On the road to Anywhere
How Hugh wrote Over the Top with Jim and the extraordinary circumstances that took it to number 1 in Australia in 1991
First published: 2003
This is the story of how I went about writing my childhood memoir Over the Top with Jim; how I adapted it for national ABC radio broadcast on Macca’s Australia All Over Sunday morning programme; and what happened when it became a best-seller and was the Number 1 nonfiction book of the year.
It tells the story of the launch of the book at the Boomerang Theatre in Annerley, Brisbane, where I played the trumpet and my sister Gay tap-danced. It tells how almost all the characters in Over the Top with Jim turned up at my door, many – like my Russian classmate Jim Egoroff and “Brother Basher” – to complain. And what it was like touring Australia with Australia’s most popular radio announcer Ian McNamara, appearing on stage in his Macca concerts, sometimes with Jim. Because of the success of Over the Top with Jim, a Brisbane school teacher, Rita Carter, posted a copy to her brother who was appearing with the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. The actor – the late, sadly missed Bille Brown – declared that it made him laugh and it made him cry “and that is what theatre is supposed to do for us”. Bille Brown returned home, and I was commissioned by the first Brisbane Festival to adapt it into a stage play with Bille as script editor and director. Over the Top with Jim – the Play premiered in 1996 and was seen by 40,000 people throughout Queensland. It has been staged three times since. Bille Brown wrote in the programme notes: “Jim is a genie of his own kerosene lamp. The Play climaxes in a new scene where Hughie finds his feet before what poet Peter Porter (another Queenslander) called Australia’s Ark of the Covenant with the nation’s soul upon his back. For me it is here that Over the Top with Jim, the new play, becomes a true Australian folk tale with all the ageless echoes of fairy tales like Arthur and the Sword in the Stone.” Like the Play, On the Road to Anywhere finishes with this new scene.
Since theatre should make the audience laugh and cry, Bille Brown said, why not Over the Top with Jim? (Plus, Bille wanted to attract people to the festival who didn’t normally go to plays.)
Brisbane Festival boss Tony Gould embraced the idea and Bille invited me into the Queensland Performing Arts Trust boardroom “for some discourse”. As we sat like birds singing in a cage, I eagerly asked who would be writing this play?
Waving his arms high as if summoning some necessary enchantment, Bille said he wanted me to write the play – but he would be the script consultant. Now he would take me to his “floor of heaven”. For the next three hours I marvelled as Bille nursed his jacket as a baby; showed me how an actor can make two entrances when arriving onstage; showed how actors act against the action and must never wait for an audience response; and how each actor needs a line to “shake hands” with the audience.
I could see why Bille had recently been cast overseas as a sergeant in the French Foreign Legion: a tall, bearded, broad-shouldered, colourfully dressed man whose face always seemed pointed at an imaginary sun. But then, after all, he had been raised on the Tropic of Capricorn.
As he wove his magic around me, Bille was such a bright star that I felt like a withered plant in the corner.
Next day, Bille Brown returned to London to act in Fierce Creatures, John Cleese’s sequel to A Fish Called Wanda. Cleese had hired Bille after seeing two Shakespearean plays in the same week. In true Fawlty Towers fashion, Cleese made enquiries about hiring two of the actors…only to find they were both Bille Brown…
Rehearsals were conducted, appropriately, in Brisbane’s Old Museum with its silver-domed redbrick turrets reminiscent of Turkey…In the 1950s every kid went to the Old Museum regularly to see the lungfish and Mephisto, the captured World War I German tank. A couple of years ago, the Germans asked for their giant captured tank to be returned, but thank goodness Queensland refused. The lungfish was long gone, yet its now dry and cracked aquarium was still there on the side verandah. Pigeons flew in and out through the broken windows high above us, fluttering around where Bert Hinkler’s plane Avian Cirrus was once suspended. And possums had moved into the building too, giving the place, as Bille said, “an air of gentle abandonment”.
Bille asked me: “How does Fred feel at this moment, in this scene?”
I thought about it and replied: “Angry and reflective”…and couldn’t understand why all the actors, including Bille, burst into laughter.
“Contains not just anecdotes about his life, but discusses how he wrote his other stories…Lunn’s constant research and creation of the non-fictional world has led him to a novel perspective on the notion of genres. According to him, ‘fiction is often totally true – it’s the non-fiction that’s unreliable’.” Dotlit: The Online Journal of Creative Writing
“The new book is perhaps his most personal, delving into the financial difficulties and personal stresses that bedevilled the author…The journey since then has been an interesting one.” Phil Brown, Brisbane News
“While it is a book about writing a book…it is also about Australia, its politics, beliefs, fears and terminology in the 1950s…In typical Lunn fashion, it definitely fails to disappoint.” Christine Harch, Gympie Times
“Among the cast are actor Bille Brown, TV presenter Ray Martin, broadcaster Ian McNamara and former Brisbane mayor Sallyanne Atkinson…Lunn tells stories of people and places, of history and habit, and his enthusiasm for his task has never waned. He’s a lover of language…Lunn’s writing is confessional, conversational and forms a picture of the characters and characteristics that combine to be distinctly Australian.” Michael Jacobson, Weekend Gold Coast Bulletin