First published on 2 Feb 2012. Updated on 22 Mar 2012.
Jack, you’ve lent your unmistakeable voice to albums of poetry by famous Australian poets – CJ Dennis, Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson. Why now Lewis Carroll?
Because it’s some of the earliest poetry I can recall. I remember very early in my life being attracted to Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I suppose it must have been read to me when I was six or something. There’s a photo somewhere in my archive of me dressed as a Mad Hatter at a fancy dress party at about the age of six. I read the books again at the age of 16 and I was stunned by the subtext, the cleverness of it, the puns, and of course I discovered to my delight that Dodgson, which was Lewis Carroll’s real name, was a mathematician and a lecturer in maths and logic at Oxford.
So Carroll is as much a part of your make-up as much as the Aussie poets?
Well, there was a great moment for me. About 30 years ago I was on a Mike Willessee’s programme being interviewed and he said, “So how much does an Australian movie star get paid?” I said, “That’s easy to answer because I’ve just been to see my accountant and my average income over the last couple of years has been $167 a week.” And he said, “I understand you’re fond of poetry, can you quote me some?” Well, put on the spot the only thing that came to mind was the ‘Jabberwocky,’ which I had learned by heart when I was 12. So I quoted the whole of the ‘Jabberwocky’.
About a month later I received a wonderful letter from Max Lake of Lake’s Folly, the doctor and winemaker. The letter said: “I saw you on the Mike Willessee programme. Anyone who earns $167 a week and can quote great slabs of Lewis Carroll obviously deserves my wine and can’t afford it. I am sending you a dozen of this year’s vintage.” So I’ve been a great fan of Lewis Carroll’s ever since.
Your most recent film is Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – about gnomelike monsters who inhabit an old house and terrorise the little girl who moves in. It’s a good, scary little movie.
Well it ought to be – it was a good, scary little script. I haven’t seen it yet but the girl in it [Bailee Madison] should be very good. It’s about, “Mum, there’s something under the bed.” “No there isn’t, darling.” And I’m the old gardener who says, “Oh yes there is!” I loved doing that. I’ve always been attracted to the gothic and it’s a truly gothic tale. I loved ghost stories as a kid. First year high school I won a prize for declamation, and they gave us a list of books that we might choose, so I chose the Collins Anthology of Ghost Stories.
This year we saw Simon Lyndon playing you in the TV miniseries Paper Giant: The Birth of Cleo. They recreated the celebrated nude photo shoot you did in 1973 for the magazine’s first centrefold. Did you see it?
No I haven’t, but I’ve seen the scene in which she comes to the door. They sent the script to me and asked whether I was happy with it. I said sure, go ahead with it. It’s accurate, but [they’ve used] dramatic licence.
What really happened?
I had said to Ita [Buttrose] that I would do the centrefold because I had no objection to it and also we were living in an age when nudity was being prosecuted on stage – they tried to close Hair for the nudity. So it was part of being a rebellious young man. And women had as much right as men to have centrefolds, surely. I said, let’s do it this way, superimposed on a Titian nude. But in the script, the art director gets the credit for that.
I thought it was quite good and Simon Lyndon looked remarkably like me. Somebody said he didn’t quite have my charm and I said, of course not!
We hear that you sold the Hotel Gearin in Katoomba…
Oh yeah, it had been a bit of a burden for a couple of years. I enjoyed aspects of the hotel. We put on poetry readings and jazz. I enjoyed all of that. But a hotel is four or five businesses – there’s the bar, there’s the restaurant, there’s accommodation, there’s entertainment, and unless you’re there running it yourself, for me as an absentee hotelier – well, we just had to get rid of it.
Your most celebrated performance was as the defence lawyer Major Thomas in Breaker Morant (1980). Just recently the Australian attorney-general Robert McClelland has taken up the cause that the Morant’s trial [for murdering Boer prisoners] was unfair. What do you make of this?
As I understand it, an appeal was made on legal grounds that it was not a properly constituted court martial in the first place. They were knocked back by privy council weren’t they?
But there has been so much objection. The people in South Africa who are the descendents of the Boers [killed by Morant’s men] are of course very keen that there be no [pardon]. The last appeal was not for a pardon, but for the decision of the court martial to be overturned. Which would not have made him innocent.
If you go back over it, you go back over what’s already the argument of the summing up speech in the film – how do you charge people with murder in time of war? In this day and age the Lutheran minister would be described as ‘collateral damage’. He’s just a civilian caught up in a war and since he’s carrying messages to the enemy – imagine that in Afghanistan! The story wouldn’t make the press.
Jack Thompson: The Poems of Lewis Carroll
is available from book and record stores or from Fine Poets