Living with a stranger

Tom Scott has just finished his latest writing project. PHOTO: JOHN CRAWFORD
Tom Scott has just finished his latest writing project. PHOTO: JOHN CRAWFORD
Satirical cartoonist and writer Tom Scott finds memories of his father keep popping up with each writing project. He talks to Rebecca Fox about writing The Daylight Atheist.

Tom Scott seems to have made a career out of writing about strong-willed men, whether it’s Rob Muldoon, Sir Edmund Hillary, his father or his latest subject, Charles Upham, VC.

The newspaper cartoonist, political columnist, script writer - he co-wrote Footrot Flats with Murray Ball - author, producer... the list goes on, has tackled some tough characters in his time.

He wrote The Daylight Atheist, loosely based on his father, nearly 20 years ago, yet it still resonates with audiences today.

Scott wrote the play as he thought his father would make interesting copy. He had always been aware his parents were different from the norm.

"They were weird and different, more interesting. Anyone only had to meet my mother once and she’d make an indelible impression; my father, too. I’d go into any Feilding pub and they’d ask if I was Tom Scott’s boy and they’d say how he was the funniest man they’d ever met."

He would tell stories about his parents and what life was like with them, which people thought were hysterical.

"I thought if I could capture that and put it in a play."

Interesting, but not easy. Scott describes his father as a very clever man, but one who shut himself off from his family.

"He spent his time in the front room, his meals were delivered to him on a tray every night. You’d knock on the door, say ‘Here’s your tea, dad’ and this hand would reach out and take the tray."

Michael Hurst as Danny in The Daylight Atheist. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Michael Hurst as Danny in The Daylight Atheist. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
He only left the front room, which had two twin beds, a Hammond organ, a pile of aeroplane parts and stacks of books - he liked to read Robbie Burns and about physics and chess - to make his regular trip to the pub.

"Almost every night he’d come home drunk with this stream of highly entertaining, but aggressive questions."

Instead of calling Scott by his real name, he was known as "only one name, egg head" and one of his sisters was known as "horse".

"This was really unfair for a young girl growing up. He only called my mother dingbat."

The family did not celebrate birthdays and his father never attended a parent-teacher evening or sports game.

"He was a stranger that lived with us, but he was very entertaining.

"I don’t think I would be who I am if it wasn’t for having him in my life and his very Irish take on the world. It wasn’t pleasant at times - you see that in the play."

After writing the play, Scott read an article about a son who reconnected with his father before his death. That story bought tears to Scott’s eyes.

"It was a shame I never got to experience any of that."

Asked how tough that was, Scott jokes it only led two or three psychiatrists to take their own lives.

"All the Scott kids are entertainers, performers and show-offs. We’ve all got a bit of that from the old man."

Scott initially tried to write the play like a "Sgt Pepper album" cover, but found the "old man got lost in there" among all the different people.

"I thought it doesn’t feel right. So I changed it, flipped it on its head and put him in a room entirely by himself. The whole play is really an explanation of how a clever, amusing man ended up in a room by himself, estranged from his family."

And so developed the story of ageing Irish raconteur Danny Moffat, who retreats from the harsh light of the world to his bedroom. There, under hoardings of old newspapers and beer bottles, he sorts through a lifetime of memories and regrets, from growing up in Ireland to the hopes and disappointments of immigration to New Zealand.

He has seen the play performed eight or nine times over the years, including its debut at Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre in 2004 with Peter Hayden playing Danny.

"Peter Hayden’s version was great. Michael Hurst has this physical energy that is astonishing and makes my father quite charismatic."

More recently, Scott has written about his mother, and the play - Joan starring Ginette McDonald - was staged alongside The Daylight Atheist at Auckland Theatre Company last year.

"The one thing about doing a play about your mother and father is everyone’s got one. It’s almost cheating, really. Mum was very funny, sometimes unintentionally."

She got pregnant with twins to Scott’s father before they were married and her brothers dragged Scott Sen "kicking and screaming" to the registry office to be married.

"He didn’t want to be married to mum and here he was saddled with this Irish woman."

The family then moved to New Zealand where his mother had four more children.

While Scott Sen could be charming when he wanted to, by the end of his life he was an alcoholic.

"That was no fun for anybody, let alone him."

Scott made a point of telling his siblings that he was writing a play about the father he knew, not the one they knew, as they all had different relationships with their parents.

"It was the same with Joan. They all accepted that. They’re an impressive bunch, my brothers and sisters."

The play has also been successfully performed across Australia and Scott puts its success down to Australians having a similar migrant heritage as New Zealanders.

"It’s not a great success story. I mean, he ends up unemployed and an alcoholic."

Scott says he gets great satisfaction from writing stage plays compared to scripts for television.

"You can write a TV drama and watch it later [and] wholesale changes have been made and sometimes the meaning and intentions are mangled. The director is king in film. But the author is king in theatre."

He also enjoys writing — he published Drawn Out: A Seriously Funny Memoir in 2017 - and he has recently finished a book on Charles Upham, the New Zealand soldier who earned the Victoria Cross twice during World War 2.

Writing the book has given him more sympathy for his father as it brought home to him the unspeakable things soldiers experienced during that war.

"A great evil had to be stopped. All wars are evil and should be avoided, but some are necessary and unavoidable and Nazi Germany had to be stopped."

His father chose to come to New Zealand after meeting some New Zealanders in a bar in Munich and admiring their approach to calling out racism.

"So when he was back in London he went to New Zealand House and signed up to become a New Zealander. He admired the egalitarian spirit of the New Zealand soldiers, he was a great fan. He never wanted to go back to Ireland ever again."

To see

The Daylight Atheist

Stewart Island Community Centre, 7.30pm, July 20 

Invercargill Repertory House, 7.30pm, July 21

Roxburgh Town Hall, 7pm, July 22

The Stadium Tavern, Alexandra, 7.30pm, July 23

Coronation Hall, Bannockburn, 7.30pm July 24

Arrowtown Athenaeum Hall, 8pm, July 25

Lake Hawea Community Centre, 7pm July 26

The Clarkson Studio — Regent Theatre, Dunedin, 7pm July 28

Oamaru Opera House, 7.30pm, July 29

 

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