Mr Percival is Dead


A recent re-watching of the film Storm Boy (and a subsequent re-reading of my own 1976 copy of the story, complete with torn, food-stained pages falling out) reminded me of what we’re missing out on by neglecting our own stories. Recent Australian films, books and television seem full of characters and storylines that are more Manhattan than Melbourne.

This is not a new trend. Rove is Letterman, All Saints did ER, Underbelly is The Sopranos. This list could go on for days, but what interested me as I watched Storm Boy was exactly how much we’ve allowed and indeed welcomed our own self-image to be altered. It seems to me that our culture has become like Storm Boy’s father, Hide-Away Tom, sitting in his shack on the Coorong, forgotten, fed-up with a world that shows no interest in him.

Storm Boy
is a masterpiece. Forty-five years after its publication by Rigby, the book works on a variety of levels. It’s up there with Steinbeck’s The Red Pony as a fable, an adventure, a coming-of-age classic set in a place that smells, looks and feels authentic. Colin Thiele’s story is short, sharp and brilliant. He tells us about a 10-year-old boy living in a beach shack with his father. The boy finds three pelican chicks that have been orphaned by hunters. He names them Mr Proud, Mr Ponder and of course, Mr Percival. The book and film show his developing love for them, as well as the love and respect for his father (beautifully drawn, full of weaknesses) and Fingerbone, a local Aborigine.

Judging by the number of reprints, Storm Boy must have kept Rigby in business for years. This illustrates the connection this story made with Australians, especially locals. I remember being taken to see it with my class in primary school. Plenty of people’s bookcases contain a school copy they didn’t get around to returning.

Storm Boy
presented us with recognisable characters. In the same year the film was made you could have taken your kids to see King Kong, or Jodie Foster in Freaky Friday. But here was a new choice. Hide-Away Tom was everyone’s grumpy uncle. I knew plenty of Hideaways, sitting around kitchen tables listening to the races, sucking back a beer and promising the wife they’d mow the lawn next weekend. Storm Boy himself was the son of local ferals, walking around Hillcrest with bare feet and torn clothes, smelling musty, hardly ever going to school. Of course, growing up in the suburbs of Adelaide, I never knew a Fingerbone, but we knew there were Aborigines out there, somewhere.

The people I saw on the screen in 1976 looked like me, spoke like me, drove familiar cars and ate familiar food. This in itself was enough to get you in. We were used to kids named Beaver and Brad running around some Los Angeles streetscape playing baseball.

Thiele and the film-makers made no attempt to hide the location. The Coorong and Goolwa were celebrated – the cruddy shopfronts, the wharf, the stunning white-sand beaches stretching out ninety-miles into the distance.

Compare this with McLeod’s Daughters, a show that presented the Barossa Valley as some generic Outback experience (not that it was very Outback, only ten minutes from the nearest Red Rooster). Adelaide was always referred to as ‘town’ and the names of local places were changed to make them sound more ‘Aussie’.

What was the problem with celebrating place? Was this an attempt to appeal to the broadest possible audience? I thought it was embarrassing. At least Fingerbone understood (and taught Storm Boy about) the Coorong – its history, its myths. His traditional songs and dances helped describe the landscape, not dismiss it. As with the Aboriginal boy in James Vance Marshall’s Walkabout, we are given another way of understanding how white fellas fit into the Australian landscape. In Storm Boy we see a view of the world that embraces trees, middens, fish and chip shops, beat-up old Cortinas, Mr Percival and 60,000 years of history.

Even when Mr Percival is shot by hunters we see this as part of the cycle of life that Storm Boy has been learning about from Hide-Away and Fingerbone. Both of these men are loners, cast out of their communities. They are living on the edge, looking in, and it’s this that gives us perspective.

Environmental concerns were another important theme running through the film. The message was that white fellas can be bad news – whether they were hunters killing birds for target practice, fishermen throwing beer cans in the water or hoons driving their buggies through the dunes, ripping up grass and buggering the delicate ecology. I can’t think of any other Australian film prior to 1976 that had incorporated these concerns into its storyline.

The film was rough around the edges, but time seems to be smoothing these minor imperfections. Storm Boy is one of those films you can watch and re-watch, finding something new each time. It makes you feel positive. It lacks cynicism. It doesn’t try to be smart. It was part of an accumulation of culture in the 1970s that started to help us think about who we are, what we value, what we’re willing to stand up for.

It seems to me that this accumulation has slowed, almost stopped. Television and film have made some deadly compromises in trying to reach and please a wider audience.

As the credits rolled I noticed that this was one of Scott Hick’s early gigs. It also helped Thiele’s career, other writers, filmmakers, actors, composers, musicians and the list goes on. Storm Boy was full of a promise that, I think, hasn’t been realised. The aesthetics, concerns and stories haven’t been pursued. Australian comedies have become unfunny, dramas completely introspective and self-satisfied – although there are exceptions, like Australian Rules, ironically a story that embraces imperfect people in recognisable landscapes.

It seems doubly ironic that a planned tribute to Colin Thiele at this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Week was passed over with almost no respect for Colin’s pioneering achievements. We were too busy honouring big name overseas writers.

And there’s the story of Australian culture.

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