In Peter Allen’s life, we are told, the highs were high and the lows were low.
He was the toast of New York and Sydney, the conflicted loner and an early celebrity death from HIV / AIDS.
So it is in Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door, Seven’s two-part miniseries about the boy from rural NSW who became a showbiz sensation and one of Australia’s favourite modern sons. Based on the book: Peter Allen: The Boy from Oz by Stephen MacLean, Part One is written by Justin Monjo (Part Two is written by Michael Miller).
Heavily romanticised, Part One focusses on his childhood years, partnership in the Allen Brothers duo and meeting Judy Garland and daughter Liza Minnelli.
Living in Armidale, NSW in 1957, Peter Woolnough (Ky Baldwin) was starved of the affection of his alcoholic father Dick (Nick Farnell). His mother Marion (Rebecca Gibney) supported his young talent at the local dancing school and playing piano at the pub. While his parents argued, young Peter drowned out their fights via the piano.
As the young Peter, Ky Baldwin is bright and engaging.
“Do you reckon Dad will ever come watch me?” he asks his mother.
“I don’t know Petey,” she tells him.
The childhood scenes are very stereotyped with the mummy’s boy set to become homosexual in later life. It’s hard to discern the attraction between Marion and Dick, and the sets are Australiana perfect. But there is a deeper pain underlining his character when the young Peter washes the blood stains off the walls of his family home following the suicide of his father. The lyrics of Tenterfield Saddler hang heavy…
“He loved his father despite everything. Look at him. He’s made of steel,” reflects his mother.
What’s most interesting are the scenes of magic realism by Director Shawn Seet. In the streets of Armidale, an adult Peter Allen (Joel Jackson) and Judy Garland (Sigrid Thornton) watch the young Peter forging his own path.
From here the story skips to the (adult) performer meeting Chris Bell (Rob Mills) re-packaged as the Allen Brothers for a Bandstand audition. Montages and music facilitate the passing years. There are hints of a romance with a young Olivia Newton-John (Christie Whelan-Browne). But a clandestine quickie with a gay man changes all that. Fleeing a potential scandal, the Allen Brothers are shipped off to a residency in Hong Kong where he is spotted by the histrionic, drug-dependent Judy Garland.
The remainder of the first half is dominated by the Garland-Allen relationship and his union with a young Liza Minnelli (Sara West).
While the story and direction revel in melodrama, and skate over some of its accuracy, what shines through are the performances by the cast.
Joel Jackson is excellent as the multi-talented Allen, with a remarkable likeness and singing his own numbers (apologies to Todd McKenney). He works hard at the emotional core of the piano man and has the bi-coastal Aussie-US accent down pat. Following on from Deadline Gallipoli, Jackson remains one to watch.
“I can sell a song I can make people believe but that’s about it. I just make the best with what I’ve got,” Allen says.
While Garland’s participation is over-played for obvious reasons, Sigrid Thornton is actually a canny choice for the role and it’s great to have her back on screen. She turns on the diva excesses, veering from cyclonic force to vulnerable bird. While Thornton’s accent is occasionally inconsistent, the vocals by Melanie Parry hit their mark. I suspect it’s a performance you will either love or hate, and one which will be difficult not to compare with other ‘Judys’ by Chrissie Amphlett, Caroline O’Connor and, especially, Judy Davis.
Sara West grows into a more-recognisable Minnelli as Part 1 progresses and the ever-likeable Rob Mills smiles through in an underwritten role -we’re never quite sure what he makes of his co-star, nor why Allen moves from solo to duo performer in the first place.
Rebeca Gibney goes for the heartstrings as Marion Woolnough, the proud mother protecting her son, but never seeming to age despite the passage of time.
It’s hard to ignore the production shortcuts of international locations passed off via stock footage and montages (right down to the cliche of spinning newspapers) and one Hong Kong CGI exterior looked particularly distracting.
Part One also does not detail enough about the contradictions of Allen’s sexuality, nor much about his own songwriting as yet.
On stage in The Boy from Oz, the razzamatazz and heightened emotions link naturally into song. On television where we are up close and characters don’t break into musical numbers, Allen’s story needs to focus on truth and conflict. This miniseries certainly has those elements but with doses of melodrama it doesn’t quite match the raw grunt of INXS: Never Tear us Apart.
Thankfully, what does make it worthwhile are the performances from a committed, versatile ensemble. I look forward to more from them in Part 2.
Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door premieres 8:40pm Sunday September 13 on Seven and continues September 20.