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Child Catcher From Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

 

Sir Robert Helpmann
dancer, choreographer, actor, director
9th April 1909 - 28th September 1986

In the world of athletics, the general public tends to remember who was best in the world at sprinting or high jump or javelin and forget the rest. Those with a deeper appreciation are more likely to recognise competitors in the pentathlon – those who are world class across a range of different disciplines – as the really great athletes. In his chosen field of the arts, Robert Helpmann proved himself to be world class not just as a ballet dancer, but also as a stage actor, screen actor, choreographer , director and festival organiser, and those with a deeper appreciation of the creative process recognise this as the hallmark of a truly great artist.

Few people can claim to have danced the role of Hamlet for one of the world’s major ballet companies and within a couple of years to have acted the role Shakespeare’s Hamlet on stage. Even fewer could match the breadth of talent that Helpmann displayed at the Sydney Opera House in 1981 where in one theatre he gave a critically acclaimed acting performance in Fleming's The Cobra, in another he directed the Australian Opera production of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette while in a third theatre space his re-choreographed version of The Display was danced. All of this was to celebrate 60 years in the theatre for an artist who was showing no signs of slowing down.

Robert Helpman (he later added the extra ‘n’ for his stage name) was born in the rural South Australian centre of Mount Gambier. In early 20th century Australia this was the place where you might mix with the sons and daughters of the wealthier graziers in the region who had been sent there to boarding school; and you might have the opportunity to become involved in amateur theatre, but it was not really the place to be exposed to the world of classical ballet. However young Bobby showed talent and determination in the area of dance and attended ballet classes in Adelaide, even though the teacher had never had experience in teaching boys. His father whilst on a business trip to Melbourne managed to persuade the visiting ballerina Anna Pavlova to take him on and Bobby’s professional career was under way.

Robert Helpmann in Giselle

His dancing career was to lead him to London where he was a principal dancer for Covent Garden from 1933 through to 1950. Compared to the European boys who had usually commenced their concentrated training at an early age, Helpmann’s later maturing dancing skills were still developing as his body was passing its dancing prime. This still proved no impediment to him creating numbers of memorable roles and being declared by Margot Fonteyn as her favourite partner.

Helpmann expanded his artistic career by acting on stage and film. The Red Shoes became one of the most successful films of its era and Helpmann starred in it as both actor/dancer and choreographer. Later film roles were to include the role of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

 

Selected DVDs featuring Robert Helpmann

The Red Shoes

In this famous 1948 film based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, Helpmann appears as an actor/dancer. He also choreographed the lengthy opening scene.

Other performers include Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Moira Shearer and Léonide Massine.

 

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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

In this children's film, Helpmann has a brief but unforgettable role as the Child Catcher.

Helpmann excelled in melodramatic roles, and this one has created many a nightmare for children over the years.

Cinderella

In this splendid Royal Ballet production of Cinderella the music is by Prokofiev and the choreography by Frederick Ashton.

Ashton and Helpmann play the ugly sisters as a pair of panto dames and provide an ideal foil to the romantic story line.

Don Quixote

This filmic version of the Australian Ballet's production of Don Quixote features Rudolf Nureyev, Lucett Aldous and Robert Helpmann at their best.

The DVD also features a discussion with Nureyev and Helpmann about how the production was brought to this film version.

The music is by Minkus with additions by John Lanchbery.

 

Selected CDs of music associated with Helpmann

Miracle In The Gorbals

The ballet Miracle in the Gorbals with music by Arthur Bliss.