Vale and RIP Christopher Lee (1922- June 7th, 2015) and Ron Moody (1924- June 11th, 2015)

Wicker LeeDracula will always be the role most linked to Christopher Lee but for me his best is the one he (ahem) staked his career on – Lord Summerisle, the urbanely barking squire in The Wicker Man (1973). This neopagan-horror-mystery-folk-musical (yes, it’s all of those) is the must-see peak of the Rural Weird genre and a towering high point in British cinema generally. I’ve heard it was Lee’s favourite of all his movies; the erudite content appealed to him so much that he invested 5000 pounds into pre-production, determined, as he wrote, ‘to Draculate no more’.

Whether you’re into film, horror, comparative religion or 1970s British pop culture, I strongly recommend Allan Brown’s book Inside The Wicker Man for the bizarre tale of how this cult classic was made and almost lost.

wickerAThe screenplay was by Anthony Shaffer, whose fiendishly clever play Sleuth became another brilliant early 70s British movie (starring Olivier and Caine). The dancer Lindsay Kemp, who taught Kate Bush and David Bowie, plays The Wicker Man’s publican, and Britt Ekland (voice and nudity ‘dubbed’) is his saucy daughter. Like Lee, Edward Woodward in the lead role – a policeman investigating a missing child on a remote Scottish island – gives perhaps the best performance of his acclaimed career. Then there’s the peerless soundtrack by Paul Giovanni, which could be some great lost Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span album.

Now don’t get me started on Lee’s Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun….

faginI can’t shut up without similarly saluting the wondrous Ron Moodywho died four days after Christopher Lee but lives forever as Fagin in Carol Reed’s spectacular mega-musical Oliver! (1968). A witty reviewer once pointed out this was the most G-rated film ever made about non-G subjects (murder, theft, child abuse, prostitution, etc, etc). Christopher Lee and Ron Moody: true talents and true celebrities. And both truly enriched the world they have just left.

Here’s one for the bucket list – Platypus diving!

Platypus diving, Oliver's Pool, Mackay hinterland. Photo courtesy Nelson Hall/Queensland Tourism
Oliver’s Pool, Mackay hinterland.
Photo courtesy Nelson Hall/Queensland Tourism

The Australian War Memorial in Canberra has recently overhauled its World War One Galleries, using innovative technology to enhance the experience without sacrificing heritage or succumbing to gimmickry. It’s a remarkable achievement: read all about it here, or on the Travel Insider website.


A link to my story on LIZARD ISLAND RESEARCH STATION, one of only four marine biology outposts on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Crown-of-thorns starfish at Lizard Island Research Station. This natural reef predator is favoured by manmade changes to water chemistry

Crown-of-thorns starfish at Lizard Island Research Station. This natural reef predator is favoured by manmade changes to water chemistry. Photograph: David Levell




Bathurst celebrates its bicentenary this coming May. Although the grand colonial architecture adorning those wide streets dates from the Gold Rush (i.e. mid-19th century plus), Bathurst was founded in 1815 and is Australia’s oldest inland town. Where else can you stare down a T.Rex, explore an art colony in a nearby almost-ghost town and eat crocodile pizza in an 1850s church building in a street named for a gang of bushrangers? Check out my travel feature here.

All photography © David Levell
Abercrombie House

Bathurst’s magnificent Abercrombie House – a virtual colonial castle, privately owned and occupied but offering regular tours.

Australian Fossil & Mineral Museum, Bathurst

Nose to nose with a T.Rex – only in Bathurst! The Australian Fossil & Mineral Museum, Bathurst, has the only complete T.Rex skeleton on permanent display in this Wide Brown Land.

Hill End's main street, today and in Jeffrey Smart's 1950s painting

Hill End near Bathurst was a large gold-mining town in the 19th century. Morphing into an artist colony in the 20th, it has been the subject of several iconic Australian paintings. Signs in the streets mark the spots. Above, Hill End today and in Jeffrey Smart’s 1950s painting. Below is Russell Drysdale’s The Cricketers.

Where Drysdale's The Cricketers was painted

Below: Golden Gully: the landscape transformed by the Gold Rush.

Hill End's weird Golden Gully

Hill End’s weird Golden Gully

My interview with Russell Crowe (click the name!) concerning his directorial debut The Water Diviner.

Russell discusses influences on his directing style and what drew him to this emotionally powerful tale of an Australian father who journeys to Gallipoli just after WW1, hoping to learn the fate of his soldier sons.

The interview appears in this month’s Qantas The Australian Way inflight magazine, which is also available as a free download via


  Tour To Hell (UQ Press) tells the true story of a fascinating but little-known aspect of Australia’s early convict days – the myths of escape that fired many dreams of liberty throughout the penal colony, particularly amongst convicts transported from Ireland.

Founded in 1788 as the world’s most remote penal colony, Sydney presented formidable natural barriers – thousands of miles of ocean to the east, thousands of miles of uncharted wilderness to the west. These were very effective de facto prison walls.

But within a few years, convicts had other ideas about the daunting unknown around them. Tales arose of white colonies across the nearby Blue Mountains with churches and masted ships, a nation of ‘copper-coloured people’ beyond a river just north of Sydney – places where Irish and other escapees hoped to find sanctuary, or even a way home.

The first convict 'Chinese travellers' went eastwards along the Parramatta River in 1791 (seen here from Sydney, 1797) but were soon bewildered in the extensive scrub.

The first convict ‘Chinese travellers’ went east along the Parramatta River in 1791 but were soon lost in the extensive scrub. Courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an2716983-v)

These ideas were often corroborated – perhaps even originated – by Aborigines, and they inspired many escapes. Governors Hunter and King, exasperated by these unexpected and destabilising myths of liberation, both mounted inland expeditions aimed at disproving the existence of the mythical ‘white colony’.

Convict escape myths appear in the historical record from 1791 until about 1830 and peaked between 1798 and 1803. Their role in colonial development has to date remained largely unexamined. But they prompted some of the most wide-ranging early explorations and had a surprisingly close relationship to the parallel ‘official’ myth of the inland sea.

Escape mythology could be said to constitute the first genuine folklore of colonial Australia.

It offers unique insight into the convict imagination, and shows how imagination helped shape the development and exploration of a continent.

Tour To Hell combines tales of escape, exploration and bushranging with a new look at Australia’s most reluctant first settlers coming to grips with the harsh and foreign landscape of their new home. It is the first book devoted solely to this chapter of Australia’s story.

For reviews, escape to HERE, or to order online run away to THIS PAGE

Tour To Hell has placed in the following literary awards:
Alex Buzo Prize 2009, awarded to shortlisted finalists of the CAL Waverley Library Award For Literature (The Nib).
Honourable Mention, Manning Clark House National Cultural Award 2008
Commended, Melbourne University Publishing Award 2008
(Fellowship of Australian Writers National Literary Awards) 


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