David Branson was born in Melbourne in 1963 and moved with his parents to Canberra in 1965. He was a regular churchgoer and a church youth group member at St Margaret’s Uniting Church in Hackett, an inner north suburb of Canberra. From 1970 onwards, I knew him (and his family) through the church. He was a good friend to me and my now wife when our previous marriages to others from the church ended.
David has been described as a dynamic thespian and theatre-worker. He worked with community groups, youth theatres, repertory theatre, and groups of his own devising to create innumerable productions. He played the violin in the Canberra Youth Orchestra and in various local bands.
In 1985 David, together with Ross Cameron, John Utans and Patrick Troy, founded Splinters Theatre of Spectacle. The company staged several large productions, sometimes involving hundreds of people, fire sculptures, giant puppets and large moving metal sculptures. Early performances were at a now-demolished weatherboard cottage in the Canberra suburb of Downer, the Causeway Hall at the suburb of Kingston, and backyards in the inner north. They made good use of crowd manipulation. During his time with Splinters, David was involved in more than twenty productions including Cathedral of Flesh (1992) – winner of Best Promenade Theatre Performance Award in the Adelaide Fringe Festival.
After theatre studies in Melbourne, David worked as an actor with many different companies including La Mama, one of Melbourne‘s oldest and most fondly regarded theatres. As a director he staged The Threepenny Opera and Handel’s Ariodante. His Ribbons of Steel used a mix of archival material, interpretive art, sculpture and photographic exhibits, to mark the closure of Newcastle’s BHP steel works. He remained with Splinters until 1996 when he became the Artistic Director of Culturally Innovative Arts, which he founded with Louise Morris.
David remained a Canberra identity, dividing his time largely between Canberra and Melbourne. In Canberra he hosted the Terrace Sessions at the Terrace Bar and the Salons at the Street at the Street Theatre, where many avant-garde performances were staged. He thumbed his nose at the establishment but won a Canberra Critics’ Circle award in 1998. More than once, he was described as the “Mayor of Canberra’s underbelly”.
On 3 March 2001 (coincidentally, my birthday), David performed at the launch of Canberra’s Multicultural Festival in the city’s Civic Square. I was there and managed to squeeze into the large crowd close enough to take some photos of him from the rear.
Tragically, later that year on 11 December, David died in a car accident whilst on his way to a last-minute Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen concert rehearsal. Under the pseudonym Señor Handsome, David was a founding member, and violinist, of the cabaret group.
A few days later I was part of an over-capacity crowd of over 200 people attending his funeral at St Margaret’s, spilling outside. And a large crowd performed and attended memorials at the Street Theatre in Canberra (which I also went to) and the Trades Hall in Melbourne. Branson Street in the Canberra suburb of Dunlop in the Belconnen region of Canberra is named after David. A plaque was placed on the ACT Honour Walk to commemorate David as part of the first group of honourees in 2005. And there is also a plaque in the foyer of the Street Theatre.
The Black Sea Gentlemen comprises five stellar performers whose roots run deep in the Canberra music scene – Michael Simic on guitar, Pip Branson (one of David’s younger brothers – who took his place amongst the Gentlemen) on violin, Phil Moriarty on clarinet, Guy Freer on accordion and Sam Martin on double bass. The group has packed houses from the Sydney Opera House to London’s West End, releasing four albums and building a dedicated following in Canberra and around the world. During the Easter 2015 National Folk Festival in Canberra, I photographed them performing to an enthusiastic full house.
On 11 December 2011, the 10th anniversary of David’s death, the Black Sea Gentlemen joined with The Street Theatre to hold a tribute afternoon of performances, stories, music and a barbecue in the forecourt. Now, 20 years after David’s death, the band will again pay tribute to their friend, brother and founding member with a very special one-off David Branson 20th Anniversary Concert at the Canberra Theatre Playhouse on Friday 10 December 2021.
The following day (the exact 20th anniversary of David’s death) the Black Sea Gentlemen will perform again in the foyer of the Street Theatre during the launch of a biographical book about David.
The author, Joel Swadling, holds a Graduate Diploma in Writing from the University of Technology Sydney. He is also one of my stepsons. And he was a close personal friend of David Branson, and part of St Margaret’s church. Joel lived for a time in a flat at the home of David’s mother, a place where David himself had previously lived. Whilst there, Joel sorted through boxes of material about David’s involvements in the arts scene, particularly relating to Splinters Theatre of Spectacle. Joel was the archivist on the arrangement and description of those David Branson Papers at the ACT Heritage Library.
Joel’s book about David is titled If This Is The Highway, I’ll Take The Dirt Road – the Formidable Encounters of David Branson Esq. Soft and hard cover versions of the book will, of course, be available for purchase at the launch; also from “all good bookshops” in Canberra and online. There is also an e-Book option online.
My wife Robyn, Joel’s mother, assisted greatly with the book, transcribing all the author’s interviews. I had a modest involvement – assisting Joel to place wonderful photos by the late Canberra performance photographer, Kevin Prideaux; helping to create the cover design; and taking the image of Joel that he used as his author’s photo.
Joel dedicated the book to his “two loving mums”, Robyn and Margaret Hunt. He also both of them and myself in his acknowledgments. And it was very special to read mention of Robyn and myself in Joel’s personal reflections on his friend at the front of the book.
“Around the same time, my parents divorced, and my mother formed a relationship with a man from the church community. Confused and angry, I turned to David for advice. ‘He’s a good man. You’ve got nothing to worry about.’
In the early years of their relationship, they were pretty much ostracised from their friends and former church community, but David always greeted them in public with jubilant affection, and this remains my mother’s overriding memory of him.
I have enjoyed a full and rich relationship with my stepfather for close to twenty-five years. I can’t help feeling that David started us on this path to familial fulfilment.”
With the book complete and an initial stock of copies delivered to him, the next task for Joel (and others) has been to organise the launch and promote both it and the book. Posters and postcards have found their way to bookstores, assorted businesses frequented by folk who would have known David, St Margaret’s church, The Street Theatre, notice boards and more.
Interviews with Joel have been, or are being, conducted – including by Barbie Robinson for her Living Arts Canberra podcast, and Arne Sjostedt (aka Fealing) for The Canberra Times. Copies of the book are being reviewed by some Canberra arts scene critics who knew, and greatly admired, David.
I’m looking forward to the attending both the 20th Anniversary Concert and the book launch, reading/hearing the interviews, reading the reviews – and completing my own reading of the book.