David, Milo and Me
Brad has taken, to my mind, the quintessential photograph of my husband David. A man in a very English hat wearing a tee shirt showing a Chinese man wearing his very Chinese hat. He has captured the enigma that is David McPhail.
The Start of a Journey
From the glass of chardonnay, shared with Anne and David McPhail, came a true collaboration. What started as a simple project taking photos of creative individuals for my Diploma in Painting took interesting and unexpected turns, resulting in a thought-provoking collection of work including photographs a published book combing the poetry of David McPhail and my photography and painting.
Drawing upon my fifteen years as a commercial designer, combined with what I learned from doing my diploma, my aim for this exhibition was to communicate to the public, a previously unseen insight into the life of actor, comedian and director, David McPhail.
David, Milo & Me was
a mini exhibition within Kaleidoscope: A Visual Discovery which was a showcase of work by all art students from Ashburton Aoraki Polytechnic, shown at the Ashburton Public Art Gallery.
This included a range of work, from traditional drawing, painting and printmaking through to contemporary illustration and mixed media.
The exhibition was a resounding success with positive feedback from patrons, fellow students, David himself and perhaps the most trustworthy critic of all, Anne McPhail. Anne has a fantastic eye and has worked in art galleries and immersed herself in all parts of the artistic world. Overall, I trust her judgement.
The exhibition was a culmination of our shared time. Displaying a series of candid shots of David on stage and Walking with Milo, the illustrated children’s book (with a hidden message for adults). It’s taken from a poem about Davids grandson, designed and illustrated by me. It featured paintings of David, characters from the book and an interactive display which used photos of David, an old black and white television and an audio presentation of David reciting the poem.
“Any creativity is a form of communication – creative people need to be celebrated”
Who is David McPhail
The man I took this journey with I cannot write a biography about. I cannot tell you who or what he is, but I can capture him.
A google search results in ‘David Alexander McPhail, ONZM, QSM (born 11 April 1945) coming up time and time again in lists of New Zealands most well known comedians, actors, writers and directors. Perhaps the most fitting biography I could find is that provided by the website www.speakers.co.nz
One of new Zealand’s best known TV comedians. Known as the “other half ” of McPhail and Gadsby – David McPhail is an icon in New Zealand entertainment.
In the Merivale, Christchurch, townhouse of actor and writer David McPhail, there is a museum, an archive, a special collection of preserved artifacts – behold, on the windowsill of his office, six Feltex awards.
It’s like coming across important bones on an archaeological dig. The Feltex engravings have dimmed over the years, but enough is visible to confirm McPhail’s place in New Zealand entertainment history. Best Actor. Entertainer of the Year – twice. Those were the days when TV awards were sponsored by a carpet firm.
Actually, those were the days when TV awards had a sponsor.
David McPhail has, for the past 20 years, written and appeared in a wide variety of television programmes including Letter to Blanchy and McPhail & Gadsby. Both shows have received numerous awards for writing and production.
In the late 1970s, the early 1980s, David McPhail was – this is such a great old phrase – in his pomp.
Director, writer and star of those great old shows, A Week of It and McPhail & Gadsby. McPhail and Gadsby broke new ground in New Zealand satire. Giving what New Zealand needed – to have a good laugh at itself. David McPhail and Jon Gadsby presented a fast-paced, edgy sketch-comedy show which satirised the events of the week – the newsmakers, politics, sport and social issues. The show was taped in front of a studio audience only hours before transmission. Scary stuff!
A great many public figures who were merited satirical attention in McPhail’s TV shows are likewise extinct.
Including, in 1992, former Prime Minister (1975-84) Sir Robert Muldoon, always McPhail’s most hilarious and best-known impersonation. No surprise then that, in 2003 David wrote and is performing in the play Muldoon – a moving confrontation with a remarkable man who was arguably the most controversial leader of our time. A unique evening of political intrigue, laughter and poignant drama.
He’s fond of telling the story about the time he and Gadsby had performed a live cabaret at Phil Warren’s Ace of Clubs in Auckland; McPhail was informed that Muldoon would be in the audience, spotted him – “the spotlight was skimming across the top of his dome” – and went ahead with his parody; afterwards, in the dressing room, “the door burst open, and in came wassisname. Used to be Minister of Immigration. Yes, Aussie Malcolm. And behind him came Muldoon, followed by a photographer from the Herald.” Muldoon put his arm around him, McPhail did his Muldoon face, the photo appeared on the front page the next day.
He has worked extensively at The Court Theatre in Christchurch both as an actor and a director in productions ranging from The School for Scandal to Look Back in Anger. He has also performed with Opera New Zealand.
David has written and appeared in many corporate videos and fronted several television campaigns, including a major Australian advertising campaign for the Toyota Motor Company.
David McPhail has received many awards for his work. He has been named both Actor of the Year and Television Personality of the Year on two occasions.
In 1995 he was awarded the QSM for service to the community. In 2008 he was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in recognition of services to television and the theatre in the New Year Honours List.
David the Poet
Ever since he can remember, David has always liked poetry and been fascinated by the likes of Dylan Thomas, T.S. Elliot and Gerard Manly Hopkins. His fascination of these poets prompted him to emulate them. This resulted in a lot of his earlier attempts being thrown away when he realised that they were copied – just “a whole lot of odd words put together so that it sounds very interesting but it doesn’t make any sense”. Whereas the poets that he admired could do both, put together unusual words and with construction. It wasn’t until David met his wife Anne that he had found his muse, his love for her became his inspiration.
The other big influence on David was the generation of poets known as the Beat Poets (where the term Beatnik came from) in the late 40’s/early 50’s, who were mainly American.
Principally the poet called Lawrence Ferlenghetti and, perhaps the most well-known, Allen Ginsberg, who were all around the time of Jack Kerouac. They were all part of a scene of poets in San Francisco and New York who David greatly admired. They were ‘new’ and that’s what appealed to him. Their poetic styles were forms that he had not encountered before and he thought, ” yeah, I’d like to write like that”. David starting writing in a similar style, however, once again his attempts didn’t quite hit the spot – it was purely imitation.
“You find where you are going as you go through life, “says David. It was a sudden realisation to him that he was more capable and more confident writing not long verses, but short ones. This is where David’s favourite style of poetry comes in – the very strict Japanese form of poetry known as Haiku. David was flown to Japan as part of an advertising campaign. Prior to this trip the only Japanese writer he had heard of was Yukio Mishima, a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor and film director, considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century, ” who was a fascinating character and most bizzare”.
Once he came back from Japan, David became more interested in the Japanese style and began to read the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. That’s when he realised it’s the condensed form that suited him best, ” just a moment in time that isn’t an epic thing about human emotion and “Christ knows what”, it’s just that little moment there and if you do that precisely, it crystallizes the moment. If you do it well, people will read it and think. I KNOW! All the metaphors, all the rolling phrases, all the poetic conventions aren’t needed, and all you need is a select-few well-chosen words”.
A lot of David’s later poems are very short, echoing his love of the Japanese Haiku style of poetry
David on Me
Perhaps the most important thing for me was to hear David’s feedback on our journey. In order to capture his take on this, I employed the interview skills of Kimberly Sexton – the following is what David had to say.
How did you meet Brad?
I met Brad while we were working on a project for a friend. I contributed the words and Brad the imagery. As it happened the project did not proceed but we kept in touch.
What were your thoughts on first communicating with him?
I was impressed by three things: His technical skill, his imagination, but most importantly his open and most agreeable personality.
In what way has the journey been interesting?
It is curious that such a young artist and a much older man would find so much common ground. Our backgrounds could not have more different and yet I understood immediately what was driving him and in the course of our collaboration I have made a good friend.
The images Brad has taken of you are profoundly raw and very expressive – did you ‘feel’ as the images were being taken that they were going to be as good as they are?
From the beginning Brad was at pains to show and explain his images. I had confidence in two things: His obvious ability and the type of photographs he was taking. Having dealt with visual images all my life I was intrigued with his view of me and my world. There is one print in particular – I am wearing a large black hat and a Chinese tee shirt – that Anne, my wife, says captures me exactly.
Did you have to put a concerted effort into the shoots, or were they fairly painless?
The shoots were ‘painless.’ Obviously, I am not uncomfortable having my photograph taken, and on many occasions, Brad was working while I was preoccupied with other things – for instance rehearsing a play.
Do you feel he has captured the essence of David McPhail? Or, perhaps a side of you that is rarely exposed to the public?
Anne thinks he has captured my essence – assuming of course that I have any essence! It is very difficult for anyone to be completely objective about what a photograph reveals. We all have our own innate idea of what we are and what we represent and sometimes, particularly with painted portraits, a person can be disappointed because the image does not reflect or confirm their own view. I think Brad’s photographs have managed to ‘get inside’ me because of one thing. Many photographers, when approaching a so-called ‘comedian’ ask the subject to pull a funny face or ‘do something whacky.’ They believe this will produce an ‘appropriate’ image. It never does because what they are photographing is simply another mask the comedian employs. In Brad’s photographs I’m not wearing any masks.
What are your thoughts on the images that appear in Milo & Me?
I did have a tear in my eye when Brad first showed me the book. I was immediately taken back to the day I wrote the poem and the walk that prompted it. But, equally important, Brad had created the kind of fantastical images I had in my head when I started on the poem. A common-place, rather charmless street, that was suddenly filled with wild cartoon creatures, simply because a small boy had seen a snail’s shell and said ‘Someone used to live in here.’
David, Milo and Me is a very creative approach to Brad’s final assessment – what were your thoughts on that?
I agree Brad’s ‘David, Milo and Me’ is a bold final assessment. I have never heard of anyone creating a book to include in their portfolio. Similarly, the idea of concentrating on one individual could end up being boring. Because I am that individual it would be impertinent of me to judge whether it’s boring or not. (I don’t think it is.) But, Brad’s imagination and his artistic individuality have made a very old actor look pretty good.
Would you do it all again?
Would I do it again? Of course! But, I know Mr MacDonald has other fish to fry – Stephen Fry perhaps?