Tuesday, 3 May 2016

OZ goes to the beach

Surfing Roundabout (1965) - A survey of surfboard riding in Australia. Interviews surfers and discusses their attitudes. Shows surfing and associated behaviour at Sydney beaches and younger adolescents skateboarding in the streets. Contrasts the activity of surf lifesavers and other beach sports (Catalogue entry, State Library of New South Wales).

Surfing Roundabout 1965

Many Australians have an intimate connection with the surf. The fifth continent's extensive coastline is home to major population centres, and the near shore environment gives rise to exceptional surfing conditions and world renown breaks. As such, the surf and beach have featured in local film since the earliest days of cinema in the late 1890s. As both watchers and film makers, Australians have played an important role in the international promotion of surf culture and development of the surf movie genre. This especially applies to the 1960s and 1970s when movies such as The Endless Summer (1966) and Morning of the Earth (1972) were shown to large audiences around the country. Such movies often featured Australian footage or were produced locally. Whether it be the documentary and nationalistic "This is Australia!" films of the first half of  the twentieth century, presenting images of bronzed-Aussie surf lifesavers and dumping longboats, or the later "chasing-a-wave" surfboard-riding travelogues of the 1960s and 1970s, all had a decided earnest intent, though comic vignettes were often seen in the latter. Surf lifesaving and riding surf boards were subjects not usually considered ripe for parody or satire. It was therefore surprising to find in Albie Thoms' encyclopedic Surfmovies: The History of Surf Movies in Australia the description of a film which poked fun at both clubbies and surfies - specifically the "pompous" parades of the former and the hedonistic lifestyle of the latter. The film in question - Surfing Roundabout - was produced in Sydney during 1965 by David Price, with assistance from the editors of the controversial satirical magazine OZ - artist Martin Sharp and writer Richard Neville. As filmmaker and historian Thoms describes it:

David Price
Another who entered independent production at this time was David Price, then director of ABC TV's Sports Cavalcade, and later the successful producer of television's Mike Walsh Show. Along with film editor David Stiven, cinematographer Edwin Scragg, and a team from the controversial magazine OZ, he made a half-hour documentary, Surfing Roundabout (1965), that sent-up those who promoted surfing as a serious alternative lifestyle. Inspired by an interview with Paul Witzig by tyro screen-writer Michael Thomas, which had been published in the British magazine The New Statesman and reprinted in OZ, it purported to be a serious examination of the surfing craze, but took every opportunity to ridicule the claims that Witzig and others had made for the sport. With its narration written and spoken by OZ editor Richard Neville, and appearances by the magazine's cartoonist, Martin Sharp, as well as OZ associates Anou Keisler and Jenny Kee, the film included a surf carnival, footage of the veteran Snowy McAlister on his surf ski, a stomp with the blues band the Missing Links, and scenes at the Newport Arms Hotel with the notorious pub bouncer Tim Bristow. With a title song performed by Steven Little, it included a verbal rendition of Sharp's cartoon, 'Word Flashed Round the Arms', that had been the subject of an obscenity trial and here was performed by actor John Ewart, over a skateboarding sequence that a critic claimed 'catches in blindingly sunlit images the hedonism and exhilaration of young people's life in Sydney today'. It didn't play on the surfmovie circuit, but was released in a program of shorts, Sydney Underground Movies (1966), that provided alternative cinema for young Australians increasingly involved in the Protest Movement. Ironically, it was the success of the surf movie exhibition that had encouraged Australia's underground filmmakers to screen their films, and they often were seen in the same cinemas that had been used for surf movies (Thomas 2000).

Martin Sharp, 'To surf of not to surf' featuring Paul Witzig and Michael Thomas, OZ magazine, Sydney, September 1964.

The OZ connection

Why had Richard Neville and Martin Sharp become involved in Surfing Roundabout when neither was known to have surfed, or been overly supportive of aspects of its rapidly evolving lifestyle during the 1960s? From a reading of the Thoms account we can see that they were in fact critical of various elements of it. This view may be traced back to the controversial February 1964 edition of OZ, wherein Sharp's cartoonish first-person prose entry The word flashed round the Arms lampooned the "ocker surfers of the day" and was one of the factors which led to the artist and his fellow editors and printer ending up in court on charges of producing an obscene publication (Sharp 1964, Coleman 2013). Their trial began on 23 July 1964, and a month later Judge G.A. Locke of the Sydney Central Court of Petty Sessions found them all guilty. Locke, in his judgement, referred to The word passed round the Arms as a "filthy and disgusting records of events, whether real or imagined" (Sydney Morning Herald, 24 September 1964). An appeal was immediately lodged, and on 26 February 1965 Judge Levine of the Quarter Sessions Appeal Court announced that he would accept the appeal, though the charges were not officially quashed until 19 February 1966, following consideration by three judges of the Court of Criminal Appeal. The Sydney court case was a precursor to a similar charge brought against the editors of the London edition of OZ in 1970, including once again Richard Neville. The charge were similarly centred around definitions of obsenity and, following an initial guitly verdict and brief jailing, the editors were freed and the verdict quashed. The similarities between the Australian and English conservative establishment's attitude towards the irreverence and satire presented by the editors of OZ was noticable, despite the passing years and changes in societal attitudes as a result of the various cultural revolutions of the 1960s. Martin's Sharp's original February 1965 text was confronting in that it described the rape of an unconscious, intoxicated young woman by a group of party gate crashers / surfers. It is violent, sexist, racist and objectionable in the image it portrays of the activities of a certain section of the youth of the day.

Martin Sharp, The word passed round the Arms, OZ magazine no.6, February 1964.

In many ways it is a portent of the tragic Leigh Leigh murder of 1989, wherein a Newcastle school girl was sexually assaulted by a group of young men at a beach and subsequently murdered. In reflecting the times and using their language, Sharp was bringing to public notice aspects of youth and surf culture never before seen in Australia. The account reads as follows:

The word flashed round the Arms that there was a GAS turn up the Whale Beach Rd., so we piled into the Mini Coopers and thrashed over and y'know what the old man of the bird who was having the turn said we couldn't crash - so Dennis belted him and we all piled in and there was a helluva lot of grog and plus the tin tubes the fellas brought up from the Arms we all managed to get pretty pissed - there were a few KING birds there but they were holding hands with these fairies - so DENNIS belted them and we all got onto the birds and Frank got one of them so pissed that she passed out so we all dragged her out to the garage and went through her like a packet of salts - KING! Then the old lady of the bird who was having the turn said she'd ring the Johns so Sid chucked all over her and she got hysterical so Dennis BELTED her and then Phil did this King hambone on the kitchen table and ran round the house in the raw ripping the gear off all the birds - God he's KING! and then this little dago crap told Phil to leave his bird alone so Phil got Dennis and Dennis SMASHED him - God Dennis is a King fighter .... and a KING bloke - he really is and it really was a GAS turn and I had a KING time and Sid whose the funniest bloke I know kicked in the T.V. set and chucked in it. God it was FUNNY.......

This piece is written as though a verbatim conversation Sharp overheard one evening in the Newport Arms Hotel, perhaps from a "pimply minded adolescent with not much sense of morality" (Sydney Morning Herald, 24 July 1964). And indeed, Sharp says as much in the introduction, which also provides some context to the evolution of the piece:

Methodist minister Reverend Roger Bush has been seen lately on Sydney’s northern beaches armed with a tape-recorder to conduct his own sociological survey of teenagers' habits, morals, etc. OZ reproduces below a replica of a fairly typical conversation anyone can overhear at the Newport Arms Hotel (nerve-centre of the party-crashing clique) on any Saturday night. It’s not the sort of thing Reverend Bush will be playing to his ABC listening audience; however, if you read this aloud in a guttural, awkwardly emphatic monotone, then you will enjoy a more accurate understanding of our beach boys' habits than a hundred ABC programmes could supply.

Never one to shy away from exposing the shocking truth and harsh realities of everyday existence, Sharp rejected the lead type to present this account in an animated, hand written form, thereby adding an edginess to that of the horrific content. Needless to say this item outraged many in the community at the time. It was discussed at length at the OZ trial of 1964-5 and in the media of the day. It also, no doubt, added to the increasing animosity between the new, young and very independent surfboard riding fraternity and those they shared the beach with, namely the surf lifesaving establishment which sought to maintain a wholesome reputation. The latter had adopted the mythology and manner of the militaristic ANZAC tradition of World War I, with regimented carnivals, a macho, male-centred philosophy and rejection of the free spirited surfing movement. Immoral, intoxicated, drug taking, freeloading, radical and wild were epithets thrown at those who, similar to the characters Moondoggie and The Big Kahuna in the Hollywood Gidget films, had dropped out to pursue the surfing lifestyle. Like the Beatniks of the late 50s and early 60s, and the hippies of the second half of that decade, surfies were viewed as rebels against the status quo and, as such, faced score and ridicule. Nevertheless the sport and lifestyle of surf board riding continued to thrive and make headway into the Australian consciousness through sheer weight of numbers and the international reputation of local talent. Moondoggie's Australian equivalent was the "blonde headed, stompie wompie, real gone surfer boy" sung about in Little Pattie's hit of 1964, and the more earthy equivalent from the 70s and beyond.

No sacred cows were exempts from the OZ satirical lens - the church, politicians, censorship, sex and war (Vietnam). Conservative pomposity was an easy target; so also was the crass libertarian attitude of "our beach boys" as presented in Sharp's contentious text. Whilst he and Neville were no angels in regards to their own sexual mores, like many in the community they were obviously appalled by the Newport Arms Hotel conversation - which must have been based on a first-hand encounter - and the treatment of women as revealed by it. Following on The word flashed round the Arms from the February 1964 edition, OZ returned to the subject of surfing culture with a story in September, wherein Neville, as editor, reproduced a discussion between screen-writer Michael Thomas, young local surfer Paul Witzig and an OZ reporter (?Martin Sharp) around issues of sexuality and surf culture. The two-page spread - titled 'The Return of the Surfie' - also included artwork by Sharp, who was known to frequent the northern beaches of Sydney. Thomas had originally published a piece in the New Statesman which was critical of surfing culture, and it seems that Neville, following an expansion of the debate in the local Sydney media, arranged a meeting between the screen-writer and the outspoken local surfer Paul Witzig, who was not timid in bringing Thomas to account for his statements. The OZ article reads as follows:

The Return of the Surfie

A rather earnest young Sydney journalist, Michael Thomas, recently published an article in the "New Statesman" on the national surfing cult. His more colourful jibes were republished by the local press and attacked by dedicated surfer, Paul Witzig. Paul is a former Architecture student at Sydney University who threw in the fourth year of his course after meeting Bruce Brown in America and obtaining the rights to distribute his surfing films in Australia. Witzig later began Surfing Promotions and became its managing-director. Surfing Promotions, as well as handling Brown's films, distributes "Midge Farrelly Skating Boards", T-shirts and all the other inevitable accessories to surfdom.

Bruce Brown and Paul Witzig 1964
Witzig: Would you explain what you mean by saying the surfing movement is virtually asexual?

Thomas: Within the tradition of a teenage cult, there has been a very blatant and very self-conscious sex-peddling. In Rock'n’roll, for instance, Presley and Little Richard pushed sex in their presentation - in the body movements and so on. They were deliberately provocative. The lyrics of the songs emphasised sex all the time. Surfie music is, for the most part, instrumental. It’s played by anonymous groups - there are no Presleys. The lyrics of the songs concentrate on the sport - surf, sand, waves. The actual dance is different from Rock’n’roll. The stomp is a mechanical thing. You dance it alone or girls dance with each other.

Witzig: I’ve mixed with a lot of different groups. Private school groups, University . . . there is more sexual activity among the surfing group than any other.

Thomas: Are you talking about Brenda-the-Bender type orgies: putting on a queue and thing? This is terrifically unromantic. Putting on a queue so you can blow once a week - so you don’t have to worry about sex - so you can spend more time on the beach.

Witzig: That may go on but so does normal promiscuity. Surfing women are more sexually promiscuous. It starts younger and goes on further. You’re wrong when you say the movement is asexual.

Thomas: Still, the emphasis of the surfie movement is not on sex as in previous fads.

Witzig: But in any sport - football, golf, cricket - is the emphasis ever on sport?

OZ: Why is this lack of emphasis unhealthy?

Thomas: This is not what I called unhealthy. The complete subjection of individuality to group values and group attitudes is terribly unhealthy in a very big, young population.

Witzig: Very young people with a common interest are bound to develop group attitudes and a group jargon. The whole thing you’re forgetting is that surfing is a sport. Real surfing is something you can get terribly involved in. It is tremendously rewarding, physically and emotionally.

Thomas: This is something that amazes me when I talk to people like you. This fantastic devotion . . 

Witzig: Yes, that’s right. You can become so deeply involved. Phil Edwards, a close friend of mine, used to be utterly devoted to the sport. He did nothing but surf all day. When he was out of the water he wore gloves. He would not touch doorknobs or money. He was afraid of being contaminated by other people’s germs. That’s how deeply you can become involved in surfing. If this devotion occurs naturally, how can you say it’s unhealthy?

Thomas: But some of the people I interviewed had an arrogant ignorance of anything outside surfing. “Bomie” , for instance, lives off the dole, odd jobs and women. He’s a full-time surfer. If it gets to the stage where that’s all there is in life then it’s terrifically bad.

Witzig: I think it’s bloody brilliant. You can get to the stage where you can surf all day long and you don’t want to talk to anyone, just go to sleep, get up next morning and surf again. You can get sexual fulfilment; you can get emotional fulfilment. It’s tremendously satisfying.

Thomas: But how escapist for Chrissake. It's 100 per cent escapist.

Witzig: You might say it’s escaping from something. I might say it’s finding something. Especially if you can find complete satisfaction. An individual exists only to satisfy himself. How can you call it unhealthy? It can be a great fulfilment. Take a musician who spends his life in a cave composing music. Would you can this unhealthy?

Thomas: No. He’s writing for other people. To me riding a wave is terrifically unimportant because it is absolutely unproductive. It is terribly insignificant in anything but a narcissistic sense. Unproductive people are unhealthy. Take someone like Salinger, he has withdrawn. But he is offering something to the world. Or even a man who goes away and invents seamless nylons. He’s  contributing something. Or even the beatnik. He’s withdrawn. He's rebellious. But what he’s not doing has some relevance to what he was once doing. This mute form of protest is in some way significant. To spend your life riding a wave is terribly insignificant.

Witzig: It’s wrong for you to say that one kind of human activity is worthwhile and another is not. You are not in a position to judge this. You say surfing is not contributory. But the musician is only contributing because he has a receptive audience. A surfer who perfects a technique is contributing something to those who love the sport.

Thomas: I think I am entitled to make some judgement of human behaviour. I think the person who goes away and makes a study of masturbation is not doing very much. He has the right to do it. But I don’t think he is doing anything worthwhile. I don’t think surfing is worthwhile.

Witzig: That is because you haven’t experienced it. You haven’t got involved enough to understand what it can mean. I maintain it can be extremely significant.

Thomas: I'm amazed.

Witzig: If I spend weeks away surfing, I do nothing but eat and sleep. I don’t need to drink, smoke or have any sex. I get complete emotional satisfaction.

Thomas: All I get is wet.

The Surfies Guide to Correct Dinner Party Terminology

BOARD: Not a "plank". An expression used in dinner party conversation meaning dull or dreary.
HO DAD: By George, father! That was an amusing story!
WALK THE PLANK: Boarding overseas jet-liner for quick out-of-country dinner.
SCHOONER: Large pleasure craft. (With sails; but motor always used.)
DOWN THE MINE: We're ruined — simply ruined — the stock market has crashed!
GAS TURN: A little disturbing post-prandial flatulence.
GREMMIE: Affectionate term for dowager Grandmother.
SPINNER: The Butler. As in: "More port, Spinner."
OUT THE BACK: Vague direction of family property. Indicated by even vaguer hand wave.
MAD CASE: Lady Cynthia's delightful divorce action.
KING: What Lord Bassingthwaip went dressed as to last year's charity masquerade.
ROCKER: Astounding news (usually about one's nearest friend) which must be passed on as quickly as possible.
FLICK OFF: Never practised. The cigar ash should be let to drop off by itself.
HOT DOG: Eaten when slumming.
LITTLE PATTIE: A small hors d'oeuvre.
CRASHING: See "BOARD"

----------------------------------

There is no doubt that Neville and Sharp would have seen Witzig's responses to the rather pompous Thomas as contemporary and controversial - all of which tied in with the direction OZ was taking at the time, in both presenting elements of the lifestyle of young people, and confronting the moral conservatism of the day. It was published, plus a lot more, despite the fact that at the time the OZ editors were engaged in the aforementioned court case over charges of obsenity. Shortly after the Thomas / Witzig piece was published, in November 1964 an OZ trial benefit concert was held in Sydney, featuring the rock band The Missing Links. Around this time they would also appear briefly in Surfing Roundabout. The Missing Links were a controversial group for the time as they sported long hair and played rhythm n' blues in a style similar to the Rolling Stones - very loud and raucous.

 The Missing Links.

Let's Go Surfing!

It appears that as a result of the OZ report of September 1964 and the public Michael Thomas : Paul Witzig debate, David Price was inspired to make a satirical documentary dealing with aspects of the surf lifesaving movement, surfboard riding, and the related beach culture. Production took place during the latter part of 1965. As noted, the director of Surfing Roundabout was Price, who at the time was working for the ABC; cinematography was by Edwin Scragg; and the film editor was David Stiven. The film was shot in black and white and ran for approximately 25 minutes. The narration was provided by Richard Neville. The OZ editorial team's critical assessment of aspects of surf culture, such as the treatment of women, was subsequently manifest in his script preparation and "wry in-the-wild anthropology" narration (Crockett 2011). The film included also the only surviving footage of The Missing Links, though they are not heard playing as a generic surf music soundtrack and the narration overlay their performance.This author has not, at this point, viewed the film. The only detailed description we have is that of Thoms and contemporary accounts of its screening. Copies are presently held in the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, and the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

Release and reception

As a parody, the market for Surfing Roundabout was limited. If it was, indeed, making fun of both the surfboard riding and surf lifesaving fraternities, then it was cutting off its primary audience, unless it was able to do so in a manner which was acceptable to both. Judging from the description by Thoms, this was not the case. As a result, the film missed out on becoming part of the expanding surf movie circuit which toured semi-professionally around the many Australian surf clubs and coastal cinemas. Instead it was labelled an "underground" film and, like OZ and other manifestations of the burgeoning counterculture, distribution was limited. In March 1966, during a film night at Garry Shead's flat in Lavender Bay, Sydney, the underground film company UBU Films previewed Albie Thoms' Blunderball, along with Shead's Four Eyes the fast gun, a rough-cut of the latter's Ding a Ding Day, which also featured Sharp and Neville, Bruce Beresford's Film for Guitar, and the Stiven and Price Surfing Roundabout. At that meeting it was decided to organise a public screening of the films. Also around this time, early in April The Bulletin magazine published an article on Australian film entitled 'Hobbyists on Hobby-horses', which noted the Price film: Another young director, David Price, has made, in Surfing Roundabout, a half-routine, half stimulating evocation of beach life with at least two striking sequences: a coldly detached view of lifesavers going through their pompous rituals, and an exquisitely shot sequence of a half-naked boy riding a scuttle-board round and round a stone courtyard which catches in blindingly sunlit images the hedonism and exhilaration of young people's life in Sydney today. (The Bulletin, 2 April 1966)

The UBU Films screening took place on Tuesday, 12 April at the Union Theatre, University of Sydney, with a repeat on Sunday 17th. Amongst the Tuesday audience was Sydney Morning Herald journalist and feature writer Craig McGregor. In his review he made specific reference to Surfing Roundabout amongst the 14 "amateur" films on show that evening: To start with the worst, the longest and the most boring: Surfing Roundabout, a black and white documentary on the North Shore surfing set, takes as its model the very cheapest sort of travelogue and compounds its vices with an awesomely cliche-ridden script, washed out photography and hilariously unprofessional spoken commentary (Sydney Morning Herald, 18 April 1966). McGregor was elsewhere critical of some of the OZ crew's attacks on aspects of Australian suburban culture, though in 1966 his book of collected writings featured artworks by Martin Sharp. Amidst these highly evocative black and white drawings were a number of criticisms of OZ

Surfing Roundabout was shown at at the Filmmakers Cinema in Darlinghurst during 1972 as part of an UBU Retrospective program, and again in 1975 where it was listed as "a blast from the past. A laugh at surfing in 1965" (Filmnews 1975). A more recent screening occurred at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne during the 2005 Subliminal Shores: the Australian surf movie exhibition. Therein it featured on a program alongside Albie Falzon's Morning of the Earth (1972) and the beach culture feature Puberty Blues (1981).

David Price went on to successful career in Australian television, including producer of the very successful Mike Walsh Show, in which Richard Neville was a regular guest.

References

Coleman, Peter, Australian Notes, The Spectator, 7 December 2013. URL: http://www.spectator.co.uk/2013/12/australian-notes-194/.

Crockett, Gary, Surf City - getting radical in the 50s, 60s and 70s [blog], 28 April 2011. URL: http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/139825/20130620-1058/blogs.hht.net.au/surfcity/index4332.html.

June Program, Filmnews, Sydney, 1 June 1975.

Hobbyists on Hobby-horses, The Bulletin, 2 April 1966.

McGregor, Craig, Amateurs on show, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 April 1966.

Price, David (director), Surfing Roundabout, Anglo-Pacific Productions, Sydney, 25 minutes, 1965. State Library of New South Wales C1564.

Sharp, Martin, The Word Flashed Round the Arms, OZ magazine, February 1964.

The Missing Links, Milesago - Australasian Music & Popular Culture 1964-1975. [Blog]. URL: http://www.milesago.com/artists/missinglinks.htm.

Thoms, Albie,  Surfmovies: The History of Surf Movies in Australia, Shore Thing Publishing, 2000, 192p.

Witzig, Paul, Encyclopedia of Surfing [online biographical entry], 2016. URL: http://encyclopediaofsurfing.com/entries/witzig-paul.

Michael Organ
Last updated: 11 May 2016.