Arts / Unmaxed: Gillies salutes his great writers

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Max Gillies at Parliament House… “When you are younger your face is more pliable, but at my age, playing Julia Gillard was grotesque.” Photo by Gary Schafer
Max Gillies at Parliament House… “When you are younger your face is more pliable, but at my age, playing Julia Gillard was grotesque.” Photo by Gary Schafer
THE sniffer dogs are out in full force when “CityNews” meets Max Gillies on the lawns downstage from Parliament House.

We can’t be absolutely sure that they’re looking for him, after all, security has been heightened by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

But it is the perfect setting for Gillies to talk about his coming show “Once Were Leaders”, a title he points out suggests that “politics are toxic”.

With that in mind and a serious concern that our present-day politicians are “plagued by the need for authenticity”, Gillies is abandoning his customary use of prosthetics to show us the real Max, looking back on his best scripts and our greatest (and not so great) leaders.

Gillies is a familiar face in the nation’s capital. Who could forget his rendition of John Howard in the show “You’re Dreaming” or years later his Amanda Vanstone (who, in real life, he admires) perched precariously on the edge of a grand piano eating KFC?

Prosthetics helped a lot in those portrayals.

But time takes its toll, the now 73-year-old Gillies tells me that after playing Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott in a show called “Godzone” several years ago in Melbourne, “I decided I was past the stage of dressing up and using props… when you are younger your face is more pliable, but at my age, playing Julia Gillard was grotesque.”

Gillies isn’t copying satirist John Clarke, who has always played in his own guise, but has rather decided in “Once Were Leaders” he pays tribute to the great scriptwriters with whom he has collaborated over many years – Don Watson, Patrick Cook and Guy Rundle.

“Don Watson?” I ask. Paul Keating’s speechwriter? Yes, says Gillies. Back in the ‘70s when Watson was a history teacher in Footscray, he showed Gillies a sketch called “Menzies in Heaven”, then went on to create the Bob Hawke sketches for Gillies over many years.

Gillies was also evolving into a politically-aware animal during the ‘80s, performing in Kinsela’s nightclub in Darlinghurst and discovering that audiences tuned out whenever he acted fictional characters – they wanted politicians.

He recalls the ‘80s as a golden era of satire. As well as our own politicians there were the gigantic figures of Thatcher and Reagan.

“It was historical good fortune,” he says and his scriptwriters for the TV show “The Gillies Report” – Clarke, Cook and Phil Scott – took full advantage. But Gillies himself had been listening to Parliament on radio since he was a child, so brought his own perspective to the task.

Gillies only occasionally performs in plays nowadays, but “Once Were Leaders” gives him the chance to plunder the golden era for characters.

“This is not a theatre show,” he concludes, “it’s more like Charles Dickens reading from his works – “it’s a tribute to my writers”.

“Once Were Leaders”, The Playhouse, 8pm, October 23 and 24, bookings to or 6275 2700.



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