This weekend, my one-act play Ghost Hunting was going live on stage in the Blue Mountains, NSW, part of the Blackheath Theatre Company’s Out Of The Blue show of four one-act plays.

Over five performances, a community hall was to have become, for one enchanted half hour, a haunted house for the entertainment of audiences. We were delighted to be sharing the stage with three other magic spaces of wonder created by the talents of three other local writers.

Sadly, it was not to be.

Ten days before our premiere, the Blackheath Theatre Company informed us the entire season of Out Of The Blue was off, claiming the July 2022 weekend in question posed too great a Covid risk.

They became, in all likelihood, the only performing arts company in Australia to pull shows this weekend citing Covid risk.

Yet other local cultural events are enjoying full houses right now.

I deeply apologise to any theatre-goer affected. The decision was made without any consultation with the crews and cast and its validity has been hard for many of us to accept. C’est la vie. Que sera sera.

The sudden loss of Out of the Blue came as a major blow for the actors, crews and volunteers who put heart and soul into it over a very long time (we were postponed three times before due to lockdowns against which I had no objection).

And the trust it may well have fractured could potentially damage live theatre generally in the Blue Mountains community. If so, I sincerely hope that full trust can be recovered. A thriving live theatre scene is something, I’m sure, we all want to see.

Author photo: Kylie Blakemore (copyright). From left: Iain Fraser, writer-director, Underground; Brian Twomey, writer, Sweet Dreams, Baby; David Levell, writer-director, Ghost Hunting (three of the four Out Of The Blue playwrights).

My ghost plays FISHER’S GHOST and SHAKING HANDS can now be heard on the Blue Mountains Radio Players Soundcloud page. These are recordings of the live radio performances on March 27, both about half an hour long, happily preserved in cyberspace as spirits of the air.

FISHER’S GHOST: The apparition of Frederick Fisher in 1826 is Australia’s best-known ghost story (except maybe Waltzing Matilda). But did he really did return from the dead to finger his murderer? Did someone really claim to have seen him? The jury’s still out; a little mystery has gone a long way.

Fictional adaptions are legion. The first was The Sprite of the Creek! in 1832, a poem by ex-convict schoolteacher/writer James Riley. Fisher crossed the hemispheres in 1853 when Charles Dickens, always partial to a good ghost tale, ran an imaginative retelling by John Lang in his Household Words magazine. Raymond Longford’s 1924 film Fisher’s Ghost has, like Fisher himself, long-since ghosted away. Douglas Stewart’s play Fisher’s Ghost: An Historical Comedy materialised in 1960, published with illustrations by Norman Lindsay. An operetta about the ghost by John Gordon enjoyed a TV presentation in 1963.

For the latest apparition, simply conjure up BM Radio Players’ Soundcloud… no ouija board required! I’ve stuck close to the known facts with a handful of fictional insertions, including the framing device of lady ghost-hunter Adelaide Swift interviewing the Fisher-haunted ghost witness, John Farley.

SHAKING HANDS: I can’t say too much about it without revealing the twists and turns, but imagine a sceptic and believer meeting in a lonely outback pub in 1877. Unlike Fisher’s Ghost this one is entirely original. A couple of vague inspirations: the discovery of diprotodon (see below) fossils in Wellington Caves in the 1830s, and the contemporaneous visit of Charles Darwin to the Blue Mountains, when he stayed at Gardner’s Inn, Blackheath. My protagonist, scientist Charles Dawkins, is named for the Beagle‘s adventurous genius and also for Richard Dawkins, that most eminent uber-rationalist of our day and age.

The Blue Mountains Radio Players manifest two of my ghost plays, FISHER’S GHOST and SHAKING HANDS, in the ballroom of Katoomba’s Palais Royale Hotel on March 27. The Radio Players raise the spirit of the Golden Age of radio, performing as if going live to air. It’s truly a hoot but be sure to arrive in good time as it has been known to pack out.

Fisher’s Ghost concerns Australia’s most famous spectre, the alleged apparition of a convict, Frederick Fisher, in 1826. While sticking close to the known facts, the play imagines John Farley, who saw the ghost, being interviewed in later years by a paranormal investigator.

Set in a lonely bush hotel in 1877, Shaking Hands is the meeting of a scientist who’s utterly sceptical of the supernatural with an innkeeper who claims to have good reason for being anything but sceptical.

So happy to find the Twisting A Tale writing competition winner is my extract from the ghostly novel I’ve been busy materialising recently! The competition, open globally, was held by the Charles Dickens Museum in London for a tale in the Dickensian spirit, and we all know how the old master relished a ghost story…

You can find the story caught in the web here.

The novel in question (working title Magpie: A Bush Haunting) is a major expansion of my one-act play A Bush Haunting, which was staged in Australia in 2019, directed by Liz de Koster and with Robin Martin, Ralph Andrews and Josephine Pennicott in the lead roles. The play is only a small part of the story now.

Adding to my over-the-moonedness re the result is the fact that, to me, Dickens is the unsurpassable Bradman of English-language novelists. Many thanks to the Dickens Museum, indubitably a London must-see and the very house where he wrote his first three novels. As for his ghost stories, I particularly like The Signalman for atmosphere and The Queer Chair for humouranyway, let us raise a glass of negus to his spirit.

A Bush Haunting photos: above, cast and crew; below (left to right), Joshua Wolterding and Tibby McKenzie; Robin Martin and Ralph Andrews rehearse their fight; Liz de Koster and Ralph in rehearsal.

December’s Reader’s Digest has surfaced early, its cover story my account of the amazing recent discovery of the Southern Hemisphere’s largest orca aggregation, as told by its discoverer, wildlife filmmaker Dave Riggs.

Orcas or killer whales were thought of as occasional, rarely seen visitors to Australian coastal waters. The idea they were hiding in plain sight in the midst of a busy shipping lane seemed too outrageous to be true.

Dave’s story is a cracking good one, a real mystery of the sea, with plenty of twists and turns – check it out!

TODAY IN BUSHRANGING: November 20, 1863. The ashes have settled at Goimbla station, the home of David and Amelia Campbell near Eugowra, central western NSW. Policemen and passers-by converge on the farm to see the corpse of John O’Meally, shot through the neck the night before while attacking Goimbla with his partners-in-crime Ben Hall and John Gilbert. The lawless trio bombarded the house with gunfire and set fire to the barn, burning horse to death and destroying over a thousand pounds of property. It was pure luck no-one was murdered. O’Meally, called ‘as ruthless and reckless a criminal as ever infested the territory’, had been on the rampage all year with Hall and Gilbert. All year they had been among Australia’s most wanted men. All this and more in my upcoming (I hope!) book.

Bushrangers Attacking Goimbla Station by P.W. Marony (1894)

TODAY IN BUSHRANGING: July 28, 1862. Police chief Frederick Pottinger brings five prisoners into Forbes on the western NSW goldfields. He arrested them the day before on suspicion of Australia’s biggest ever armed holdup, the ambush of the gold escort coach at Eugowra Rocks. Three are guilty – Ben Hall and Dan Charters as participants, and John Maguire as an accessory – but none will be convicted, and for three very different reasons.

Pottinger had been tirelessly hunting the escort robbers for over a month. Earlier in July he was escorting two other suspects along a bush road when his police party was ambushed by others in the gang, who rescued their accomplices after a very one-sided gunfight.

The controversial and flamboyant Pottinger was the most famous policeman of his day. Strangely, these days he’s best known for something he did not do – inspire the proverbial ‘Blind Freddy’. It was never his nickname and the misconception dates only to the late 20th century.

All this and more in my upcoming book.

Painting of Eugowra Rocks holdup by P.W. Morony, 1894.

  • Alas, alack, GHOST HUNTING has been temporarily exorcised by the Greater Sydney Covid Lockdown! The July-August season of OUT OF THE BLUEGhost Hunting was one of the short plays making up the program – has been delayed until October. The new dates are October 7-10 at Blackheath Community Hall, atop the Blue Mountains. Ticketing details should be available on the Blackheath Theatre Company website.

Rehearsals are well underway for GHOST HUNTING, which I’ve written for the Blackheath Theatre Company’s upcoming OUT OF THE BLUE show of “one-act plays of the unexpected”. I’m also directing.

Set in a haunted room in the 19th century, Ghost Hunting follows the Ladies’ Ghost Society of NSW as they investigate supernatural disturbances at troubled Renfield House…

Abercrombie House near Bathurst (below) played some part in inspiring the setting. I’m sure it has ghosts of its own…

Out Of The Blue runs for five shows between Thursday July 29 and Sunday August 1 (Thur, Fri, Sat 7.30pm and two 2pm weekend matinees). Tickets available via Trybooking and more info at Blackheath Theatre Company

The full program is:

GHOST HUNTING written and directed by David Levell

THE GHOST WRITER by Stephen Measday (Elizabeth de Koster, director)

IF THE MOON by John Shand (Elizabeth de Koster, director)

IT’S THE WAY THAT YOU DO IT by Ted Markstein (Paulina Kelly, director)

SWEET DREAMS, BABY by Brian Twomey (Arwyn Karmudian, director)

UNDERGROUND written and directed by Iain Fraser

TODAY IN BUSHRANGING: June 18, 1862. Camped atop Mount Wheogo in the wild west of New South Wales, Frank Gardiner’s gang of bushrangers hide out after ambushing the gold escort coach at Eugowra Rocks three days before.

The gold and cash stolen added up to about $5 million in today’s money – to this day, the largest haul of any armed holdup in Australia. Alongside Gardiner, the eight-man gang included some of bushranging’s biggest names such as Ben Hall, John Gilbert and John O’Meally.

Eugowra Rocks, NSW, where bushrangers ambushed the Forbes Gold Escort in June 1862.

As they shared out the takings and relaxed on Mount Wheogo, sitting out some heavy rain, they had no idea Sergeant Sanderson of the Forbes police, guided by tracker Charley Hastings, was closing in fast.

The holdup went well enough for them but the getaway would soon prove problematic…