Bob Ellis is dead: it seems impossible that such a vital and inexhaustible source of words and wit, journalism, polemics, plays, screenplays, books, scandal, lawsuits, should no longer walk among us. By his death I feel I am diminished, that all Australia is.
Bob had a close association with the Stables Theatre. He was of that Sydney University generation that included the Nimrod founders (John Bell, Ken Horler, Richard Wherrett) and many leading actors (John Gaden, Arthur Dignam, etc). Most readers will not know that he and his wife, the playwright and screenwriter Anne Brooksbank, bought the building after Nimrod moved to Surry Hills, hoping eventually to stage their plays perhaps (but recognizing a good investment). At the time the theatre was leased to the Ensemble. Peter Carmody, a friend of Bob and Anne’s, had, with a group that including Penny Cook, ambitiously started a theatre company, which they called the Griffin Theatre Company, but they had nowhere to perform. Carmody approached the Ellises with a view to leasing, in the first instance just occasionally. The Ellises broke the lease – or brokered their way out of it – and in came the new mob. Which is how The Griffin came to be at the Stables. (They later sold the building to the late Rodney Seaborn, whose Foundation owns it to this day.)
And several of Bob’s plays, including some he co-authored, were premiered at the Stables Theatre. He had an uncredited hand in both the first Nimrod show, Biggles, and later Hamlet on Ice, and co-wrote The Duke of Edinburgh Assassinated (which less successfully did for Henry Parkes what the groundbreakingThe Legend of King O’Malley – co-written with Michael Boddy – did for its eponym). He produced Down Under, co-written with Ann, here.
Bob’s contribution to Australian theatre, film and TV is immense. His Wikipedia entry mentions: 11 plays (some co-authored; it omits at least one, but includes another under two different names that’s another story), 14 screenplays (three of which he directed), two documentaries; seven TV scripts (including the landmark series, True Believers; another ten screenplays remain unproduced); six novels; 13 works of non-fiction (including collections of – mainly political journalism); innumerable articles for newspapers, magazines, radio; speeches for politicians (always of the left, most notably perhaps for his friend Bob Carr when premier); film reviews, book reviews; a blog with several daily instalments; exaltations, damnations, … . He was rancorous in condemnation and denunciation, but, oh! how generous in praise. One who could hate fiercely, but one even better at loving and articulating it so that it was hard not to love what Bob loved.
David Marr, in a superb Guardian obituary, says his first love was English: I’d have said Anne was (they were the very first subject of Good Weekend”s long-running series, ‘The Two of Us’). But he certainly loved English, relished the rolling periods of great writers (particularly the Bible, despite his atheism), loved words and had enviably easy command of them; wrote stylish prose. And he wrote passionately: you cannot separate the man from his passion, his passionate belief in decency, liberty, equality, right behaviours; his passionate advocacy of people and books and plays and films he admired.
Our friendship blossomed anew about five years ago: he had an idea for what he called Anthology Theatre. He made selections of writers, linked them with stunning narrative, and performed them with others. He loved performing, was a surprisingly good mimic (John Gielgud, Henry Kissinger in particular). Unfashionably these days, he was not afraid of true sentiment, which never crossed the line into sentimentality; one of the reasons he was one of our finest writers of dialogue.
Valete, Bob. Incomparable. Indomitable. Irreplaceable.