Somewhere along the highway between Penola and Mt Gambier, not far from the Coonawarra wine region and the South Australia/Victoria border, is a sign pointing towards the small town of Kalangadoo. It’s a place which almost no one would have heard of were it not for its famous fictional resident Roly Parks, whose letters have been a fixture on ABC radio for the past couple of decades. A collection of these Letters from Kalangadoo has now been released by University of Western Australia Publishing.
Written (and performed on radio) by satirist Bryan Dawe, the letters are addressed to Gene, Parks’ son, who lives in London with his partner Ahmed, a Moroccan dancer formerly with the Royal Ballet. Roly himself also has an entertainment background, and once toured in variety-type shows with his wife Sonia. Now retired and separated from Sonia, his letters to Gene give news of the family and various characters from the local area, and hint at the pain he feels about the break-up of his marriage and some of the frustrations of getting old.
It’s probably best to describe these letters (actually monologues, written to be performed) as bittersweet, rather like a rural version of Barry Humphries’ character Sandy Stone, revelling in the minutiae of dull, ordinary life one minute and full of barely expressed emotional anguish the next. Roly’s description of a relationship counselling session with Sonia shows him to be the classic Aussie bloke who finds it hard to talk about emotional matters, a fact which comes out clearly when towards the end of this collection Roly takes a fancy to a friend’s sister but then coyly explains to Gene that they’re just friends and that’s that. Sure they are.
As far as the comic side of Parks’ letters goes, Kalangadoo is your classic country town, full of weird and wonderful folks who gossip, get pissed and come up with crazy schemes (why not plan your visit to Kalangadoo to coincide with their Carrot Festival, which Roly assures us is a huge event and one of the highlights of the year). Yet taking the piss out of struggling country towns and local “hick” characters isn’t really what these letters are all about. They poke gentler fun at rural Australia and do it with a lot of affection, with most of the comedy coming from the characters and the language. It’s the kind of comedy that only really works in radio or print, where character and language are pretty much all you have, and it’s very much a rarity in 2015.
To get anything interesting or affectionately funny out of a lead character who’s as emotionally stiff and dull as Roly Parks is impressive, yet because he’s such an accurate reflection of so many men of his era he’s instantly recognisable. And sometimes hanging a comedy on a familiar character is an approach that really works – more than 20 years on ABC radio is testament to that.