The Guardian 13 April, 2005


Edmund Allison

Rob Gowland

Edmund James Charles (“Eddie”) Allison died in Canberra on March 8. He was 92. He had joined the old Communist Party of Australia in 1934. He left the CPA to join the SPA when it was formed and was still a member of Sydney Central Branch when he died.

He came of working-class stock in Kiama on the NSW South Coast. One grandfather was a quarryman, the other a Greek fisherman.

Always interested in films, in the late 1920s he began reading about Soviet cinema. An interest in Soviet cinema led to an interest in the society that had produced those films.

Later, in the 1930s, Eddie would be instrumental in bringing out to Australia the first copies of Eisenstein’s masterpieces Battleship Potemkin and October.

His father, although a confirmed Labor man (“a Langite”), had always maintained, according to Eddie, that “the Russian Revolution was a great thing for the working class”. This conviction led Eddie to start reading Marx and Engels.

In a 1986 interview he told film historian Graham Shirley: “I came to the conclusion that the only course that could serve mankind as a political system was Marxism — and I still have those ideas, I’ve never varied, all my life.”

He was working in a laundry in 1933, at the height of the Depression, but the moment he turned 21 he was sacked. Like so many others, he did not get another proper job (in the sense of regularly paid work) until World War II broke out. Eddie went into the Air Force in 1942.

New Theatre

In 1932, Eddie and two mates went along to the opening night of the Workers’ Arts Club — an initiative of Jean Devanny and other Communists (although not them alone). It had Saturday night dances to raise money and Sunday night recitals, poetry, talks and dramatic pieces. The motto over the stage was Lenin’s: “Art Is a Weapon”. Eddie joined the Club in January 1934; by April he had also joined the Communist Party.

As well as progressive plays from England and the USA, New Theatre (as the renamed club became known) was presenting English translations of Soviet plays as well as Australian plays “showing the social reality in Australia — the plays of Betty Roland, such as Are You Ready, Comrade?, plays by Katharine Susannah Prichard and Leslie Clark Rees’ play about Eureka Stockade”.

From 1934 until he went into the Air Force, Eddie either appeared in every show at the Workers’ Arts Club/New Theatre or made the sets for it or was the stage manager.

Eddie also took part in the agitational plays and sketches performed on a Friday night from the back of a table-top truck in Taylor’s Square, as a regular activity of the Communist Party. CPA veteran Phyllis Johnson recalls acting with Eddie in one of these street-corner plays on behalf of the Party.

In 1945, after his discharge from the Air Force, Eddie joined renowned Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens in making Indonesia Calling, a film about the black bans imposed by the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF — now part of MUA) and 25 other waterfront unions on ships taking military supplies to the Dutch in Indonesia.

In 1946, encouraged by Ivens, who was leaving for Europe, Eddie directed his own film, Coaldust, for the South Coast Miners’ Federation. The coalmines of the NSW South Coast had the worst record for miners with “dusted” lungs of any region in the country. The Federation was fighting a campaign for safer working conditions and real compensation for dusted miners. The budget was tiny: the whole film cost £300 ($600). Despite its limited resources, the film is a fine example of a partisan documentary, with beautiful photography.

It was followed by a film on May Day for the Sydney May Day Committee and then by a film made with Cecil Holmes, Words For Freedom. This was essentially a history of the working class press in Australia. Words For Freedom is another powerful polemical work, with members of New Theatre appearing in its reconstructions.

After a couple of years in London, Eddie returned to Australia in 1951. He got a job as a wharfie and threw himself back into New Theatre as well as film activities.

His most notable theatrical success in the ’50s was as Thommo in the folk-musical Reedy River, “not the main role, but the most satisfying role”. The play was written by Dick Diamond, at that time the Secretary of Actors’ Equity in Melbourne, and played a major part in kick-starting the revival of interest in Australian folksongs. The part of Thommo clearly clicked with Eddie and he gave what is still recognised as the definitive rendition of the role.

Another highlight of the ’50s for Eddie was his role in Cecil Holmes’ feature film about mateship, Three in One. Eddie appeared in the film’s first episode, Joe Wilson’s Mates, adapted from Henry Lawson’s story The Union Buries Its Dead.

In 1956, Eddie took over the running of the little 16mm (non-theatrical) film distribution firm Quality Films that had been set up in 1951 to distribute the assorted films held by the Communist Party, Realist Film Association, individuals and trade union and peace organisations. With only one assistant, and operating from two tiny rooms in the WWF building in Phillip St in Sydney, Eddie set about slowly expanding the collection, adding everything from Soviet classics to GDR documentaries to new French feature films. Its customers at this time were film societies, trade unions, schools and left-wing groups.

The first big change came when Sovexportfilm asked Eddie to take over the distribution of 35mm (theatrical-gauge) Soviet films in Australia. Eventually, Quality Films had an unparalleled collection of classic Japanese, Indian, German, Soviet, Swedish, American and French cinema. He regularly presented Festivals of Soviet or Japanese films, complete with visiting actors and directors. And all the while he continued working at New Theatre, acting in or directing or stage managing plays by Brecht, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Ewen McColl, and many more.

I knew Eddie for almost half a century and worked with him at Quality Films from 1975. Largely self-taught, he was dedicated to his belief in the working class and passionate in his support for working-class culture. He had a finer understanding of realism in art than anyone else I have ever met. He could comprehend and make others aware of the ideology of Shakespeare or the ancient Greek playwrights, just as he could clarify the ideology of a musical like Reedy River.

He held fast to his convictions all his life, not out of obstinacy or “dumb loyalty”, but because he understood his ideology and his class position.

His favourite line from any play was from Clifford Odets’ Waiting For Lefty: “Not to say ‘What a world!’ but to say ‘Change the world!’”.

A booklet on Eddie Allisons’s life and career is available from the CPA, $2 plus $1p&p.

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