Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Small Screens


Not the Boy Next Door

Reconsidering Television in the Musical Miniseries


Music-focused television has continued to be popular in Australia despite international trends. While MTV moved on to reality programming years ago, we’ve maintained our love of music videos via Rage and SBS Pop Asia, as well as developing our own forms like RocKwiz, now ten years on and counting. Documentary and music was also tackled with Blood and Thunder – the story of Alberts music. 2015 saw the first official Australian entry in Eurovision, an experiment deemed so successful that we’ve been invited back again in 2016. But the major music-TV event of the year was Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door, produced by Shine Australia, the makers of the ratings-winning musical miniseries INXS: Never Tear Us Apart. Revisiting Peter Allen’s life was the aim of the program, but, interestingly, nostalgia for that life was induced in part through a featuring of iconic moments of Australian music television.

The morning after the first episode of Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door aired I rang Dad to ask if he’d watched it. “Yeah, some of it, but I thought it was a bit tacky … There was too much emphasis on sex”, Dad said. Dad wasn’t disapproving of a particular type of sex; he knew Peter had male and female partners, and that just was what it was. Dad’s disapproval was more with the ratio of music-to-sex featured in the episode. Peter Allen was often described as a ‘flamboyant’ artist – literally, this was a reference to his energetic and sometimes acrobatic performance style that often involved dancing on top of his piano. But, of course, ‘flamboyant’ was also a euphemism for Allen’s sexuality. Allen’s personal life remained mostly personal, and save for his much-publicised marriage to Liza Minnelli, he rarely discussed it in the press. Since his death much has been made of Allen’s relationships with men. Dramatisations like the musical The Boy From Oz have implied that Allen’s relationships with women, and particularly his marriage to Minnelli, were just a preview to the main (homosexual) loves of his life. However, to suggest that Allen wore sex on his loud Hawaiian shirtsleeve in the same way Michael Hutchence wore it in his tight leather pants simply isn’t true. Allen’s personality was the greatest source of his music’s appeal, and the genuineness of his relationships was, at the end of the day, not really any of his audiences’ business. Allen was not a sexy star in the same way a rock star of today is – his appeal was in the self-deprecating and softly risqué humour that was part of his musical performance. He presented himself this way mostly because of his genre pedigree, growing up on a cabaret and vaudeville tradition and eventually drawing these styles into mainstream pop.

My dad’s point about wanting a musical miniseries to be actually about the music is a valid one, and thankfully, by the second episode the producers agreed too. In the end Dad just wanted more about Allen’s actual music – it was almost as if he didn’t think the rest should be his business, or that of a Sunday night prime time audience. Not the Boy Next Door was based on the account of Peter Allen’s life presented by biographer Stephen Maclean in the mid-1990s. It’s the same source material that informed the Australian and then Broad way musical The Boy From Oz, but the television miniseries used music in a markedly different way to the stage production. The stage show worked as a jukebox musical, that is, a narrative built out of the lyrics of a central musician’s most famous works. Often there’s artistic licence taken with building this narrative. A famous example is Mamma Mia, which created a story that was completely apart from the Swedish foursome that provided the soundtrack. By the time Peter Allen made it to Broadway via Hugh Jackman, the story of a small-town Australian boy made good had been much exaggerated and smoothed over, with perhaps his best ever song, ‘Tenterfield Saddler’, left out because of fears that an American audience would not be interested in a small town and craftsman in outback Australia. When Not the Boy Next Door told the story of Peter Allen on television, it did use music, but in a different way. The aim was not to make him and his context larger than life, but rather to make a faithful and thoughtful recreation of key points in his musical history.

The Music Television Series’ Use of Music

Not the Boy Next Door began by establishing Allen as a young outcast, then a young lover and rogue. Thankfully it ultimately turned away from personal dramatisation to focus on portraying him as a developing artist and gifted songwriter. It featured a suite of the best of Allen’s original songs as well as iconic songs of the period, with only a very small amount of non-diegetic sound in the whole series. Interestingly, the musical performances of the actors portraying Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli were dubbed, with specialist vocalists performing for each singer as actors mimed along. It was a choice that created a strange dynamic – and an interesting contrast given that the actors playing young and older Peter Allen were allowed to do all their own vocal work. Somehow the character of Allen appeared more complete this way – while the detached vocals of Minnelli and Garland left the audience feeling slightly distant from them.

The first time we see the young Peter singing, he appears live in the local pub in Armidale. Ky Baldwin, who plays Allen as a child, both sings and acts the character, and he looks like a tiny figure behind a piano, wearing white adult-sized cricket boots to complete his Jerry Lee Lewis-like stage act. This draws the audience into the musical performance, and the young actor’s vocal tone is refined as he enunciates the consonants on rock lyrics of the time like ‘See You Later Alligator’ and ‘Awop-bop-a-loo-mop awop bam boom’. The performance conveys the young Allen’s ambition, and perhaps even his awareness that he needs to “fake it till he makes it”.

Later in the episode the young actor sings a song that was actually written by the adult Allen, ‘Tenterfield Saddler’. Peter Allen wrote the song when he was 26 on a return trip to Australia from the US, and ‘Saddler’ was the true story of his father and grandfather. In the miniseries the song is sung by the child actor Baldwin, embodying the memory of the older Allen captured in the hit single. The scene becomes a duet with Joel Jackson (the actor who plays the adult Allen), who starts to sing as well, making the song a bridge for a ‘then and now’ telling of the rest of the Peter Allen musical story. It’s a sweet moment with just enough poetic licence, allowing fans of the song to enjoy its performance, and those interested in the drama to see the young child’s journey into adulthood.

Female musicians feature in Not the Boy Next Door in a different way to the male lead character. Judy Garland (Sigrid Thornton) and Liza Minnelli (Sara West) were important professional and personal figures in Allen’s life, and the miniseries tries to show both of these relationships on and off stage. When Allen and Garland first meet, Allen is performing in Hong Kong and gets wind that Garland is in the audience. He concludes his show with a solo piano version of ‘Over the Rainbow’ as a tribute to her. We see him talk to the audience before the performance, introducing her and telling them (and her) of his genuine fandom, but she soon takes the introduction as a provocation to take over the set and perform ‘Rainbow’ herself. She takes the stage and the microphone, and the voice that is heard is a flawless impersonation of Garland. However, there is a mismatch between the sound and image, and it’s pretty clear that the voice is dubbed rather than the actor, Thornton, singing. The vocalist, Melanie Parry, does a faithful impersonation of the real Judy, but as a piece of music television it seems disjointed. We go from a type of artist’s impression of the past to an attempt to Frankenstein together Garland as a character. Parry’s very produced vocals and Thornton’s less exaggerated images don’t quite fit together. Thornton’s adaptation of Garland’s mannerisms and her development of the complexity of her character are dropped as she ascends into her swan song.

In contrast, when Jackson sings the opening lines of ‘Over the Rainbow’ as Allen, his voice is clear and well-pitched, particularly over the notorious octave jump that opens the tune. But he also sounds clearly nervous, timid. Jackson’s voice shakes in a way that develops the story and character beautifully – we see him as a nervous looking Allen singing in front of his icon, Garland, and we also hear that uncertainty in his voice. Jackson’s screen performance is affecting because it’s not the same as Allen, even though clearly inspired by his style. His version of Allen is allowed to be an interpretation complete with new additions, while Thornton’s Garland remains musically a strict imitation of the iconic Hollywood star.

A similar affect is created with the vocal dub over Sara West’s depiction of Liza Minnelli. The scene begins with a young Minnelli due to appear at the London Palladium with a now relatively old and relatively sick Judy. Allen has just met Minnelli at this point (even though Garland has tried to set them up) and at first she is dismissive. She finally confides in him that she’s terribly nervous about the performance, and he responds by saying, simply, “Don’t worry, most of the audience will just be looking at your Mum”. It’s a perfect comment to break the tension and spark the kinship between Minnelli and Allen. However, when vocalist Angela Toohey sings ‘The Gypsy in My Soul’, while actor West mimes, it’s a blistering sound but a break from the vulnerable version of Minnelli that West had been building visually. Just a few seconds before we had seen West play Liza as a young girl finding her feet before becoming the famous daughter / future wife / socialite, but when Toohey starts to sing all of sudden it seems that Minnelli has grown up and matured too quickly. Interestingly, the archival television footage of the actual London performance reveals that the real Minnelli was much more vocally timid than Not the Boy Next Door allows, so it’s a shame that the development wasn’t allowed to happen here as well. Perhaps it was the intention of the music television producers to depict Minnelli (and Garland) as a figure always detached from herself in public.

The Music Television Series’ Use of Television

Not the Boy Next Door shows that television, as well as music, played an important role in Peter Allen’s life. Allen rose to fame in a preinternet era where ‘big breaks’ couldn’t be gained by social media ‘likes’ or viral video campaigns; television performances brought him and his music to mass audiences. During the miniseries we see how the big steps in his career were taken with television, with several key performances and their contexts recreated to serve the musical narrative. This use of music television nostalgia within the music miniseries is an interesting approach, and was used again in the Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum miniseries, Molly (Seven, 2016).

The first music and television moment that is recreated in Not The Boy Next Door appears early in the series as young Peter Woolnough travels from Armidale to Sydney to audition for Australia’s Amateur Hour. It was his first taste of possible broadcast success, and first showbiz rejection. The program, which had begun as a radio talent quest in the 1940s, made it briefly to television in 1957–58, and is used in the story as a way to distract the young boy: Peter’s mother lets him audition as a divert from his father’s bad behaviour. The audition itself shows the young boy giving his best hip-shaking performance of ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, interspersed with his own fantasy reaction of the judges’ gushing praise. The actual response is far less positive, with the panel advising, “Sorry, son, but we don’t think you’re ready for Australia’s Amateur Hour”. The sequence is a bit corny, but as part of the story it sets up the important place that broadcasting would hold in Allen’s career.

Around the same time we also see shots of the young Allen watching television on the lounge with his mum, Marion (Rebecca Gibney). Chad Morgan’s ‘Sheik from Scrubby Creek’ is playing and the two laugh at its silliness – the exchange serving to deliberately emphasise the bond between the two characters and offer a nod towards Allen’s identity as a fan as well as an artist. The song, released in 1952, had been in circulation for a few years before television started in Australia. While this sequence is something of a stretch in terms of the historical timeline, what’s interesting is how television’s influence on the young boy is depicted. Morgan’s novelty song and its unusual delivery show Allen’s love of humour in performance.

Another music television event recreated in Not the Boy Next Door was Allen’s first appearance on Bandstand with Brian Henderson. We first see him developing The Allen Brothers act in preparation for the television show appearance, an act that was constructed for broadcast originally. The idea was to create a duo with a clean cut image and the idea of the ‘brothers’ was a fiction, but it worked well. Singer Chris Bell (Rob Mills) was paired with Allen by a manager who thought selling a ‘family connection’ would gain attention, while also allowing the two singers to develop. This piece in Peter Allen’s biography is realised in the television miniseries as a montage, showing Allen and Bell establishing The Allen Brothers’ look and sound while practising synchronised dance moves and harmonies. The sequences are brought together with sound and images of them singing the song ‘Up, Up and Away’, with the lyric used as a metaphor for a career on the rise. However, it’s a metaphor that has a few historical inconsistencies, with the most obvious being that the song (which was performed by The Allen Brothers at some point) was released in 1967 while the audition itself would have taken place at least five years earlier.

Nonetheless the rehearsal montage shows Peter Allen becoming one of the Allen Brothers, as well as his first real chance to appeal directly to television via a discussion with Bandstand host Brian Henderson (Scott Sheridan). Later we see Henderson introducing Allen to Judy Stone (Kate Ryerson), Col Joye (William Wensley), Patsy Ann Noble (Chelsea Brown) and a very young Olivia Newton-John (Christie Whelan). The latter is particularly import ant, as Newton-John was the other prominent Australian of the era to really ‘break’ in the US. This section of the series breaks into another montage that features a series of photo shoots for the young musicians that, curiously, is tied together with a recording of Johnny O’Keefe’s ‘Wild One’. Given that O’Keefe was, by this stage, the host on rival music television programs like Six O’Clock Rock and The Johnny O’Keefe Show, the choice is strange (as is the absence of O’Keefe as a character himself – an important figure in Allen’s life and development).

The Allen Brothers would again appear on Bandstand some years later after Peter and Liza married. The miniseries recreates an iconic music segment from the show that starts with Liza singing ‘Everybody Loves My Baby’. We see The Allen Brothers and Brian Henderson talking backstage before the segment starts, then Minnelli enters the frame and takes over singing, to later be joined by Peter, then Chris. The original clip shows the three of them performing in black suits and smart ties, with Liza something of a novel guest for the brothers at home on the local music show. The miniseries draws this out more by cutting away from the show itself to reveal Allen’s family watching at home in the lounge room, then cutting away from the shot as the song continues to play over a montage of Allen buying the newspaper the next day. As Liza’s voice continues “everybody loves my baby … nobody but me” we see a headline in the paper that applauds Minnelli’s performances, and doesn’t mention Allen at all. Given that this original Bandstand clip has since been recirculated and re-released on DVD and YouTube, it makes sense that the producers would use it as part of their research for the story, but also reference it for a contemporary audience still interested in the time. Like recreating The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, this was a key part of the story.

From here on in the series seems to show Allen returning home to Australia always for a local television appearance. Given that by then Allen’s schedule would likely have allowed little opportunity for extensive live touring, even then a free-to-air television appearance would still have reached a much wider audience than concerts ever could have. Firstly we see Allen back after his break with Liza, now long haired and vising Australia as part of a reunion of the Bandstand family. Allen and his mother are seen watching the pre-recorded show on television, initially as Allen appears at the piano singing his new song ‘Dixie’. Henderson enters and says to Allen “thanks for coming back for the Bandstand reunion”, a time marker to the audience watching in 2015 and a reminder that Allen’s time as a young performer (and Bandstand ’s time as a fore runner) has moved on. The two do a brief interview, where on the 1970s Bandstand screen Allen tells Henderson that “America has been going great”, while the shot then cuts back to Allen on the lounge with his Mum, Marion, at home saying, almost immediately instead, “it’s terrible”. On screen Allen says “sales are going great” while on the lounge he says “I’ve sold two records”, a remark his mother scolds him for, particularly for having “lied on national TV”. The shot of Allen on screen is shown in sepia tone and framed by the old screen’s wooden top and large in built speakers, again showing the music television performance as something that was consumed domestically and with relative informality. Quickly, Allen replies, “I know, but if you’re going to lie, lie big”, a comment that sees both laugh at themselves, but perhaps also at the whole music television circus of the time.

Immediately following this musical performance sequence and lounge room commentary the shot returns back to the studio on television and Henderson says “Pete, you remember Olivia from the old days?” Here Newton-John joins Allen and Henderson on the screen, met by rousing applause from the studio audience. She looks to him and says “When are you going to write me a song, Peter?”, then to the audience she says “he writes the most beautiful songs, don’t you think?” It’s a comment met with more applause from the studio audience, and at home Marion mocks, “Ooh, now the pressure’s on!” Although this meeting isn’t a piece of television history that is still readily available (indeed, this appears to have been mostly fictionalised), it sets up a stepping stone in Newton-John’s career, as her international hit ‘I Honestly Love You’ was co-written by Allen and Jeff Barry.

The next music television appearance within the miniseries is Allen again returning home to Australia from overseas, again after time has passed and musical tastes seem to have changed. Here we see one of Allen’s most famous appearances on rock and pop music television, Countdown, also faithfully recreated. The appearance was originally staged following another return trip from the States, with Allen now his own star rather than part of a bogus brothers’ act or as Mr Minnelli. The clip shows Allen with another ‘flamboyant’ music figure, Molly Meldrum (Andy Ryan), meeting on screen just after he’s arrived home and finished a press tour and shoot for his new album. Again, this appearance on television is framed in the miniseries by the home television set. We see the recreation of the Countdown moment shown as if it’s on the old TV set, watched by Marion and Allen’s sister Lynn (Elise McCann) sitting at home. They watch as Meldrum begins, all large hat and hand gestures speaking down the barrel of the camera. “His name is Peter Allen, you mustn’t miss him”, Meldrum says with typical mumbling enthusiasm, with the show’s name glittering in gold writing behind Allen and Meldrum sitting on a studio couch. Allen plays with him, saying, “Don’t stop Molly, I could listen to you all day”, a quip that draws laughter from those in the studio and his family at home. Meldrum asks what Allen will play and he continues to be flippant, saying, “Oh, something quite conservative. You all [in the studio] look like a classical music crowd so maybe some Beethoven”. With this Marion chimes in “God love you Peter Woolnough”, while Lynn adds “He hasn’t changed one bit, has he?” From here the shot is taken over as we see Peter’s point of view from onstage in the television studio, launching into ‘I Go to Rio’ for the Countdown crowd. This is the first time there’s obvious dubbing for the musical performance (although the original Countdown piece was most likely dubbed by Allen himself, too). Unlike the pieces showing Garland and Minnelli, this deliberately artificial musical moment fits somehow – Allen is shown to be in control of the artifice, with his family dancing along in the lounge room at home.

Coda – Bringing Home the Tenterfield Saddler

In between the recreated pieces of Peter Allen’s musical life in The Boy From Oz, there are touching imaginings of his writing processes for his two sentimental love letters, ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ and ‘I Still Call Australia Home’. The first we see being written mostly in one sitting after Allen finds a newspaper obit written just after his grand father passes – he scribbles on paper and tinkers at the small family upright piano until he gets the family story right. Marion asks him to “change the names, Pete”, but he refuses, “No, Mum, it wouldn’t be the same”. Unlike the pieces of his musical life that were on screen at the time of his death (and have since been uploaded and re forwarded on YouTube and DVD), this is an intimate moment made more poignant by the dramatisation of the first part of the story earlier in the series. As with the other Jackson and Allen vocal performances, the vocal tone and timbre are similar, but not the same as the original, instead slightly syncopated. As the frame moves to a New York bar an image of Minnelli appears with the line “The grandson of George has been all around the world … he changed his last name and married a girl with an interesting face”.

Throughout the miniseries the lyrics and melody of ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ are used to illuminate various moments of Allen’s life. We hear him play something that sounds like a music box version of the tune just after he marries Liza, then again later to an approving ghostly Judy who gives him encouragement to continue to write. Finally, ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ is shown as Allen’s last performance, singing in Sydney while sick but still in the infamous sequined Australian flag shirt that every Allen impersonator and actor since has also worn.

The musical moments in the miniseries are the ones that really strike. Peter Allen was Not The Boy Next Door; he was so much more beautiful than that.

Small Screens

   by Michelle Arrow, Jeannine Baker and Clare Monagle