24 January 2012

Heading Home

Actor Peter Bland came back to New Zealand to play the lead role in Came a Hot Friday. But there were other reasons.

by Chris Bourke (NZ Listener, 1985)

The same year Peter Bland returned to New Zealand, the Ronald Hugh Morrieson industry hit its stride. The Scarecrow was on television, all four of Morrieson’s books were back in print, and this week a film of his novel Came a Hot Friday was released around the country, with actor/poet Bland in his first major film role. The film brings together Bland and director Ian Mune 20 years after they first worked together at Wellington’s Downstage.

Peter Bland with Billy T JamesBland plays Wes Pennington, a likeable conman who cruises into a small New Zealand town with his accomplice. They plan to make easy money out of the locals, but there are others in the town with grander and nastier schemes under way.

Set in 1949, Came a Hot Friday is a rollicking yarn which – judging by preview screenings – takes its audience back to a simpler age. Adults return to Saturday matinees at their local Deluxe, when they walked home acting out the heroics of Errol Flynn or the antics of the Marx Brothers. They boo the baddies and cheer when the hero arrives – just like their children, who are too busy revelling in its slapstick humour to notice the film lacks space-age special effects, visitors from other galaxies, or hidden messages from the Moral Majority.

The New Zealand portrayed in Came a Hot Friday is similar to the country to which Bland emigrated in the early 1950s. In a way, it was a movie which brought him here the first time as well. Bland was looking in a newspaper for a film to go to when he noticed an advertisement on the film page. “It said, ‘Come to New Zealand’,” recalls Bland. “I thought it was a film and I’d seen all the others.”

Although World War II had ended nearly a decade before, Britain was still feeling the effects. Bland was 18 and both his parents were dead, so he paid his £10 and sailed for New Zealand. “I suppose that was the last period of immigration on that scale,” he says. A lot of people were escaping the post-war hardship in Britain. I mean, they still had ration books in ’54 and they were coming out here to enjoy their Pacific dream.”

As part of the deal – and to repay the cheap fare – the immigrants agreed to work for the Government for two years. So when he arrived in Wellington, Bland was given a job with the Social Security Department – sitting alone in a huge room full of filing cabinets. “But I told the immigration official back in Britain I was interested in ‘working with people’,” says Bland. His departmental supervisor waved an arm at the files. “You’ve got everybody in New Zealand in this room with you.” At least Bland was better off than his ship-board friend who wanted to work in “communications”. “He was given a job in Invercargill digging holes for telephone poles!”

Having told the tale of his first meeting with New Zealand bureaucracy, Bland laughs as loud as his audience. He is a born raconteur, with a droll Yorkshire accent and a mobile face that can play any part.

But it was only after his arrival in New Zealand that Bland began to act and write. “My creative roots are here,” he says. “I placed on a New Zealand hat firmly and swiftly.” Newly married, and exiled to the state housing area of the Hutt Valley, Bland began to write about the “barren deserts of wooden tents”.

By the late ’50s, Bland and his wife Beryl had three children; he had a diploma in social sciences from Victoria University – going to university would have been impossible in Britain – and had started to receive awards for his poetry. Bland quotes from “the Nose” – a study of a bigot on a bus, controversial for its use of a four-letter word – and “Four Poems from Plunket Street”, which, with its social comment and suburban imagery, is reminiscent of James K Baxter’s “Calvary Street”. The comparison is acknowledged. “We were all writing similar things at the time – ‘Barney Flanagan’ and Louis Johnson.”

With Baxter and Johnson, Bland edited the literary magazine Numbers in the early ’60s. A war of words began between the Auckland and Wellington literary circles. “We had different approaches to the way we felt New Zealand writing should develop,” says Bland. Auckland went in for “flag-waving, writing which proclaimed its New Zealand character with large gestures. While Wellington thought the writing should be localised and the greater view of New Zealand would come naturally.”

For 18 months Bland was a journalist on the Listener – “Everyone new Bland started his week’s stories on Thursday, and the rest of the week there’d be a sonnet in progress on the typewriter,” he grins. Then in 1964 he left for the world of the theatre.

With Tim Eliot, Martyn Sanderson and Harry Seresin, Bland co-founded Downstage. Once again, there were opportunities in New Zealand his background would have prevented in Britain (he had left before the “kitchen sink” school of drama emerged). Bland began writing for the theatre – for him it was a stimulating period, when the old rules were abandoned: “Suddenly there were open stages, open poetry ... I saw the production of Jim Baxter’s Wide Open Cage at Unity and I found it very exciting. It was the first time I had seen New Zealanders talking their own language on stage.”

Bland would occasionally go on stage to fill out the cast, “found I had an appetite for it and gradually ended up playing a lot of leading roles”. Among them was Claudius in Hamlet. In this production, the Downstage rats stole the show. Poison had been laid, and the rats kept coming out on stage to die. “They’d wander out on centre stage and turn around and around. One had a death scene of five minutes! The audience would immediately take their eyes off the actors, push their dinner plates to one side, and watch the rats.”

Trying to support a family on the income of a professional actor was proving impossible – Bland tells of raiding apple trees for dinner – so he applied to the Arts Council for a grant to spend a year full-time at Downstage, “which in those years was a fairly revolutionary thing”. Once again, Bland encountered the absurd thinking of the bureaucrat. “We couldn’t get a grant to stay alive here, but they said, “Now if you apply to go overseas, you might succeed.’”

In 1968 Bland returned to England with his wife and children. Trying to make a living as an actor mean his writing went on “hold” but, unusually for British actors, he was rarely out of work. He was not a star, but a “jobbing actor”. “I was one of the people producers would think of first after they had cast the lead roles.” Over the next 15 yeras Bland played in many West End plays and television shows, in dramatic and comic parts.

Peter Bland with Ian MuneBland was offered the part in Came a Hot Friday by Mune; 20 years ago, Mune was offered his first theatre job by Bland, when he was at Downstage. Bland’s West End comedy experience was very useful in the film – many of his scenes are improvised, and were shot in only one take.

Bland is pleased the film emphasises the sense of life in the novelist. “It picks out the life-loving qualities rather than the black side of Morrieson.” Why was Morrieson ignored when his books were first published in the early 1960s? “He threw people – they didn’t know how to react. He was a colloquial writer like Dickens, and totally uninhibited about literary expectations. The literary world didn’t know how to handle Morrieson, though he had some champions, like Monte Holcroft, Louis Johnson and Maurice Shadbolt.” Meanwhile, others were still waiting for the “great New Zealand novel”, “which was expected to be an intellectual thing, using the mandarin language of a Janet Frame or Allen Curnow.”

Bland agrees the New Zealand of the 1980s seems more aware of itself. “Poeple don’t apologise for it so much; they are much more conscious of the benefits of the place. And there’s been that whole switch away from dependence on Mother England to a gradual awareness of New Zealand’s place in the Pacific.” He says it is noticeable in recent literature, especially in plays. “People like Greg McGee and Dean Parker are writing plays now which are really using the place. They’re not pretending to be new Zealand plays – they are not self-consciously New Zealand plays like early Bruce Mason was or even Jim Baxter was – they actually are, and not because somebody is waving a big banner saying ‘New Zealand play’. This is absolutely great, but my one qualification is one does see the ghost of a new isolationism appearing.”

Bland is now back in this country to live, and says he should have returned years ago. “I hung on too long.” In 1982 he was filming commercials in Australia and came here for a month’s holiday. “It was almost a visionary thing for me,” he says. “Emotionally it was tremendous coming back, because all the old feelings returned. The place itself – the elemental qualities, the smell of fennel, the lights and the hills – all those things which I’d given up by going to England. Suddenly they started to mean a hell of a lot to me and then when I came back to do the movie, that reinforced the feeling, so I just had to make the move.”

Perhaps the sense of homelessness spotted by reviewers of his poetry will now be resolved. Bland and his wife have settled in an elegant Herne Bay villa 200m from Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour. Their three children, now grown up, also decided to return.

“How am I going to make a living? That’s a thought ... I earn my living as an actor and I’ll have to just keep on working as an actor. It buys me time for my writing.” Bland is editing a selection of his poems for publication, having just completed shooting a television series in Auckland, called Heart of the High Country.

“It’s lovely in the mornings here – I open up the french doors and the sun comes straight in. I’ve got a lemon tree and the tallest ponga in captivity.”

Outside, there is a howling gale and torrential rain. The photographer [William West] wants a portrait on the Herne Bay jetty. A coincidence makes it worth it. “Did you know the Listener has just accepted a poem of mine about this very bay?” [“Home Bay ...”]

The rain is now horizontal. Standing in the window in his overcoat, Bland hesitates. “You’ve probably got enough photos haven’t you? Yerr.” But, we protest, the choppy seas, the mist, the poem, the drama ...”

Bland decisively puts down his mug of tea. “Okay,” he says, “Let’s do it.”

First published as “Mr Mobile” in the NZ Listener, 24 August 1985. Peter Bland’s 2004 memoir is Sorry, I’m a Stranger Here Myself; Came a Hot Friday was recently released on DVD.

19 January 2012

Parties we missed

After this vicarious London pleasure comes, from the wonderful Voices of East Anglia site, “There’s a party down Wolseley Road.”

party London

Was Slade on the Garrard turntable?

18 January 2012

You can tuna fish, but …

Earl ScruggsIn a radio series on alternative country in the late 1990s, I enjoyed bending the definition outside of the Jayhawks/Uncle Tupelo/Wilco party line, in which miserabilists genuflect to Uncle Neil without the melodies or edge. Among the items I used to illustrate a point – probably that there had always been alt country, or the connections to Gram Parsons - were the Rolling Stones’ ‘Country Honk’ and the Flatt and Scruggs theme to Beverly Hillbillies. Shortly afterwards, reviewing a record I foolishly said, “and that’s about as likely as a bluegrass revival.” Virtually the next month, along came O Brother Where Art Thou, and it was all on.

Banjo players get a bad rap. There are many websites devoted to banjo jokes, and some bluegrass/banjo sites even include them among the transcriptions and flat-picking tips (“Why are banjo jokes so simple? So that bass players can understand them.”) This week on the New Yorker blog the comedian – and part-time musician – Steve Martin has written a warm-hearted, musical tribute to the bluegrass banjo legend Earl Scruggs. He begins with hyperbole:

Some nights he had the stars of North Carolina shooting from his fingertips. Before him, no one had ever played the banjo like he did. After him, everyone played the banjo like he did, or at least tried.

But Martin then describes how Scruggs – as a 10-year-old – discovered a method of picking using the third finger, creating a seamless, staccato roll that made the banjo a virtuosic instrument, while never losing the song (okay, occasionally losing the song).

The banjo lends itself to showing off: it’s often played fast and thrillingly, fingers flying up and down the neck, the right hand connecting to the left with seemingly impossible accuracy. But Earl always remembered his mother’s advice when he was a boy: “Play something that has a tune to it.” His first and last priority was to make music, which keeps his sound melodic and accessible.

Martin also mentions Scruggs’s shabby treatment by the egomaniacal bluegrass “father”, Bill Monroe, and his commitment to civil rights that led him to break up the partnership with Lester Flatt and feel at ease with the late 1960s “counter culture”. Scruggs, who is still playing aged 88, can be seen playing ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ with Martin and others here, but this clip shows him playing a Dylan song with the Byrds at the time of their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album.

13 January 2012

Listless Summer

Children of the SunEarly in this summer which has never quite arrived, Trade Me featured a listing for the soundtrack of Children of the Sun. This cult surfing doco is New Zealand’s equivalent of Bruce Brown’s classic 1966 film Endless Summer.

The soundtrack EP – by Hamilton’s Music Convention - is regarded as a New Zealand psychedelic classic, featuring a sitar and heavily phased guitar from Rob O’Donnell. The opening track ‘Belly Board Beat’ has a stonking drum solo from Sean Kelly. It can be heard here, or on Grant Gillander’s second New Zealand psychedelia compilation, A Day In My Mind's Mind, Vol 2 (EMI).

On Trade Me, the Children of the Sun EP – water stained of course – called for opening bids from about NZ$300. But the entire film (and soundtrack) can be experienced on NZ On Screen here. It was shot by Andrew McAlpine over three years, on beaches all around New Zealand and Australia, and released in 1968. The editor was Kelvin Peach, son of the legendary Tanza sound engineer Noel Peach. The essential local surfing text is Luke Williamson’s utopian Gone Surfing: the Golden Years of Surfing in New Zealand, 1950-1960 (Penguin, 2000).