Tributes are flowing for playwright Bob Ellis, who was born in Murwillumbah in 1942.
Tributes are flowing for playwright Bob Ellis, who was born in Murwillumbah in 1942. MICK TSIKAS

Ellis remembered as golden wordsmith

TRIBUTES are flowing today for Murwillumbah-born wordsmith Bob Ellis, who passed away after a long battle with liver cancer over the weekend.

Ellis passed away in his Sydney home yesterday, aged 73, surrounded by his wife Anne Brooksbank and their three children, Jack, Tom and Jennifer.

Born in Murwillumbah in 1942 and raised at Lismore in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Ellis went on to attend Sydney University in the 1960s with notable Australians including academic feminist Germaine Greer, playwright John Bell and journalist Clive James.

He wrote speeches for Labor leaders Bob Carr, Paul Keating and Kim Beazley and wrote extensively on Labor history.

Journalist Alex Mitchell, a former NSW Press Gallery president during the Carr premiership, paid tribute to the veteran political speech writer, playwright and author.

Mr Mitchell, who is himself now based at Tweed Heads, credited Ellis for Carr's powerful speeches of attack against the Coalition, saying Ellis provided convincing and theatrical dialogue for the premier to win the hearts of the backbenchers and public alike.

"Bob would come in and coach Bob Carr to handle question time, putting him through his paces," Mr Mitchell said.

"They would draft out a Dorothy Dixer for a tame backbencher who had nothing better to do, and get in front of a full-length mirror and practice the speech in response.

"In parliament, Bob Carr would then stand up and stride the floor, giving an incredible oration, ridiculing the opposition in Shakespearean proportions, all with the words scripted by Bob Ellis.

"It was an absolutely incredible piece of free theatre, as Bob Carr would wave his arms around, monstering the Coalition leaders and for journalists like me you had to go into the House because you'd miss the drama and the atmosphere of if it you didn't.

"He displaced five opposition leaders, largely in the House of Parliament during question time, which is critical if you want to impress your troops on the backbench and the public."

 

Political journalist Mr Alex Mitchell speaks highly of Bob Ellis’ skill with words.
Political journalist Mr Alex Mitchell speaks highly of Bob Ellis’ skill with words. Scott Powick

Mr Mitchell, political editor of the Sun Herald at the time Ellis crafted dialogue for Mr Carr, said Ellis and Mr Carr were both lovers of theatre and used voice coaching to capitalise on Carr's strengths.

"Neville Wran was a big personality, Bob Carr wasn't - women didn't warm to him, he looked like a praying mantis," Mr Mitchell said.

"What he was famous for was his voice, it was perfect for radio and perfect for parliament, and in the words written specially for him by Bob Ellis he would rehearse, rehearse and rehearse.

"Bob Ellis was one of the great golden wordsmiths of his time and he was a great warrior to the side he belonged to.

"He had a great facility for adapting words and giving lines of speech to people that would make them come alive, and that was his great ability - he gave authenticity."

Shadow minister for the North Coast Walt Secord, who worked alongside Bob Ellis as a ministerial staffer for Bob Carr between 1995 and 2007, described him as a "literary treasure".

"Bob Ellis also loved the North Coast and talked lovingly about his childhood and teenage years there. It shaped his life," Mr Secord said.

Richmond MP Justine Elliot said the passing of Ellis was a great loss to Australian politics, literature and film.

"I had the pleasure of hearing him speak on a number of occasions and like so many, I thoroughly enjoyed his trademark acerbic wit," she said.

 

The 1958 leaving certificate of Robert James
The 1958 leaving certificate of Robert James "Bob" Ellis, arguably Lismore High School's most notable alumni. Contributed

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