ABC dismisses classic true love story as just another AIDS doco

It is a love story that as a memoir became a Penguin bestseller, and as a stage play won over audiences from the Sydney Opera House to London’s West End.

Yet Holding the Man, a true tale of the life-long romance between playwright Timothy Conigrave and star footballer John Caleo, which ends only with both men’s deaths from AIDS-related complications, is proving tough to translate into a documentary and previously as a feature film.

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Melbourne filmmaker Tony Ayres, a close friend of Conigrave’s, attempted a decade ago to write a feature film treatment of the story, but was unhappy with the result.

A Holding the Man feature film is now being written by Sydney playwright Tommy Murphy, with Neil Armfield directing, and produced by Goalpost Pictures. A spokeswoman said the new feature film was “proceeding very well”.

But Melbourne filmmaker Nick Bird’s documentary John and Tim remains unfinished despite more than two years’ work and $250,000 investment, including more than $50,000 of his own money.

The ABC rejected the documentary John and Tim, dismissing it as an AIDS story.

”We have had a crap fight making the doco, despite having two ABC1 docs behind us, which were successful, [but] it means nothing,” Bird says.

Bird’s company, Waterbyrd Filmz, has runs on the board, having produced two documentaries, Vivian Bullwinkel: An Australian Heroine in 2007 and Ballroom Rules in 2011, that both made it to air on the national broadcaster.

“They’re not interested in the film in the current television landscape,” Bird says.

Last year, ABC TV’s documentaries development producer Edwina Waddy rejected John and Tim with a pro-forma letter stating that the ABC was “not interested in the project at this time”.

ABC Television’s new head of factual, Phil Craig, said on Waddy’s behalf: “I wasn’t working for the ABC at the time this project was rejected but, looking at the paperwork, I can understand why it was.

”With intense competition for the small number of available licence fees, we have to turn down a lot of ideas every month.

”And so if a subject has been well covered before on the ABC (as is the case with Australia’s experience with AIDS) then any new proposal touching on it is going to have to be outstanding to get a chance. My colleagues and predecessor didn’t think that this one was.”

A theatrical distributor also ”got rid of us by email”, Bird says, which cost Waterbyrd its 40 per cent government-supplied producer offset.

Bird is not the only one who has found it tough to translate Conigrave’s memoir to the screen.

Ayres declined to comment on Bird’s documentary – in which he is interviewed – because the feature film rights for Holding the Man have transferred to Goalpost Pictures, with Sydney playwright Murphy, who wrote the successful stage adaptation, directed by David Berthold, writing the new feature film script.

But Ayres said in a previous interview with Fairfax Media: ”The appeal of Holding the Man goes beyond the fact it’s a well-written autobiography.

”It also goes beyond the fact that it’s an ‘AIDS story’.

”At its core, it is a deeply moving and tragic love story, which is what I suspect most readers respond to. There is also a mythic quality to a story of two teenage boys – one a star footballer – who fall in love, spend their lives together and die within a few years of each other.”

Murphy says his new feature film version of Holding the Man is ”progressing extremely well”. The film’s cast is in place but yet to be announced.

There has been one bright spot for Waterbyrd Filmz: the company received a $10,000 grant from Film Victoria earlier this month to redevelop its script.

Watch Waterbyrd Filmz’s Ballroom Rules on .tv now

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.