No pokies in the Skull Cave

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 9th August 2011.

Many years ago, my cub pack visited our local McDonalds for a “behind the scenes” tour. I’m really not sure what I was supposed to learn from the experience. It certainly didn’t help me get my bronze boomerang. Perhaps Akela felt that sooner or later, I’d either be working there or eating a lot of their burgers, so I might as well get used to the place. Based on what happened to some of my scouting friends later in life, they probably should have taken us on a tour of Parramatta Gaol.

Although there was nothing essentially wrong with taking children on a tour of a fast food joint, I remember thinking that it was a little on the dodgy end of the ethical spectrum.

I had exactly the same feeling when I visited the classy establishment that is Star City this past weekend. Wandering through the casino floor on my way to the high rollers room (apparently the bathrooms there are really nice), I stumbled across a bank of pokies themed on one of my favourite childhood superheroes, The Phantom.

Initially, I was a little excited about the prospect of this. The Phantom, created by Lee Falk in 1936, is a comic full of iconic characters. Who wouldn’t want to play a poker machine populated with images of Diana Palmer, Guran, Devil, Hero, the Skull Ring, and the distinctive purple costume of The Ghost Who Walks?

Hold on. Isn’t The Phantom supposed to be fighting bandits, not the subject of a one armed bandit? As the Guardian of the Eastern Dark, Kit Walker fights for truth, justice and the Bengallan way (or something like that). He represents jungle justice and will fight for the rights of the native people, animals, eco-system and the occasional stegosaurus. I’m pretty sure that scatters, double ups and features aren’t a part of The Phantom’s ethical vocabulary.

Let’s face it. The King and Queen of the Nile and Big Red the kangaroo probably wouldn’t have a problem being associated with gambling. Neither would the turtles, sea horses and starfish from Turtle Treasure. If there is no smoking allowed in the Skull Cave then surely The Man Who Cannot Die would object to an RSL packed with pokies installed next to his throne?

I know I’m being facetious but to a comic fan, this is almost the same as encouraging punters to try their luck on a Ghandi’s Gold or a Dalai Lama-Rama pokie.

If you’re going to theme pokies with popular properties, characters and personalities then I have a few suggestions. How about Abba’s Money, Money Money Machine or Scrooge McDuck’s Speck-quack-ular Slots? If you like a flutter, you won’t be able to resist the flashing lights of Ritchie Rich’s Retirement Fund, Daddy Warbucks’ Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Will You Eat Tomorrow or Mr Burns’ Springfield Millions Meltdown. You know you want to put your hard earned dollars in Charlie Sheen’s Winning.

In the end, I couldn’t stop myself from trying my luck with a twenty dollar bet. Sure enough, The Phantom stole my money and I wasn’t allowed in the high rollers room. I shouldn’t have trusted The Ghost Who Walks Away With Your Money.

Published in: on August 14, 2011 at 09:11  Leave a Comment  
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Newspaper Comic Strips: are you a three panel addict?

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 12th July 2011.

Turn to the comics page of this paper. Go on, I can wait. Check out the Garfield strip for today. Did you notice today’s date, in American format, on the side of one of the panels? That’s right. That is today’s Garfield strip for the planet. Every paper worldwide that carries Garfield has exactly the same strip today. That’s pretty amazing. There wouldn’t be a story, let alone a reporter, writer or columnist with that level of coverage around the globe. It’s a good thing that Garfield has no political or religious agenda, unless you’re for the rights of lasagne.

Garfield is carried in over 2500 publications and holds the Guinness World Record for the most published syndicated strip. Created by Jim Davis in 1978, the strip had humble beginnings, initially being published in 41 newspapers. Three years later, it was being carried by 850 publications. It is estimated that Garfield now brings in up to a billion dollars of revenue a year in sales. Not bad for a lazy cat.

Imagine how difficult it must be to come up with something witty and different every single day of the year. After over thirty years of writing, how would you know if you had used the same scenario before? Would anyone care or even notice? Do you write a single strip a day, or do you produce months of content in one big creative spurt and then have some time off? My mind boggles.

Not surprisingly, Jim Davis is no longer the principal artist on Garfield although amazingly, he still authors the storylines and text. I assume he needs the extra time to count his money. That’s what I’d be doing.

My favourite Garfield strips are the ones without Garfield. In 2008, Dan Walsh created a website, Garfield Minus Garfield, where he digitally removed Garfield and all of the other characters, leaving Jim to speak to himself. The end result is a different but hilarious spin to the franchise, with Jim’s solo mutterings, reactions and twitches being laugh out loud funny and a little disturbing at the same time. In 2008, an officially endorsed Garfield Minus Garfield book was published. It is on my Christmas wish list.

I quite like The Phantom too. Unlike most humour-based strips, the adventures of The Ghost Who Walks are told in long arcs which are split into daily strips. The story is slowly revealed in a few panels per day. The funny thing about The Phantom is that you never know where you are in the storyline. Without the context of what has happened before, the daily strip usually makes no sense. Most days, the Guardian of the Eastern Dark punches someone in the first panel, we see the mark left by his skull ring on the villain’s face in the second, and he rides off on his horse, Hero, in the third. Compelling stuff, isn’t it?

Of course, with the short term memory of a goldfish, I can never remember what happened in yesterday’s instalment but that doesn’t stop me from dutifully reading The Phantom every day and loving it. I guess as long as The Man Who Cannot Die remembers what he did yesterday, the wheels of jungle justice will keep turning.

So enjoy your comics page in today’s paper knowing that the same couple of seconds enjoyment you are getting is being shared by millions of people worldwide.

Published in: on July 12, 2011 at 12:59  Leave a Comment  
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Theatre review: Doctor Zhivago

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Casinos are strange places. In the movies they are depicted as the playground of the rich and famous, where men in tuxedos get sexy women to blow on dice before they make a lucky throw, tipping the croupier with a thousand dollar chip on their way to the valet parking to collect their Ferrari. However, for the vast majority of the population, that’s not the experience we get.

The average Joe gets flashing lights, sticky, worn carpets, garish decor and tacky promotions, plus the privilege of paying $25 to park the car. You can sense the desperation in the air. Men in sports jackets hover around the tables. Women sit on stools in front of pokies pressing buttons and staring blankly at the pretty images on the screens. No one seems to be having fun, with the exception of that group on the Hen’s Night. Wow, those beauty pageant sashes are so unique.

That was my experience as I attended the world premiere of Doctor Zhivago at Star City on Saturday night. Apparently famous people such as Jerry Hall were there. I’m glad she wasn’t sitting in front of me. Whilst Jerry evaded me, I did, however, see Maria Venuti and Peter Phelps in their best dress hovering in the foyer. I know that most people would remember Phelps for his turns in Water Rats or Stingers. I prefer his US TV debut as token Aussie lifeguard Trevor Cole in the first season of Baywatch. I should have asked him to run in slow motion for me.

I suppose that I should review the show now. I must admit that I was not at all familiar with the Doctor Zhivago story. I haven’t seen the movie. All I know is that it stars Eddie Murphy and he can talk to the animals.

Although billed as a world premiere, this work was originally produced as Zhivago in San Diego in 2006. Now extensively reworked by composer Lucy Simon (The Secret Garden, a moderately successful musical from 1991) and lyricists Michael Korie and Amy Borden, Doctor Zhivago has been unveiled as a vehicle for star Anthony Warlow.

With a budget of over $5 million, this is a major risk for producer John Frost. With the cheapest tickets in the nosebleed section of the cavernous Lyric Theatre being just under $100, audiences will expect a decent bang for their buck. And this show doesn’t disappoint.

You can literally see the millions of rubles spent on the sumptuous set, which recreates the bleakness of revolutionary Russia with a colour palette of turquoise and greys. Arches, stairs, pillars and train cars roll effortlessly on and off the stage. Projections are also used to great effect, in particular as a rain effect onto the Moscow set.

The cast, led by Warlow, Lucy Maunder and Taneel Van Zyl, are all in fine voice. The onstage chemistry between the leads as they portray the participants in one of literature’s most famous love triangles was very apparent, even from the back of the theatre. Warlow pulled his calf muscle in rehearsals, missing several preview performances, but now fully healed after intensive physiotherapy, makes this role his own, in what may even surpass his iconic turn as the original Australian Phantom of the Opera.

The storyline covers much Russian history in a short space of time as Zhivago survives a World War, the Russian revolution, Civil War and the Chernobyl disaster, the whole time sticking to his idealism and principles. Between loving two women and saving lives as a medic, Doctor Zhivago also finds time to become a prolific Russian poet, although in this adaption his more famous works such The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham are not mentioned. Interestingly, Doctor Zhivago takes the opposite ethos to Les Miserables. This time, the revolutionists are the bad guys and we sympathise with the proletariat.

A sign of a good musical is being able to walk away with at least one tune implanted in your head. This show won’t disappoint with several beautiful songs such as Now and On the Edge of Time. The Australian cast recording is in the pipeline and will soon be a must buy for fans of musicals. Enjoy the songs now before they are rendered into cliché by Susan Boyle.

Doctor Zhivago is an immensely enjoyable musical experience which is well worth discovering. See it now at your local casino before it hits Broadway or the West End.

Published in: on February 25, 2011 at 06:27  Leave a Comment  
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