relationships between even the most disparate subjects, boils them up in the crucible of his mind, and creates fresh meaning and clarity.  Indeed his powers of association and communication are phenomenal.

Suddenly he becomes impatient, reaches for the interview recorder, rewinds it and begins speaking into it.  “Let’s start off with the film industry,” he says.  “Like most people of my generation, I spent my life going to Saturday matinees at Hoyts and marvelling at how clever the Americans were to make movies… Soon I had the dazzling and dizzying idea that perhaps Australians could make films too.  Because at the time, virtually nothing had happened in Australian film for about 30 years.  And apart from a few lonely prophets without honour, like filmmaker Cecil Holmes, the sound of the clapper board had been silent for too long.

“So the next thing, my pal Brian Robinson and I bought a Bolex 16 mm camera for 80 quid.  It was primitive, with a clockwork motor.  And it used to run out of puff every 20 seconds or so.”

With this camera Adams and Robinson began work on their first feature film, ‘Jack & Jill, a Postscript’.  It was a love story between a tow truck driver and a kindergarten teacher, and comprised a sequence of nursery rhymes strung together.  “You see, nursery rhymes have real meanings,” explains Adams.  “Often quite sinister, macabre meanings… and I’ve always been fascinated by them.”

The film took 6 to 7 years to complete, with Adams and Robinson using everyone they could to appear in it – friends, relatives.  “We literally edited it with a pair of scissors and cello tape on the end of a bed!”  Adams recalled with a mixture of fondness and surprise.  “But it didn’t turn out half bad.  In fact, it was the first Australian film to win the AFI Awards, plus a lot of other awards including the Grand Prix in the Adelaide-Auckland Film Festival.  So technically it was also the first Australian film to win an international film festival.”

Yet despite this critical success, Adams says that no-one wanted to show Jack & Jill.  He really had to bully and push the film to get it out to the cinemas.  But it did prove one thing to him – feature films could be made here.

“After that, I persuaded Bob Jane the racing driver to give me $30,000 (a fortune in those days) to make a three and a half hour documentary called the Naked Bunyip, which was Grahame Blundell’s debut piece.  He played a young researcher on Australian sexuality.  Once again I was told it was absurd to release it.  Meanwhile, the censor was trying to hack it to pieces.  So I hired the Palais (formerly the biggest cinema in Australia) and was able to pack it to the rafters.  We made a fortune out of it.”

With this rocky but fortunate start behind him, Adams began work on other projects including Australia’s first Vietnam documentary in collaboration with Bruce Petty the cartoonist.  He also sharpened up his filmmaking skills through working in advertising with people like Fred Schepski.

“It’s interesting to note just how important the advertising industry has been in fostering talent in this country.  For me, leaving school at 15 with no opportunity to go to university or matriculate… and having a lunatic stepfather whose attempts to murder me were becoming more serious and frequent… advertising gave me a start.  And if you look around today at the list of prominent people who started in advertising, it’s amazing.  It was a sort of Australia Council before there was an Australia Council.  Donald Horne worked in advertising, and so it seems did just about every writer and painter.”

By the late 60’s Adams’ initial interest in film had incubated into a passion, and he took his first steps towards helping to establish a Film industry in Australia.  He noted that the then Prime Minister Harold Holt was “umming and ahhing” about whether it was needed.  But before he could do anything, he drowned, and suddenly Gorton was in power.  An opportunity presented itself.

It was Adams’ friend Barry Jones who had played a small but not inconsequential part in helping Gorton to gain power, by giving him favourable media coverage on his radio and TV talk shows.  “So of course, Gorton had a fairly avuncular attitude towards Barry.  Next thing, Barry and I had Gorton’s ear.  WE persuaded him to send us on a film-fact-finding mission around the world.  We came back and I wrote a one page report.  It started… ‘We hold these truths to be self evident’ (a deliberate piece of plagiarism from a certain American document).  Then it continued, ‘It was time we heard our own voices, saw our own landscapes, dreamed our own dreams’.”

The report went on to suggest a simple structure that might get a film industry going.  This included setting up an experimental film fund to give money to young would-be/could-be filmmakers, a film school at Swinbourne and the establishment of the Australian Film Development Corporation.  “That last idea was really the brainchild of Stanley Hall, who was then running the Commonwealth Film Unit (now Film Australia).” says Adams.

Unfortunately, no sooner had Gorton accepted Adams’ one page document than Gorton lost office, and various factions within the Party immediately tried to squash the document’s recommendations.

“I went on television and noisily defended it,” says Adams.  “Bill McMahon (the incoming Prime Minister) rang me the next morning with apologies and promised it would go ahead after all.  And it did.  What McMahon didn’t finish, Whitlam finished when he came to power.”

The new Australian film industry was born.  However, Adams is quick to point out he is not implying the Australian Film Industry wouldn’t have happened without him and Barry Jones.  “But we were certainly the conduits, lightning conductors, for the idea to take shape.  I had a very clear vision of what needed to happen at the time.”

Later when the Australian Film Development Corporation was set up, the first film they financed was Barry McKenzie.  So Adams, director Bruce Beresford and actor Barry Humphries, set off to England to produce it.  “But once again,” says Adams woefully, “no-one wanted to touch it with a barge pole.  We just couldn’t get it released.  So we hired a couple of empty cinemas, promoted it like mad… and very soon it started taking more money than A Clockwork Orange (the Stanley Kubrick classic).  A feat it repeated in London, where, to our genuine astonishment and joy, it broke 9 box office records in Leicester Square.”

Adams thinks its fascinating to see the structural parallels between Barry McKenzie and Crocodile Dundee.  “Parallels that Paul Hogan is probably embarrassed by… but as Barry points out, Bazza was really Hogan’s father in more ways than one.”  Adams feels the Barry McKenzie films helped pave the way for other films like Picnic at Hanging Rock.  “No Bazza.  No Picnic… I think many people would acknowledge that.”

Adams went on to produce a host of other films including Don’s Party, The Getting of Wisdom, We of the Never Never and Lonely Hearts.  “My role in this industry was the result of long dreamings, fantasising and risk-taking.  Tim Burstill was another person who must be given credit.  He was making 2000 Weeks when I was making Jack & Jill.  And Tim, like me, would get knocked to the ground, laughed at, walked all over… but we’d just dust ourselves off and do it again, and again.” says Adams.

Back to the process of ‘creating mirrors’ for society, Adams’ filmmaking represents only one thread of his work  His early involvement with the Communist Party influenced how he saw things, and the visions he chose to create.  He was a member of the Communist Party when he was barely 16 years old, at a time when the Party was extremely concerned with maintaining a nationalistic cultural identity.

“I won’t embarrass people by naming them now, but some of the people I met in the Party are in very lofty positions today – especially in the arts and literature.  One day the story will be told just how important the Communist Party was.  It was like a national trust for national idioms.  It was intensely patriotic and didn’t do much kowtowing to Moscow or Beijing.”

He says it also heightened his perception of how American cultural imperialism (especially through television) was rapidly obliterating Australian culture.

“I remember a Mayday March (the annual hymn of praise to the working classes) with all these trade unions marching with their wonderful banners.  Well, no actor was game to march because ASIO was out taking everyone’s photo.  McCarthyisim was running rife, and politics were ultra conservative.  I was persuaded to become involved.  I organised a funeral cortege with a very cadaverous looking actor called Ron Pinnell lying in an open coffin.  I was dressed as an undertaker, while Ron tolled a knell – calling out that television was unfair to Australian talent because it put them out of business.  Then, as we walked around the streets of Melbourne, people everywhere… and I mean all the way along the march, yelled out “Australians haven’t got any fucking talent!”

It was a scene that would be indelibly printed on Adams’ mind.  Meanwhile, between working in films and advertising, his career as a writer and critic was blossoming.  First, he began writing for the communist journals, and later, pseudonymously for the Bulletin.

“That is, I ghost wrote the reviews that other people were too drunk or bored to do – about film, music and art.  One day, Bruce Petty said to me, ‘You’re better than this.  Come work for this new newspaper, The Australian’.  So I did.  And because Murdoch (the proprietor) didn’t have any TV interests yet, I could write my TV column without inhibition… I was audacious, fresh and generated a lot of comment.  So much so, that the editor gave me my own general column called ‘Adams’ Rib’, even though by-line columns were very rare then.  Now I could really let loose!  I wrote discursively, elliptically about everything… political satire, love, death, nostalgia.  Subjects which no other newspapers in Australia considered proper.”

Then a hiccup.  One day Rupert Murdoch returned home from London after getting a ‘drubbing’ from David Frost.  “He was furious and raging with hate for satirists,” says Adams.  “Apparently he said to his editor, ‘Do we have any satirists?’  The editor said, ‘We’ve got two, Adams and Ray Taylor’… ‘Sack em!’”

Adams demise however, was short lived.  No sooner had he left the Australian than the mail started pouring in, protesting his sacking.  At one stage, there we more letters than the Vietnam War was generating.  So Adams was soon back on more money, unleashing more ‘unwholesome waffle of the unspeakable Adams’.

Around this time, the then Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan (an avid Adams reader) invited him to South Australia to help set up the South Australian Film Corporation.  “By this time,” explains Adams, “I had become convinced that no artist or creative person should become a bureaucrat or have permanency.  I saw that the ABC was going to destroy its people and make them dull, simply because they had job security – womb to tomb employment.  This notion was reinforced by a vivid scene that Barry Jones and I had witnessed in Canada.”

Adams was sitting in a corner of the cafe at the National Film Board of Canada with Norman McClaren, the great experimentalist filmmaker (and one of Adams’ heroes).  “Everyone was in tears,” recalls Adams.  “I asked Norman why.  He said ‘because Trudeau’s just fired half of them in a cost-cutting spree’.  I replied, ‘Isn’t that awful!’ And he said, ‘No it’s not, it’s great.  They’ve all ossified… it will do them good.”

“Coming back to Australia I realised he was right.  So we purposefully designed the South Australian Film Corporation in a way that nobody could have full employment, least of all the Director.”

Inspired by this breakthrough, Adams had one of his greatest ideas.  It was called ‘Electric Television’ and would be a national television channel virtually without any staff.  A channel where everyone could hang their ‘electric pictures’, with almost the entire budget being devoted to purchasing programmes instead of paying overheads.

“I tried to get the Labor government to take the idea up, but unfortunately it didn’t happen here,” says Adams.  “But it did happen in England a few years later with their Channel 4, which is based on a similar concept… So it still remains one of my big ambitions to leave Australia with a Channel 4 style network – our own ‘Electric Television’.

Another ambition of Adams’, and one that is rapidly coming to fruition, is an idea he is working on with Mike Browning.  It’s called ‘Cinemotion’ and is a cross between a flight simulator, 3-D television and a Sensoround theatre.  “It’s the cinema of the next century,” says Adams.  “You put on a safety belt, the cinema moves, it spins, goes up and down, twirls… like a giant flight simulator.  It’s great that it’s being pioneered here in Australia…”

And so, the ideas keep sparking from this man, who himself, seems to be in a constant state of ‘cinemotion’ – as if powered by some sort of Bionic Duracell battery.  Indeed, Adams does bring a fresh meaning to the term ‘frenetic activity’.  But why?  What drives a man to cram so much activity into one lifetime.

“Perhaps it’s because I have this exaggerated sense of life’s brevity, and the inevitability of death.  Time is so precious to me.”

Time.  Yes, that must be it.  Perhaps that’s why he has collected so many antiquities.  They serve as a constant and painful reminder to him, of just how fleeting a man’s lifespan is when measured against even the objects in his own home.

Or maybe, after all these years, he’s still running from that “lunatic stepfather in my childhood, who would try to murder me with axes, or run me over with cars.  So to escape from all this I started collecting things that represented times and places far away… and doing things.  Lots of things.”

Or maybe… but hold on.  You could speculate forever on what makes the enigmatic Phillip Adams run, but the more answers you come up with, the more questions pop up.  Perhaps, as the globe-conquering Rupert Murdoch often says in response to such enquiries, the answer is quite simple “I just enjoy running”.

Suddenly there was a loud commotion outside.  A camera crew had arrived at the house, indicating this interview was over.  Another cab had pulled into the rank.  Before I could replace my empty coffee mug on the 500 year old coaster, Phillip Adams was gone, off and running again.

*Graphics Magazine was published by Max Fulcher and Hartland & Hyde (publisher of Vogue magazine), during the 1980s and 90s to showcase the world of design, arts and culture.