Tovey or not Tovey

January 16, 2005

Noel Tovey has spent most of his 71 years denying who he is. Now he's embraced his identity, and wants to share it with the world. He spoke with Luke Benedictus.

Noel Tovey can remember the exact moment he decided to move back to Australia. He had been living in London for 30 years when he visited Sydney for a holiday in 1990. "I was sitting on Bronte Beach and it was dead calm," he says. "When from out of nowhere came this wind and I heard the voices of my ancestors. They were the same voices I'd heard when I tried to commit suicide in Pentridge. And the voices said, 'Come home'."

Really, no one could blame Tovey if he had never returned. Australia, after all, was full of the painful memories he had left behind to pursue a career in the performing arts. As a theatre director, choreographer and gallery owner in London, Tovey moved among celebrity high society, mingling with the likes of Mick Jagger and Joan Collins. The life he had led in Melbourne could not have been more different.

As an Aboriginal street kid growing up in the slums of Carlton in the 1940s and '50s, Tovey experienced homelessness, neglect and sexual abuse. With an alcoholic mother and a father in prison, Tovey admits he was "rather wild". By the age of 12 he was working as a rent-boy.

Tovey's one-man play Little Black Bastard , which he is performing for the Midsumma Festival, tells the story of his troubled early life. His stint in Pentridge came when he was 17, after the police raided a drag party in Albert Park. Tovey claims he was set-up and charged with "the abominable crime of buggery". During his three weeks in jail awaiting sentence he considered taking his own life. He credits "the voices" with pulling him back from the brink. "I hear echoes of the voices at moments of crisis," he says. "I think they're the reason I've survived this long."

Sitting in his modest Hawthorn flat (he has a more lavish apartment in Sydney's Potts Point), Tovey's urbane manner sits at odds with the grim experiences of his youth. Speaking in a polished English accent (the result of the elocution lessons he took while trying to haul himself out of the gutter), he moves seamlessly from harrowing childhood incidents to star-studded anecdotes - like the time he taught Kenneth Branagh to tap-dance.

Tovey's watch bears the colours of the Aboriginal flag and shows his pride in his heritage (Aboriginal on his mother's side, African-Creole on his father's). But he says it took him many years to arrive at his current level of self-acceptance.

"When I went to England, from the time I stepped off the boat until 1990, the word Aboriginal was never mentioned," he admits. "I'd invent stories about my past and be whatever people wanted me to be."

Arriving in London in 1960 with less than ££1 in his pocket, Tovey landed TV work as a dancer and singer. By 1961 he had become a principal dancer with Sadler's Wells and from there his career steadily gathered momentum. As an actor he shared the stage with Vera Lynn, Judy Garland and Steven Berkoff, while later he taught movement at RADA. Selected to do the original choreography for the West End musical The Boyfriend, Tovey's research into the 1920s opened up yet more doors. He became a consultant on a range of films, from The Great Gatsby to Murder on the Orient Express , and used his specialist knowledge to open a decorative art gallery in Fulham.

But it wasn't until his long-term lover died of an AIDS-related brain infection in 1986 that Tovey finally began to acknowledge his indigenous roots. "It was really a defining moment for me," he says. "And I just thought, 'Now I've been through all this, why do I have to lie about being Aboriginal any more?' "

Since returning to Australia, Tovey has made up for lost time by becoming an activist for indigenous rights. Among his many charity commitments, he is involved in the juvenile justice system, meeting young offenders and speaking in prisons to give hope to Aboriginal youths. "It's too late to help people of my generation, but the cycle of alcoholism and petrol sniffing has to be broken somewhere for younger people."

Tovey's repression of his racial heritage and "escape" into acting was indicative of his way of dealing with personal issues. During his 20s, he attempted to defy his sexual orientation by getting married and fathering a daughter. Not surprisingly, the marriage didn't last.

It wasn't until 2000, when Tovey received an Indigenous Fellowship to write his autobiography, that he was forced to confront his past. He describes the experience of excavating his childhood memories as "unbelievably traumatic".

Among the dark memories he had tried to suppress were the years of sexual abuse he and his sister suffered at the hands of their foster father. "I grew up thinking that was how grown-up people showed they cared about you," he says. "I thought it was a sign of affection."

Now Tovey is able to talk freely about his past without a hint of self-pity. "One of the pluses is that I've survived," he says quietly. "I have nothing to be bitter about."

Noel Tovey performs Little Black Bastard at the Arts Centre, Feb 8-9. Tel: 1300 136 166