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British Australian Culture Exchange: Live Performance 1880-1960

Leverhulme funded project 2012-2014

Anglo-Australian cultural relations in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century have often been discussed in terms of cultural imperialism and cultural cringe. The visit of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh to Australia in 1948, for instance, has been described as a royal progress and they and many other English actors have been defined in terms of the ambassadorial role they played when visiting Australia. There is no doubt that some visiting actors could be quite patronising and condescending in their attitude towards the Australian public, while some Australian audiences were quite sycophantic in their response to English actors. Yet there is also a need to recognise the complexity of cultural interaction between Australia and England from the 1880s onwards and to move towards a more sophisticated model for its analysis.

Harry Lauder - one of the many popular British music hall stars who visited Australia in the early 1900s

In her recent study The Empire Actors Veronica Kelly, a co-researcher on this project, argues that English actors who chose to tour the Empire, including Australia, instead of seeking starring engagements in London’s West End should be recognised for their contribution to cultural exchange rather than cultural imposition. This is also true of many of the other English (and British) performers who visited Australia between 1880 and 1960. Indeed, this project will consider for the first time the cultural impact on Australia of such entertainers as Little Tich, Marie Lloyd, Harry Lauder, Ada Reeve, George Formby, Gracie Fields, Cicely Courtneidge, Jessie Matthews, Arthur Askey and Tommy Trinder, as well as acknowledging the influence of such visitors as the Oliviers, Noel Coward, Ralph Richardson, Sybil Thorndike and Antony Quayle. A strong emphasis will be placed on variety performers and their mediation of British provincialism, both through live performance and their prior impact in Australia through radio, film and subsequently television. Tommy Trinder (already known in Australia as the star of several popular wartime films), Gracie Fields and Arthur Askey, for instance, were immensely popular when they visited Australia, yet their multiple functions within Anglo-Australian relations have yet to be explored.

The influence of new communications technologies – both transportation and media –and of the South African and first and second World Wars on changing cultural relations between England and Australia will also be considered. The project seeks to shift significantly the way Anglo-Australian cultural exchange is mapped and evaluated c. 1880-1960. It also seeks to establish how, during this period, Australian commercial theatre, music hall and variety interacted strongly and diversely with British popular and elite culture and to assess the significance of the many and varied encounters between British performers and the Australian public in reframing Anglo-Australian cultural relations.

Professor Jim Davis
University of Warwick