Wake in Fright was published in 1961, more than 50 years ago. Australia, many assume, has come a long way since then. Yet Kenneth Cook’s masterpiece, the novel by which he is still best known and that has hardly ever been out of print, is timeless. The forces that plunge hapless schoolteacher John Grant into a spiral of alcoholic despair—lack of money, desperation, the heat and the alien nature of the landscape—remain menacingly relevant.
When Ken wrote Wake in Fright, he was a 30-year-old ABC journalist with a wife and four children. He was also the author of a novel that had been accepted by the British publisher Michael Joseph, then abandoned for fear of libel: not the best of beginnings for a writing career. But after his first crushing disappointment had subsided, Ken decided to have another go. After dinner every night he sat down at the kitchen table with an exercise book and a biro. He finished the manuscript in six weeks, had it typed up and sent it to Michael Joseph. This time they were happy to accept it and published it with almost no editing.
Wake in Fright received brief and unremarkable reviews in Britain. English critics treated it as a ‘rite of passage’ novel, politely ignoring its nihilism and violence: nobody mentioned the kangaroo-shooting scene (which is what most Australian readers most vividly recall). Perhaps British readers assumed that Australians habitually treated their wildlife in this horrible way.Where did his title come from? Ken’s epigraph described it as an old curse: ‘May you dream of the devil and wake in fright.’ But in researching the memoir of my life with Ken, I discovered that a variation of it appears in a poem called ‘The Jackdaw of Rheims’ by the nineteenth-century English writer and cleric Richard Harris Barham. The poem describes the theft of a cardinal’s ring by a marauding jackdaw, and before the thief is discovered the cardinal puts a curse on him: ‘He cursed him in sleeping that every night / He should dream of the devil and wake in a fright.’ I have no evidence for this, but I like to think that Ken read the poem when he was a schoolboy at Sydney’s Fort Street Boys High School—it has that kind of early school-poetry ring to it—and that the line stuck in his head, to emerge 20 years later.
Of course, Kenneth Cook was not the first Australian to describe the grimness of the Australian bush and its people: Henry Lawson and Barbara Baynton, even children’s writer May Gibbs with her bad banksia men, had already explored these themes. However, by the late 1950s Australians felt that the bush was being tamed. They believed that road, rail and air transport was eliminating the great Australian loneliness, and the wonders of technology were supplying hydro-electricity to turn large tracts of barren country into arable farmland. In social studies lessons primary school-children—of whom I was one—were celebrating all the glorious mineral wealth being hauled out of the ground. Australia was becoming useful.
But the bush was still a romantic place, thanks to the novels of E.V. Timms, D’Arcy Niland, Nevil Shute and Jon Cleary. All men, of course, and the key to much of this writing was the concept of mateship. You had to rely on your mates, they were the best support you had, and if men stuck together everybody would come through. However, in 1957 a sharp-witted journalist named John O’Grady was having none of this. Under the name Nino Culotta, he wrote the comic novel They’re a Weird Mob, purporting to describe the experiences of an Italian immigrant in Australia. Culotta is particularly bemused to discover the prevailing attitude that most problems can be solved if you go and have a drink with your mates. They’re a Weird Mob struck an immediate and reverberating chord: by the early 1980s it had sold almost a million copies. I know that Ken had enjoyed They’re a Weird Mob, and I think O’Grady’s satirical take on male mateship influenced Wake in Fright. In fact, Nino Culotta could have voiced some of the observations made by John Grant:
Peculiar trait of the western people, thought Grant, that you could sleep with their wives, despoil their daughters, sponge on them, defraud them, do almost anything that would mean at least ostracism in normal society, and they would barely seem to notice it. But refuse to drink with them and you immediately became a mortal enemy.
Nino Culotta generally accommodates and becomes happily ‘Australian’; John Grant never really does. He tries to stand aside from the drinking and gambling, mindless violence, unthinking prejudice and indifference or lack of understanding about anything that does not chime with the assumptions of the group. But, of course, he fails and is sucked into it all. One of Wake in Fright’s brutal truths is that the veneer of civilised behaviour is thin indeed, that it very easily falls away to expose darkness at the heart.
When several film producers wanted to make a film of his novel, Ken was delighted to accept the option money. Most of these deals fizzled out, and then in 1968 he was approached for the film rights by none other than his fellow Australian novelist Morris West. West was the exceedingly successful author of several novels, including The Devil’s Advocate and The Shoes of the Fisherman, both made into movies. He was also a neighbour of Ken and his family. ‘He was very conscious of his success, was Morris,’ Ken told me.
He liked to be considered a great writer, which I thought was a bit much. He would ask you over, and you’d go into the living room and shuffle across a mile of carpet that came up to your knees. He’d be standing next to a marble plinth with a light perpetually shining upon a copy of The Devil’s Advocate, and you were supposed to bend the knee in homage to it while Morris smiled on you.
When Wake in Fright was about to be published in the United States, Ken asked West to write a cover line endorsing it. West refused. He hated the ending, he said. Grant should not have been allowed to resume his former life, he should have accepted the depths of degradation to which he had descended. According to Ken, West agreed to write the cover line only if Grant did not survive at the end of the novel.
Ken naturally refused, but West was still flatteringly interested in optioning Wake in Fright for a movie. Ken said he was paid $6000 for the rights—a reasonable figure in the late 1960s—and the option was renewed a couple of times. Then a few years later he discovered that West had onsold the rights to Westinghouse Broadcasting, in partnership with the Australian company NLT, for a lot of money, and the movie was duly made. Ken told me West made about $50,000 out of
the deal. ‘All I ever made from the movie of Wake in Fright was the option money.’
Whatever the ethics of what West had done, he had acted within the law: the original option contract had been sloppily worded. Ken, inexperienced and never a stickler for this kind of detail, had signed cheerfully because, he said, he assumed that this option would be like all the others and the movie would never be made.
Ken usually finished telling this story by saying, ‘I learned something about the film industry after that … and I learned even more about Morris bloody West.’ Understandably, he would give a slightly strained smile when complimented on the success of the film version of Wake in Fright by people who had never read the novel.
The irony of Wake on Fright as a movie is that this quintessentially Australian novel was brought to the screen by non-Australians. The chief backers were American, the director was Canadian-born Ted Kotcheff (American film and theatre director Joseph Losey had expressed some interest) and the writer of the screenplay, Evan Jones, was a Jamaican-born Englishman. The villainous Doc Tydon was played by another Englishman, Donald Pleasence, although Robert Helpmann, probably the only internationally famous Australian actor at the time, had been offered the part. John Grant was originally to have been played by Michael York and later—a choice as startling as that of Robert Helpmann—Dirk Bogarde. The role finally went to Gary Bond, the third Englishman tested for it. Ken never liked Bond as Grant. He thought he was too old, too pretty and too English. However, probably for exactly these reasons Bond convincingly fills the role of John Grant, the man who does not belong.
Ted Kotcheff always thought that the outsider status of the filmmakers gave another level of richness to the film. In 1969 he commented from his Canadian perspective, ‘Australia has the same colonial background, the same lack of self-confidence, the same spaces that don’t liberate but imprison.’ The isolation of Europeans living in vast spaces has resonances in many parts of the world, he said.
The movie of Wake in Fright was very well received at the Cannes Film Festival. Ted Kotcheff said its popularity was due to the French enthusiasm for movies about people under existential stress. He added that it wasn’t just the French who loved the movie. ‘The first screening at Cannes was a four o’clock screening, and there was an American voice behind me … and the voice kept saying, “Wow! Wow!” Finally the film finished and I saw this 25-year-old kid in a striped shirt and spectacles. I went to the PR guys and asked who that was and they said, “Oh yeah, he’s a young American director.”’ His name was Martin Scorsese.
Australia did not share the general enthusiasm for Wake in Fright when the movie was first released here. Local reaction was close to panic: what if people in other countries thought Australians were really like that? During an early screening one man allegedly stood up, pointed at the screen and shouted, ‘That’s not us!’ The actor Jack Thompson, who made his film debut as a kangaroo shooter in the movie, yelled back from the audience, ‘Sit down, mate. It is us.’
After its Australian cinema release, Wake in Fright was occasionally screened late at night on local television, but by the late 1990s the prints were in very poor condition and the original negatives had disappeared. Anthony Buckley, an editor on the film who had gone on to a career as a producer (among many other Australian movies, he produced the adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel Bliss), made it his business to find out what had happened to the negatives. In 1996 he tracked them down to a bonded warehouse in London, only to discover that they had just been shipped to the United States. He kept searching for them and in 2002 found them in a vault in Pittsburgh, marked to be destroyed.
After frantic negotiations the materials were sent to the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra. However, they proved to be badly scratched and cut-down prints. That seemed to be the end of the story. However, the manager of the Pittsburgh vault suggested that the dump bins should be searched. And that is where the complete original negatives of Wake in Fright were found. The Film and Sound Archive received the 263 cans of film in September 2004. It took them five years to restore Wake in Fright digitally, and the refurbished movie was shown for the first time at the Sydney Film Festival in 2009.
Late in 2017, Network Ten put to air a miniseries version of Wake in Fright. The general question, from viewers and critics alike, was why? Given the grim nihilism and timeless logic of the original, movie as well as novel, what was the point of ‘updating’ it, swapping cold beer for hard drugs, and changing the plot? As the Guardian’s TV critic Luke Buckmaster wrote, ‘Grant’s interaction with … lowlifes results in standard issue crime story plotting, a la on the run parties and menacing druggies. This reduces the impact of Grant’s downward spiralling trajectory, placing more emphasis on external forces.’ The TV adaptation was further weakened by its two-part structure, the ad breaks and other demands of commercial television.
Wake in Fright’s unified storyline, the absence of subplots and concentration on one main character have all made it attractive to playwrights. Two contrasting theatrical treatments have been true to the spirit of the novel, while making significant departures from it. In 2012 Melbourne-based producer Bob Pavlich put together a Gothic melodrama version for the La Trobe University Student Theatre. Its cast of eight portrayed the inhabitants of Bundanyabba as a group of sinister grotesques, opposed by a smugly superior John Grant. The play was about 70 minutes in length. The Age described it as clever, singling out the sinister atmosphere and the blend of dialogue, poetry and passages from the novel.
Very different in spirit and tone was a staged reading by the Sydney Theatre Company in August 2013 as part of their Rough Draft series. About an hour long, the adaptation was written by Andrew Upton and Sarah Goodes, directed by Goodes, and featured four actors. One played John Grant throughout and two men and a woman took all the other parts: the point was that Grant kept meeting the same people, the same types, over and over again. Upton and Goodes concentrated on the character of Grant, exploring the nihilism of his situation and the features of his personality that might have made him vulnerable. In the Upton and Goodes reading, Grant is at risk because he has no sense of self.
It is the mark of Wake in Fright’s influence and success, I think, that it has attracted so many different interpretations over the last half-century. It has now reached the pinnacle of fame, as the title is now a cliché for newspaper and magazine subeditors: shorthand for the horror and danger that lurk outside Australia’s cities. Kenneth Cook’s novel still says something enduring about Australian society. As one young male blogger wrote early in 2013:
Australians like to think that they’re an accepting and all-embracing bunch. But try fronting up to a barbecue and explaining that you have no interest in any code of football. Try resisting participation in a round of drinks because you only want the one and don’t want to be held hostage to subsequent rounds later at night. It’s little wonder that cultural and intellectual ‘snobs’ like John Grant exist in Australia. They are a reaction to the dominant code of behaviour. •
Jacqueline Kent’s memoir Beyond Words: A Year with Kenneth Cook (UQP) is out now. She is also the biographer of Julia Gillard, pioneering book editor Beatrice Davis and musician and social activist Hephzibah Menuhin.
Follow us for more: