A TV screening of an iconic Australian comedy brings back mixed memories for the filmmaker.
23 Mar 2010 - 9:55 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

It was the first Australian movie to sell more than $1 million worth of tickets at the national box-office, the most popular local movie in decades, a catalyst of the 1970s renaissance in Oz cinema, and it helped start or revive several notable careers.

Yet looking back at his first feature, director Bruce Beresford calls it a “colossal mistake” which typecast him as a lowbrow yobbo and kept him out of work for several years. That's the paradox of The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, the quintessential 1972 Ocker comedy about an Aussie innocent in Pommy land, which screens on SBS on Saturday March 27.

Initially no Australian distributor was willing to handle the film and it was vilified by critics here and in the UK. I can see why: even today, it's racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic, replete with references to “Abos,” “poofters,” “four-by- twos” (meaning Jews) and “tinted bastards” (the citizens of Hong Kong).

Beresford, who co-wrote the screenplay with Barry Humphries, insists they were ridiculing people who harbour such bigoted sentiments, not endorsing those offensive views. Perhaps, although I suspect that distinction was lost on many moviegoers at the time. Producer Phillip Adams acknowledges the film reflects what he describes as a recurring theme of “self-loathing” in Humphries' work.

It was inspired by The Wonderful World of Barry McKenzie, a comic strip written by Humphries and illustrated by Nicholas Garland, which ran in the British satirical magazine Private Eye. Beresford read the strip while he was working in London, fresh from Sydney University, as the head of the British Film Institute's production board for new filmmakers.

He'd met Humphries in the mid-1960s after being given his phone number by the artist Patrick White. “I thought the comic strip would make a funny film and suggested it to Barry,” Beresford tells SBS Film. “He wasn't that keen but he gave me some material including a musical he'd written, in which he'd star, for the West End (which never eventuated) and I did an adaptation.”

Humphries took the script back to Australia and showed it to Adams, who secured the entire budget – $250,000 – from the Australian Film Development Corporation. Adams recalls Beresford and Humphries finished the script in Sydney at the apartment of Harry M. Miller, who was Barry's agent. The AFDC expected Adams to raise some cash from other investors, but there were no takers.

Singer Barry Crocker was cast as Barrington Bradman Bing McKenzie, a naïve young guy who goes to England with his aunt, Edna Everage (Humphries), to “further the cultural and intellectual traditions of the McKenzie dynasty" so he can claim a $2,000 inheritance. That must have been a leap of faith because Crocker's sole acting experience consisted of one episode of Skippy and playing a waiter in the 1970 movie Squeeze a Flower. “We knew he could sing, he had a big chin like the character drawn by Garland, and he had an easygoing charm,” Beresford recalled.

Adams wanted Paul Hogan to play Curly, Bazza's best mate in London, but Humphries vetoed that idea and Paul Bertram got the part. Filming took just four weeks, described by Adams as a 'guerrilla' production to avoid objections from the British unions, and no working permits were sought. Humphries also played Hoot, a hippie musician, and Dr. Delamphrey, who according to Beresford, was based on a psychiatrist who had once treated him.

The cast included Humphries' friends including Dick Bentley as a bumbling cop, Peter Cook as a flamboyant BBC producer and Spike Milligan as Bazza's landlord. John Clarke, later known as Fred Dagg, played an extra. The cinematographer was Don McAlpine and Pete Best wrote the music, including the theme song. The production manager was Richard Brennan, who went on to produce or exec produce movies such as Stir, Starstruck, Cosi and Spotswood, and the production secretary was Jane Scott, who later produced Shine and, most recently, Beresford's Mao's Last Dancer.

As noted, the critics hated the movie, as did distributors. Adams recalls Roadshow's Alan Finney leaving a screening at Sydney University and hissing, “Burn it.” Finney, now the head of Walt Disney's film distribution in Australia, insists he would never have said that to a fellow filmmaker, and he remembers seeing it in Melbourne.

To this day, Beresford doesn't understand why the reviews were so vicious, declaring, “Barry Humphries and I thought we were making a harmless satire, and a fairly good-natured one.”

Adams is convinced the hostile crits “didn't do the film the slightest bit of harm.” The producer booked the movie into independent cinemas including the Capitol opposite Melbourne Town Hall and the Metro in Kings Cross. Audiences loved it, and Roadshow, ironically, became the distributor.

Despite Fosters' prominence, the brewery initially refused to co-operate with promoting the film, claiming it didn't project the kind of image they wanted. They relented after Humphries threatened to do a deal with a rival brand.

As the stars arrived at the Adelaide premiere, they were showered with grog by youths who formed an arch shaking their tinnies. Adams recalls Humphries heading to the safety of the projection room where he dry-retched: “For him it was an exorcism, not a celebration”. But Adams contends the film helped get Humphries “back on his feet; he had hit rock bottom.”

Thanks to Beresford's contacts, the comedy opened at a Leicester Square cinema in London's West End. It was a hit in the capital, despite disparaging the Poms, but died in provincial areas, Adams says.

Of the experience, the director reflects: “It was great fun doing it, but as a filmmaker who was trying to get his career started, it was a colossal mistake. I painted myself into a corner as a 'Mr Lowbrow yobbo'. It was a disaster which put me out of work for years.”

Adams rates it as “the iconic film of the 70s revolution” which helped open doors for many other Oz filmmakers; the first point is debatable in a decade which gave us Picnic at Hanging Rock, Sunday Too Far Away, Newsfront, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Mad Max and My Brilliant Career.,

Beresford claims he only agreed to do the 1974 sequel, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (which he regards as a better movie), because TV mogul Reg Grundy had offered to finance it as well as a film of the Henry Handel Richardson novel The Getting of Wisdom. As it turned out, Grundy passed on the latter.

It wasn't until the 1976 release of his Don's Party, scripted by David Williamson and produced by Adams, that Beresford felt he'd been able to start rehabilitating his career.

Still, the fall-out from the two Bazza movies didn't do any lasting damage to the director, who went on to make the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy and other acclaimed films such as Tender Mercies and Black Robe. He'll be in the US in August when Samuel Goldwyn Films launches Mao's Last Dancer, working on his next project, Peace Love and Misunderstanding, a comedy-drama from New York writers Christina Mengert and Joe Muszynski.

Interpreting Bazza speak

For the uninitiated, here's a sample of some of the movie's colourful colloquialisms:

Splash the boots, strain the potatoes, water the horses, go where the big knobs hang out, shake hands with the wife's best friend, drain the dragon, siphon the python, ring the rattlesnake, unbutton the mutton, point Percy at the porcelain, shake hands with the unemployed: take a leak

Chunder, big spit, technicolour yawn, yodelling, laugh at the ground: vomit

As dry as a dead dingo's donger: in desperate need of a beer

One-eyed trouser snake, mutton dagger: penis

Bang like a dunny door, go off like an alarm clock: promiscuous female

Spear the bearded clam, knee-trembler, get dirty water off your chest: have sex