Category Archives: Performers

Nellie Melba and the daffodil farmer

DAFFODIL DAZE One of the world’s favourite cut flowers, the daffodil.

A Writer unravels a local myth.

MY first glimpse of the Blue Mountains high school I attended was a hillside covered by a layer of golden daffodil blooms. I was in sixth class and a group of us was to play one of the high school teams in basketball, but we were late and had to run to the top of the hill to start the match.

The daffodils were so plentiful (over knee-deep in my memory) that running through them took some effort and created a kind of insane delight as we ascended, laughing and stumbling in their ridiculous golden abundance.

Many years later I took on the task of researching the history of the old house on the hillside, and learned about the man who was behind the daffodil plantation – Robert Matcham Pitt (1849-1935).

Throughout that process the most intriguing element of the home’s story was, for me, his daffodils. Primary sources and archives are all very well, but surviving blooms carefully raised by the long dead … now that was history brought to life.

Soon after moving to London I consulted the International Daffodil Registrar, at that time the wonderfully generous Sally Kington, at London’s Royal Horticultural Society. What Sally found shed a whole new light on the man who was amongst the first to bring the humble Narcissus to Australia.

I had the opportunity to publish a feature article on this horticultural history in the August-September 2010 edition Blue Mountains Life Magazine (Vintage Press). Typically, there’s always parts of a story which must be left out for publication, so I’ve included those at the end for posterity.

HOME GROWN OPERA Helen Porter Mitchell (aka Dame Nellie Melba 1861-1931) worked to bring grand opera to Australian shores.

A Diva’s Daffodils

Nellie Melba’s inspirational encounter with a Mountain Daffodil Farmer

For almost a century there was a tale told that Nellie Melba sang an impromptu recital in a private home in Wentworth Falls and received a rather unorthodox daffodil tribute in return. Now Ann Blainey’s award-winning biography I am Melba reveals the only time the soprano can be placed in the Blue Mountains during daffodil season, and why.

Melba’s journey to the Mountains began in 1909 when she purchased a property near the town of Lilydale outside Melbourne, with two plans in the pipeline – to renovate and landscape herself a sanctuary, and to bring grand opera to her home country.

Before sailing for performances across the northern hemisphere in 1910, Melba met with Australian theatre impresario J.C. Williamson. The soprano guaranteed fifty per cent of the opera project’s budget, leaving the producer to work his connections in the business sector.

The ‘Melba-Williamson Opera Company’ announced Sydney and Melbourne seasons for spring 1911.

On her return trip to Sydney from Europe that year, Melba went to inspect work on her as yet un-named new home, but rehearsals in Sydney beckoned when a boatload of international singers arrived in late August. The venture was launched before an eager public on September 2.

Overseeing fully staged versions of twelve operas, fifty-year-old Melba was also performing three times a week. “Although in some ways she was in her element, the pressure began to tell,” writes Ann Blainey. “By the end of September she was ill, with an aching ear and a sore throat … bronchitis set in, and she was ordered to rest in the mountain resort of Medlow Bath”.

Without Melba, audience numbers dropped, and rumours of her drinking resurfaced. Her letters from these critical weeks reveal a desire to conceal the extent of her vocal problems from the public. Between Williamson and he publicity agent Claude McKay, Melba’s escape to the Mountains was heavily stage-managed.

OPERA FANS Robert and Marie (‘Eugenie’) Pitt at Coorah.

Enter Robert and Eugenie Pitt, resident at their Mountain estate ‘Coorah’ in Wentworth Falls. A successful stock and station agent and one of J.C. Williamson’s guarantors, Robert and the immensely musical Eugenie may have been recruited to aid in the singer’s recovery. As a result of Melba’s secret convalescence in the Blue Mountains during daffodil season, a legend emerged.

It told that Melba arrived at Coorah by car and delighted in Pitt’s fields of daffodils. After dinner, she entertained her hosts by singing, after which Pitt offered Melba a gift. She expressed a desire for some of his daffodil bulbs for her fledgling garden. They were lifted and packed that very night, since the soprano was due to return to Sydney the next morning.

The facts about Coorah are well-known – the property was established in 1889 complete with water pumped from a local creek, a dairy, stables, and a nine-hole golf course. English style gardens and the bulb farm surrounded the late Victorian country house atop a hill overlooking distant blue ranges.

But horticulturists will tell you no serious daffodil hybridiser would lift flowering bulbs unless they were to be transplanted immediately. Legends, of course, are not infallible, and this one needed some unravelling.

Coorah’s centenary in 1989 unearthed how the property became a hostel for children and then the Blue Mountains Grammar School. Pitt’s daffodils were still returning every spring to the north-facing fields of the property, and stories about Melba’s visit persisted.

School parents related meeting Doris Pitt (youngest daughter of Robert and Eugenie) who revisited Coorah in the 1960s and recalled the night Melba sang in Coorah’s large central room.

A ‘below stairs’ oral history of the same event came from Arnold Gorringe. His mother Mary was Coorah’s housekeeper until 1919, and she had to move husband Arnold (head gardener) and two small boys into a cottage on the estate to make room for Melba’s stay.

Barbara Lamble recalled her grandfather Robert Pitt’s long association with opera funding – “Within the family at least he was known to have expressed a dislike for Melba and her money-raising methods,” she said.

BULBS FOREVER Blue Mountains Grammar School student Philip Parkinson in the surviving field of Pitt’s daffodil farm at Coorah in 1961.

Pitt’s daffodils held their own secrets. In 1993 Sally Kington (International Daffodil Registrar at the time for London’s Royal Horticultural Society) analysed photographs of the daffodils still flowering at Coorah. Since they could be seen to be derived from already existing varieties, Sally suggested they were Pitt’s hybrids. His daffodil creations included ‘Clive Pitt’, ‘Doris Pitt’ (two of his children) and those he registered with the RHS – ‘H.H.B. Bradley’ (noted horticulturist) and ‘G.S. Titheradge’ (actor and flower enthusiast).

DAFFODIL FARMER and pastoralist Robert Matcham Pitt (1849-1935). Photo courtesy of Libby White.

In the RHS library, the Daffodil Yearbook of 1914 yielded an essay by Titheradge in which the following appears – “Mr. Pitt is devoted to music, and when the great singer, Mme Melba was here, he, or some members of his family, went to the opera nearly every night. It was during the spring months, and Mr. Pitt used to send the ‘diva’ great quantities of daffodil blooms. One day he wrote and asked if he might be permitted to immortalise one of his seedlings by naming it after her”.

Actor George Sutton Titheradge (1848-1916).
MAN OF FLOWERS Actor George Sutton Titheradge (1848-1916).

“She said she would be delighted, so he sent her some of his finest productions to choose from. Mme Melba happened to select the one called after me, so Mr. Pitt had to tell her it had already been appropriated by an artist in another branch of her profession, but when the time came for lifting the bulbs he made her happy by sending her about 20,000 for her place in Lilydale, Victoria.”

Blainey writes that when Melba returned to Sydney from the Mountains, “she was cheered as she entered the stage”. The Melba-Williamson opera company moved on to Melbourne, where Melba had her sanctuary to nurture any lingering health problems. Audiences were not as keen on the event as Sydney had been. Despite a spectacular opening night, by November attendance dwindled.

Meanwhile, Pitt waited for his daffodils to die back, drawing nutrients into the bulbs. In December they were lifted and rested in sheds. Twenty-thousand bulbs dispatched to Melba sounds like a large amount, but in 1897 Pitt had advertised a stock of half a million bulbs.

In Autumn 1912, Melba busied herself with completing the transformation of the home she’d now called ‘Coombe Cottage’. The name remembered a property she’d rented while performing at Covent Garden, but it’s possible it also had echoes of her time at the similar ‘Coorah’.

There can be little doubt that Melba would have been inspired by Pitt’s achievements – they embodied the end result of the major changes she’d commission for her own estate.

She once said: “If you wish to understand me at all, you must understand first and foremost that I am an Australian. I shall always come back to the blue mountains in the heart of the vast deserted continent that gave me birth.”

Estates with distant blue horizons, not too far from the city life, were obviously close to this woman’s heart.

We are left to assume Pitt’s bulbs were planted at Coombe Cottage sometime during her first proper season there.

But well before they would have flowered the next spring, Melba was in Europe again. Blainey suggests the disappointing Melbourne reception of her grand opera season was the reason – “The company disbanded on a dismal note. Melba’s inclination was to leave almost at once …”

However, the diva’s association with daffodils was far from over. During the same northern autumn Melba arrived in Britain, Irish Plantsman William Hartland released a catalogue of bulbs advertising a new variety, listed as “new for 1912” and named ‘Madame Melba’.

Pitt had sourced much of his bulb stock from Hartland since the 1880s – was it he who suggested to Hartland that since she’d missed too many seasons at Covent Garden it was time for a ‘Melba’ daffodil?

Robert Pitt gardened until the 1930s at Coorah, but his daffodils outlasted almost everything else he planted. Bulbs which he gifted to his staff and others still appear every spring. Titheradge called him “one of the pioneers of the cult,” and the daffodil heritage of the greater Blue Mountains owes much to his mass plantings and hybridising at Coorah.

FEELING FOR FLOWERS “If I had only the money that has been spent in flowers for me and nothing else, I should still be a rich woman” Melba once said.

An anecdote from the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1970 links Pitt and Melba late in both lives – “For one of her farewell concerts he sent her thousands of daffodils from his daffodil farm. A flood of golden blooms flowed onto the stage … Melba announced she would personally sell the flowers in Martin Place the next day, in aid of Sydney hospital.”

Whether the daffodil farmer’s twenty thousand ‘G.S. Titheradge’ bulbs ever graced the diva’s garden remains a mystery.

The Story goes on …

In 2014 Melba’s garden at Coombe Cottage was opened to the public for the first time. I visited in February, 2015.

Since the publication of this article more has come to light about divas, daffodils and Coorah. My sister Jen happened-upon some fascinating photographs of another opera singer from the Melba-Williamson company (Austrian contralto Marie Voluntas-Ranzenberg) who visited Coorah on Sunday, October 15, 1911, was given lunch and garlands of flowers and had her photograph taken with the Pitt family. This at least proves the Pitt Family was in residence at the time of the legend about Melba’s visit. 

The day I arrived at the RHS library in 1993, Sally Kington showed me a card catalogue entry which simply said “R.M. Pitt?”. Sally said she found it fascinating to find a story associating Narcissus with opera, an industry abundantly supplied with flowers, but rarely daffodils, apparently.

In 1993 I corresponded with the resident of Coombe Cottage in Lilydale – the late Lady Pamela Vestey (grand-daughter of Melba) – she had no knowledge of twenty thousand daffodil bulbs on the property.

The design of Melba’s garden at Coombe Cottage was one of the last estates created by William Guilfoyle (1840-1912), the man responsible for several iconic gardens in the state of Victoria, including Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Garden.

PLUCK COVER copyCoombe, the Melba Estate, as it is now known, experienced many design changes over the years, including plans that were never realised by garden designer Edna Walling in the 1920s.The property remains a private home (under the ownership of the next generation) amidst a winemaking operation, with Melba’s garden open for tours

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

The soul searching of Whitney Houston

WAITING TO EXHALE Whitney Houston in Los Angeles in 2009 (Photo: Michael Wright/WENN.com).

HER fans would have been forgiven for thinking it was all over for Whitney Houston in 2010. Garnering mixed reviews for her Nothing But Love world tour, and walk-outs from fans disappointed that she could no longer deliver the kind of live vocal energy that made her famous, Whitney kept a very low profile as her terrible year in the spotlight came to a close.

But deep in the glut of online forums, neither her fans nor her detractors would let her go. Between posting videos of her glory days and widespread speculation that the act described by Oprah as ‘The Voice’ had simply run out of steam, Whitney Houston was generally consigned to the status of drug abuse victim.

Anyone whoʼd been watching closely should not have been surprised.

Infamously defensive during her 2002 “Crack is Whack” interview with Diane Sawyer, Houston cited her marriage vows as an explanation for staying in what was widely understood to be an abusive relationship with R&B ʻbad-boyʼ Bobby Brown. Adding further to the dysfunctional picture was her confession that the abuse went both ways. I gave as good as I got, former ʻgood-girlʼ Whitney professed.

But all that seemed designed to distract from the Houston’s almost voiceless answers in the interview. Worse than hoarse, she explained her condition was the result of recent long-distance travel and the upheaval of moving house. The clearest statement she made to Sawyer was that within ten years, sheʼd be happy to have retired from the music scene.

And she seemed to stand by her word. For the next seven years, Whitney Houston released only one recording and rarely performed. It was an uncharacteristic silence from one of the highest selling recording artists in history.

Instead, shocking pictures of trashed rooms, alleged to have been taken in her home, were published throughout the tabloid media.

WHACKY WHITNEY During a seven year hiatus from recording, Houston's appearance often caused drug-abuse speculation.
WHACKY WHITNEY During a seven year hiatus from recording, Houston’s appearance often caused drug-abuse speculation.

Her co-operation in reality television show Meeting Bobby Brown (described by one reviewer as a “train-wreck”) made for awkward viewing. She appeared to be putting on a good show for the cameras, escorting her husband to court appearances. Mrs Bobby Brown was about as far away from her career as she could get.

And what a career it had been up to that point. Famously discovered by Arista Records’ Clive Davis at the age of nineteen, Houston started singing in church as a New Jersey teenager, and accompanied her mother Cissy Houston onstage touring in 1970s America.

The familyʼs performing pedigree was already the stuff of legend by the time Whitney first took to the stage. Cissy had sung back-up for the likes of Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, and Whitneyʼs cousin Dionne Warwick was already an international star.

Houston also had the kind of looks that superstars are made of. She was never going to stop at the benchmarks set by her role models. This was an altogether different kind of star, and she rose incredibly fast.

Her 1985 self-titled debut album broke sales records, and at the 1986 Grammy Awards, Warwick was selected to present her cousin with the first of countless accolades, in that instance for her breakout hit ‘Saving All My Love For You’.

WHO LOVES ME Houston in the video clip for her 1987 smash hit I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
WHO LOVES ME Houston in the video clip for her 1987 smash hit I Wanna Dance with Somebody.

Responding to the high-energy (and extremely high-pitched) dance and pop scene of the late 1980s, Houston and Davis collaborated on further albums in 1987 (Whitney) and 1990 (Iʼm Your Baby Tonight). The first of these spawned one of her all-time hits – ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’ – in which Houstonʼs voice soars high above the instruments with a kind of euphoric energy matched only by her striking beauty in the video clip. Iʼm Your Baby Tonight was a more modest success, but it was just the calm before the storm.

Houston later recalled being surprised that anyone was interested in her to star in a movie, although her agent warned the one-time model to get used to film offers. Fresh from the widespread success of Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner approached Houston to take on the role of superstar Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard. Clive Davis was her manager at the time, and so a soundtrack album was quite naturally part of the deal.

In what must be one of Hollywoodʼs finest examples of colour-blind casting, Whitney took to the role which in many ways drew on her own experiences – fronting massive crowds, leading a life protected by security, all whilst searching for true love.

The re-hashing of Dolly Partonʼs 1970s hit ‘I Will Always Love You’ for the final scene proved a marketing masterstroke. The song became Houstonʼs biggest selling single to date, overshadowing the movie which it underscores.

BODY OF WORK Houston's film roles in the 1990s created a new career for the singer, including the lead in Kevin Costner's The Bodyguard.
BODY OF WORK Houston’s film roles in the 1990s created a new career for the singer, including the lead in Kevin Costner’s The Bodyguard.

The combination of fabulous couture, stylishly staged musical numbers, and Houston’s singular beauty were topped-off by that voice, sliding up and down the scale with a beguiling lightness and a devastating power in turns.

Reaching number one on charts across the world, the song was played so much at funerals, weddings and in public places that it created a new career for Whitney. In the midst of the hype she married Bobby Brown and gave birth to their daughter Bobbi Kristina.

More films followed – Waiting To Exhale (1995) gave Whitney kudos within the African-American community. The Preacherʼs Wife (1996) teamed her with Denzel Washington, with a dose of the kind of gospel-inspired music sheʼd cut her teeth on back in New Jersey.

By the end of the millennium, Whitney Houston made music look and sound effortless. She reinvented her look countless times and backed-up the movie roles and high-end videos with sold-out world tours, and the vocally demanding ‘I Will Always Love You’ was on every song-list.

I recall hearing a radio news segment whilst living in Britain during the late 1990s in which it was reported that Whitney Houston had apologised to fans during a live show for not being able to reach the signature high note towards the end of that song.

It was odd not because an apology seemed so honest, but because it was Whitney Houston, ‘The Voice’. It showed a human side to this seemingly untouchable superstar, but in hindsight it was an indication that an extended silence was on its way.

Cut forward a decade, to the dawn of Oprahʼs 2009 season, when Winfrey managed to coax Houston back in front of the cameras at the end of her hiatus. Divorce from Bobby Brown in 2007, and stints in rehab, had left her unwilling to record or perform again for years. But, having released only two of her contracted seven albums, Houston and Davis finally had a highly anticipated product to tout – Whitney Houstonʼs first album in six years – I Look to You.

Houston appeared to be channeling the survivor-aura of Tina Turner. Certainly not as hoarse as she was with Sawyer seven years before, Houstonʼs speaking voice was nevertheless thin, but not out of character for a middle-aged singer whoʼd performed for three decades.

NOTHING BUT LOVE Houston after performing on Oprah in 2009.
NOTHING BUT LOVE Houston after performing on Oprah in 2009.

Revealing some of the truths of her drug use and her ongoing recovery, Houston allowed Oprah to search for reasons why sheʼd reached the point of giving up her voice, described as a “National Treasure”. Levelled by the questioning, Whitney cited lack of personal freedom and loss of identity as she grew through her twenties and thirties.

She also performed live for the studio audience. The song was ‘I Didnʼt Know My Own Strength’, tailor-made by longtime collaborator Diane Warren as a survivor anthem which placed few demands on Houstonʼs diminished range.

The clip of this performance (and her rendition of the same song at the 2009 American Music Awards) have become YouTube sensations. Fully inhabiting the role of world-weary diva, while capitalising on her strong, deeper registers, Whitney Houston struck exactly the right note.

After a hiatus from Arista, Clive Davis was back on deck and Houston credited him as the reason she returned to music and did not carry out her threat to disappear with her daughter and set up a fruit juice stand on an island somewhere.

If Whitney had left things at that – a new album and some select live performances to promote it – then her comeback would have been assured. Whether it was Davis who signed Houston up for a world tour, or Houstonʼs decision alone, it is generally accepted that it was the worst move considering Whitney’s vocal abilities at the time.

COMEBACK TRAIL Whitney Houston performs live for the first time in years in Central Park, New York, in 2009.
COMEBACK TRAIL Whitney Houston performs live for the first time in years in Central Park, New York, in 2009.

The Nothing But Love world tour did not start well. She kept a crowd waiting in Central Park, New York, before hitting the stage for a live set of new and old songs which was quickly truncated after her voice gave out.

On the road across Europe and Australasia Houston was boo-ed, walk-out-on and reviewed negatively at every turn.

One understanding fan has since posted a compilation of the best performances of this tour on YouTube. In these, Whitney seems genuinely elated that her voice is working, and she reaches the notes without wavering.

Other unkind clips record only the wall of ambient sound and none of the real quality of the live audio, leaving one of the worldʼs best vocal talents sounding lost and exhausted.

Compare these clips with the videos that were produced to support I Look To You. The first, ‘Million Dollar Bill’ harks back to Whitneyʼs heyday, with its upbeat melody and memorable riffs.

The second, the title track from the album, is a very different experience. Whitney sits alone, delivering a gospel-inspired song written for her by R. Kelly a decade before.

LOOK LIKE YOU Whitney Houston's maturation reveals her striking resemblance to cousin DIonne Warwick.
LOOK LIKE YOU Whitney Houston’s maturation reveals her striking resemblance to cousin Dionne Warwick.

Less than a minute in, with her downturned face and her hair in a modest fall, Houstonʼs more mature appearance at age forty-six reveals the family facial structure – youʼd swear it was Dionne Warwick.

In the recording studio, Whitney explores the depths of her range in a manner suggesting a lot of soul searching. Her upper registers have narrowed, yes, but visual comparisons with Warwick should remind critics that Warwick’s career was not built on a powerhouse live voice, but a gentle, reaching quality on lighter ballads.

In the light of her live vocals, the question Whitney Houston fans are left asking is this – is ‘The Voice’ now damaged beyond repair?

The truth is not all bad news.

As 2011 dawned, she made what was to have been a low-key appearance at the BET (African-American Entertainment Network) Celebration of Soul in Los Angeles.

The exact number Houston was to perform in the line-up of established Soul and Gospel stars was kept under wraps.

Kim Burrell was introduced, embarking on a wonderfully husky rendition of Houstonʼs ‘I Look To You’. Beloved within the Gospel scene for her pastoral work and her vocal abilities, Burrell deserved a number all to herself, and seemed to be getting it, until the start of the second verse, when another voice came from behind the scenes.

It took a few moments for the crowd to recognise Whitney Houston. Up went the scrim, and a simply dressed, visibly nervous Whitney walked to Burrellʼs side, singing through the standing ovation she received, not quite able to grasp its magnitude.

SWAN SONG Whitney Houston's triumphant live performance at the 2011 BET Celebration of Gospel.
SWAN SONG Whitney Houston’s triumphant live performance at the 2011 BET Celebration of Gospel.

If 2010 had been a year for Houston fans to forget, 2011 started with this knockout duet. Burrell turned instant backing vocalist, encouraging Houston to let the performance grow. Together, they drew-out the energy of the song and lifted the roof off.

At one point, Burrell allowed Houston to take centre stage in a thrilling moment akin to the best live performances of Mick Jagger.

That her voice was husky was of no concern. She was pitch perfect, and her heart seemed to be in right place.

If someone ever makes a movie of Houstonʼs life, this should be the penultimate scene. It was her true comeback moment, wrapped in love.

In the twelve months since, her fans have been hitting the internet with this performance as evidence to silence the doubters and the detractors.

And the moment seems to have worked for Whitney in equal measure. Recent interviews from the set of her return to the big screen (a remake of the 1976 movie Sparkle) reveal a healthier, more centred woman. Notably, her speaking voice has recovered.

Generous with journalists, Whitney shared the story of how this project was shelved in the wake of the sudden death of its intended star Aaliyah in 2001. A decade on, American Idol winner Jordin Sparks has been cast in the lead, with Houston taking the role of mother to three aspiring singers in 1960s Detroit.

The parallels with her own upbringing, in the era where the young Whitney met Elvis, watched from the sidelines as Dionne became a legend, and was introduced to Aretha at the peak of her career, are obvious.

An upcoming documentary about Houstonʼs family and their musical roots will probably go a long way to cementing her links to Dionne Warwick, and possibly allow her reinvention to come full circle.

For Houstonʼs fans, there is plenty of new stuff on its way.

Sparkle is set for an August 2012 release. A sequel to Waiting to Exhale is also in the pipeline, penned by African-American author Terry McMillan, whom Houston admits has gently coaxed her into reprising her role as the lovelorn Savannah.

With Clive Davis on board for both projects, the soundtracks are likely to include new recordings from Houston.

PLUCK COVER copyHouston described her comeback in 2009 as “more of a come through”, and itʼs probably only fair to give her the last word. Ten years since she hoarsely told Diane Sawyer that sheʼd like to have retired within a decade, Whitneyʼs still here, and if you cut her a bit of slack, sheʼs in fine voice.

This article was written a week before Whitney Houston died.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.

 

M*A*S*H forever

SERVING OF M*A*S*H The cast of the long-running TV sitcom during its 8th season.

A Writer’s first lesson in comic timing.

WHILST participating in a television interview, Cate Blanchett apologised for answering a question about acting using an American accent, explaining that to her, ‘American English’ is the language of comedy, after years of watching M*A*S*H.

Being of exactly the same generation, I can only agree with her.

This long running sitcom, set in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War of the 1950s, was my very first ‘adult’ experience of television.

As the child of a nurse, it was considered appropriate viewing for my first years of staying up late.

“It’s a well-known maxim that all great comedy springs from the worst situations of human deprivation.”

The fun-filled yet desperate world the characters inhabited worked its way into the very fabric of my writer’s brain, just as it was in the process of forming.

When I am writing comedy, all the classic scenarios of M*A*S*H spring to mind, because between 1972 and 1983 the writers explored every comic angle they could think of. Thanks to syndication, the series has been playing across the world’s television screens for four times longer than it aired originally, and counting.

The secret of the comedy lay not in what was overtly funny, but rather in what was deadly serious about life for Americans stuck in Korea patching-up the wounded.

It’s a well-known maxim that all great comedy springs from the worst situations of human deprivation. Pathos tempers farce. Sadness frames wit. Laughing in the face of death is always more three-dimensional than laughing or crying alone. The two states are very close in the human experience.

M*A*S*H capitalised on those extremes, from the original book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by ‘Richard Hooker’ (a pseudonym for Dr. H. Richard Hornberger and W.C. Heinz), where the basics of the show’s characters were created, to Robert Altman’s 1970 satirical black comedy feature film M*A*S*H and the series it inspired.

But the TV series had the time and the following to explore the dynamic to its extremes, and evolved from slapstick (think ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan and Frank Burns cavorting, as though no-one knew they were having an affair), to a kind of black comedy that was borderline drama by the time the show took its final curtain call in the feature-length series finale Goodbye, Farewell and Amen (1983).

For me, the array of three-dimensional male characters who joked, sported, laughed, cried, cross-dressed and generally expressed themselves in ways that it was rare to see men behave in the ‘real world’, were beautifully countepointed by one of my all-time acting heroes – Loretta Swit.

MAJOR HERO Loretta Swit, who played Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan for the entire run of M*A*S*H.

Stunning, prickly, sympathetic, quick-witted, great at her nursing job, devoted to the army and her country, yet willing to take emotional risks at the drop of a hat, how could you not love Margaret Houlihan, the winning smile that lit up the khaki cloud of Korea?

Swit’s work as Major Houlihan ranks amongst the best-drawn television performances ever, but she had her work cut out for her. Alan Alda (who is the only actor to perform in more M*A*S*H episodes than Swit, as Captain ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce), paid tribute to her achievement in transforming the ‘sex bomb’ tag that the role was originally drawn with, by turning ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan of 1972 into simply, ‘Margaret’, by the show’s end in 1983.

Interestingly, this change coincided with the women’s liberation movement, and remains one of Pop Culture’s best examples of the metamorphosis of a stereotype.

Apart from being the best education in comic timing I can think of, the series is also a great example of time economy in a script. Next time you watch an episode, notice how the half-hour format restricts the use of too much foreshadowing and requires simple, fast set-ups to every laugh.

If you’re re-writing a script and you need to touch-base with how it should be done, whether it’s a comedy or a drama, watch an episode of M*A*S*H.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.