THE DISH (2000)
This movie provides a light-hearted look at Australia’s contribution to the July 20, 1969 moon landing. It contains some great soundtrack hits from the era as well as the services of Northern Ireland-born Sam Neill and New Zealander Roy Billing as Bob McIntyre, Mayor of Parkes. Many fans consider Neill to be a Kiwi also, but his family actually moved to New Zealand when he was seven. This picture also embraced the professional services of Patrick Warburton (David Puddy in Seinfeld (1995-8). He played Al Burnett, NASA’s representative at the Parkes dish.
The Dish tries hard to capture the naivety of the rural Australian community of Parkes, New South Wales, where the satellite dish was located (and still is to this day). Producers soon discovered that modern-day Parkes, unlike nearby Forbes, had lost its ‘sixties’ look, so Forbes ended up doubling for Parkes. Considerable license is taken with the truth here. For instance, the first eight minutes of pictures of the landing were transmitted, not by the Parkes dish at all, but by the far smaller dish at the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station. One can see a flicker on the screen when watching the original footage as they change receiving dishes.
The most disappointing aspect of The Dish is the rather lame attempt at humour allocated to the two young Australian scientists working under Cliff Buxton (Neill) at the Forbes dish. Tom Long’s character (Glenn) appears to have been lumbered with the worst of the writing and comes across as a totally stupid young man. Obviously, the aim had been to project him as super-naïve but it misfired woefully. Sadly, Tom was diagnosed with cancer of the blood and passed away in 2020 aged just fifty-one.
As Cliff explained in the film, Parkes technicians sometimes took rides on the dish as it was adjusted. The scene in which the crew were seen playing cricket on it, however, was entirely fictional. Russ ‘Mitch’ Mitchell (portrayed by Kevin Harrington here), was the name given to the real life Neil ‘Fox’ Mason. On the day of the historic landing Neil was unable to watch any of it ‘live’. He was far too busy keeping the windswept dish pointed at the moon.
The Australian Prime Minister at that time was former World War Two fighter pilot John Grey Gorton, depicted here by veteran Aussie Shakespearian actor Bille Brown. The screenplay happily gave a nod to Gorton’s drinking problem in one scene. Indeed, among the media, the ‘Gorton flu’ became an accepted euphemism for the Prime Minister having a hangover. Even though he was a member of the Senate, Gorton succeeded to the Prime Ministership in the wake of PM Harold Holt’s disappearance in the surf off Cheviot Beach in December 1967.
THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH & ESSEX (1939)
The relationship between Queen Elizabeth 1 and Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex may well have bordered on the incestuous. That is, if it was indeed ever consummated and there is no proof of that having ever taken place. His maternal great-grandmother, Mary Boleyn was Anne Boleyn’s sister. Anne, as we all know, was Elizabeth’s mother, making Devereaux a cousin of the Queen. There were even rumours that his grandmother, Catherine Cary, was Henry VIII’s illegitimate daughter. And it did not end there either. Robert’s mother was wed to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who happened to be the Queen’s most beloved courtier and rumoured to be her secret lover. Most historians are convinced, however, that Elizabeth and Essex were never lovers. Perhaps, the fact that the Queen was 63 in 1596 and Essex was only 31 at that time had something to do with it. She was reputed to be ‘The Virgin Queen’, never having taken a lover to her bed – and that includes Robert Dudley. So we are left to draw our own conclusions.
Bette Davis plays Elizabeth and she did not want Errol Flynn to play Essex. Why? Because she was sure he was incapable of speaking blank verse well. She wanted Laurence Olivier but Errol was given the nod and surprised most of his critics with a sterling performance. Years later, when Bette and Olivia De Havilland watched the film together, Davis conceded that Flynn had done well. Olivia, incidentally, played Lady Penelope in the film, a lady in waiting to the Queen who had a schoolgirl crush on Essex. In real life, however, Lady Penelope was Devereaux’ sister! In all, Errol and Olivia would make nine movies together for Warner Brothers.
Olivia De Havilland as Lady Penelope
Bette not only shaved two inches off her hairline at the forehead to play Elizabeth, she also had her eyebrows removed to make her appear older. They never grew back. She had to draw them in with an eyebrow pencil from then onwards. On the set she and Errol did not like each other. In a rehearsal scene where Elizabeth slaps Essex in front of the entire court, Bette belted Errol for real and sent him reeling. In his biography, he described how he had determined to belt her in return should she try the same thing in the real take. However, she effectively faked the hit that eventually made it into the finished film. If we can believe Sir John Neale’s biography of Elizabeth 1, the real monarch actually cuffed Essex’s ear during one of their meetings, whereupon he half drew his sword on her in response!
The movie does contain some basic, historical flaws. For example, on two separate occasions Essex compares Elizabeth to her father, Henry VIII, as if from personal acquaintance, yet that could not possibly be. Henry died in 1547 and Essex was not born until eighteen years later, in 1565. About twenty minutes into the movie, a duet is performed with a piano and a lute. It is 1596 and it will be more than a century until the piano is invented. Only the Harpsichord was in existence during Elizabeth’s reign.
The movie does contain a more serious flaw, however. For dramatic purposes the Queen visits Essex in the Tower and begs his forgiveness! Oh, dear. It would be reasonably safe to say that Queens do not beg anyone’s forgiveness. It simply isn’t in their DNA. And the real Essex did not defy her, either. Quite the contrary, in fact. He went to his execution crying, screaming and begging to be pardoned. Maybe, he had been informed beforehand that Elizabeth had issued orders that he be beheaded with a blunt axe. She wished him to feel the pain as he was decapitated! It took three strokes to remove his head and the wretched man was still alive after the first two!