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Country funeral for an Australian Legend

PETER BATEY OAM, left instructions he wanted a Funeral of Fun. Only he could have designed such an event, but on his death on June 14, 2019, friends and family knew what to do, obey, based on more than 85 years of knowing the actor, theatre director, playwright, restaurateur, arts administrator, entrepreneur, and founder of the Coolac Festival of Fun, including the Bald Archy satirical portrait prize.

Peter wanted to be buried in the Coolac cemetery just down the road from his home of 40 years, the Coolac Schoolhouse. Drawn from Rome, Riyadh, Perth, Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and closer, friends chose a plot in the front row of course. To better show off the headstone, chosen from a proposed competition to design the best memorial to reflect the resident’s extraordinary life and legacy.

Peter also wanted a party in the garden – “not considering the impact of dying in winter”, dryly commented Valerie, his 90 year-old sister. Consequently, 24 of Peter’s best friends, renovated and decorated the park, home to memorial trees, planted by local children for wars, coronations – thanks to drought also senescing.

A seated marquee was in place, concealing site of the old school dunnies, tubs were filled with primroses, and the pond, formerly a quagmire, was revived, waters sprinkled with rose petals. Those same wonderful friends before his death, under supervision had sprung cleaned the house – taking loads to the tip, to Vinnies, emptying the pantry of food – some of which predated use-by dates – noting which photographs, programs and papers needed to be archived.

As we arrived on the fittingly sunny and sparkling burial day, around 100 crying sulphur-crested cockatoos performed a flypast and circuit of honour, followed by a flotilla of Corella. All came to rest respectfully in a paddock across the road. Kookaburras followed with uniquely Aussie anthems.

Having known PB, as he signed emails, since the 1960s into the 1970s when he launched my first book, it was unthinkable not to see him off. Thus we drove 600 kms north from Western Port to Coolac, carrying four boxes of the book we wrote together in 2015 as gifts for those attending. After the Charlie Hebdo murders in January that year, I emailed Pete suggesting a book to pay tribute to Australia’s satirical artists, but most of all to him, and Maude of course.

“Good idea darling, I’ll need it by July”. That was February. Somehow we dragged bios out of all BA winners since 1994; out of Pete his own story (which he complained I edited into ‘literature’). He wasn’t at all technical, so encouraging him to send photos and text, including the exclusive interview with the flighty Bald Archy judge Maude, without his laptop crashing, was going to be a miracle. But we made it. By then he was 82 and plagued by inconveniences such as “acute arthritic infection”, not forgetting the epic fall where he lay naked for 19 hours outside in the heat and cold before being found, dying several times in hospital, before conducting that year’s prize from the ward. I wanted the book to record his amazing career before too late.

Cut to 11.30am, July 6: around 200 people are gathered at the Coolac cemetery.

Archdeacon Caroline Campbell of the Goulburn Anglican diocese (right) is wearing rather than funeral vestments, the stole featuring rainbow lorikeets that she wore to undertake at PB’s request five years ago, the Blessing of the Animals for the Coolac Festival of Fun. She is holding an effigy of Maude, judge of the Bald Archy Prize, who had long flown the coop. On this I was sworn to secrecy. “Good story”, I said to Pete, seeing the empty aviary. “Don’t you dare!” he ordered.

Explaining the importance of Maude, the effigy is placed on the rose-covered coffin by the Venerable Caroline, and prayers proceed. We were glad God got a mention, some services pass without even a nod to the Almighty, about to be given a hard time by one of His most truculent constituents. Handles tucked in, the inconceivable coffin bearing our friend of more than 50 years, descends into the earth. This better be a bloody fine party.

The marquee was set up with canteen facilities at one end, lectern and seating at the other. Eulogies began, MCed by Louise Purtle, and sparkled for two hours to roars of laughter, just as he wanted.

Felicity Wells, Peter’s niece, Valerie’s daughter, told of her uncle’s early days in Benalla. Of shows on the veranda for the passing public, one of whom was in the audience. Her most telling story was of Peter as a National Serviceman, excelling at throwing hand grenades, so effective he was called on to demonstrate (an art he never lost). While at school wearing a dress, he made a staircase entrance for a show, without raising an eyebrow – that was just Batey, even then.

Long-time friend Neil Davis’s tribute began in Saudi Arabia, with him being advised of the death, expecting a funeral the following week. “But he goes on tour – first to the Coroner in Glebe, then Newcastle”. He always loved touring, mused Neil, typical really.

Neil spoke about Peter’s gregariousness, enjoyment of intelligence, story teller extraordinaire, who categorised people either as “wonderful darlings” or “vile darlings”.

Think it was Neil, maybe David, who recounted the wonderful yarn of Pete building a pond, filled with water, complete with fish and waterlily pads. Coolac and the entire Riverina was in drought. Drover came through with a mob of thirsty cattle; Schoolhouse gate was open, animals smelt water. Peter stood at the window cursing every beast as his water, fish and lilypads disappeared to the last drop.

Theatre Days were covered by Ken Gregory, stage director of the Betty Blokk-Buster Follies, starring Reg Livermore, directed by Peter. I was around during this era as Theatre critic for The Australian newspaper. Who knew what to make of the Reg-indulgent scenes? Asked Peter for advice. He was frank, as usual – so was the review.

Ken said he’d auditioned for Peter many years before ‘Betty’, in a child role and hadn’t got it. “That was 60 years ago,” he grinned. “I am over it”. We laughed, knowing he wasn’t.

Betty was a bare-bummed German maid who entertained troops during the war – she went into three sequels, was filmed, toured to London, then Peter bailed out. Relationships in the theatre could fracture spectacularly.

He made the extraordinary move to the village of Coolac, population then 82. In our book he described it as ‘a tree-change’. Much more to it of course, he was escaping madness of the day, AIDs claiming many friends. We had left Sydney for a sanity-change too.

With great affection, Coolac local Pat Hill, described working for Peter, who set up the Windmill restaurant in an abandoned pub. He had never cooked professionally in his life, or been in a restaurant kitchen. There were moments of over-catering that haunted them – such as 2000 frozen sandwiches, and the lamb dish that had one large grazier complain to the chef. Peter came out “What the fuck would you know about lamb”, he accused. It wasn’t just a restaurant of course. Special events were held, such as the unforgettable Wedding Breakfast to honour Prince Charles and Lady Diana – invitation stipulating medals and tiaras be worn.

Breathalysers and a quadruple bypass altered viability of the Windmill. So Peter beat the local copper to purchase the schoolhouse across the road, turning it into a comfortable home.

Fed up with regional arts money being wasted, the Coolac Festival of Fun was born and he stood for council. Fiona and Helen Sanderson recalled still in awe, of the pulling power of Peter to bring people like Nancye Hayes to teach tap to children in the hall; Margaret Fulton to do cooking classes; musicians like Don Burrows, the Grigorians, artists country people would never have the privilege of enjoying, let alone joining for dinner afterwards.

Cr Peter Gain told of Peter as a Gundagai Shire councillor: “never known as 'Pot Hole Pete', he wasn’t interested in such mundane matters”. Cr Gain noted Peter’s management by consensus. This was achieved when everyone agreed Peter was absolutely right.

David Robson was next to speak, about the Bald Archys. In March this year, Peter rang David in Rome. “Flora”, he intoned. “I need a laugh, you must come immediately”. David knew his friend was not well, arrived as ordered and they spent a week talking. “What do you think is your legacy Min?” ‘Flora’ asked.

Peter thought, “Betty Blokk-Buster, changed the face of Australian commercial theatre.”

David didn’t say anything. Then Peter burst out “Alright then, the Bald Archys”.

David revealed Peter paid for everything – the prize money, touring costs, to keep it going over 25 years, giving local venues the chance to raise funds for community projects.

This year’s Bald Archy sponsor hotelier and plastic surgeon Dr Jerry Schwartz, has committed to supporting the prize for another year. But who will ‘get it’ as Peter did? Last year when he advised Maude had chosen James Brennan’s ‘Ahn Can Do’, this old journalist asked would the painting be sufficiently controversial to attract publicity? Pete replied “It is intelligent and funny, exactly what the Bald Archy is about”.

Meanwhile, back in the marquee, child star of ‘The Devils Playground’, Simon Burke AO, now acclaimed in musical comedy, sang Peter out – selection from ‘Chicago’, and of course ‘No Business like Show Business”.

Simon said he had known Peter only for 20 years, introduced after a show, then spellbound watching Batey and Robson yell at each other for hours. He went back every night for two weeks for the entertainment and value of that encounter, never heard anything like it.

Tributes have flowed for PB, ABC-TV and radio giving due respect to his passing, mostly focussing on the Bald Archys. Peter Batey was so much more than that of course. When discussing the headstone idea, most people immediately thought of the image of Maude, judgemental cockatoo. But five miles from Gundagai and the Dog on the Tuckerbox, there is Jock, latest of his legions of West Highland White Terriers, used to Peter touring, being left with Coolac pals. This time, the now elderly Westie knows it’s curtains.

There was no sense of Peter hanging around the garden on the day. Yet he was there in every person, in their memories and gratitude for enriching not only their lives, but the whole district, holding a satirical mirror up to the entire country, as he moved from Benalla, to Melbourne, Canberra, Perth, Adelaide and the Riverina.

On the Bald Archy Facebook page many described Peter as a true gentleman and a national treasure. However, 2005 winner Tony Sowersby recalled: “Peter was a naughty man with an unstoppable flow of words. This became even more apparent in the couple of radio interviews we did together to promote the Bald Archy in 2006/7. The first was with Richard Stubbs for the ABC. We were sitting in the cafeteria waiting to go on when we noticed Stubbs at a nearby table frantically writing and doing last minute preparations. A gleam came into Peter's eyes. A poorly researched host meant airtime to fill. And fill he did. He had the ability when answering questions to leave no gaps, averting his eyes from Stubbs’ more and more insistent windup signals. I didn't get much of a look in. After we left I remarked on his volubility. "My dear boy that was nothing" he quipped and went on to tell of his guest spot on Margaret Throsby's interview show on Classic FM. "She asked me one question and I spoke for half an hour!"

Back home we will miss the phone ringing, the rich voice asking if the author is in, then for at least half an hour, Classic fm playing at both ends of the conversation, stories, frustrations, complaints, memories and business would ebb and flow. Touchstone with that old world we both loved.

A clever, intelligent and lasting memorial of some kind is required for this OAM-ed legend of Australian theatre and regional arts. Cr Gain mentioned Peter’s passion for restoring the Old Gundagai Gaol, work that would continue, including a gallery, he promised. An exotic headstone in the front row of the Coolac Cemetery featuring maybe a cockatoo and a dog is a start.

Pictures: from left: Ken Gregory; second row right Simon Burke; third row right: David Robson; right: Neil Davis; fourth row left: co-authors at the launch lunch; additionally: seated marquee and odd garden decos. Bottom row: co-authors at the In Yer Face launch.

David Robson, aka 'Flora'

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