May 9, 2011

TIM ELIOTT 1935 – 2011

John Smythe      posted 25 Apr 2011, 07:31 PM / edited 26 Apr 2011, 10:26 AM

Another Tim Eliott story from Downstage Upfront:

One of Tim’s first initiatives as acting director was to confound all notions that his tastes were solely classical by programming and directing Warren Dibble’s ‘cartoon for theatre’, Operation Pigstick. Despite ‘much soul-searching by the management sub-committee on the propriety of the piece at Downstage’, its brief season began within a fortnight of US President Lyndon B Johnson’s whirlwind 24-hour visit to Wellington.

After the Sunday night technical run-through, actor Jeremy Stephens went on a drunken rampage, setting fire to rubbish bins around the city. He was duly arrested and thrown into prison. Next morning Tim managed to convince a judge that Jeremy’s release that day was essential. He did a whip-around and, armed with the bail money, drove to Mount Crawford to get him out for opening night. But Jeremy wanted to stay: ‘I’m really into this, man. These guys are great!’ He would not be moved and Tim had to take over the role for the members’ preview nights.

Prime Minister Polycork (Ken Blackburn) was given to a form of ‘polly-tickle’ oratory (eg, ‘Egg ration must be stopped! We will not take the whisk!’) inspired by A R D Fairburn’s lampooning of the speeches of Michael Joseph Savage, The Sky’s a Limpet, and John Lennon’s A Spaniard in the Works. An American senator (Jonathan Hardy) expounded on the merits of ‘the great society’ and screamed ‘the only way to combat Communism is with bombunism!’

In his programme notes Tim wrote, ‘We do not mean to commit Downstage to ANY political point of view – we mean to promote discussion, even violent argument, over an issue which must be among the most important and neglected ever thrust under our noses.’

The review by ‘RB’ was headed ‘Brilliant NZ stage show satirises US war of aggression’ and said, in part: ‘New Zealand’s leading professional theatre company, Downstage, has just produced a brilliant piece of political satire … It is full of barbed thrusts and biting satire in the best tradition … Tim Eliott has excelled in the use of highly inventive techniques, including closed circuit television: “Do you have a rash on your skin? Try napalm, it’s so soothing to the touch” … Running for two performances a night for a week, this play must rate with some of the best political satire produced in this country and will remind many people of Victoria University “Extravaganzas” of the late 1930s and early 1940s. It is hoped that it can be produced in other centres of New Zealand.’

On opening night Bruce Mason augmented the show by reading, in full, a feature article entitled ‘Caesar in Provincias: President Johnson’s Visit’, which had been rejected by the New York Review. It began, ‘And like Caesar, he came, he saw, he conquered,’ and concluded, ‘We have through the President’s visit been able to call on the worst in our character with tacit official approval: chauvinism, hatred of foreigners, refusal to think for ourselves … [But] we are part of Asia and must someday work with it, not against it, if we are to survive with honour. The Kiwi cannot soar, but nor can it hide forever behind the great wings of the American eagle.’

With Operation Pigstick, Downstage was fulfilling Tim’s desire for the theatre to be a focus for social, political and artistic debate (the actors and audience engaged in open discussion after each performance), Martyn’s desire for it to be relevant, up-front and non-naturalistic, and Peter’s desire for it to feature the work of local writers. And yet the houses were far from full, to Bill Sheat’s great frustration. ‘I was so cranky! Where were all the people that turned up in droves to demonstrations?’ In the next newsletter, Bruce wrote:

“There was a flurry of suppressed excitement at Downstage on 31 October. Mr Seresin’s eyes sparkled with mischief and the fervour of one about to be martyred in a righteous cause. He had seen a rehearsal of Pigstick and found it powerful. The town might be set alight; Downstage could be closed by police. I saw him, in a visionary flash, joyously boarded up in his office, pulling food and drink up to his window in baskets, striking a heroic note of Churchillian rhodomontade: ‘We will never surrender!’ Mr Eliott’s face was grave.

“How could these portents have proved so deceitful? Nothing happened, nothing. The piece ran its course, faithful to its text and spirit. Production was neat enough, sometimes ingenious … The indictment of the American war machine in Vietnam mounted; our participation was proved venal and shabby; the innocent of the world were debauched. The audience stirred uneasily, occasionally tittered. Two statesmen plus a paranoiac general performed a ragged dance: the house roared. Now they knew where they were! Of course, of course! Where had they last seen an actor in black jacket and striped trousers making a goat of himself? Extrav, wasn’t it? Of course. Relax everyone. It’s all good clean fun …”

John Smythe      posted 26 Apr 2011, 12:52 PM

A funeral will be held for Tim Eliott at 10.30 am on Saturday 30 April in the Blue Mountains, near Sydney, where he has lived for the past 35 years.

John Smythe      posted 26 Apr 2011, 03:25 PM / edited 26 Apr 2011, 03:30 PM

From the DOWNSTAGE website:

It was with sadness that we learned this morning of the passing of one Downstage’s founding Artistic Directors, Mr. Tim Eliott, in Sydney, Australia.

This passed on from a friend in Sydney: Tim was working right up to the end despite throat cancer. He did his last voice over for Channel 9 two weeks before he died on Good Friday. 

Editor    posted 27 Apr 2011, 04:44 PM / edited 27 Apr 2011, 04:49 PM

This from Tim’s Sydney agent, RMK:

Dear All,

We’re very sad to inform you that Tim Eliott passed away on Good Friday…

Tim has long been regarded as one of the all time greats of this business… my father John Downs considered Tim to be the best Voice Actor in the industry – in fact we still use Tim’s demos as a reference to established and emerging artists when we wish to illustrate brilliance in delivery. 

Tim’s timing and inflections were nothing short of genius and often brought goose-bumps to the listener. One such track on Tim’s demo is his read for a documentary on ‘Antartica’ – you can listen to an excerpt of this read on Tim’s corporate demo on his webpage (a shoter grab is also featured on his compilation demo): … Tim was able to convey the script in such a way that you didn’t just hear the message you felt it. It’s the subtlety of the delivery that made Tim’s reads to powerful.

Tim was incredibly passionate about this business… it wasn’t just a job to Tim, he loved what he did and expressed this to me as recently as a few weeks ago. Such was his passion that he worked right up until the end… until he was physically unable to continue.

Tim leaves behind a massive hole in this industry, he had the rare combination of an incredible voice and the ability to use it. This coupled with his decades of experience created a knowledge not seen in many.

In addition to being an artist of incredible talent, Tim was also a lovely, gentle, warm hearted man. All of us at RMK will miss him greatly… I’ll leave you with the words of his daughter Kamilla:

“I am very sad to inform you that my father, Tim Eliott, passed away on Good Friday, 22nd April. After a long and valiant battle with cancer he was not able to hold on to life any longer. He passed away peacefully at home surrounded by his family who love him dearly and eternally.

Tim’s work was very important to him and he refused to give it up right to the end. His voice was his identity, and the expression of a deep and vast soul, a thoughtful and brilliant mind. 

He has left behind a very large family, we will miss him forever, love him forever, remember him forever…

We will be holding Tim’s funeral in the Blue Mountains on Saturday 30th April, we will inform you of the details as soon as they have been finalised. The funeral service is public and all who wish to pay their respects are welcome to attend, we would be grateful if you would put the word out.”

We will provide more details as they become available…

Rest in peace Tim.

With love all of us at RMK.

Editor    posted 27 Apr 2011, 04:48 PM / edited 27 Apr 2011, 04:54 PM


Tim Eliott, 1935 – 2011

Relatives and friends of Tim Eliott are invited to celebrate his life on

Saturday 30 April

10am for a 10.30am start

Jemby-Rinjah Eco Lodge, 336 Evans Lookout Road, Blackheath

The ceremony will be followed by burial at Wentworth Falls Cemetery.

A wake will be held at 2.30pm at Jemby-Rinjah for close friends and relatives.

Though people are welcome to bring flowers if they would like to, we know that Tim had great respect for Médecins Sans Frontières and a donation to this charity in lieu of flowers is welcome. 

Bill Sheat             posted 28 Apr 2011, 03:32 PM / edited 28 Apr 2011, 06:52 PM

Tim Eliott had a huge influence on my life. I had worked with Tim on a pageant for the Red Cross. Some considerable time later he rang me up and said he and some others were setting  up a professional theatre in Wellington and that they would like me to be on the Committee. He said that they were having a public meeting the next night in the Library Lecture Hall (underneath the present City Gallery)and hoped I could come. I went along not knowing what to expect. I listened to Tim, Martyn Sanderson and Peter Bland speak of their plans. As I drove home afterwards I said to myself ‘These guys are mad. They don’t know what they are doing. It can’t happen. What have you got yourself into now?.’ But another small voice said “Keep your mouth shut and get stuck in”. I was to serve on the Committee of Downstage for the first 10 years.

I got to work with Harry Seresin and through Harry met John O’Shea which led me into the whole world of films and my being the Founder Chairman of the N.Z.Film Commission.

I have a lot to thank Tim for.

John Smythe      posted 6 May 2011, 03:05 PM

I heartily recommend the Tim Eliott tribute (Downstage, Sat 7 May, 4pm) to anyone who feels connected to theatre in NZ, and is in Wellington. Even if you didn’t know him, or were not around at the time, you will get some insight into how professional theatre as we know it took root 47 years ago.  It is on such shoulders that we stand.

John Smythe      posted 9 May 2011, 10:40 AM / edited 9 May 2011, 02:08 PM

Tim Eliott (a tribute from John Smythe | Downstage Theatre, Saturday 7 May 2011)

When I was a lad, Tim Eliott was ‘that voice’ on 2YA’s Monday night radio plays. When I first saw him I couldn’t believe that such a skinny chap with no chest could have such a resonant voice.

He was born in Taranaki, in 1935. His mother died when he was one; his father managed a box company. And when he was four or five, Tim was taken down the road by his father to receive instruction in the pronunciation of English.

He recalled ‘the door opening to a dark interior and two equally dark people. At first I could see only their white hair, eyes and teeth. These were my teachers: an elderly Maori couple whose resonant voices and profound vowel sounds were music to me. A lasting influence, I believe.’

Tim went to primary school as a boarder at Hereworth, was raised by aunts and grandparents during the war, then was summoned to join his de-mobbed father in post-war England. He attended public schools in Bath and Bristol until rheumatic fever cut his education short.

It was New Zealand’s beneficial climate that brought Tim and his father back home. Then he came to Wellington, where he became an actor by accident. But first, at seventeen, Tim was an office boy with the advertising company Carlton Carruthers du Chateau and King. A bit of an artist, he tried illustration but was disillusioned by the habit of copying drawings from the USA, so he had a go at copywriting. And, inevitably, his rich-toned voice was used for the odd radio commercial.

In 1955 a work mate asked Tim to accompany him, for moral support, to an audition. Nola Millar was casting a Thespians production of Richard II with expatriate English actor Peter Varley in the title role. Tim was persuaded to get up and read and – despite having had no formal tuition in acting, let alone Shakespeare – he was cast as Bolingbroke. His stage début, at the Concert Chamber, excited great interest.

At the age of 20, then, he got his first role with NZ’s only fully professional theatre company, the New Zealand Players, which toured nationally. He played Worthy in a Restoration comedy called Virtue in Danger. Radio drama and commercials became Tim’s main source of employment. In 1959 he returned to the stage to play Jimmy Porter in Nola Millar’s production of Look Back in Anger for Unity Theatre.

Two years later Tim played the male lead in Romeo and Juliet with the New Zealand Theatre Company, which also toured, despite that having been the cause of The New Zealand Payers going broke. It was during this tour that he began to think seriously about an alternative theatre: small, flexible, modest, content to stay in one place and be absorbed into the community. By 1963 Tim and his wife Carole had three children, and they were sustained once more by his radio and voice work.[i]

Peter Bland was also a radio actor and the producer of a poetry programme who often employed Tim as a reader because of his splendid voice and the extraordinary intelligence he brought to the spoken word.

Peter and Martyn Sanderson met at a party and bonded over their love of poetry. Martyn directed Peter in Ablee’s Zoo Story for the Contemporary Arts Society but it was to Tim and Carole’s Mount Victoria home that Martyn made the trek on New Year’s Eve 1963 to expound his vision for a new kind of theatre. Tim suggested Harry Seresin be brought in on the business side – and this was the genesis of what became Downstage (after names like Onion Soup and The Flea Pit were discarded).

At the stormy public meeting in mid-May 1964 – 47 years ago tomorrow week – detractors claimed Tim could not know anything of the art of theatre because he sold his voice to radio commercials. Undaunted, Martyn, Tim and Peter presented their vision for a small, Wellington-based professional theatre.

Tim said it was too early to be specific on artistic policy or get too idealistic. The company needed to be free to change as they learnt. He also felt a small theatre would not have to try to please too many people; and that would meet the need for theatre to reassess itself through experimentation. He anticipated a theatre that would deserve playwrights and confidently expected a time when the company would be producing plays written specially for it. (That took a while.)

In Downstage’s first thee-and-a-bit years, Tim acted in Eugene Ionesco’s Exit The King, CH Hazelwood’s Lady Audley’s Secret, Nikolai Gogol’s Diary Of A Madman, Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What A Lovely War!, Frederico Garcia Lorca’s Duende, George Bernard Shaw’s Arms And The Man, a Hutt Valley jubilee show called Three Dreams, a lunchtime programme that included Elizabethan poetry and readings from John Lennon, his own adaptation of E H Ruddock’s Vitalogy, subtitled Dr Ruddock Takes A Trip, Shakespeare’s Hamlet (playing the title role), and Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s The Sponge Room and Squat Betty.

He co-designed Exit The King, designed Peter Bland’s revue The Bed Settee, and designed and directed Jean Genet’s Deathwatch. He co-wrote (with Peter Bland) and directed a children’s play, Once Upon A Timepiece.

He directed Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, Jean Genet’s The Maids, Warren Dibble’s Operation Pigstick and a Chekhov triple bill: On The Harmfulness Of Tobacco, The Bear and The Proposal. And somewhere in the middle of all that, he acted in The Comedy Of Errors for the New Zealand Theatre Centre.

Martyn was the executive director of Downstage from 1964-66, then he moved on to Australia. Tim Eliott became the acting executive director in an atmosphere of scepticism and doubt (that was the year I worked here as a kitchen hand and appeared in two plays, one with Tim).

It was under his watch that Downstage produced it’s first full length play written for them: Father’s Day by Peter Bland – following which Tim directed local writer Warren Dibble’s Operation Pigstick, a ‘cartoon for theatre’ that satirised the political landscape of the Vietnam War.

There was ‘much soul-searching by the Theatre Society’s management committee on the propriety of the piece at Downstage'[ii] (Bill Sheat, who was the chairman, tells me two committee members resigned over it). Its brief season began within a fortnight of US President Lyndon B Johnson’s whirlwind 24-hour visit to Wellington.

After the Sunday night technical run-through, actor Jeremy Stephens went on a drunken rampage, setting fire to rubbish bins around the city. He was duly arrested and thrown into prison. Next morning Tim managed to convince a judge that Jeremy’s release that day was essential. He did a whip-around and, armed with the bail money, drove to Mount Crawford to get him out for opening night. But Jeremy wanted to stay: ‘I’m really into this, man. These guys are great!’ He would not be moved and Tim had to take over the role for the members’ preview nights. 

One critic described it as ‘a brilliant piece of political satire … Tim Eliott has excelled in the use of highly inventive techniques, including closed circuit television … It is hoped that it can be produced in other centres of New Zealand.'[iii]

And yet the houses were far from full, to Bill Sheat’s great frustration. ‘I was so cranky! Where were all the people that turned up in droves to demonstrations?'[iv] Tim’s term of office ended with his being warmly congratulated by the committee, including those who’d doubted him. It was a complete vindication of his capabilities.[v]

Early in 1968 Tim and his family moved to Sydney – the same year I went, to become an acting student at NIDA. The Old Tote (later to become the Sydney Theatre Company) shared our campus at the University of New South Wales, and in my second year I was quietly proud to witness Tim playing, back-to-back, Hamlet in Hamlet and Rosencrantz in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. 

A few years later we caught up again in Melbourne when I was a scriptwriter for a TV serial called The Box, in which Tim played a TV sports reporter. (The memorable night when he came to dinner with Ian and Jo Mune is not for public consumption.)

In 1983 Tim came ‘home’ to play Colonel Elliott in Geoff Murphy’s film UTU.

He returned to Sydney as I was compiling, producing and directing a tribute to the Australian novelist and playwright Katharine Susannah Prichard, at Nimrod Theatre. I was delighted when Tim agreed to take part in the play-reading excerpts. As always he was charming, witty, urbane, whimsical and an absolute pleasure to work with.

In Australia Tim played more than 80 roles on the small and large screen and remained constantly in-demand as a voice artist, even after his throat cancer was diagnosed.

The voice has died. The rest is silence. Good night sweet Tim …

[i]      Tim Eliott, phone conversation with JS, 1 June 2003; Eliott, notes on an early draft, 2 December 2003; Harcourt, A Dramatic Appearance, pp148, 113; Raymond Boyce, phone conversation with JS, 3 June 2003.

[ii]      Bruce Mason, Every Kind of Weather, ed David Dowling, Reed Methuen, 1986, p151 (from Downstage Bulletin 1966)

[iii]     ‘R. B.’ (presumably Russell Bond), from an unsourced cutting photocopied and supplied by Warren Dibble, June 2003.

[iv]     Bill Sheat, telephone conversations with JS, June 2003.

[v]     Christine Batstone, Act 26, p12.

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