Dad and Dave
The original ‘Aussie battlers’
1 April 2016
Today the term ‘Aussie battler’ sits easily in the Australian vernacular, is used nightly on current affairs television programs, and in popular culture in characters such as the Kerrigan family in the 1997 film The Castle. For the first half of the twentieth century the Rudd family were the quintessential Aussie battlers; the working class family who continued fighting against the odds, always embracing their challenges with humour and optimism.
I first became acquainted with these Aussie battlers in 1995, through a flickering VHS trailer. The trailer for Dad and Dave: On Our Selection was unlike every other trailer I had ever seen, featuring an ocker accent telling me that this film is ‘just what this country needs, a bloody good laugh’ and an earworm of a theme song by country musician John Williamson. Maybe the trailer for the movie was somewhat misguided, but on the characters’ 100th anniversary, despite featuring an amazing cast, the film failed to recapture the Australian imagination. What makes this so surprising is that for the first half of the twentieth century, the characters were household names.
The Rudd family was the brainchild of public servant Arthur Hoey Davis (1968–1935), better known by his pen name Steele Rudd. Inspired by the earlier stories of Henry Lawson and Adam Lindsay Gordon, Rudd set out to write about the outback. He drew on his own experience, growing up on a selection on Queensland’s Darling Downs.
The success of the stories came as a surprise even to Rudd. He wrote to his father in 1902; ‘Little I thought when I commenced those sketches that they were to become a book – a book to be read and bought by Australians’. The sketch story, a term used for a piece of writing generally shorter than a short-story, was published on 14 December 1895 in the Bulletin magazine. Entitled ‘Starting the Selection’, it would eventually become the first chapter of Rudd’s collected works, published in 1899. By the end of his career Rudd had written 12 books and remained his publisher’s bestselling Australian series until the 1950s.
Rudd’s selection stories rapidly turned into a cultural phenomenon, and in 1912 the stage rights were purchased by actor and theatrical manager Bert Bailey (1868–1953). With Edmund Duggan (1862–1938), Bailey adapted them for the theatre, adding a number of embellishments more suited to the stage. Bert Bailey acted in the role of Dad and matinee idol Fred MacDonald the role of Dave; their interpretations of the characters were so popular that they reprised these roles for the next three decades, on stage and on screen.
In 1932 the first of four films was released, becoming Australia’s first ‘talkie’. The film used many of the actors from Bailey’s stage production, with Bailey and MacDonald playing Dad and Dave. An additional silent film was produced in the 1920s however, was a direct adaptation of Rudd’s original stories, and had little connection with the popular stage plays.
During the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, the struggles of the Rudd family struck a chord with the Australian population. Famous cartoonists such as Stan Cross embraced the characters Dad and Dave, creating comedy around their economic difficulties. In other cartoons Cross juxtaposed the rural Dad and Dave and urban environments. This fish–out-of-water style comedy was also used in the 1938 film Dad and Dave Come to Town.
Following the Second World War Rudd family’s popularity decreased, possibly because of the increasing urbanisation of Australia, and they never regained their initial popularity. Through the papers of Steele Rudd, Bert Bailey, Edmund Duggan, and Stan Cross, you can now reacquaint yourself with these beloved characters in the latest Treasures Gallery changeover and find out how these Aussie battlers once captivated the Australian imagination.