While other Aussies were attending dawn services, or watching almost 24/7 ANZAC broadcasts on the box, this ANZAC Day, Mr Gums and I chose to remember it by going to the Griffyn Ensemble’s The Dirty Red Digger concert, which was devised by their musical director Michael Sollis. Even more audacious than usual, Sollis managed to create a thoughtful show that married the story of the Glebe Rugby League football team (the Dirty Reds) with that of the ANZACS in World War 1, framed by interviews with young rugby league footballers today. He – and his “team” of engaged and talented performers – had the audience glued to its seats.
In a program that ran for a little over 2 hours, with a short break for half-time (!), Sollis spun a story about men and war and sport, about loss and class war and conscription. The performance integrated music and song, much of it composed (and all of it arranged) by Sollis himself, with archival and documentary film footage. The amount of work involved in putting all this together, the research, the writing, the interviewing, not to mention the composing and arranging – well, let’s just say we are in awe. It certainly conveyed Sollis’ passion for the subject matter – music, history, politics and football.
The show comprised nineteen pieces of music (or eighteen if we count the reprise as one) that varied in style from “classical” to folk and rock, from music hall/vaudeville to ragtime. Between and during the musical numbers, this versatile ensemble recited letters and poetry, and enacted stories with barely a hitch, while on the screen we saw a diverse selection of mostly war-related historical footage interspersed with contemporary interviews with young footballers from the Gungahlin Bulls.
“Man’s blind indifference to his fellow man” (Eric Bogle)
Sollis teased out two main themes through the show: the relationship of football to the Australian labor movement and, by extension, class struggle; and the challenge of manhood and the value of brotherhood for soldiers and footballers, past and present. We shared in the grief for soldiers (including footballers) lost, the humour and pathos of vaudevillian propaganda, and the recognition that many young working class men today continue to find purpose, meaning and mateship in football.
“I cannot engage in the work of recruiting and urge others to enlist unless I do so myself” (Ted Larkin)
Rugby League football we learnt had its origins in northern England when working class clubs, unable to survive under the more affluent south’s “amateur” rule, broke away in 1895 to create the Northern Rugby Football Union. This form of football was established in Australia 1908. It represented, the Griffyns told us, a social movement which united young Australian working class men. It was also, from its start, closely aligned with the Labor party. Prime Minister Billy Hughes, who later earned the labor movement’s ire by attempting to introduce conscription in the Great War, was Glebe Rugby League Club’s patron in 1908. He was just one of several Labor politicians who aligned with the Rugby League movement because of its labor movement origins.
Another of these politicians was Ted Larkin. He was Australian Labor Party member for the NSW State Parliament, from 1913, and the paid secretary of the NSW Rugby League. He died at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915, and, with his brother who died in the same battle, has no known grave.
You are probably starting to see now the story the Ensemble wove for us as they joined the history of Rugby League football to the progress of the War. It was told through music composed in various styles by Sollis (such as “Heartbeat”, “The Digger’s London Leave”, “Greater Game Rag” and “Conscription”) alongside propaganda songs of the era (such as “What do you think of the Kaiser?” and “Daddy’s in the firing line”) and more recent works like Eric Bogle’s heart-breaking “Green fields of France” and “Working Class Man” (made famous in Australia by Jimmy Barnes). The connections were palpable.
We also heard unfamiliar composers, such as Edouard (or Ede) Poldini, a turn of the century Hungarian composer best known for his miniature piano pieces, like “The Clock”, which featured Kiri Sollis on flute supported by the ensemble. It had a lovely, distinctive tick-tock motif.
“Footy’s my fix” (contemporary footballer)
Interspersed with footage from the Great War, including the Conscription Referendums and the Great Strike of 1917, were interviews with young Gungahlin Bulls footballers and one of their coaches. They talked of mateship, what football means to them, and how they’d feel about going to war should the call happen again. They spoke from their hearts about depression and alcohol, and with humour about the distance between them and those IT guys, the “keyboard warriors”, who are too smart to get themselves beaten up on a football field! Through their comments, and the accompanying footage, Sollis brought working class culture to an arts environment, and as the ensemble belted out “Working Class Man” we saw on the screen those (not really so) simple souls with hearts of gold in our complicated land. It was pretty spine-tingling.
I believe this program will tour nationally. Don’t miss it, if it comes near you. If you’re not moved by the story and impressed by the musicianship of the performers, not to mention challenged to keep up, well, your tastes are very different to mine!
Other (very different) YouTube versions of some of the music:
- Working Class Man, performed by Jimmy Barnes
- Eric Bogle, Green fields of France, performed by Bogle, with war footage
- Mr Flotsam and Mr Jestam, Is ‘e an Aussie (1930), performed 2010 in Camden (London) as part of the war musical “Lads in their hundreds”
And you can see sheet music for “The Clock” online, though I couldn’t find a performance.
Team Griffyn: Michael Sollis (Musical Director and Mandolin), Susan Ellis (Soprano), Kiri Sollis (Flute), Chris Stone (Violin), Laura Tanata (Harp) and Holly Downes (Double Bass).