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McKellar, John Alan (1930–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

Self-mockery has always been part of the Australian psyche, but John McKellar developed it into an art form. The title of McKellar's revue A Cup of Tea, A Bex and A Good Lie Down entered the vernacular, along with such titles as I Wouldn't Want to Live There and Is Australia Really Necessary?

Such satire became a glorious tradition, peaking perhaps with the Mavis Bramston Show of the 1960s, levelling at a lower altitude with today's Chaser's War on Everything. McKellar's musical revues from the 1950s to the 1970s also gave a start to or significantly helped the likes of Ruth Cracknell, Gordon Chater, Noel Brophy, Noel Ferrier, Reg Livermore and Jill Perryman.

John Alan McKellar was born in Orange on August 13, 1930, the son of a commercial traveller, Rupert McKellar, and Winifred (nee Lehman). He grew up in Waverley and went to school at St Charles College, then Christian Brothers, Waverley, with two neighbours, Jerry Donovan and Lance Mulcahy. McKellar attended Sydney Teacher's College while Donovan and Mulcahy were on the same campus at the University of Sydney. ''I used to muck around writing lyrics for university sketches with [the other two],'' McKellar said. With Mulcahy writing the music, they attracted the attention of an expatriate Scotsman, William Orr, who had been stage manager at the Old Vic Theatre Company in London.

His first professional revue, with Donovan and Mulcahy and linking with William Orr, was Metropolitan Merry-go-Round, followed by Maid in Egypt at the Metropolitan Church Hall in Castlereagh Street. Their revue, Top of the Bill, played at the Phillip Street Theatre from May to June 1954. After another revue, Hat Trick, the three went to Britain, where they wrote material for cabarets and sold sketches for revues. McKellar became the driving force behind most of the revues presented at Phillip Street. In 1956 it moved to Elizabeth Street and became the Phillip Theatre.

In 1964 McKellar went to the US with the specific aim of presenting a Broadway musical. He was spasmodically in America, living in New York and working at such regional centres as Baltimore and Buffalo. His 1965 production in Australia, A Cup of Tea, A Bex and A Good Lie Down, ran for a year at Phillip Theatre. McKellar was able to live on royalties from it and was now about the only Australian writer capable of making a full-time living from the Australian theatre.

McKellar did not touch television. ''A bit too ephemeral for me,'' he once said. But he did retain a stake in the advertising world. For the George Patterson agency, he was to produce the Clayton's advertising jingle: ''The drink you have when you're not having a drink.''

In 1967, McKellar had a flop, Hail Gloria Fitzpatrick. The next revue, I Wouldn't Want to Live There, starring Cracknell, Gloria Dawn and Lyle O'Hara, was a success. McKellar's production, Girls' Night Out, ran for nine months in the early 1980s starring Noel Ferrier, followed by Clap, also starring Ferrier.

McKellar could be quite raunchy, as with his line during one revue: ''Come on, show me your Ginger, Rogers, and I will flash my Fred Astaire''. He liked writing about women. ''They are not hiding something in a drawer or closet,'' he said. ''Most men are not upfront. I think a lot of women are upfront. A lot of the shows I've done, the women were very strong and they are terrific to write for.''

In 1982 a retrospective of his work, Four Lady Bowlers in a Golden Holden, directed by Richard Wherrett, was performed at Kinselas nightclub. The subtitle of the show was: ''McKellar at Kinselas, or, Bex Regurgitated, or A Show for the Hole Family, incorporating an Oztalgic Look at Phillip Street Revues''. In 1983 McKellar and Mulcahy produced Keystone, a musical based on Mack Sennett and his silent screen stars, which was performed off-Broadway.

McKellar came out of retirement to write Virtual unReality, produced in 1996, a sharp satire about contemporary Sydney. Ten years later, he wrote a revue, The Attack of the Granny Boomers, as part of a campaign by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing.

John McKellar is survived by his sister Margaret, brother Clive, sister-in-law Robina, four nieces and two nephews.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 September 2010

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'McKellar, John Alan (1930–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 13 August 2020.

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