The Set: An Interview With Roger Ward

Vanessa Libertad Garcia interviews actor, author and pioneer of Australian gay culture about his novel The Set

Roger WardIn 1969, the Australian public would know Roger Ward’s face from TV shows like Skippy. Less than a year later, he would gain tabloid infamy thanks to Frank Brittain’s film based on his novel The Set. Originally a candid look at sexual revolution sweeping the country’s teens, the screenplay jettisoned much of the material to focus on the gay and lesbian aspects of the story. It became a sensation and a huge success. Ward later went on to appear in cult classics like Mad Max and has now published the full text of the novel

What were the defining staples of “the heady days of Australia’s sexual revolution”? How does The Set embody them?

The late 50s/early 60s was a time of abortion, unwanted pregnancy, and shotgun weddings. Where getting the birth control pill when it did arrive, meant a demeaning trip to one’s local doctor. It was a time when sex was never discussed in public and if a young man wished to buy a condom he went to a chemist or drug store, an experience that put them into a lather of perspiration. And even though the age of consent was 16, an unplanned pregnancy meant shame, humiliation, and estrangement from your family

I have tried to cover this humiliation, this shame, and have attempted to describe the terror felt by a teenager facing sex during the 50s and 60s. There was no birth control pill until 1961 and even then it was available only through prescription to married women and there was no words of wisdom or information from one’s parents; a situation that led to Tony’s inability to offer Carolyn a permanent and secure relationship and certainly no desire to go ‘all the way’ for neither one wanted pregnancy, a common fate during that time.

Common because the revolution had started.

It began through adventurous and oversexed teenagers such as the go getting Leah who was prepared to offer her body as a stepping stone to the top of her profession. By Louise, Paul’s first girl friend who was European and had an open mind toward all things sexual.

Sex was a constant with Peg, having been forced into wedlock at 16, she was frightened her daughter Carolyn may have inherited her genes, and her mind floated between a mother’s angst at her daughter enjoying the same pleasures of the flesh that she had at the same age and her dismay that she may be ‘doing it’ with Tony, the young man she also dreamt of seducing.

Later, because of his inability to rise to the occasion when he entered the trap she set, Peg feels free and at ease with the world because she now knows this callow youth could never initiate sex with her daughter. She moves on then to enjoy her more experienced partners.

Paul also experiments with sex, firstly with the provocative Louise and then with various men. His homosexual bent having come to the fore when the deed was forced upon him, but after overcoming the shock he enjoys the act and sets about procuring it.

Tony also disregards his initial fear and attempts to go ‘all the way’ with Carolyn but when her fear overcomes her desire, he drifts toward his latent interest in Paul.

I feel I have shown, in the attitude and actions of my characters, a gradual relaxation of the built in sexual fear, held by most, as the book moves from the late 50s into the early 60s.

Comparatively, how do the struggles of the GLBTQ community differ between Australia 1970 and Australia 2011?  What were the major struggles then and conversely, what are they now?

You’re talking 1970s because that was when the film was released. The film rights were actually sold in 1967 and the book that it was based upon was written in 1960 onward from notes and diaries created from 1954. So my observations were not from the 1970s but from the 50s through to the late 60s.

However I can still answer your question.

Historically the gay community has been hounded for an eternity. And a person of that persuasion was, at that time at least, considered to be some sort of freak, someone to be laughed at, to be ridiculed, derided, beaten up, ostracized, even put to death. And ironically, while I was in the French outpost of Tahiti writing the first pages of The Set, the National Assembly of France declared homosexuality a “social scourge” and urged the government to take action against it. Although a light did begin to glow at the end of the tunnel when in 1961, in a move possibly leading to the acceptance of my own material for film, a television station in San Francisco made and broadcast The Rejected – a documentary on homosexuals. So the change started to begin even then. It continued, in Australia and throughout the world to eventually cause the police department in New York City to change its policy of police entrapment of gay men, and rescinded its hiring practices designed to screen out gay people. And after the Stonewall riots in late June 1969 many within the emerging Gay Liberation movement in the US saw themselves as connected with the New Left rather than the established homophile groups of the time and the words “Gay Power” became a defiant answer to the rights-oriented homophile movement.

This power swept the world and those with homosexual tendencies began to gain a voice and threw off the cloak of shame that was traditionally worn and ‘came out’ as it were.

They were the true pioneers of the movement and have opened the flood gates of acceptance that have allowed the young people of today to kiss a same sex partner in the street, to hold hands, to cuddle in public, to hold highly esteemed positions in the corporate and public world and to marry their same sex partner. So, to my mind, the struggles of GLBTQ of today are minimal to what their forebears have been through.

The Set coverWhat were the risks you faced in releasing the film The Set in 1970? Is there any risk in releasing the novel version of The Set today? Do you anticipate any societal scrutiny or backlash?

I felt no risk when I sold the film rights because the book is of a sociological nature, covering every aspect of life, adventure, the seeking of a career, family relationships, social behaviour, heterosexuality, nymphomania, older woman attracted to a younger man, and of course… homosexuality. It was only when the producer indicated the book was too large to be filmed in its entirety and that he would have to cut it that I had reservations. And it was not because of the demand, “I want you to lift every homosexual reference from the book and write a screen play on that”. It was the fact that my baby, the book I had spent almost ten years creating was to be cut to the bone. That my years of work would be relegated to a 130-page script, that was the thing what worried me. I was worried further when, upon arriving on set for the first day of filming, I discovered that the script that I had diligently written had been re-written and toyed with by not only the producer, but by his 24-year-old third wife and also Elizabeth Kata who had written the book A Patch of Blue. I was devastated to see the ruination of a previously polished and highly tuned script and spent my short time on set leaping in front of the camera’s yelling, “Cut! That is not the dialogue”. It got to the stage that the actors were ignoring the director and coming to me in a clandestine manner to ask for interpretations and the correct lines to say. Understandably the director was angered by this and I was packed up and sent out of town on a phony publicity tour so a lot of the film went through without my input or salvaging and ended up in what I thought at the time was a ‘cringeworthy state’. So the risks I faced at that time, and they were real risks and they did eventuate, was one of being a laughing stock, of being embarrassed for creating such a badly written script.

Understandably, but in a way, viciously, the film was slaughtered by the press. Although thankfully, and through the loads of publicity we had received during the making of the film, the general public were keen to see it and it became one of the highest earning Australian films of that time. Ironically, it has now become a cult film and enjoys Film Festival Showings through out the world to hand clapping and cheering young gays.

I now look forward to redeeming myself with the book. I certainly do not fear any backlash and would in fact welcome it if it came because the book is a true diary of the 50s and 60s, written at that time with the thought processes and mentality of one who lived them. So the only scrutiny I may receive will be from the ‘Literary Set’ who may think my raw descriptions of sexual intercourse, particularly the male-on-male and the female-on-female, although delicately done, may be pushing the boundaries. But I wrote the book to entertain, to inform and to illuminate. And I used the thread of both homosexuality and of the life saving movement, although poles apart in terms of subject matter, as a manner of education. Only a few know of the intricacies of the homosexual mind or of what they do behind closed doors, and only a few know of the fears and the dangers faced by the Australian Surf Life Saver and having had experience, either practical or by observation and research of both, I used them as a thread for the narration of the book.

I am pleased too, to have waited this long to publish, for had I taken the poorly paid offers to do so during the 70s, the book would have gone out as a contemporary novel. Now it is released as an historical, true diary of the 60s and gives an insight to the young readers of today how youth lived in that day, and to those of my own age, it will bring back so many memories of the way we lived and of what we thought.

What affect do you believe the film The Set has had on Australian GLBTQ culture? What affect do you believe the novel The Set will have on today’s Australian GLBTQ culture?

I know the film liberated a lot of young men, particularly when it was released. I know because I receive letters and emails even to this day from people who are now established businessmen, and even one from a New York lawyer, who thank me for allowing them to know that their feelings and instinct was not abnormal and that there were others out there like them. The film, they tell me, was a release, an opening of a door to lead a liberated life.

And in these later years, I notice young girls are coming to view the film as well, even though there is only a fleeting reference to lesbianism in the film they cheer and clap every time it is mentioned. They tell me, after the showing, that they absolutely love the film. So it has given many young men and possibly a few girls, a look at the sort of life they previously only fantasized about. It has given them the courage to come out of their shells and seek what they want. During these later screenings, I’m talking from 2000 onward, both males and females come to me to express their dismay at the manner the homosexuals of the day were treated.

The film has also been used as research by Ricardo Peach for his thesis that gained him his Doctor of Philosophy. Ricardo compared the homosexual life in Australia to that of their counterparts in Africa and commented that The Set was the first film to depict homosexuals as everyday people with regular jobs and an accepted appearance without the usual mincing outrageousness usually depicted.

And a Harley Street Psychiatrist asked to view the The Set by a censorship body in the UK came back with the reply, “Normal people acting in a normal manner”.

The book, on the other hand, can be enjoyed by all. It is not, I hasten to add, a gay and lesbian work. Although, I am happy to note that the gay and lesbian brigade in both the UK and Australia have taken it on as their own. It is also a general read for everyone who enjoys a page-turning yarn. Although I do surmise the younger generation of gays who now roam freely and without fear of prosecution or violence, will be appalled by the treatment of homosexuals in the book and of the clandestine efforts they resort to in an effort to protect themselves.

I really want the book of The Set to be taken as a work of entertainment, not as a drum-beating Gay Liberation scribe but, on the other hand, I want the gay reader to enjoy the work and to revel in the fact that their gender is being used as an everyday part of life, which it is, and has been, since man began.

What do you mean by: “The big screen adaptation of The Set could only ever hope to be a shadow of the real story”? In what ways does the novel adaptation expand on the real story that the film version could not?

No film, adapted from a large novel, can ever depict that story as the writer envisaged it. Disregarding the budget, no film can realistically be longer than two hours and it is obvious that if one squeezes a 500-page novel into a 150-page script, something has to give. And surmising we could do a 500-page script and shoot it as well (we’re getting into the mini series here), the thought processes, and the innuendos described by the author for his characters cannot be depicted on the screen, perhaps the actor may try to convey it, but it is not the same as having it spelt out in black and white print. But having said that, I do want the film to be remade and by God I’m having offers coming out of the woodwork, but this time I am being ultra careful as I will not allow the film to be made with the same embarrassment I experienced in 1970. As I mentioned before, I am leaning closer to doing a mini series because I do wish to cover every aspect of the content that is explored in the book.

You’re celebrated for playing ‘tough guys’ in action films such as Mad Max – acting work that has inspired Quentin Tarantino to call you “a legend”.  Ironically, most of your films appeal to a predominantly heterosexual male demographic. Has being an ‘out’ gay male actor made it difficult for you to land these roles? What bearing has your homosexuality had on your acting career?

The procurement of my acting work has always been based on my appearance and my ability to do the job. Fortunately I started acting at a very young age and because no matter what one does, be it cooking, needle work, performing operations, or pulling teeth, one is surely going to improve with experience, so by the time television came to Australia and with it the feature film, I had cut my teeth on stage work from the age of twelve, standup comedy from 14, educational radio drama from 16 and interspersed this with training from an off-shoot of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, weight training and martial arts. So by the time I was asked to audition for film and television, I was highly trained and experienced.

One’s sexual preference should not affect his ability to play the role he is offered. After all, gay or not, one is first and foremost an actor. And, in my own case, I have now performed in more than 80 feature films and over 2000 television roles, plus probably 50 stage plays in which I have played the gamut of hero, monster, womanizer, drag queen, boxer, wrestler, incestuous father, stroke victim, truck drivers, policemen, cowboys, bikers, and a serial killer. I have performed comedy, horror, drama and Shakespeare and never once was my sexual preference ever raised.

What do you say to other ‘tough guy’ gay actors who are contemplating staying in the closet to ‘protect’ their acting careers?

That has never been a problem in Australia, although I do believe it is an issue, or at least it was during the 50s and 60s and into the 70s in America. And I know of a number of actors over there who were forced to hide their preference during that time. Although I do believe it doesn’t matter now. Homosexuality is widely accepted in the streets, in the home by fellow family members and by big business, so why shouldn’t it be accepted in the world of make belief. In fact it appears to be a trend and a social high if one, particularly in the entertainment world, is supposedly gay.

There are a lot of tough guys out there, some in the film business others in areas of entertainment such as wrestling, boxing, martial arts, football, who happen to be gay so a sexual preference “does not maketh the man”. So I have no comment to make to anyone who wishes to hide their sexual preference, actors or not. I do remember though, when I first came to Sydney from my home town of Adelaide to break into the ‘big time’ and was called to see a well known producer. He greeted me warmly enough but after he had eyed up my rather attractive female companion whom I had chosen to take with me, he commented, “I do admire you Mister Ward, coming here, as a man, to try and break into films”.

So maybe being gay may have well been the way to go.

But I did pretty well anyway. Eighty films, 2000 television shows… That producer by the way, I think he’s forgotten it was me that he insulted that morning, because he’s now one of my biggest fans and a constant employer.

Do you plan on writing any other GLBTQ-focused films and/or novels? What projects are next on the horizon for Roger Ward?

Yes, I am working on a sequel to The Set, it will revolve around the five protagonists again but this time they’ll be in their 20s and it will be set in the USA, based around the film world.

I also have a trilogy based on two brothers who are war correspondents, and right now I’m looking for a suitable publisher or agent. They contain high action, romance and comedy. The first of them opens in Iraq and moves to New Zealand. While the second features New Zealand and Tahiti, and the third is set in New York and Iraq.

My other writing credits, films, documentaries, mini-series and TV specials are little known, hidden as they have been behind a pseudonym, as it was discovered long ago that despite the establishment not objecting to a gay actor playing the heavy, they did draw the line when that same actor dared to write a novel or film.

So I’m coming out now!

The book of The Set is now available in book shops throughout the UK and Australia and can be purchased from Amazon. It is also available as an ebook.

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