Wednesday 22 May 2019

Vale Bob Hawke - My single contribution to his public life

Editor’s Note: This is a those were the days memoir.
Robert Helpmann died on 28 September 1986. The Federal Parliament was not sitting that day. It resumed on 7 October and on that day I wandered down the corridor and into the PM’s office. In those days there were no guards. I walked over to talk to a good acquaintance John Bowan, Bob Hawke’s Foreign Affairs Advisor and asked if anything was being planned to note Helpmann’s death. Bowan said he would find out and about fifteen minutes later he came down to my office and said nothing was planned but the PM would be interested in saying something. But.. if we wanted to do it we would have to write it ourselves, quickly, and get it in front of Hawke well before Question Time at 2.00 pm. Asking the public service to get itself into gear and do the speech would mean it never happened, at least not for days. So this below is what I (mostly) wrote, what Bowan passed to Hawke and what Hawke read. A brush with fame…and possibly the only time that Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger and Nicholas Ray were ever mentioned in the Australian Parliament, certainly in the same sentence.
 Vale Bob Hawke… a great Prime Minister.
Madam Speaker, I move:
“That this House expresses its deep regret at the death on 28 September 1986 of Sir Robert Helpmann, CBE, dancer, actor, choreographer, director and producer, places on record its appreciation of his long and meritorious service to the Australian Ballet and tenders its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.” 
I wish to pay tribute to a great Australian, Sir Robert Helpmann, who died in Sydney on Sunday, 28 September. It is only in exceptional circumstances that motions of condolence have been moved for distinguished Australians who have not sat in this House. Sir Robert Helpmann was a distinguished Australian whose career as a dancer, choreographer, stage, film and theatre actor, and stage and film director was one of the richest, liveliest and most productive in Australia's cultural life. 
Robert Murray Helpman was born at Mount Gambier, South Australia, on 9 April 1909. At the early age of five he began ballet classes. His teacher, Nora Stewart, told his mother:
“A child is either born a dancer or he isn't. Bobby is, and will go much further than I can take him.” 
Frederick Ashton, Robert Helpmann
Madam Speaker, there is no doubt he did. He achieved fame in Europe and America and his singular talent was recognised and applauded not only by his audiences but also by his peers. His collaborators on the stage and in film included such illustrious names as Alicia Markova, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Sir Laurence Olivier, Michael Powell, Emeric Presburger, Nicholas Ray, Katharine Hepburn and Sir Frederick Ashton. 
There is not sufficient time here to list his achievements individually. There were too many successes, particularly in his efforts to produce new and exciting dance work. There is time, however, to remind honourable members that Sir Robert Helpmann left Australia in 1932 at a time when opportunities to develop his art and his craft were limited, if not non-existent. By sheer hard work he rose to the top of his profession. He returned to Australia only in the mid-1950s, then to have a major influence over the development of ballet in Australia and to make contributions to our films, theatre, television and even, on one occasion, our pop music industry. 
In 1964 he was made a Companion of the Order of the British Empire for his outstanding contribution to ballet. Other honours bestowed on him were a Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award in 1953 and Australian of the Year award in 1966. He was made a knight bachelor in the 1968 New Year's honours list. 
He gave to Australians the benefits of his imagination and skill. As Australia's cultural life has broadened and we have produced more playwrights, painters and directors of international standing and repute, no one should underestimate Sir Robert Helpmann's role in the development of the growing maturity of Australia's art and culture. He blazed a trail for our artists and remained active over many years. He was working virtually up to the time of his death, constantly involved in plans for dances, plays and films. No doubt he was actively involved in preparing to solve the problems each work presented. His work was summed up by his great friend Katharine Hepburn who said these words of him:
“He can set himself on a trail. And follow it. Step by step. Mountain by mountain. Jungle by jungle. Swamp by swamp. And he will get there. He will keep-a-going. And he will get there.” 
Sir Robert Helpmann brought great joy and satisfaction to the millions who saw his work. He demonstrated to the world the diversity of this nation's talents and capabilities. His memory will live on in his films and his choreography. It will also live on through the inspiration such a brilliant career offers to those Australian artists who will follow him. On behalf of the Government and all Australians, I extend to his family our condolences in their bereavement.

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