Performance review: Tours De Force: Live, Shrine of Remembrance

An evening in which entertainers who've worked in war zones shared their stories.

Originally built to provide a place in Melbourne to grieve for the soldiers killed in the First World War, the Shrine of Remembrance’s mausoleum-like structure now presents itself as a place for all Australians who have died in war since Federation in 1901. The visitor and education centres, a later addition, house both short-term and ongoing exhibitions focusing on the many facets of war over the last 100 years. 

Tucked away in the bowels of the Shrine’s Galleries section is the auditorium: an intimate space of blood- red seats and warm wood lining. Look again and the panelling, which forms part of the acoustics of the space, begins to morph into the shapes of origami cranes – an iconic symbol of peace and a reminder that the horror of war sits side by side with the desire for peace.

Rising from the ashes of this conundrum, the one-off event Tours De Force: Live, on Tuesday 29 November, explored experiences of entertainment on the front line. A panel hosted by comedian Merrick Watts – in conversation with Anthony Lehmann (Lehmo), Patricia Amphlett (Little Pattie), Normie Rowe, Tom Gleeson, Nick Cody, Ami Williamson and Charlie Pickering – shared their stories, memories and humour as entertainers who have worked in war zones.

This was an evening of live conversation and entertainment as part of an ongoing exhibition Tours De Force: Entertainers on the front line – the first of three exhibitions exploring war service through the lens of popular culture. 

Curated by Neil Sharkey, the exhibition comprises a number of small spaces off the labyrinth of corridors in the Galleries section. It tells the stories of entertainers from Lorrae Desmond and Normie Rowe to John Farnham, Kylie Minogue, Lehmo and Yothu Yindi through memorabilia, photos and video footage.

What may also be of interest to the general public is how the entertainment arm in war zones first evolved in Australia – from the original Forces Advisory Committee on Entertainment (FACE) in 1965 and the politics around it, to the present day Forces Entertainment, a special military unit designed to foster the relationship between armed forces and the entertainment industry.

The support provided by this unit, preparing the entertainers for military life and ensuring their safety in war zones, provided some of the memorable experiences for the entertainers on the panel.

The evening kicked off with a conversation between Lehmo and Watts and it soon became apparent that what motivated many of the entertainers to tour and return to war zones, and often gruelling tour schedules, was anything from a sense of patriotism and adventure to the incredible buzz of contributing to the enjoyment and well-being of troops on the ground, the desperate desire of the soldiers for a connection with hearth and home, and a bit of light-hearted fun and distraction from the day-to-day of living and working in conflict areas. 

Pickering encouraged the audience to try and separate the politics from the entertainment and, in true satirist style, talked up his admiration for Bob Hope, the veteran actor and entertainer who spent many years in war zones, as he swung his ‘home-made’ golf club, made by a soldier, as his own had been stolen in transit.

Exhibition display of Tours De Force. Photo: Supplied.

Gleeson, on the other hand, with his typically irreverent approach, explained that war zones were where he honed his now successful style – think Hard Quiz – by challenging or ridiculing his audience. In his 2006 skit about James Blunt, Gleeson repeatedly used the C word to embarrass the US soldiers and his Australian managers. 

For Williamson, the classically trained musician and singer, performing on a 2008 tour was a life-changing experience, helping her gain greater understanding of her father and in-laws who had also performed in military concerts. She spoke of the dust and dirt that covered her high-heeled shoes as she performed for the troops, so different to the usual concert experience, and the fun she had dancing and interacting with the soldiers. 

For veteran entertainer Little Patti, who was 17 at the time of her experience, the gravitas of her situation was only realised later. She was entertaining the troops at Nui Dat, South Vietnam when the Battle of Long Tan (18 August 1966) broke out four kilometres away and she had to be hastily evacuated from the base by helicopter. 

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A well-paced and engaging evening, Tours De Force highlighted important and humorous stories, and provided greater understanding of the relationship between war and the entertainment industry.  

Tours De Force: Live was performed for one night only, on Tuesday 29 November2022.

Tours de Force: Entertainers on the front line will be on display until October 2023.
Melbourne Shrine
Free entry

Mem Capp is a Melbourne artist and writer.