Credits include Clubland and Return Home

In a very engaging new Australian film due for release later this month, Frankie J. Holden plays a singer formerly married to an stand-up comedienne with two grown-up sons. The well-known award-winning English actress Brenda Blethyn plays his former wife.

It is by turns coming-of-age drama for one of the boys and personal journey for Blethyn’s Jean, a performer who feels she’s missed out on her big chance and desperately wants to try again. And is directed with a light comedic touch by Cherie Nowlan who did such a good job on Thank God He Met Lizzie.

In interview over the phone with Frank at his home in Pambula on the far coast of NSW, I ask him about the role. Playing a singer would have been a comfortable zone for a television presenter and enduring entertainer, who was a member of the retro-fifties rock’n’roll band Ol’ 55.

Frank played with the band between 1975 and 1977, until he finished up with them after a gig here in Canberra. ‘My last gig with Ol’ 55 was in 1977 was at the Captain Cook Hotel Motel somewhere.’

That Canberra establishment has passed into history but Frankie still plays gigs. ‘Mostly corporate work, a little club work and I work with Wilbur Wilde, who was in Ol’ 55, and some of the other luminaries of that era, you know, Ross Wilson and Joe Camilleri. I might do twenty or thirty gigs a year, but not in the public eye.’

In Clubland, both Jean and John have day jobs, she in a cafeteria and he as a security officer. This actually isn’t the first time that Frank has been a representative of law and order on screen.

Over the years during Frank’s long career in music, film and television, there have been a smattering of police roles in films like Cathy’s Child, Raw Silk, Police Crop: The Winchester Conspiracy, and the Police Rescue and Blue Heelers series in which he has been in uniform. Now he’s in one again. Has he ever felt typecast?

It’s only a gentle dig. After all, there have been many other roles, like the service station owner operator he played in Return Home (1990) that haven’t involved a uniform at all. And he is very fondly remembered by families everywhere as Mr Gribble in Round the Twist.

But he did admit that a mate of his said to him recently that he was getting all the cop roles, now that Leonard Teale has passed away.

We move on to the other films Frank has appeared in, about 30 in all, including a small role in Michael Thornhill’s The F J Holden in 1977. He was a natural for that, however it was his role in Return Home, the film he was nominated for as best actor, which had the most impact. He had the part of a service station owner-operator whose attention to customer service costs him dearly. ‘My character in that, well, you could call him a loser, or a battler, but you give him some respect.’

At a time when audiences have got into the habit of having a laugh up their sleeve at certain characters, there is no ‘taking the mickey’ in Clubland. The film’s cinematographer Mark Wareham has also said he was careful not to parody the characters through the visuals. In that sense, it is no Strictly Ballroom.

Frankie has the same view. ‘I’ve got a lot of respect for the character (of John)… because I know a lot of these guys. Very competent musicians but for one reason or another they end up trapped in the club circuit and can’t get out. But they still make their CDs, and keep improving.’

What does he make of the rock and roller comeback these days? He mentions people from his era who do make a good living doing corporate and club work – Joe Camilleri, Brian Cadd, Renee Geyer and others who keep recycling Australian music of the 1970s and early 1980s.

‘The songs are so strong, and that’s why .. and the performers just get better. There’s this nostalgic boom going on, but if the product wasn’t any good, no one would bother.’

In the Oxford Companion to Australian Film it says that Holden has a ‘reputation for suggesting the pain and complexity of ordinary life.’ What does he think about that? ‘God! Say that again!’ Laughter. ‘I’m happy if that’s my reputation. I have a reputation for a lot of other things.’

I suggest there is a particular kind of Aussie male in movies, typified by Frank himself, Tony Barry, Bill Hunter, Colin Friels perhaps, who is solid, dependable and grounded. Ben Mendelssohn could become this kind of figure as well. Frank agrees, ‘Yes, absolutely.’

Finally, an interview with Frankie J. Holden would be incomplete without a mention of cars. I presume that I’m talking to a Holden man and not a Ford man? ‘Absolutely, I have an HR Premier Station Wagon which I’m tremendously proud of.’ It’s a 1966 model, two-tone in lime green and white.