Looking for Gordon Chater
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Looking for Gordon Chater

Reclusive writer Peter Corris abandoned Cliff Hardy for one morning to research a new character: Gordon Chater, whodunnit actor.

This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald, July 19, 1986

The last people I interviewed in for the press were Australian footballer David Rhys-Jones and quarter-miler Darren Clark back in 1983. In general, I feel more comfortable talking about sport than theatre. A short pass and a snap at the posts, or solid form in the back strait mean more to me than "a good curtain ".

I didn't tell Gordon Chater this; he doesn’t wear the air of a sporting man, but I did tell him why I accepted the assignment to interview him.

Is Peter Corris's search about to meet a grisly end? ... will Gordon Chater help him meet it? ...

Is Peter Corris's search about to meet a grisly end? ... will Gordon Chater help him meet it? ...

Photo: Craig Golding

"I might need an actor as a character and you could be ideal, I said. “How do you feel about that?

"I'd be flattered."

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"Ever happened before? Have you been fictionalised?"

"Not so far as I know."

"You wouldn't sue?"

"No."

He went on to tell me how dull he was, how he doesn’t drink before a performance, likes to know all his lines before rehearsals begin, and thinks that his job is to make bad writing passable and to lend good writing grace. At least we were getting on to writing.

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This took place in the vice-chancellors dining room at the University of Sydney. Some prowling around the over halls of academe had revealed this room with its polished table, buffet and silver, chandelier and baronial paintings.

Chater opens with opens with Keith Baxter in Gerald Moon’s thriller-comedy Corpse! ("You'll Die Laughing ") at Footbridge Theatre next Saturday.

The play, apparently, is a whodunit with tricks and illusions, so this is the right setting - it feels like the room in Chariots of Fire where John Gielgud went on about Israelites while Ben Cross was doing the quadrangle dash below.

Actor Robert Menzies as Cliff Hardy, with Hardy's creator Peter Corris in a scene from the ABC’s Big Picture series.

Actor Robert Menzies as Cliff Hardy, with Hardy's creator Peter Corris in a scene from the ABC’s Big Picture series.

Photo: Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Chater hoped we'd have some laughs. He performed for the photographer; for a fat man he moved with surprising speed. He wasn't at all dull.

"Suppose you were found murdered in your New York apartment," I said. "You do have a New York apartment?"

"Yes. On the Upper West Side."

"Suppose you were found dead there, killed. What would the investigators find in the way of clues? Would there be evidence of betrayals by or of you? Guilty secrets?"

Actor Gordon Chater at the Footbridge theatre where he was appearing in the production "Corpse" (“You’ll Die Laughing”) August 13, 1986.

Actor Gordon Chater at the Footbridge theatre where he was appearing in the production "Corpse" (“You’ll Die Laughing”) August 13, 1986.

Photo: John Patrick O'Gready

It wasn't a promising line of inquiry. He destroys all documents within six months apart from those needed for taxation purposes.

"Photographs?" I pressed.

"Some snaps on a cork board. Otherwise, framed photographs of dear friends and family. I travel with them. Nothing indiscreet."

His bag, slung over the back of the vice-chancellorial chair, obviously contained books.

"What about books? You read a lot?"

"All the time. End to end. Biographies, autobiographies, some novels."

Inscriptions, I thought.

"You'd keep a book with an inscription? Say, a copy of The Naked and the Dead inscribed, 'Gordy, all the best, Norman'".

"I would, because it would be an appreciating asset."

Gordon Chater's greatest assets appear to be charm, a sense of humour and total professionalism. All prevent you from getting to know the real man in a short session but I bore in as hard as I could with questions about why he had accepted residency status in America.

He was unruffled.

"I was born in England, I lived in India for a year and in Australia for many years. Citizen of the world."

"What do you think about Rupert Murdoch using citizenship as a pawn in a corporate strategy?"

"If money and power mean that much to him..."

He waved his hand, not theatrically. It was a pretty shrewd answer and Chater came across as a canny man. Smart enough to give up smoking a year ago when he found he was breathing with only the top inch of his lungs, smart enough to divest himself of houses and staff that were sapping his substance, and wisely sticking to what he does best - acting on stage.

Perhaps he took some pleasure in not providing me with a ready-made character for a novel. Why should he, after all?

Peter Corris

There had to be a chink in this well-padded armour somewhere. Was he a writer manque, a film actor manque? Not so. He writes and then does not admire what he's written. As for film acting, he prefers to do one thing at a time and do it well, and movie actors have to rush everything and overlap jobs.

But the man is 64; he has pursued an acting career for 40 years. There must have been some failures?

Not many. Luck plays a part. He recalls one play he was in which was panned but he avoided the flak because to even mention him would have revealed the plot, and the critics observed the niceties.

What about death? He must have seen it in the war (he served in the Royal Navy) and since.

"How would you like to die?"

He laughed.

"Like my mother."

He tells the story of going to see a female friend of his mother's shortly after her death and asking for details. The woman had a hyphenated name and a braying upper-crust voice which Chater imitates perfectly: "She had just come back from a matinee and looked rather tired. I said, 'Mrs Chater, you shouldn't bother changing for dinner.' She said, 'I'd rather die than not change for dinner.' And she did."

Peter Corris ... script-writing is "more like jottings", April 06, 1984.

Peter Corris ... script-writing is "more like jottings", April 06, 1984.

Photo: Fairfax Media

Chater's penchant is for the cheerful. He saw men decapitated in the war but prefers to tell a story about his first genuine naval experience.

"I was fresh from Cambridge where I'd been studying medicine, and I asked the nearest sailor if he'd mind closing the window. This is on board ship. 'Oh, yes,' he says, 'I suppose your father’s f....n' yacht did have windows'."

There's no shaking him. He is mostly what he seems - a square peg in a square hole. Perhaps he took some pleasure in not providing me with a ready-made character for a novel. Why should he, after all?

"I haven't the faintest idea of what I'm going to write," I said when we'd finished. A woman in a dark dress and a white apron had come to chase us out of the dining room, and Chater's minders had arrived.

"Don't worry," he said. "Make it up."

But there was no need. At 64, with Darwin, the Alice and the country towns of Queensland behind him, and NSW and Victoria ahead, Gordon Chater is on the road and enjoying it. He's 20 years older than me and he made me feel that the next 20 years might be the best yet.