OUR first proper home after we married was a tiny, pock-marked, white ant-riddled cottage, perched on an impenetrable limestone ridge on the edge of the Mallee, known officially as the Head Teacher’s Residence.
Attached to this shaky old structure was the single schoolroom. It was here we enjoyed our first years of teaching, at State School No. 4041 Wheatlands.
As the end of that first year approached, we were reminded, on a fairly regular basis:
“We’d better start practicin’ for our school concert.” We were told the concert consisted mainly of carols and “some other stuff”.
A local young pianist of some talent provided the music. She had taken it upon herself to teach the children some beautiful Australian Christmas carols. We followed this up with some bush ballads.
We decided to extend the Australian content.
We had toyed with the idea of performing a little play.
We searched the shelves of the educational bookseller in Bendigo but found nothing suitable: all too ‘English’ or too ‘soppy’ for these down-to-earth Mallee kids.
I had been reading The Magic Pudding to the whole school – all eight of them. (You try holding the interest of kids from Prep to Grade 6 with the one book.) The book was highly successful – perhaps we could do a dramatisation of The Pudding?
Being a published author by this time and recognising my moral responsibility, I wrote to Norman Lindsay seeking his permission. I included a number of children’s drawings of his characters with the letter and received a charming response, granting permission.
We built the script on the blackboard with the kids all collaborating, cast the play from the steps and stairs that was the total enrolment of the school – Bunyip Bluegum, Sid Sawnoff and the rest of them – and began rehearsals.
All seemed to be going well, but by the time we were approaching performance I realised the Grade 5 girl cast as Bunyip Bluegum was not coping with Bunyip’s convoluted dialogue. At the last minute I made a drastic decision. I would have to play Bunyip Bluegum! So I donned the magical koala ears – crafted by a skilled parent from rabbit fur and wire – and gave it a run.
Problem: I didn’t know the lines! So we built a cardboard gum tree and hid the original Grade 5 girl inside as ‘prompt’.
The performance was a wild success. The combination of me with rabbit skin ears and the Grade 5 girl bellowing the lines ahead of me from inside the tree, with me following limply behind, brought the house (or rather the corrugated iron hall) down.
The following year we had to eclipse our previous effort. So we decided to write our own play – and we’d make it a musical!
Once again we constructed the story and dialogue on the blackboard, titling it Christmas at Boggy Creek.
This time we could craft the characters to the children who would be playing them.
(The Grade 4 girl who was the village postmistress who opened everyone’s mail, actually became a real postal clerk and remained so through her working life.)
We incorporated several bush ballads with lyrics tweaked to fit our story. The plot explained how it was discovered that Santa Claus was not visiting Boggy Creek that year – so something must be done. Skulduggery was discovered, but justice prevailed, the local bushranger turned from villain into hero and the ‘real’ Santa Claus appeared on stage with his bulging bag and proceeded to hand out presents – purchased by the Mothers’ Club – to every school child and preschooler in the hall.
We knew it would be a hard act to follow; but by the following February the teacher had moved on and the school had been closed due to diminishing enrolment. A neighbouring farmer bought the limestone ridge, and demolished school and residence. The site has long since reverted to wheat crops.
Footnote: A writer friend, who viewed the performance, suggested I send the script to the ABC. So I did what I thought was a creditable radio version and posted it off. It came back in due course, suggesting the work was mainly visual. Could I rewrite it for TV? This 40-minute version went to air the following Christmas with a fine professional cast, marking the beginning of my future new career.