Newspapers, the arts and looking for a guy named Bjorn…

RON Banks switched from a career as a teacher to journalism and a 15-year stint as arts editor of The West Australian.

It was a role which saw him travel the world, meet many entertainers, singers, actors and artists and bring their stories and theatre reviews to life, sometimes working in difficult conditions.

In his new book, Other Times, Life, Journalism and the Arts, Banks gives a fascinating account of his early days at The West Australian with its bakelite phones, typewriters on trolleys which involved a daily tussle for use with Daily News journalists across the way, copy sandwiches (paper with carbon inserts on which journalists wrote their stories) and a smoke-filled rather male-dominated newsroom with the newspaper produced in a hot-metal factory below.

But somehow amid all the noise and activity, a newspaper came out just as smoothly in the days before electronic media, mobile phones and the like.

Banks worked at The West Australian from 1978 to 2005, firstly as a general reporter and then in the arts.

In later years he has been a contributor and occasional travel writer.

The book touches on the old newsroom of yesteryear and contains a selections of Banks’ interviews and reviews of various entertainers who came to Perth in the 1990s.

Banks revels in his role as arts editor and is frank in his self-assessment: “Someone once asked me what qualified me to be a theatre critic, Nothing I replied. I had never appeared in a play, directed a play, written a play or even produced one.”

Perhaps it is this fresh approach that saw Banks and his friendly persona become so highly regarded in the Perth arts world, starting with a relatively small local arts scene in an isolated city to the vibrant world it is today.

Perth has produced some top quality artists who have made their mark nationally and overseas and the Perth International Arts Festival is world renown.

“Well, I’m not sure I was ever born to be a critic; rather I fell into it after there was a vacancy for someone who could turn out a few paragraphs on the latest play to reach Perth stages,” he says.

He took on the mantle as arts editor with gusto, travelling to many cities including Singapore where he wrote about joining the hundreds of extras recruited there for the operatic spectacle of Verdi’s Aida (more nerve-wracking than writing a review)  to riding across London in a taxi with legendary musician Sir Yehudi Menuhin for an interview with the great man (the only time Menuhin had) to happening on a performance by the elusive film maker Woody Allen playing clarinet in a New Orleans-style band in Manhattan.

In 2002 Banks was asked to South Africa to see at first hand the theatre origins of the show Umoja, learning something of the shanty-town culture that inspired the show.

He met Mokize Mongezi who had been living under a freeway flyover near central Johannesburg until he auditioned and was accepted for the show.

He established a rapport with long-serving Festival of Perth director David Blenkinsop and his successor Sean Doran and saw the festival evolve into the international success it is today.

He saw a young WA Academy of Performing Arts graduate Hugh Jackman perform in the final-year student production of the farce Thark, playing the lead character, sensing Jackman “was on the verge of a promising global career, firstly in television, then in music theatre and then in Hollywood films.”

He interviews and reviews the shows of such greats as Barry Humphries, Billy Connolly, Judith Durham, Greta Scacchi, Stephane Grappelli and Victor Borge, the two latter men then quite old but still touring.

He meets pianist David Helfgott who talks about his mental collapse and triumphant return to the stage, later made into the film Shine.

There is the infamous Paul McCartney review which the author says was caused by a sub-editor.

“A throwaway line about the performance not being particularly satisfying was elevated to the top of the story, giving the whole review a slant that I had not really intended.”

Banks becomes Public Enemy Number One but survives the brickbats to write another day.

He reviews many Leeuwin concerts with the annual event now an institution and writes of behind-the-scenes demanding diva Diana Ross who went on to delight the crowd.

His most difficult subject? Dame Maggie Smith who loathed being interviewed and made it difficult.

He writes of Mamma Mia! and a resurgence of interest in the work of Swedish pop group Abba, chasing former Abba member Bjorn Ulvaus by phone across several continents until the Australian publicist in desperation leaves Banks’ home phone number with him.

“Fortunately I was at home after work hours when he rang, and my 17-year-old son picked up the phone. ‘Dad, there’s some guy called Bjorn who wants to talk to you,’ he said handing the phone over.

Later I told James that the caller had been a member of Abba, thinking he might be impressed.

“So, he said, shrugging his shoulders, obviously unimpressed. Oh, yeah, Abba, I think I have heard of them.”

Banks says he wrote the book because he wanted to tell the story of the days when The West Australian was the only major news outlet in town.

He laments the closure of Effie Crump Theatre, the Hole in the Wall and old Playhouse but welcomes the fact big-name shows such as Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables now visit Perth.

It’s a fascinating, entertaining read of a great career.

Other Times, Life, Journalism and the Arts (Vivid Publishing) sells for $25 from the Lane Bookshop in Claremont or $30 posted.

Contact Ron Banks on

(ed note: Josephine Allison worked for Ron Banks as an occasional arts writer.)