Spotlight: Captain Thunderbolt Rides Again (1988)

Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), Thursday 10 November 1988, page 31

Captain Thunderbolt rides again

A “MUSIC-DRAMA” about the relationship between a singing bushranger and his opera-fancying girlfriend opens in Queanbeyan tonight. It is Captain Thunderbolt by local composer Vivien Arnold, who is also the director of the show.

Captain Thunderbolt, alias Frederick Ward, was in the habit of singing the Victorian parlour song, Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still, and was introduced to opera by Mary Ann Bugg, a half-caste Aboriginal, otherwise known as Queen Yellow-long.

Bugg developed her interest in opera while at boarding school in Sydney where she was sent by her father. She passed her enthusiasm on to Thunderbolt so throughly that he once bailed up a German band and made them play opera numbers.

Arnold said that though Thunderbolt took the band’s money initially, he later returned it “with a tip” and this was one aspect of his character which interested her.

Thunderbolt operated for seven years in the 1860s — at first west of Sydney and then north of Newcastle up to the Queensland border — and stole 20,000 pounds, but he was “the Robin Hood of Australia in many ways”, Arnold said. He would often let would-be victims keep their money if he found they were in need.

But the music-drama was “not totally one-sided” in favour of Thunderbolt. It was recognised that “robbery’s robbery after all” and Arnold attempted to show both sides and tried to make the characters as human as possible.

Arnold based the libretto of the show on a book called A Ghost Called Thunderbolt, by another local, Stephen Williams. Arnold worked from his manuscript before the book was published.

Arnold said she began writing the music-drama a little under two years ago and it took over a year to write part time. The cast began rehearsals in May and have “needed every second of the time”, because the music was quite difficult to perform, Arnold said.

There were two things she aimed for when composing the music, for it to be modern and at the same time reminiscent of 19th century music.

Arnold said a cast of very fine singers who were extremely dedicated and really believed in the music-drama had been assembled including Fran Bosley-Craft and Mary O’Brien. Thunderbolt is played by Lindsay Roe.

Arnold said the show was not like anything the Queanbeyan Players had done before. The fare was usually “light and frivolous”, but Captain Thunderbolt was a “music-drama — very sad . . . tear jerking”. The musical director is David Ellis and the assistant director Allan Cope.

Captain Thunderbolt will run at the Queanbeyan Community Centre from November 10 to 12 and 17 to 19 at 8pm. Tickets are available at the Lucky Star Kiosk, 119 Monaro St Queanbeyan,

and Bass outlets in the ACT. Tickets are $10.50 and $8.50 concession.


“Dan Kelly’s Account of Chesney Vale”

Being a young man with large hands and strong arms you’d think I was perfect for brick laying but alas it was not for me. I tried to help Ned out on a job but the job just wasn’t suited to me. I tried my best to carry the blocks and mix the mortar and to be honest they were overworking me as I was the new fellow. I tried my best but couldn’t keep up, they said I wasn’t fast enough then when I went faster they said I wasn’t careful enough. The other bricklayers had a good old chuckle at my expense and once the job was done and everyone went to the pub to celebrate “Henry the German”, the foreman, bought beers for everyone but me, said I could drink like a man when I could work like a man. I’d have smacked him in his kraut mouth if I’d not have incurred the wrath of the others.

Three weeks I was there helping out and I got a decent pay out of it so I went and got myself new boots. They were good boots and they were the first I remember wearing that hadn’t had Ned’s and Jim’s sweaty feet rotting them to pieces before they reached me. The others at work thought I was a tramp because my shoes were held together with twine. I didn’t care, I had known nothing else. There was one bloke at the job who was called Bluey and he thought my rags was a great joke. If ever I took off my jacket he’d hide it so that the next day I had to come to work in the cold with nothing on but my undershirt and an old crimean shirt of Ned’s that were full of holes. Bluey was a real bastard, would call me the brat and once threw an old dog blanket at me and told me it was better than my coat and more than I deserved. But with my new boots on I felt a million pounds and was strutting about the place like I owned it. Of course the rest of me was a shambles but my feet never looked smarter. They were elastic sided boots, black leather with a tall heel and they fit into my stirrups right splendid. No socks of course – useless bits of cloth in my opinion but the calluses on my feet might have said otherwise.

Where was my big brother Ned through all of this? The one who was told by Ma to keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t come into no mischief or get taken advantage of? He got as far away from me as he could. Arm’s length were too close. Here was Ned with his fine clothes with no holes, that fit him like a glove, bought with his felling money (none of that ever reached Ma I might add as he were of the opinion George King would take it and lose it on the cards as he were a lousy gambler) his beard all neat, laying stones like a machine because of all the time he’d done on Success, and here was I his kid brother in the moth eaten wool suit with floppy hair, a fluffy moustache and boots held together with twine trying to carry his own weight in stone to stop the other men from laughing at him. As soon as the job was done I didn’t speak to Ned for a month. I went shearing with Steve and just got away from that whole scene. It were at that time that George in his infinite Yankee wisdom took up thieving with Ned. Ned were so proud of how his skills breaking horses and the tricks for rebranding Power had taught him made him a master thief. He and George daren’t breathe a word to Ma or she’d have cut their bollocks off right there and then. I tried to keep my nose clean but in the off season when there weren’t no sheep to shear and there was only so many logs to split to get an income, one falls into bad habits.

I only helped them on one raid and all I done was to help muster the animals once they was out of the farm and lead them into the ranges, I never stole any. I can rest easy knowing my conscience is at least that clear. Ned were a clever duffer but Jim were thick as two planks and got caught every time. He were a habitual liar our Jim, heart of gold but mouth full of lies. Ma would tell him “your forked tongue will get you into strife someday Jim Kelly” and it was too true. He was in Darlinghurst Gaol after getting caught red handed through a lot of that time. When he helped me on the claim he were a good worker but he were itchy footed. He thought the work boring and hated being surrounded by men so he left us to go and chase girls. He said their sweet scent were summoning him, I told him the only summons he was like to get is one to court if he didn’t behave. I guess I were right on that.

But those boots though. I loved those boots. Over time I pieced together a whole outfit – a whole outfit that were my own and there was no holes or frayed edges or mysterious stains on the trousers. I should point out that my main trousers were an old pair of Jim’s with the knees worn out and a big dark stain over the privates where the clod had spilled grease from his frying pan after a cooking mishap. You can imagine the comments I got about “the brat’s wet himself again” when I was on the site. I can’t ever say that those were happy days. I suppose being a Kelly you’re not allowed to have many happy days. Seems to be our lot in life.