Canterbury University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0 908812 83 3
Years ago, whenever Bruno Lawrence (born in 1941 in Brighton, England, as David Charles Gilbert Lawrence) appeared or was mentioned, I used to think, “I’ll bet he’s a bit of a bad bastard.” I hasten to add that I don’t mean bad in the sense of abominable, beyond the pale, but bad in the way that many people seem to find intriguing and often engaging – as long as they don’t personally have to deal with the consequences of the individual’s behaviour.
I’ve had mates like that, people who were seen as a bit bad. For many, these “characters” (nowadays often termed “personalities”) and their rackety behaviour, single-mindedness (some call that selfishness), and unreliability, were tolerable and often amusing – for as long as friends and acquaintances could choose when they wanted to socialise with them, and as long as they didn’t have to live with them. But I doubt that upright citizens would have enjoyed spending much time with Bruno.
To his credit, Roger Booth does not come across as one of the great Kiwi moral arbiters, one of our troupe of caustic black-and-whiters. He is clearly a great admirer of Lawrence, saw him as talented, idiosyncratic and likeable. Sure, he shows that Bruno could be selfish, irritating, compulsive, manic – a crazy bugger and a gambler etcetera, given to excess – but nowhere does he pummel with harsh moral judgements. He just reports what he found, and what others told him, which was that most people who worked with Lawrence liked him, saw him as highly talented, difficult at times, temperamental, and occasionally hot-headed. Restless, driven, addicted: the point is, you got the whole range from Bruno. He wasn’t retentive; he went off like a howitzer.
As a biographer, then, Booth is mostly uncritical, as are most of the friends and acquaintances of Lawrence whom Booth quotes throughout the book. So just why Bruno’s widow, according to newspaper reports, could have taken exception to some of its content is hard to understand, unless the book is seen as erring too much towards deification. When reading autobiographies or biographies, family and friends have to accept that truth is elusive, and often partial, and that one’s own point of view as well as experience always colours our opinions and determines our version of events, and the nature of the individuals involved in them. Which is why it is so difficult, I suppose, to differentiate between fact and fiction, why truth is so relative in so many situations.
It’s not clear how well Booth actually knew Bruno. He found out a lot about him and his activities, certainly, but Booth himself has little that’s subtly perceptive to say about the incorrigible Bruno. Maybe that’s because the talented, husky-voiced actor and remarkable drummer was largely instinctual, could not be bothered with intellectualising. Nevertheless, Booth – and his editor – should have spared us stuff like references to Bruno’s “undeniable charms”, that he was always “putting his body on the line”, that many people “found themselves” because of him, and so on.
However, what Booth and his informants show conclusively is that Lawrence was clever, that his instincts were often right, and that he was bold, zany, and self-destructive. Promiscuous and loyal, too; in other words famously paradoxical. A whole hogger summed up in a favourite catch-cry of his, “Go for it.”
Lawrence was just about anything you could say about someone, sooner or later, and often sooner. Which means that he would be brilliant one moment and dreadful – in every sense of the word – the next. He could be generous and occasionally devious, and frequently resourceful. Some even felt Bruno was actually quite shy and that his outbursts were his way of compensating. Others would say he was confused, disturbed, insatiable, torn every which way. What Booth and Bruno’s associates confirm is that there was some truth in just about everything that was said about the man.
Lawrence was five when he arrived in New Zealand in 1946. After a year or two in New Plymouth the family moved to Karori in Wellington in 1948, by which time Bruno’s parents’ marriage was, says Booth, “just about over”. Some would say Bruno may have been scarred by the break-up but Booth, rightly I feel, doesn’t conclude this for Bruno remained on good terms with both his mother and father. Lawrence was daring and wilful from an early age, and while some saw him as “never a problem at school … relatively colourless” (Frank Crist, a teacher at Wellington College), he actually got up to more than his share of escapades and foolishness of one kind or another. He liked sport – soccer and cricket, and much later golf – and was above average at them. He pinched things, had little interest in academic schooling, wasn’t automatically respectful of those in authority. As the radio journalist and Spectrum notable Jack Perkins put it, Bruno’s policy was “irreverence of all rituals”.
So the pattern – call it a somewhat anarchic versatility – was established early: a predictable unpredictability went with a considerable love of company, of sport, of music, and, in his slightly spasmodic manner, of his wife and family. Bruno wasn’t ever a dull bugger. He took and he gave – a lot. And, significantly, his children seemed to like him, and remembered him with love and affection. He may have lost people’s respect at times, but he was capable of redeeming himself, which says a lot for him and those closest to him.
One of the things that Booth brings out well in his overly-long, repetitive but still interesting book, was that Lawrence was both conventional and unconventional. Sport, gambling, music, acting, drugs, family. He was Mr Holus-bolus. And, in one of the greatest of the ironies surrounding him, the activity for which he may well be best remembered, his acting – especially in cinema – was far from his greatest love. Lawrence was a musician first, an actor second, and although he put heart and soul into both it’s clear that the former was the more important to him. More often than not he acted in films for the money.
Lawrence left school at 15, by which time he was a regular in a Dixie band with Geoff Murphy and four others, one of whom, Mark Young, called him Bruno. The name stuck. They played at Sunday night teenage dances. From then on, Bruno was away on the road to excess and, at times, near-dissolution. His was the classic misspent youth that my parents warned me about, warnings many of us didn’t heed. Playing pool for money, working on the wharves, prominence in the Victoria University Jazz Club, participation in Arts Festivals (1959 and 1960) in Dunedin and Christchurch. He played rugby as a “fiery winger” for the Karori club and for a year worked as a journalist for Truth. He even joined the Southern Comedy Players as their drummer and toured with the show Fresh as Air. Holy hell, one wonders what Bernard Esquilant and William Menlove thought of him.
The Blerta (Bruno Lawrence Electric Revelation Travelling Apparition) days are covered in detail. Many will remember the troupe of travellers – latter-day minstrels, actors and rag-tags – in their flower-power-type bus. They toured the South Island, and parts of the North, and had experiences unforgettable to young and old. The sort that were probably hell at the time, often, but equally as often great fun, marvellous in retrospect. Blerta, chocka with clever and zany and dissolute entertainers, were outrageous, inventive, cheeky. They even toured parts of the East Coast of Australia. All the way, Booth presents amusing and sometimes poignant tales and anecdotes. I’d have loved watching Lawrence take a fire hose and blow a group of soldiers from Duntroon out of a hall they’d broken into when Blerta was performing at the university in Canberra. Lawrence played in a lot of bands, starting with his school-mates in 1955 and ending with Cracker in Wellington in 1994. He played, at one time or another, with many of the big names in jazz music in New Zealand – Ronnie Smith, Dave Fraser and John Charles, for instance. He played with Ricky May and others in Sydney, with Max Merritt and the Meteors, with The Quincy Conserve; with the Beaver Band, The Crocodiles, and so on. Way back in 1962 he even played bass drum for the Ratana Pa Brass Band in Wanganui.
In the late Sixties Bruno got involved with the muso and fledgling film-maker Geoff Murphy and they, along with others including cameraman Al Bollinger and Helen Whiteford, began making films under the aegis of the Acme Sausage Company. I was living in Wellington at the time, and the Acmes were much talked about. Habitués of the Duke of Edinburgh hotel on the corner of Manners and Willis Streets referred to them, laughingly, as “fucking mad”. The patrons of the Duke included a big group of dopers, students and others terribly pleased with themselves who purported to be “alternative, counter-culture” types.
But there were lots of talented people about, and Murphy and co made films, including the madcap Tank Busters, and before long Bruno’s acting career was under way. To the surprise and dismay of many in the embryonic local industry, Bruno won TV Best Actor award in 1970. Over time Lawrence was to appear in 26 feature films, including Goodbye Pork Pie, Smash Palace, and The Quiet Earth. His TV appearances included an outstanding performance in the undervalued series Frontline.
What was it about Bruno that made him a Kiwi icon? What was the secret of his appeal, his magnetism? Well, it wasn’t because he had a revolting, toothpaste smile of the kind so favoured by TV managers. It was, apart from his voice, and his antic behaviour – smouldering and petulant at times – his eyes. It’s the eyes that reveal character, emotional depth, and in which one can detect the extent of a person’s sense of humour. Stay away from people who smile constantly, I say. In the end they’ll drive you nuts: you won’t believe anything they say.
Another reason for Bruno’s appeal was his outrageousness. He was a surrogate; he did and said the things many of us wouldn’t dare to but, boy, we would like to! He was a bit of a larrikin, a rogue, a perpetual adolescent. He obviously had talent and he didn’t speak “pluty” as many professionally-trained actors were felt to.
Desmond Kelly, who turned to acting late and who has come across as a decent joker, thought Bruno was “almost the mythical New Zealander, self-reliant, resourceful, with a dry sense of humour”. There’s no room here to discuss that except to say that Bruno does appear to have been like that, and that many New Zealanders are too. Lawrence was also clearly often unable to suppress the wild man side of himself, that crazy aggressiveness that many males especially would like to let off the lead more than they do, except when they are mulish from the piss. Greer Robson said Bruno seemed “so blokey and yet so vulnerable at the same time”, and while that’s true, to me the point missed here is that blokiness and vulnerability are one and the same thing in New Zealanders.
When Bruno died, people turned up in hundreds from all over New Zealand and elsewhere. That tells us a lot. Ian Watkin said, “heaven was when Bruno played the drums”; and his agent Lydia Livingstone reported that Bruno often told her that “he was a musician at heart, and that his challenge was acting.” To her, “he was an excellent actor, with a romantic soul nourished by music.”
Roger Booth’s no great shakes as a writer, and I can’t believe he would ever claim to be, but he faithfully records what he found out about the life of a remarkable man. In the New Zealand parlance, Bruno Lawrence might have been a bad bastard, but he was a good bastard at heart, and that counts.
Brian Turner lives in Central Otago. His book On the Loose. The Josh Kronfeld Story, which he co-wrote with Kronfeld, will be reviewed in a later issue.