Australian Theatre History. The Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory

Graeme Leith


My experience with the Pram was essentially a practical one; largely accidental in origin and relating directly to the infectious enthusiasm of John Timlin without whom, to my mind, the Pram would never have got off the ground!


At the time I was working on the construction of the gas plant (Esso- BHP) extension at Longford near Sale. Weekends were spent mainly in Melbourne where I usually stayed with my girlfriend, Vicki who lived over the road from the Pram Factory at 330 Drummond St. My estranged wife, Vosje lived around the corner with our two children and I think it was she who introduced me to John, probably because he was having to come to terms with the comprehensive task, and with practically no money, of wiring the Pram Factory to theatre standards. He had a small factory of his own in North Melbourne ‘The Australian Weighing Co.’ which he had essentially deserted in favour of the pursuit of his dream- to get the Pram Factory running as a theatre. At that time his own factory had largely been turned over to the manufacture of the tiered seating for the theatre.

The magnitude of the task of wiring the place had just dawned on him and I suppose that Vosje had mentioned that her husband had some experience and was a qualified electrician and so I was approached for advice.


I liked John as soon as I met him and being of a generous disposition I was soon involved in discussions as to how we could wire the theatre cheaply yet conforming to the various regulations applicable. At the time I had virtually completed the gas plant job and my next contract was to be at Gove in the far north of Australia, I’m not sure of the dates - I assume around ’69-’70 . A massive gas explosion had burnt and /or taken the life of some of my friends at Longford and I was utterly disenchanted with the construction scene plus the thought of leaving my girlfriend was very unattractive so I decided to wire the Pram Factory! John had previously had some quotes for the job which of course were so high as to have made the whole Pram Project unviable, so we had a great challenge before us.


Several people had volunteered to help including Rod Parker who now lived with Vosje and John managed to enlist the services of Paul Ski whose mother had been married to an Australian diplomat in Moscow and who, after his death, had returned to Melbourne to live. So with a motley crew of volunteers, Paul as assistant and me taking a minimum wage, we set about the job. I had to apply for an electrical contractor’s licence which being qualified for I obtained and by following the letter of the law though not necessarily the intent, we got the job done in about six weeks. Our technical short cuts surprised some of the authorities but we managed some comprehensive cost cutting techniques. There is a requirement for instance that in a public theatre if a power failure occurs a substitute power source is automatically applied which illuminates the auditoria and the exit lights. This is generally achieved by the electronic initiation of some fairly comprehensive and very expensive equipment. But we found that with a simple relay, battery charger and a motor car battery we could provide this emergency illumination! There was much scratching of heads and referring to regulations by the authorities on the day of the test when it proved to work just fine!


John was keeping the Collective informed of all this but I think only he and I knew of the enormous savings we had made.


And so it was that all was inspected and approved; but the next electrical problem was already looming  - there was no lighting board and the cost of hiring or buying one was beyond the resources of the group.


So we had to make one, virtually for nothing.


I remember making the chassis of the thing at John’s factory and then I built and wired it on the kitchen table at 330 Drummond St. It had about ten channels and used domestic dimmers instead of the hugely expensive commercial ones but it worked! The day before the first performance the lighting operator wanted more channels, these were duly added (on the kitchen table) and Ian McKenzie, who had worked on it with me, and I carried it over the road to the theatre and re-installed it on the night of the first performance. I can still remember the opening night audience filing in and being seated as we were plugging the lights into the board. Over the following six months there were odd dramas as the domestic dimmers, not having the durability of their expensive commercial cousins used to die at inconvenient times.


My work being done there and now with an electrical contractor’s licence I established Carlton Lighting, a democratic, eccentric but excellent electrical contracting business which I ran for some years until I established my own vineyard, Passing Clouds, which later supplied wine and, I like to think, pleasure and inspiration to the staff and clients of John Timlin’s agency ‘Almost Managing Company’.


I never acted at the Pram but during the transitional period from electrical contractor to vigneron I acted in four plays by Louis Nowra, Roger Pulvers and Barry Dickens at laMama.


Graeme Leith is a vigneron at his Vineyard, Passing Clouds producing much loved wine which has that certain electrical frisson.

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