“Where did Sandman go and how he was redeemed through birdwatching”
The heading is Steve Abbott’s own description of his one and a half-man show coming to Canberra
at the end of this month (May 2016).
Most people know Steve as The Sandman, the slow speaking self-obsessed gloomy man-child who
hogged a fair bit of Australian comedy in the ‘90s and noughties. Sandman was Steve’s best known persona but he also managed, among other things, to film a documentary about travelling Russia with his mother, hosted an SBS variety show, was a core member
of The Castanet Club (see below) and appeared as a lunatic asylum inmate in the 1988 film Young Einstein. Obviously a career to recover from. So it was timely that in 2009, while walking his dog along the cliffs at Clovelly “. . . I had a run-in with a
Wandering Albatross that soared up from below the cliff . . . it was huge and impressive but I didn’t even know what it was, I went home and looked it up . . . and that became my epiphany bird. And then I was hooked”.
Since then birds and birding have played a major part in his life. Steve freely admits to
birding being therapeutic, though it isn’t completely obvious what he seeks therapy for. He mentions the reality of growing older and the realisation that a heart attack is always a possibility, but the main “problem” seemed to be a need to establish a life
after Sandman. His publicity mentions a notable first (and last) appearance on Sunrise in 2009 that made it obvious Sandman had to go. Then the Abatross incident happened, a final impetus towards birds, his catalyst for change.
His subsequent introduction to more serious birdwatching was fast-tracked when he hooked up
with notable birders including Walter Boles, Sean Dooley and Sydney bird identity Keith Brandwood to make “Birdbrain”, a radio podcast series for the ABC (still accessible online, it describes his early birdwatching adventures and discoveries). More a birder
than twitcher, his main enthusiasm is in the observation of daily birds and the humour and insights into human behaviour that are sometimes evident in the process. His birds are mostly those around Sydney though he attends the Rankin Springs bird festival
with enthusiasm, and enjoys twitching the western stragglers that make it to Sydney, like the Crimson Chats that turned up at Sydney Park.
I asked about the show …
—The show is in its early stages … we tried it out first in Newcastle … it’s still a work in progress as we find out what works. It’s pretty ‘rustic’. One
critic described it, meant as a compliment, as “Like watching a dress rehearsal of something that will never be complete”.
—There’s a little questionnaire about birding.
—How Sandman was created, his zenith, continuing for too long, then looking about and being lost for a time before discovering birds.
—Using birds as a vehicle to talk about something else.
—There’s bird calls and some bird pictures. (Sandman used to make strange bird sounds, will these be any better?)
Do you actually appear naked in the show?
— There’s some footage of a routine in ML town hall, when Sandman was at his zenith and I came on stage naked. Live on stage now would be a horrible moment.
On birdwatching and your birding activities?
—More and more people are getting involved in bird watching, it’s not just old men who wear their pants very high any more.
—Birds are so diverse and so playful. Some of them family oriented, some are very curious.
—We wrote a feature film based on the finding of the dead Night Parrot by Walter Boles in Queensland, but this was overtaken by John Young’s discoveries and
never went further.
—I’m addicted – can’t wait for my Cumberland Bird Observers newsletter to appear.
—Strange that this addiction gave me the perspective to think about doing other things. Now unfortunately I have to see someone to cure the addiction.”
The Castanet Club?
—Our aim was to please. We were a beast. Over 3 hours we could dismantle the most disbelieving audience.
[I was delighted to have the chance to quiz Steve, partly so I could ask about the Castanets.
For those who missed them, in the 80s they were a fun troupe who put on the best music/humour shows of the decade. At
least the decade, some say a lifetime. They disbanded before the internet and YouTube, so there’s not much archival material available on the web, and most of what exists is not so well preserved. I still live in hope of a resurrection. Mikey Robbins
was another product of the Castanets].
WHAT HAPPENED TO SANDMAN (or How I Became a Birdwatcher)
Saturday 28 May 7pm and 9pm
Sunday 29 May 6pm
Street 2 Theatre, 15 Childers St., Canberra City West.
Tickets $30 Bookings
The theatre is the tiny one, only 50 seats. Running time is 75 minutes with no interval.