Bee and Bill: A Sydney Story
In the ’50s, an eccentric called Bee Miles, given any opportunity, would recite Shakespeare on Sydney’s streets. In a new film, she gets the limelight she apparently craved. Margaret Smith reports.
Lilian Singer was born in the head of Kate Grenville in the early 1980s. Greenville had been living in America for seven years and had just written her novel Dreamhouse, with its bleak story line. “I had a desperate wish to write about a character I liked, and suddenly thought of Bee Miles,” says Grenville at her home in Birchgrove. She called her character Lilian. “When I first started writing about her, I found I could write about certain elements of myself I also felt I had stumbled on a very exciting story.” Bee Miles was a notorious Sydney eccentric in the 50s and 60s, who recited Shakespeare anywhere on streets where she had an audience. She had been locked up in the “loony bin” for years by her family, and was released into a city she hardly knew. “She came from a privileged background, but when she was finally released she chose to become a bag lady”, Greenville adds. Bee was also known for her bravado in demanding free taxi rides and generally giving the drivers all the cheek she could muster.
So with Bee Miles in her head, Grenville set about creating the character of Lilian Singer, born in the year of Federation to a wealthy family who lived in a mansion on the shores of Sydney Harbour. The novel traces almost 60 years of Lilian’s life. “It was hard to write, but so exciting and exhilarating,” the author says. “I had no idea of what would happen next. For instance, I didn’t know that abuse would occur in the family.” In Lilian’s Story the father comes home each day from his mysterious job in the city to tyrannise his family. As Grenville writes in her novel. “Albion was a man of moustaches and of shiny boots that squeaked when he walked.” In the bedroom upstairs Lilian hears him telling her mother. “don’t move.” While he’s away in the city, his wife tries to amuse herself by timing the ferries she can see from their balcony. It’s her way of coping with her impossible marriage, but it doesn’t include protecting the children. Instead, she becomes a recluse and an invalid. Grenville says it was a common pattern in earlier decades, because “once women got sick they had a certain amount of freedom, in a funny kind of way. As the mother declines, Lilian and her brother, John, are left more and more at the mercy of their father. But Albion is caught in his own strange contradiction between his sexual urges and his notions of male chivalry. Cruelly, he demands of his daughter, “How are your beaux. Lilian?… when will they start beating a path to the door?” Then when a beau emerges, Albion does everything in his power to deter him, and cells his daughter mad.
Grenville stresses that Albion lives in his own prison. He was a man who took at face value some very misguided views of masculinity.” She agrees that her novel about victims of child abuse is even more topical now with all the recent revelations from the police royal commission. “… Novelists are often ahead of public opinion, and have a sense of where things are going. We’re sort of cultural receptors – we’re picking up something without being aware of it.” So when the producer, Marian MacCowan, first approached Grenville for the film rights, she signed on the dotted line. “I was really interested in what they would come up with. My novel is a very interior story and microcosmic things are viewed through Lilian’s sensibility. I wondered how a film would treat this,” she says. MacCiowan wasn’t deterred. “What is so unusual about the book is that it is written in a series of small chapters which are, in effect, like scenes. It is very evocatively written”, she says, adding that it is also a story of “triumph”. Screenwriter Steve Wright was brought on hoard, and over several years eight drafts of the film were written. “We have interpreted the book, but there ar a number of different films you could have made from Lilian’s Story,” he says. He says the early drafts were very faithful to the book, and that he loves the novel. “I was never bored by it. Everytime I went back, I found things in it I hadn’t seen before. It was like a giant memory or dream you constantly return to and lard more repelled by.” Initially, the screenplay told the story in a linear way – from childhood, to young womanhood, to Lilian’s later years. Wright says the childhood sections of the novel were his favourite, but they had to be sacrificed when Ruth Cracknell expressed interest in the part. “It placed a different emphasis on the way you told the story?
Cracknell and co-producer Mike Wilcox actually encountered Bee Miles when they were younger, and this also influenced how they saw the character of Lilian. Wilcox’s surreal meeting on a Sydney bus became part of the screenplay. Cracknell says the older Lilian does whatever she wants: “She is a character who ultimately lives the way she really wants to live. She is very courageous”. To extend her character, Cracknell and Wright spent hours leafing through William Shakespeare’s plays, because “William was Lilian’s special friend”. They tried to find the most appropriate lines that Lilian could recite on the pavements. “The Shakespeare Lilian quotes is supposed to represent her inner life m the film,” Wright explains. “We researched (the lines), Ruth started to get new perspectives into Lilian’s character. Wright also realised that The Tempest might have been an influence on Greenville’s novel: “The father/daughter relationship is not malignant in The Tempest, but it is a controlling one. And the father is tying to enact some sort of strange revenge on his enemies. In Lilian’s Story the young Lilian is a free spirit, robbed of her potential by a family of eccentrics and an abusive father. But she still becomes an extraordinary person.”
Grenville reveals that yes The Tempest is a favourite of hers. She adds that Lilian’s time in the mental hospital allows her to break from her father. “and she decides to be who she it”. Later, when she is arrested and jailed for a trivial offence, she makes a promise to herself, never to he humble again. “That’s why Lilian makes a nuisance of herself on the streets of Sydney. She wants to he remembered, to be immortal,” Grenville says. When Polish director Jerzy Domaradzki was attached to the project, he asked that Lilian’s Story be set in the present, so that “the flashbacks would help us understand her motivation, and why she has become what she has now”. The flashbacks also allowed the screenwriter a lot more freedom. The fairytale quality of the novel had always attracted Wright. He says Lilian’s journey is a mythic one and “she has to bank all kinds of demons, the largest of which is her father”. The casting of Barry Otto, as both Albion and his insipid son John was – in Greenville’s and Wright’s view – inspired. “It was a risky decision,” Wright admits, “and it’s hard for some people to see on the screen that they are in fact played by the same actor.” Grenville was pleasantly astounded by the choice. “To watch Barry Otto play Albion, and then shrivel down again to play his son was almost like magic. His face swells out when he’s Albion, and then shrinks when he’s John,” she says. Wright also believes that the casting of Toni Collette as the young Lilian was a coup. “You do believe she’s the young Ruth Cracknell, and her performance is incredibly brave. It was a very difficult part – especially the places she had to find in herself to elicit that kind of emotion”. The choice of Domaradaki and fellow-Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (Three Colours Blue, The Double Lift of Veronique) was also a plus for Grenville because they brought an outsider’s view to the story, and to Sydney. In the film Sydney has become a piece of art It was there all the time, but we don’t see our city that way.
Lilian’s Story opens in Sydney on May 9.