Phil Spencer In Conversation


I am currently co-writing/co-parenting a new full-length show called The Smallest Hour – it is, for want of a better phrase, a bleak romantic comedy.

My fellow collaborator is Susie Youssef. Susie is a writer, actor, stand-up comedian and an extraordinarily punctual woman. Here she is looking windswept on a set of stairs…

Susie and I have just spent the week writing, talking, snacking, talking about snacking and walking around the city. Here are some low-lights from our week together.

Monday – Brainstorming … 

PHIL We’re writing a no mucking about comedy, Susie. I want this show to be one of those laugh-out-loud comedies. 


PHIL A real gut buster ya know? Big, proper, belly laughs.


SUSIE So…why have we been talking about post-traumatic stress disorder for the last two hours?

PHIL Okay, well maybe it could be a…dark comedy.

SUSIE Coffee break?

Tuesday – The man. The legend.

I am a self-confessed people watcher. My single favourite activity in life is watching people on the bus, or waiting in line at the supermarket or walking six pug dogs at 8.00pm at night.

I like the term curious, but if I’m completely honest, nosey is probably a more apt description. My mum is a delightfully nosey woman, as was her mother before her and her mother before her. It’s in the bloodline, like strong thighs and varicose veins.

I have notebooks crammed full of snippets of conversations I’ve overheard, scenes I’ve witnessed and small interactions that remind me why I love living in a city like Sydney. Stuff like… 

Oxford Street. 9.30pm. Monday. A man on his phone. 

MAN We’re just going to sit you down in front of Netflix and take as much blood as we physically can in twenty-four hours.


Rose Bay Ferry Wharf. 11.15am. Wednesday. A mother and daughter.

MOTHER (Speaking loudly into a mobile phone) I went and saw the unit across the road. I liked it. I’m going to take Steven’s architect around to look at it. 


MOTHER (Still speaking into the phone) Well, personally I think we could offer well below the reserve.


MOTHER What is it darling?

DAUGHTER Your phone is on speaker. 


DAUGHTER Everyone else can hear you.

MOTHER So? It’s okay to be successful darling.

Also today Susie and I saw this gentleman walking along the street. We had to sit down for quite some time to catch our breath. 

Wednesday – Water, Water, Everywhere… 

Today is the day when you bang your hands on the table.

It’s the day that even snacks won’t save. 

It’s the day when you pick a hole so big in your plot that all you’re left with are buzzwords on bits of paper. 

It’s the day when you read back over the half-draft you’ve penned and just shake your heads.

It’s the day when you say ‘well, why don’t we just make it a site-specific, choose-your-own-adventure work in an empty night club, where the audience write their own dialogue, act out the characters and control the action?’ 

But really what you mean is ‘I think the story we’ve come up with is a bit rubbish’.

It’s the day when the upstairs bathroom at Griffin leaks down into the kitchen and the house is awash with sink water and when the tradies arrive and you do what you always do when the tradies arrive – hide in the other room and wait until the drama is over.  

It’s the day that you press delete on 24 pages and go home early.

Thursday – “To begin at the beginning…”

Many moons ago my acting teacher told me that to master a Welsh accent one must repeat the phrase ‘Throw the baby out the window, a biscuit’ * over and over again in (your best effort at) a Welsh accent.  

Try it, out-loud, if you’re alone. 

Unless of course you are actually a Welsh person, in which case don’t try it, you might self-combust or something. I think that’s how physics works. 

This morning Susie and I chatted a lot about how to bring to life a number of characters in a play, in one foul swoop. How to take a swipe across a city or peer into houses or invite an audience into a village of lives without it seeming like a cheap film script. It’s a tough trick to pull off. 

And so in our lunch break we called up the mighty Welsh dragon that is Dylan Thomas for inspiration. If you haven’t heard Thomas himself reading Under Milk Wood, listen to it here. It’s wonderful stuff.

*Please note: no children were actually thrown from windows during this drama exercise. And what brand of Welsh biscuits magically appeared is still a mystery to me. 

Friday – A snippet of The Smallest Hour… 

SUSIE It’s a city like Sydney.

PHIL But it’s not actually Sydney.

SUSIE No. But it is a lot like Sydney.

PHIL Yeah. It has a bridge and a harbour.

SUSIE And the pubs close too early.

PHIL And the beaches are too crowded.

SUSIE And the houses are too expensive.

PHIL And the people can be…brisk.

SUSIE And it’s a city where nothing works. You know. Not like in London.

PHIL Or Berlin.

SUSIE Or Barcelona.

PHIL Or New York.

SUSIE Or Hong Kong.

PHIL Or…Toronto, or Bilbao.

SUSIE Okay, you know more cities than me.

PHIL But this city, is a lot like Sydney.

SUSIE But, it’s not actually Sydney.


SUSIE No, it’s just a place we made up. With our minds.

PHIL It’s a better story if you set it – nowhere.

SUSIE I think that’s what makes it theatre.

PHIL I think so too, Susie.


SUSIE So the show starts in darkness.

PHIL And the story starts in a city.

SUSIE Your phone vibrates. It’s 4am.

PHIL What Saul Bellow calls the convict hour, between 4am and 5am, when those with the least to fear are darkened and sober and back away from waking.

SUSIE Sorry. I thought we’d cut that bit.

PHIL What? The Saul Bellow bit.

SUSIE Yeah. Sounds a little pretentious.

PHIL Does it?

SUSIE Yeah. A little. 

PHIL Oh. Right. Well. I was just trying to set the scene.

SUSIE If you wanted to set the scene, you could have just said – A park. Night. A man who cannot sleep. 

PHIL Sure. Okay. Let’s go with that.