If you don’t recall the name ‘John Wood’, think of Blue Heelers: The police drama that ran 42 episodes per year on Australian television for 12 years. John Wood played Senior Sergeant Tom Croydon. It was a role that he loved, not least because it allowed him to continue indulging his most persistent love: Theatre.
John’s got a beautiful, relaxed style about his writing, which made me warm to him within the first ten pages. He’s a proud man from a working class Aussie family, with attitudes and morals that almost perfectly reflect his upbringing.
The eldest of four, John Wood discovered a love for the stage early. Despite his mum’s belief that he could be a tradie, Wood found that looking like a tradie wasn’t the same thing as having the skills to become one. Instead, he was the instigator of his high school’s drama group. He always wanted to act, though never had any idea of where to start or how to get there.
His turning point was an introduction to the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). The gods smiled on Wood: Despite not having a Leaving certificate, he was offered a place with a scholarship. It opened doorways and underpinned relationships that would later prove important in his professional life. The pool of Australian talent may be strong, but it is also small!
How I clawed my way to the middle traces the evolution of Wood’s professional life right up to the present year. The only shocking revelation, if you’re looking for one, is in what he suspects is the true reason for Heelers‘ cancellation. Though, to be honest, it didn’t really surprise me. What did surprise me was that Wood prefers to deflect, rather than reflect.
His memoir tends to read like a resume of works, people, and places. Moments that rabid fans remember (like my mother-in-law, a tragic John Wood fan, who regaled me with tales of his nudity in shows like the Full Monty remounted for Australian television), are absent.
He claims lack of memory for the detail of much of his career; might that be due to the drinking he mentioned ever so lightly in passing? Even his moments in fame’s direct sunlight, and its impact on himself and his family, are missing.
John Wood claims that he only acted because it’s all he knows how to do. But this is a bald-faced lie.
John Wood is an actor because it makes him happy. He followed every opportunity that he felt good about, even when it meant spending time away from his family. He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t enjoy it.
And yet, close to the book’s end, a bleakness sets in that is deflating.
Perhaps this extraordinary, pandemic-plagued year wasn’t the optimal time for Wood to pen his memoir. Theatres are mostly shut down, shows have been relegated to recordings. There is very little work on the horizon even for actors with a profile like Wood’s.
Wood wrote: ‘I won’t be in a position to live off my past earnings, and I haven’t found the writing of this book that enjoyable either.’
This startling comment was shattering.
It was a sign of the beasts Wood had kept staunchly tied up in the wings. He mentions the black dog of depression panting at his heels; glosses over periods of heavy drinking; and hints at a troubled relationship with his wife. We catch a glimpse, then the lights come up and whatever is in the shadows stays there.
John Wood is afraid to face his own demons. And it’s this very fact that makes How I clawed my way to the middle worthy of more than a passing read.
Image: How I Clawed My Way to the Middle – courtesy of Penguin Books Australia
Review: Leticia Mooney