Ian Fraser launches Bill & Shirley


Launch speech, Bill & Shirley by Keith Ovenden

We meet in the shadow not just of the pandemic but of the election. So, I want to put it on record straight away that I promise my vote to any political party that will make it mandatory to read this book. I have drafted a modest proposal by way of legislation and my thought is that Keith’s brilliant memoir should get, at a minimum, a first, second and third reading. It should also be considered by a parliamentary committee – possibly the Privileges Committee – because they deserve the privilege. And then there will be a test.

My intention tonight is to launch Bill & Shirley not so much in the form of a book review but in the spirit that has animated Keith’s approach to his task. As he points out, a memoir is a special class of remembrance. It makes no claims to biographical thoroughness. It is a personal and particular view of another person, an interpretation of another life written with the writer’s own personal emphases. When, and this is my own view (though I hope it’s one that Keith would share), when it is penetrating and intelligent, rich in its reference and the product of a judicious sympathy, then it deserves to be treated as an instant classic. I believe Bill & Shirley is destined to be an instant classic. You heard it here first.

So, that’s the book review out of the way – which also means I’m out of the territory of having to put you on spoiler alert every 30 seconds. This memoir is about Keith’s experience of, and his personal take on Bill and Shirley, separately and together. In that spirit, I want to talk a bit about my own experience of both of them, but particularly of Bill, because I worked for him at the Arts Council in 1973 and I did – I think – the only substantial interview, certainly the only big television interview with him, after his acquittal of offences under the Official Secrets Act in 1975.

I came into Bill’s orbit in 1970, my first year in Wellington, and he died in September 1975. I never knew him in his pomp and, indeed, his last five years, even before the arrest and trial, seem rather pale and grey against the colour and movement of his earlier, brilliant trajectory. Keith offers the hint that he may have been suffering serious illness for at least 4 years before he died. So, I didn’t necessarily experience the best of Dr Sutch – but what I did experience was vivid and singular and I’m not one to let the best drive out the good.

Bill came to the Chairmanship of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council in 1973 in what someone who should know swore to me was a piece of Norman Kirk’s occasionally malign sense of humour. Fred Turnovsky had been Deputy Chair of the Arts Council for some years and, although he had a successful career as a businessman and exporter, he’d won national recognition as an arbiter elegantiarum. He’d apparently let it be known that he was expecting the new Labour Government to drop him the plum job of chairing the Arts Council.

Bill, on the other hand, had gained distinction – and considerable fame – as an economic nationalist and left wing thinker, as well as someone who’d tirelessly promoted the cause of New Zealand as an export nation.  The Chairmanship of the Development Finance Corporation was up for grabs. Bill wanted it.   

Both Bill and Fred were not short of ego. And they’d both, in their different ways, shown independence of mind and a sometimes cavalier disregard for the official line. As left wing grandees, they were both owed something by the incoming Labour government. Kirk was faced with having to decide what that something might be – and could it come with a veiled message about who called the shots?

Fred got the Development Finance Corporation and Bill got the Arts Council. You can’t always get what you want – but try this anyway and maintain radio silence.

This could all have gone terribly wrong – Keith explains in the book that Bill was not an aficionado of the high arts – books, music, dance – except, perhaps, in an anthropological sense.

He did, however, have a deep appreciation of craft and a view that, even if he wasn’t himself partial to men in tights, the arts were to be taken seriously and should be bent to the task of nation-building.

I was the Executive Officer for the Performing Arts at the QEII Arts Council for one year – I was 24 years old – in 1973. I already knew Bill – I’d done a number of interviews on radio and television with him – and we’d hit it off. So, I didn’t share the general nervousness about his arrival as Chairman – which he contrived to deepen when his priority after his first visit to the office was to issue an edict that the secretaries, all female, were no longer to make tea and coffee for the executive team, mostly men. We were to see to ourselves and do the washing up afterwards, thank you very much.

What my colleague Jim Booth and I could see was that the ship was now in the charge of a zealous and powerful cultural nationalist and this was an opportunity that should be grasped with fevered alacrity. Few could have done ‘fevered alacrity’ better than us. In my portfolio, in that annus mirabilis, Bill Sutch supported our efforts to supercharge the development of a regional network of professional theatres – very different from the national touring model that was the prevailing model up until the late 60’s.

He encouraged me to join an alliance with Robert Lord, Judy Russell and Nonnita Rees to promote the writing and production of New Zealand plays. So, Playmarket was conceived in 1973, on Bob Lord’s opulent double bed in his flat in Clifton Terrace. (This is my Tristram Shandy moment). Playmarket’s origins were, therefore, entirely louche. It was initially a script reading service but it quickly grew into an essential and irreplaceable piece of our theatrical infrastructure. Without Playmarket, it would have taken us much longer to arrive at the place of a flourishing and popular New Zealand theatre.

Towards the end of 1973, Bill asked me to represent him officially at the first Maori Writers and Artists Conference at Te Kaha marae. This was fortuitous because my dear friend Hone Tuwhare had the responsibility of hiring the buses to take us all up to the East Coast. He phoned me a few days before the event was to start to let me know that he had inadvertently failed to make the bookings. So, the Arts Council’s quite large contribution to the hui included renting a fleet of antique buses to rattle us the 12 hours or so to Te Kaha. I think the conference made a difference. And to be there, for this act of pioneering, in the company of some close friends, in one of the country’s great wharenui – this was one of the richest blessings of my life.

Under Dr Sutch, the Arts Council extended its first grant to a rock band. My memory tells me it was Split Enz, who formed in 1973. This gesture of patronage to the demotic end of town caused some dissension. Even more so, when he successfully steered a similar claim for support, through every obstacle the Council could throw up, on behalf of the Kokatahi Band from the West Coast. We had clearly arrived at a moment of rampant, unashamed cultural nationalism and, for myself, I can only say, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven.’

In fact, we were doing so much, so fast, that there was a spirit of a wing, a prayer and a band aid abroad. On at least one occasion we lost a wing and possibly the rudder as well. Because I had become a protégé and we were pointed enthusiastically in the same direction, Bill was keen to empower me. With all the confidence and authority of a 24 year old, I suggested to him that we should bend our will to making the Arts Council more, erm, ‘democratic’.

We formed a cabal of two, meeting mostly at Bill’s office on Featherston Street. The upshot of our plotting is that I produced a paper suggesting the Arts Council should be restructured along regional lines, with small community councils representing even the tiniest and most remote areas of the country. We elegantly fudged the crunch issue of what the Council’s role might be with reference to amateur as opposed to professional arts practice. Is it not written, ‘To each according to his or her needs’?

I put the paper into Bill’s hands and heard nothing more about it for a couple of months. One afternoon, he called me down to his office and handed me a Cabinet paper. Much of it was taken word for word from the paper I’d written and the Council structure was exactly the one I’d suggested. The problem was, in the interim I’d changed my mind. My arguments looked feeble on close review and I couldn’t see how the new structure could work. A few months later, the Cabinet paper became an act of parliament. In the fullness of time, it turned out that my arguments were feeble and the new structure couldn’t work.

You may sense a theme of wilfulness poking its head up in all this reminiscence. And there were moments when it seemed that the ‘W’ in Bill’s name stood for ‘wilful’. Keith doesn’t mince words on this. Wilfulness was also one of the characteristics Bill shared with Shirley. 

Keith begins his memoir of Shirley with an extraordinarily telling picture. She is on the platform of Warsaw Railway Station in 1998, en route to Frankfurt. Crispin is carrying her suitcase. There are steep steps to climb to get into the carriage and a wide gap between the platform and the steps, with a concrete drop to the rails far below. Keith urges Shirley to wait while he gets onto the train himself, so he can help her up the steps. He hasn’t even finished talking to her, when she launches herself at the steps, determined to do it her way. She misses her footing, slips and starts to fall into the gap onto the rails. Crispin reaches out and grabs her with one hand and hauls her in, so she doesn’t in the end fall under the train.

I think this is a motif of Shirley’s life. Launch yourself at your project, single-mindedly and borne aloft by hope, miscalculate or hesitate if you must at the top of the arc, but contrive somehow not to fall onto the tracks. I remember Shirley fondly – no doubt in part because I am a boy and Shirley really liked boys and knew how to manage them. I’m not suggesting she was cynical in this. Rather, she was smart and she was endlessly complex.  There seems to have been a struggle always between the renowned radical actor and her conservative temperament and background. Shirley at times seems to have felt almost torn apart in this struggle – but it yielded so much public good – so many ground-breaking advances on the way to this being a decent, civilised place.

They both came very close to falling onto the tracks at the time of the espionage trial in 1975. Keith’s consideration of this long moment is magisterial and I’m not going to try to add to it. I attended the trial, it caused me pain, as it did to all of Bill’s friends and family, though none of it equal to the crushing impact it had on him. And once the trial was done and the verdict to acquit had been given, I settled down with them to map out the television interview.

I virtually lived at the house with them over the weekend prior to the broadcast. It was a twisting, turning, occasionally confronting time because the narrative remained stubbornly unresolved; under an outward veneer of stoicism Bill was subdued and clearly deeply hurt; and the audience would be the volatile court of public opinion.

We did the interview. I shan’t gloss it here. It’s in the archives and you can see it if you’re prepared to pay for it – which, of course, is essential to the neoliberal bargain.

I saw Bill regularly from then until his death towards the end of 1975. We had lunch together every three weeks or so.  We swapped gossip, we talked about politics and broadcasting, he said enough to show me the deep hurt he harboured as a result of some close friends falling away in his hour of need. What we didn’t do was to discuss the nature of his meetings with Mr Razgovorov of the Soviet Embassy.

Today, when the pathology of anti-communism has been replaced by Covid-19, I would like to think he might take a more assertive, even blasé public stance. Nothing obliges, after all, like noblesse. Keith quotes the case of one of the public figures in the UK outed in the Mitrokhin Papers for some form of Cold War deviance. Spitting in the face of the media witch-hunt that could be guaranteed to follow, he issued a statement saying: ‘Yes, I was an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and still am. As a free citizen in a democracy, I can and will talk to whomever I like about this matter, and that includes, now and in the past, any Russian who would like to listen. So get lost.’

Was Bill a spy? Keith’s answer – which is ‘No’ and while we’re at it, could we discuss what it means to be bandying the ‘spy’ word about – is subtle, impressively contextualised and quite compelling. In my view, it settles the matter.

This is what I know. Bill was a patriot. He worked his whole life to advance his country and its interests. He had come to an admiration for the achievement of Soviet Russia and he liked its people. His esteem was authentic and he was too stubborn in his view to be willing or able to join the chorus trumpeting the line that every day, and in every way, the Soviet Union was our enemy.

That said, I don’t believe he would ever have contemplated an act that would undermine his country – and, whatever he did do, I don’t believe he committed any such act. No spy, then. E. M. Forster’s celebrated manifesto runs: ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’ I could see Bill might relate to the contrariness of that position but, as a real option, it would have repelled him.

I counted him as a friend. I still do. Keith’s memoir brilliantly illuminates why so many of us loved them both.

This is an immensely important book, way out of proportion to its elegant and perfectly formed smallness. It will read be for fun as well as profit for as long as we are an answer-seeking species. It’s my great privilege to launch Bill & Shirley. I commend it to you all – and for those who won’t read it, can I just say there remains the threat of legislation.


Ian Fraser
17 September 2020