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Taking Spike on the road.

Andy Parks on alternative film distribution

Andy Parks is a Byron Bay-based writer.

The recent closures of the Valhalla and Chauvel Cinemas in Sydney and the Lumiere in Melbourne are signs of dire times for independent film makers and distributors in Australia. But Hatchling Productions, an innovative documentary company based in northern NSW, has ripped a page out of the rock’n’roll survival manual in taking their latest project on the road and, hopefully, to a new audience.

Filmmakers Cathy Henkel and Jeff Canin have packed a Tarago van full of equipment and booked a 5-week tour to screen their latest film in unconventional venues such as Yamba Bowling Club, Rooty Hill RSL and Goulbourn Workers Club.

The film, a documentary about Spike Milligan called I Told You I Was Ill, premiered at the 2005 Adelaide Film Festival and subsequently had sold out screenings at the Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals. It has also been sold to television in the UK, Ireland and Canada and will screen on the ABC later in the year. But according to director Cathy Henkel, “the reason (that) you make a film is to engage with an audience, to share it with an audience. Making a one hour TV program is probably the most unsatisfying experience for a filmmaker because you sit at home and you know it’s being beamed out to the world, but you don’t know who [the audience] are or what they thought of it.”

However, Henkel says that since the film screened on the BBC last week they have had thousands of people visiting the website and giving feedback. “We’ve got an email list which has got 1000 subscribers just from the BBC broadcast the other night, so we’re talking back to them by sending a newsletter with little quotes from Spike...[T]hat’s part of what we’re trying to do, to engage with our audience.”

By taking their film on the road and bypassing the normal distribution channels, Hatchling Productions are reconnecting with a Do It Yourself ethos that was pioneered by filmmakers like Alby Mangels whose adventure films screened in community centres around Australia in the 1970s. Henkel says DVD technology and data beam projectors allow a new generation of filmmakers to find new ways of reaching an audience.

As well as screening the film, they’ve also invited Spike’s daughter Laura on the tour. She tells stories about Milligan as a father, and also reads some of his letters and poems. Then there’s musician Glen Cardier who toured with Spike in the early 80s as part of a show called An Alarmingly Funny Evening With Spike Milligan. According to Henkel, “A lot of our audience saw that show and they’re coming back and meeting Glen 20 years later and buying his CDs and listening to his stories, saying ‘I remember that!’”

“People come to the show because they want to have a more intimate personal experience of this (film) with Spike and with his family. So they come with their Spike books and they want Laura to sign them. At Yamba Bowling Club the audience hung around for 45 minutes because they wanted to chat. Eventually the manager had to shoo us out. One particular guy just really wanted to tell me how much Spike had meant to him, and I think it was a kind of a yearning for his teenage years that he really needed to talk about. So there’s a very personal, engaged experience happening.”

Cathy Henkel says she wasn’t really a Spike Milligan fan until a couple of years ago when she was visiting a friend in Woy Woy on the NSW Central Coast, the town where Spike’s parents retired to, soon followed by his brother Desmond. Although Spike called it “the biggest above ground cemetery in the world’, he would often stay for extended visits and wrote some of his most famous works there, including Puckoon and Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall.

Henkel was in Woy Woy during Spikefest, a festival dedicated to Milligan’s memory and comedy legacy. She said the more she found out about him, the more she became fascinated by him as a character. “I fell in love with him as a person who suffered manic depression (and) was still able to write 83 books, and as a person who was very articulate and outspoken about mental illness. He was a creative genius and struggled so much with this illness and touched so many people. And then there was his activism, his conservationism way back in the 60s. He inspired Bob Geldoff. So I started to realise there was a lot more to this guy than I’d ever known. That was 2 years ago, now I’m an absolutely devoted fan. When people see the film, I think they fall in love with him too.”

For more information, visit

Andy Parks is a Byron Bay-based writer.

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 21

© Andy Parks; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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