Bad Old Days
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
From his chambers opposite Hyde Park in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, Charles Waterstreet – author, barrister, film-maker and one-time man-about-town – does not have a view to speak of. But he does have an attractive young assistant, Becky, whose presence suits Charles Waterstreet, a man who is nothing if not an adolescent boy raging against an old man’s lot. “I get these fan letters,” he says, “but they’re always from people with names like Esmae, Edna and Violet. In my mind’s eye, I see myself appealing more to Nick Cave groupies – twenty-somethings with names like Kylie and Susie. It’s very distressing. Because, in my head, I’m still 20. Baby boomers are like that. We feel we’re young-minded and still wonderful lovers but, in reality, we’re all dementia patients but for five or six years.”
Born to pub owners in the southern NSW town of Albury in 1950, Waterstreet has produced two films and published two memoirs. Along the way, he notoriously drank, caroused and womanised, though he gave up the booze in 1996. “I didn’t realise there was a limit,” he says. “Nobody told me that you only get to drink a certain allotment of alcohol in your life, and by the time I was about 40 I found that I’d drunk it all. I didn’t really realise I had a problem until one night I went to dinner with Barry Humphries and was drinking Flaming Sambucas. When I woke up in the morning my lips were all burned, because I’d been drinking them before blowing them out. It took me ten years after that to properly stop.”
Today, Waterstreet looks as I imagine Michael Hutchence may have done had he survived to richer years, his handsome features scarred with erosion from so much ‘sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll’, his full head of hair shagging to the collar, as if to broadcast the news that Charles Waterstreet is not an old fart yet. He speaks with the slightest impediment – a barely perceptible Elmer Fudd – that seems a relic of a younger, wilder time, a whispered reminder of the boy still fuming inside the man.
Memory is a big issue for Waterstreet – in particular, its readiness to be hijacked by “quacks, psychologists, mediums, psychotherapists and various other bullshit artists” in the name of some lesser purpose. “What it comes down to is middle-aged people asking themselves ‘Why is my life fucked?’ and searching for a reason. So, conveniently, they remember that Daddy, Uncle Fester and Father O’Reilly were mean to them. Suddenly, it’s like: ‘That’s it! I was fine until then! If only Father O’Reilly hadn’t brushed my bosom as I was walking down the corridor, my life would have been entirely different. That must be why I love the liquor!’”
Perhaps Waterstreet prefers using TV as a more benign form of regression therapy. The new eight-part ABC TV drama Rake, which debuts on 4 November and is co-created by Waterstreet, director Peter Duncan, actor Richard Roxburgh and writer Andrew Knight, is fairly obviously a tongue-in-cheek purge of the contents of Waterstreet’s conscience. Though he claims the central character, barrister Cleaver Greene, is based upon “all the good bits of me and all the bad bits of someone else”, it is clear that Greene, as played by Roxburgh – complete with the ex-wife and son, the drinking, the gambling, the philandering, the shameless part-time tenancy of brothels and the relentless propulsion of financial distress – is vintage Charles Waterstreet.
And this is what makes Rake such compelling viewing; the fact that, for once on Australian TV, we have a hero who is not necessarily likeable – lovable, perhaps, but too much of smart-arse narcissist to be a regular on everyone’s Christmas-card list. Cleaver Greene is the type of man about whom friends profess their love not with a swoon, but with a smirk and a shake of the head. Charles Waterstreet, a man once described by actress Rachel Ward as “sometimes charming, sometimes exasperating … one of my dearest friends”, is perhaps more Cleaver Greene than even Waterstreet himself is able to admit, or remember. Or maybe he’s using Cleaver Greene to relive the bad old days – not so as to do things right this time, but simply to do them again.
“I actually got the ultimate letter the other day from the Worldwide Dementia Club,” he says, “who were looking for someone to broadcast to dementia patients on FM radio around the world, and apparently I fit the profile of the sort of person they need.” In the corner of the room, Becky is laughing. Charlie shoots me the glance of the reluctantly superannuated, shakes his head and mutters: “Twagic.”