Person - Les Tanner

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A CPA member of interest to ASIO, Les Tanner in the period 1948-58 was a "legend" at NT as a set, costume and graphics designer and a talented, consistently good actor with stage charm and presence, especially in comedy. He went on to become one of Australia’s best-known Press cartoonists for over 40 years.

In 1948 Tanner played a guard in The Star Turns Red and designed its set, costumes and program. In the same year he played Farmer Bryant and was costume and set designer on Six Men of Dorset; designed the program for The Governor of the Province and alternated a role with Bob Bell; designed the set and played Shakespeare in The Dark Lady of the Sonnets; designed the set and played a Trojan in X=0; and was an "exuberant, confident and resourceful" Face in The Alchemist (he lost a stone in weight during the run).

In 1949 he was in the cast of The Lion on the Square and designed its set, program and costumes; performed in the revue Pot of Message; played Joe Mitchell and co-directed the Waiting for Lefty tribute to Edgar Yardley; and designed the set and program of Juno and the Paycock. In 1950 he co-designed the set and played Eric Birling in An Inspector Calls; played Heert and designed the set of The Good Hope; and designed the set of the Workshop Andeganora. In 1951 he was set and costume designer on Spanish Village; played the professor's mind and designed graphics for How I Wonder!; and set designer for The Emperor’s New Clothes.

In 1951 Les Tanner also directed, designed and performed in Follies Bourgeois: The Basic Rage , a successful revue. Although he was thin and weighed only 8 ½ stone, he was a hit with a false belly and eyebrows as a whip-cracking Bob Menzies driving workers on a treadmill in Martin Place to create electricity. Les saw Menzies as a Falstaff figure ~ the actor who played him always got the best notices. He considered himself as a better candidate for the role than another actor who was tall and skinny while he was short and skinny.

In 1952 Tanner was set and graphics designer on Sky Without Birds , The Candy Store and The Germans , and played the school superintendent and designed graphics for An Inspector General.

In 1953 he was costume and graphics designer on United Notions. He acted in Better A Millstone 1954 opposite Hazel Phillips. In 1955 he designed the Out Of Commission set; and the leaflet and poster design for Pacific Paradise. In 1956 he was reviewed as a knockout and "a gem" as the pastor in The Good Soldier Schweik, staggering into the pulpit and delivering a drunken soliloquy on behalf of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Using the pseudonym Michael King he designed the set and played a confidence trickster in Nekrassov in 1957, its cast including Doreen Warburton (stage name Evelyn Ward).

Tanner served on production committee. He gave tips on stage makeup and advice to actors: not to mumble, over gesticulate, be late for cues or borrow other people’s makeup. “Stick to the script, speaking only the given lines. People won’t come up two flights of stairs to watch a pack of giggling lairs”. He thoroughly researched his own characters' looks and body language. He did some street theatre, including a trip to Bradfield Park where they launched into a song about the Arbitration Court but had to beat a retreat after families there (out of work because of the ‘lumpen proletariat’) shouted abuse and threw things.

Les in 1949 married Margaret Florence King (1925 - 1996) who had worked at Bryants Playhouse, Mosman Theatre and the Mercury before joining NT where she acted and helped backstage. Peggy Tanner also taught voice, movement and acting.

Tanner resigned membership in 1958. This followed a crisis meeting at the theatre after the WWF took exception to some of his Daily Telegraph cartoons. Miriam Hampson was handed a letter by job delegate George Cyril Sharman: “the practice of the New Theatre in permitting this individual to be a member of casts in production shows a lack of understanding of the issues involved”. The theatre was threatened with boycott and a picket line. “I am sure you would agree that it would be a great pity for anything to affect this relationship” the letter concluded. There had already been disquiet among some NT members about Tanner's “Crocodile Tears” cartoon on the front page of the Telegraph after Stalin was denounced in 1956.

Les Tanner was born in Glebe. Suffering from dysentery, he was not expected to survive longer than six months. During the Depression years he was educated at Glebe Public, North Newtown Intermediate and Randwick High. (‘I was known as a bit of a show-off. I would illustrate my compositions.’) Les’s mother was a cousin of comedian George Wallace and his ‘Uncle Billy’ a props maker for Cinesound. Aged 12 Les was an extra in the Wallace/Cinesound feature Gone to the Dogs. He also appeared in Our Gang and Forty Thousand Horsemen.

From the age of five Les drew caricatures. His parents had no artistic ability but he was encouraged to draw by Uncle Billy and there were always papers and journals in the Tanner household. Second cousin George Wallace was a talented caricaturist and landscape painter.

Les left school at age 15 and had several odd jobs including packing at Woolworths and making lavatory seats (‘I wasn’t too keen on that because a number of men had fingers missing’) before joining the Daily Telegraph as a printer’s devil in 1942. He was transferred to the art department and began studying at the Julian Ashton School. (‘I’d never seen a naked model, but my first life class turned out to be an Indonesian seaman fully dressed’). At age 18 he was sent to Japan to work on the occupation force’s newspaper BCON as a cartoonist. On returning to Australia he illustrated for the magazine AM and the Daily and Sunday Telegraph.

After leaving NT Tanner went abroad, spending 1960 in London as a ‘joke artist’ on the Daily Sketch. Back in Australia he joined the Bulletin as art director. In 1967 Sir Frank Packer took umbrage against Tanner’s depiction of Victorian Premier Sir Henry Bolte in an article on capital punishment and pulped the entire issue. Tanner then moved to Melbourne to work as chief political cartoonist on the Age, a position he held until his retirement in 1997.

Tanner’s awards included 1960 ‘Cartoonist of the Year’, Walkleys in 1962 and 1965, and a Golden Quill in 1999 for lifetime achievement in the arts. A 60-a-day smoker, he had a laryngectomy (‘Weary Dunlop cut my throat’) and a heart transplant. He died on 23 July 2001.

Les Tanner has a Wikipedia entry. An oral interview is held by the National Library of Australia.

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