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Interview with Katharine Brisbane on Jim McNeil

How did you first come to know Jim McNeil?

It was 1970. I was the national theatre critic of the Australian and was invited to Parramatta Gaol to attend a performance by inmates of The Chocolate Frog. The actors were members of the the Resurgents’ Club, a club set up by inmates interested in debating ideas.

You reviewed Jim McNeil’s very first play he wrote, The Chocolate Frog, performed by the prisoners. What was it that struck you about this piece of work?

Its natural dramatic force and sanity. I met Jim at the time over a cup of tea and was struck by his intelligence and his reason for writing it. The Resurgents debated regularly with law students from Sydney University and he said he was tired of arguing with them. ‘Next time I’ll show you’, he said, and wrote a dialogue which his friends performed. He had never been to the theatre. The theatre director Malcolm Robertson had been taking drama classes in the gaol and, soon after, the play was presented professionally at the Q lunchtime Theatre at the Rocks.

McNeil was convicted for 17 years for armed robbery and shooting a police officer. You helped agitate, along with others, for the early release of McNeil – who else was involved and what were your reasons?

My husband Philip Parsons and I had begun Currency Press in 1971 and by 1974 had published T he Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice. I had begun a correspondence with Jim and had visited him several times at Bathurst Gaol where he was moved after the publicity over The Chocolate Frog. He was due for parole in October 1974 and two of the former Sydney University debaters were principals in the campaign to get him paroled. Robyn Potter had Jim’s power of attorney and was his main correspondent. When Robyn and her husband went overseas on sabbatical she asked me to take of the correspondence (since his letters were restricted). Later, she called on David Marr to look into the legals. We came to believe he was a remarkable writer and not a dangerous criminal but a petty thief who had spent most of his working life in gaol for stupid rather than premeditated evil. During this time he wrote How Does Your Garden Grow which was snapped by the Nimrod Theatre for performance a few weeks after his parole was due. Ken Horler, barrister and co-founder of Nimrod, led the legal campaign to have his parole granted, and David and I ran a modest media campaign.

Peter Kenna said people saw him as a reincarnation of Ned Kelly. Do you think part of his allure was a mythical quality?

No, but he was a great raconteur, like Peter himself, and they became storytelling rivals in the Irish manner. He did compel people with his stories and one never knew whether or not they were based on any truth. He had startlingly blue eyes which he fixed on people and it was hard not to succumb.

In an ABC interview, McNeil talked about his reactions to seeing the plays professionally performed. He mentioned the way actors shouted their emotions, which would never occur in a controlled prison setting. Did you ever talk to him about other reactions he had?

I think that control was what made him a dramatist. The fact that their life was censored enabled him to distil feeling in a powerful and sometimes oblique way. If you compare the three plays with the second act of Jack, the only extant work written after he was released, you will find it very ugly indeed.

The fact is that re-entering the outside world did his talent no good. He was no longer the brightest, cleverest person in the room: the skills that prison life had taught him were of little use outside. He was frightened most of the time, took to drink and to making promises he could not keep. He survived seven years and died aged 47.

Do you think he received the recognition he deserved in his capacity as a playwright?

In his time he received more recognition than he deserved and he exploited everyone he got to know. His plays are still remarkable and still have an important message that those inside are people just like us on the outside, with the same feelings and the same domestic needs. But reading them today I find that they are a little thinner than I thought at first sight.

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