This is a story about a 40-year friendship. One I have always valued greatly. Others will write about John Flaus’ significant contribution to film and television culture in Australia in all its dimensions, and to the stage and to the hundreds perhaps thousands of people John has encouraged, mentored, supported, engaged and illuminated for John is unique in the film, television and stage industries.
I first met John Flaus in 1970 at a conference on film at the State Film Centre in Melbourne. I had returned from three years in the United States where I had completed an MA in film and television at Stanford University and had been appointed as the first Chair of the Centre for the Study of Media and Communication at a new School of Education at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Professor Ronald Goldman, an eccentric and progressive English educator, was the inaugural Dean, who decided to take a chance on a young woman with a degree in film (unheard of in Australia) and appointed me to establish a new Centre despite the fact that most educators thought film was not relevant in an education degree and most academics thought film studies did not belong in a university. To have a woman in charge of anything in 1970 was rare. There was one female Professor at La Trobe at that time and she was having a very difficult time.
Goldman, however, gave me a free hand to recruit staff and to decide what courses would be offered in the Media Centre to postgraduate education students.
John Flaus came along at the right time. He was my idea of the ideal academic to teach film studies in a University. I was impressed with John’s encyclopaedic and scholarly knowledge of film, his enthusiasm, his ability to analyse film, literature and society and tell compelling stories. But I knew appointing him would not be easy. John was a self-declared anarchist and indeed, while I had not been aware of meeting an anarchist before, John looked like one. He had a strange straggly beard which seemed to change colour from grey to black in random places. He looked at home in the university environment – especially to someone who had just spent three years on radical American campuses – and although he spoke in the Australian idiom his voice was beautifully modulated. (He would in time become the iconic voiceover in Australian television and radio advertising.) The main hurdle to overcome with his appointment was his lack of a formal qualification. No one was appointed to an Australian university in those days without a degree. Although he had been enrolled for some years completing a BA Honours in English at Sydney University, his thesis was not complete. I was to learn that pinning John down to complete anything in writing was a challenging task. There was always more to be said, he believed.
I spoke with his supervisor Professor Bill Maidment and together we developed a plan to get John to complete his thesis. Maidment would invite John to live in his house for two months – an extraordinary gesture which was a measure of his respect for John – while he completed his thesis, and I would develop a strategy to get John appointed to La Trobe University.
When I first met John he was living in a single room in Sydney. My memory is that the room was lined with silver paper, surrounded by bookshelves with piles of books everywhere: his furniture was little more than a camp bed. He worked for the WEA (Workers Educational Association) while he studied for his degree and lectured in Cinema Studies courses at Sydney University when he was not a labourer, truck driver or blue-collar “menial”.
I invited John to give a guest lecture to the Diploma of Education students at La Trobe and to be interviewed as my choice for a lectureship in the Media Centre by the Dean and another senior academic in the school, Reader Mervyn Turner. As I expected, the guest lecture went over extremely well. John held the students enthralled while he expounded his theories on the Western, notably The Searchers (1956). The interview however was problematic. I knew by now John loved to talk and once started he was hard to stop. I advised John to speak only in response to questions, to be specific in answering questions and to focus on his knowledge of film.
The four of us met in the Dean’s office and Goldman opened the interview by saying, “Well, John, tell us about yourself”. And John obliged. He did not draw breath for the next hour as he poured out his amazing life story, not sparing any details about his personal relationships. Ronald and Mervyn were riveted, sitting on the edge of their seats. My heart sank. These were conservative times. De-facto arrangements, such as John shared with the mother of his four children, were not really discussed in job interviews but no one could argue there was any prejudice against John as there was a legitimate reason for denying John a lectureship. Despite my endorsement as Chair of the Media Centre, John still did not have a degree.
So John did not get his lectureship that year, in 1972, but I was promoted to Senior Lecturer in a move that provoked much animosity from my male colleagues. While I pursued my goals for the Media Centre I undertook a PhD, primarily because I knew I did not have a future ahead of me in a university as Mrs Edgar; I had to be Dr Edgar. I remained in contact with John and put his name up again for appointment the following year. Bill Maidment had managed to extract a completed thesis so John had his degree. I had more clout and Goldman, an open-minded man anyway, was more amenable to unconventional partnerships, having left his wife for a de-facto relationship of his own. John was appointed to a lectureship in the Centre for the Study of Media and Communication, with tenure, to begin in 1973.
John was a classic academic in that role. He loved his subject, he was a scholar who had read widely and he applied his considerable intellect to his teaching. He soon developed a devoted following. He watched multiple screens and would record hours and hours of programs. I doubt there was anybody in Australia, and few in the world, who had seen more hours of programming than John, and fewer who had analysed content as thoughtfully and meticulously as he. Personally I found John intellectually intimidating. I didn’t always understand what he was talking about but I always found him very interesting.
We got along well. I was consistently under attack by fellow academics because the Media Centre attracted many students, and we received a bigger budget allocation than other Education Centres because Goldman was smart enough to claim us as equal to a science department because of our studio, equipment and technical staff requirements.
As the only woman in the School of Education running a Centre I encountered extreme male chauvinism. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was elected in December 1972. The women’s movement was only beginning to develop steam and discrimination against women was rife in the university structure. For John my gender was never an issue. He treated me as an equal and with respect as his “boss” as he would call me. When Goldman had to step down as Dean at the end of four years in 1974, his successor, Brian Crittenden, a former Jesuit and moral education philosopher, took over as Dean. It’s fair to say, the Media Centre and its staff drove the new Dean to distraction.
This intemperate ex-priest could not stand me and my entourage, particularly John, and he began a campaign to rid the School of Education of Cinema Studies and curtail the activities and finances of the Media Centre. It would take him some years during which John joined me in battle. John claims I taught him to write memos, but he perfected the skill, applying himself to memo drafting like a skilled lawyer, writing logically and persistently. When John arrived to take up his Lectureship, his office did not have a phone so every day he would send a memo with a single sentence stating he had no phone until eventually one was installed. John believed he was not a troublemaker, he simply said what he thought and I never had a problem with that.
The new Dean’s temper was easy to rouse and together John and I did provoke him. My archive reveals in Crittenden’s correspondence to me a consistent and systematic effort to undermine the financing and staffing of the Media Centre. It also documents his outbursts, usually made in phone conversations with me, which I then noted and sent to him for correction. (I wanted to annoy him but also to let him know that I was keeping a record of our exchanges.) Typically, he would tell me he did not think much of my work, including research proposals I had managed to get funded, and my publications which he described as “mediocre”. He refused invitations to visit the Media Centre to see the work we were doing and when my PhD was submitted for examination he told staff that examiners had raised valid criticisms. This was untrue and each time he criticised me I challenged his assertions in writing – on one occasion to the Vice Chancellor and another to the chair of the PhD committee.
John had job security in that he had a tenured position and could have stayed at La Trobe as long as he chose. He would always have had a following among the students. But greener pastures beckoned. With Goldman’s support, I had initiated the appointment of Professor Jerzy Toeplitz, the former head of the famous Polish Film School, to come to the Media Centre as a visiting Professor in waiting until the Australian Film and Television School (AFTS) was established. Phillip Adams and Barry Jones had travelled the world in search of the most appropriate leader for the Film School and had settled on Toeplitz. The problem was that AFTS was delayed for political reasons and Adams and Jones were afraid they would lose their star candidate. Poland was a communist country and no citizen could leave without a formal letter of invitation from another government. This invitation could not be issued when there was no Film School to go to. When I read about this impasse in The Age newspaper one Saturday morning I contacted Goldman who was immediately supportive of my scheme to hire Toeplitz. He rang Ken Myer who agreed to put up half the funding with the School of Education funding the balance, and a formal invitation was issued from the university for Jerzy Toeplitz to join the Media Centre. So the Media Centre became the warehouse for Professor Toeplitz.
Jerzy was a very interesting character whose company I enjoyed. We would begin each day with a chat in my office where I would tell him about my political battles and he would reflect with me on the options I had. He was very accepting of the diverse and eccentric staff I had collected.
He admired John’s breadth of knowledge. And he agreed to appear as himself in an experimental film, a spoof about the making of a low budget film, called Yackety Yack (1974), written and directed by Dave Jones (an American writer I had met at Stanford University who I had appointed to the Centre), with John playing Steve/himself in a cast which included a studio full of traumatised chickens and a nude leading lady. Jerzy, who played “a man in the street”, was not fazed by the mayhem created. The film was screened at the Melbourne Co-op Cinema in 1974 and has been rescreened various times since. David Stratton was a fan and thought it “sheer delight”. The film confirmed John’s love of acting.
Most of John’s life had been spent in Sydney and Melbourne: he was an urban dweller and did not venture far from his roots. I was responsible for his first experience of another country when I took him to Mexico. 1975 was International Women’s Year and the key international conference to celebrate the year was to be held in Mexico City. I was a feminist with a strong interest in the changing role of women and saw an opportunity to go to Mexico and make a documentary film about the historic conference. The mainstream media were not interested in attending – women’s issues were still not a priority for them.
I managed a production fund in the Media Centre which earned money from five 16mm films on educational issues which had been produced by students as part of a Federal Government funded research project I had run with Don Edgar. When the research was completed the Agency approved the setting up of an account managed within the university under my control. There were no other films like these documentaries in their time and they were much in demand by other educational institutions and schools for a fee. This gave me access to a fund for travel, production and research projects. So I was able to take a small film crew to Mexico. I invited Gordon Glenn as DOP, Lloyd Carrick as sound recordist, with John as my production assistant/gofer. We were an efficient little film unit and we had quite an adventure making this film.
One evening at a restaurant in Mexico City I tipped the brightly pink-coated waiters to gather round our table and serenade John for his birthday. He was mortified: he had never experienced anything quite like that. John had many new experiences on that trip. He was the advance party when we were moving locations and he would have to negotiate with the often-aggressive feminists who stood in his way. The women were enjoying the excitement of the landmark occasion and had little time for any man in that context. John thought the women were “pigs” but their gender had nothing to do with his evaluation. John judged behaviour on merit and did not defer to authority. He was always courteous and I could understand his response to the aggression he encountered. We were engaged in a risky process as we were going places not on the tourist tracks that the Mexican Government did not want publicised.
We believed we were being tracked by the Mexican Secret Service who sat in the foyer of our hotel, there to keep an eye on all the radical women. We were uneasy because we knew we would need help from the Australian Embassy to get our film stock out of the country. The embassy official appointed to us was not sympathetic to the women’s event so I asked John to keep him on side, which he did very effectively given they shared the same view of the women at the Conference. When we were leaving our rooms to go out filming, John would place a thread of cotton across the bottom of the doorway so we could check on our return if it was broken and anyone had entered while we were away. The film, Mexico 75, was the only Australian documentary record of the International Women’s Year Conference. It was screened at a reunion of the delegates 30 years later in 2005 and is in the National Film and Sound Archive.
The Media Centre was fragmenting as egos clashed among new appointees who also thought they belonged in a Humanities School rather than a school of Education and in the end Cinema Studies was moved. Dean Crittenden was thrilled. John left a little before this to teach at the AFTS (based in Sydney) where he had aspirations to become the resident guru, and I missed him. When the AFTS opened John was offered a two-year contract as a Senior Lecturer teaching Cinema Studies. It was an offer he could not refuse. He had a romanticised notion of the life he would lead at the AFTS and the role he would play mentoring students. It was a contract position but security meant little to John; he wanted to do what he believed in and loved.
He was soon to be disappointed. Although Jerzy Toeplitz, himself an academic, respected John’s knowledge and intellect, the Film School curriculum placed emphasis on practical skills. Theory and criticism were not priorities. The School proved to be a bureaucratic organisation staffed by Department Heads who protected their turf and had a silo mentality. John describes them as bricklayers who couldn’t see the cathedral they were meant to be building: none of these people loved film as John did. They were practical technicians who saw academic input as a distraction and they thwarted John’s efforts to collaborate, ensured his budget was cut and even hindered his access to students. John believed he was being spied on with reports going back to senior management. He was not aggressive but he would not conform and the Department Heads were not interested in, or capable of, adapting to a freewheeling anarchist who argued passionately for what he saw as his legitimate role. Before his term was up John asked to be released from his contract.
Management agreed with alacrity and John returned to Melbourne to work at the Caulfield Institute of Technology. There, too, he would not get on with his senior colleague who did not accept John’s teaching style. When John’s appointment was not renewed the students rebelled, but to no avail. But Caulfield did lead to a new partnership for John. It was there he met the love of his life, Natalie de Maccus, and she persuaded him to come and live with her in the suburbs at Hampton – a dramatic change for an urban habitué. I had always worried about John’s diet of pies and chips, although we shared a liking for liver and bacon at railway cafés. But Natalie brought healthy lifestyle changes to John’s way of life. As he didn’t own a car he had always walked for miles each day, which no doubt gave him a strong constitution and at 80 years he is still going strong.
John went through a series of part-time jobs after Caulfield – at Swinburne, Film Victoria as a script assessor and as a lecturer at the Council of Adult Education (CAE). But he continued to meet resistance to his unique ways and progressive beliefs. He had gone from senior lecturer to lecturer to tutor and when he applied for a job at Swinburne I was on the selection committee. When I asked why John was not on the list to be interviewed I was told firmly, “Flaus won’t be getting the job”.
I did not see John often over these years, a time when I had decided I wanted to get out of the university. I had tired of the political battles at La Trobe and focused my attention outside academe. When the opportunity presented itself, I resigned from the Media Centre to take up the position of advisor to the Minister for the Arts in Victoria, Norman Lacy, and ultimately I became Founding Director of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF) in 1982. I had finally found a job I loved which suited my skills.
In the early ’80s John was publishing weekly film reviews in The Age and broadcast film criticism on 3RRR with Paul Harris. When I next ran into John in 1985 he was unemployed and asked me if I had any work at the Foundation he could do. The only position I had vacant, which was one that was always difficult to fill, was that of receptionist. A receptionist’s role is important as the face of an organisation. They are the first person someone meets on entry or on the phone. I found people who were smart were often bored by the job and others – who lacked the people skills – could give a place a bad name quickly through errors of judgement.
John did not hesitate to accept the role and he became the best receptionist I ever dealt with. He understood the role and played it as an actor to perfection. His phone manner and voice were glorious to listen to. People would be put through to me and would gasp, “Who is that answering the phone?” I can’t recall how long he was there but long enough for him to become essential and find a niche for himself. One of his jobs was to open the mail and he would see the unsolicited scripts that were sent in by eager would-be filmmakers, seeking advice and funding of which there was very little available. John asked if he could read the scripts and provide comments. I was very happy for him to do this, so John would take the scripts home and spend hours of his time offering very valuable notes. John did not discriminate between a teenager who wanted help and an experienced or inexperienced producer. He always gave his best and would go out of his way to offer support.
John understood film so thoroughly he was a source of visual tricks for actors. He knew if you were one of a mob on screen you needed to attract attention by doing something different like wrapping a bandage around your hand to attract the viewer’s eyes to you in the frame – he knew what would work.
I like to think John’s role as a receptionist at the ACTF contributed to the attention he began to receive as the iconic voice of the quintessential Aussie. He began to get sufficient work to make a living from acting and advertisements and to get more of the recognition he had long deserved.
I regretted losing the best receptionist I had ever worked with, but John remained an integral part of the ACTF team for some years. At Jeff Peck’s farewell party in 1988 John donned a mask to join the fun. At a party in 1990 for Glenda Wilson (my assistant for 27 years over-all), John and Jeff Peck acted a parody of Glenda and me. It was Glenda’s 40th birthday and a celebration of our 15-year partnership at that time. John managed to get into one of my dresses and both donned grey wigs to spoof how we would be working together in old age And, for my 60th birthday party in 1997, John wrote a poem that I treasure.
The Best Boss I Ever Had
“When the legends die there is no dreaming,
When there is no dreaming the people die.”
Oppressed by circumstance,
By pomp ignored,
We our daily battles wage
With brave but blunted sword.
We see our dreams erode,
As each day make do,
And hard the inching way
We haltingly pursue.
But there rise among us fiery ones,
Forged in action, fighting fit
And thirsting for the future.
I can tell of one of these
Who ascended swift the ivory tower,
Strode the corridors of power,
Seized the day and won the hour.
She shaped herself a cause to serve;
Struck a balance few can hold –
A steady nerve and tireless verve
Sometimes cautious, sometimes bold.
Built an enclave, took command,
Enlisted thence a motley band;
She trusted some and gave free rein,
But others… took in hand.
Hear this anarchist’s admission:
She is the ideal autocrat if such there be,
Gives freedom in accord to task,
Not generous but genuine with praise,
Scorns flattery, and with equal force
Defends her subjects as herself.
She might have been the ideal diplomat
(“Tricia, please, don’t call me Pat”)
If guile and patience were sufficient,
But for all her fabled toughness
In treachery she rates deficient.
She became a pioneer
In the most unlikely country
Where leviathans are in contention
And the stakes are high –
The unfolding hearts and minds
Of the coming generation.
Critique alone is not enough
Of culture high and low,
The shrewdest diagnosis is no cure
Till action makes it so.
Then turned she from the groves of academe,
Prepared and resolute, to realise a dream.
That dream must be negotiated,
That firm resolve must ever try
To turn the tide of Gresham’s Law
(Which says that low grade drives out high).
She must palter with the corporation “suits”,
So rational, soft tongued, hard eyed,
Who have paid the price of eminence –
The dream within them died.
She opens doors to talents:
Some who had their dreams put by,
Too long tethered by routine,
Now take new wings and fly.
To cast a giant shadow
We look to models masculine
Now in triumph as in struggle
We hail our hero feminine.
John’s contribution to the industry was recognised by the Australian Writers Guild when they awarded him the Dorothy Crawford Award in 1994. This decision did not follow the rules, which required a recipient to have two hours of screen credits to his name, but the Guild considered his contribution as a script editor warranted recognition. I was the Deputy Chair of the Australian Film Finance Corporation at that time and was attending the Guild dinner with Chris Lovell, the FFC Chairman. I asked if I could make the presentation to John given our close association over the years and my knowledge of his extensive and diverse work. In 2003 the Australian Director’s Guild (ADG) also recognised John’s outstanding contribution to the industry with the Cecil Holmes Award. By then John had more than 100 screen credits including 98 acting roles.
When I stepped down from the ACTF I wrote a memoir about my years in television, Bloodbath, a Memoir of Australian Television. John had been an ongoing presence in my career and I felt a launch would not be complete without him. He made a speech along with actor Mark Mitchell and publicist Paul Taylor.
I would never have expected John to settle into domestic life but he has done just that with Natalie and a fine partnership it has turned out to be. They have built a new home at Castlemaine, but John travels regularly to Melbourne to play a role in a film, to act on stage, to make an advertisement or to help someone out with a film project. The last performance I saw him in was the lead in The Madness of the Day at La Mama Theatre in February 2014. He will be performing the role of the father in META, inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis,at the Malthouse in late October 2014.
John has lost track of how many productions he has participated in, how many film reviews he has done, how many people he has advised and mentored along the way. But they – every one – will honour and remember him. They will remember his ideas and the detailed consideration he gave to all he did. He took an interest in all things and if he found something worth pursuing he did that thoroughly. He is a stirrer but a benign anarchist if such there be.