Renaissance Man

By Adam Norris

William McInnes is something of a Renaissance man. No, we’re not claiming that he has managed to hang around since the 15th Century, but rather he has managed to hone his talents across a spread of achievements. Beloved television performer, stalwart of theatre and film, bestselling author – the man sure knows how to entertain. Ahead of his Opening Address at the Bellingen Readers & Writers Festival, we figured it was about time to get under the covers and see what stories make him tick. 

“Well, I love Robert Louis Stevenson, he’s terrific,” McInnes says, thinking of the authors who have most endeared themselves to him. “I love Simenon, who writes those Whodunnits, and I love Charles Dickens. But I really love Persuasion. It’s one of my favourite books, I think I’ve read five times. I’m not much of a Jane Austen fan, but there’s something about that story I just love. Of course, you read Hemingway when you’re younger, and Fitzgerald. There’s a book by Somerset Maugham called The Moon and Sixpence. You’re a fifteen year old, an absolute droob, and you read something like that, it really strikes a chord. And The Diary of Anne Frank. I remember when I was in High School, a bunch of stupid boys, and we were told to keep a diary. I was writing how much I loved reading that beautiful passage about the blue sky, and writing, ‘Boy, Anne was really top shelf and I wish I could tell her how ace she was’. And this teacher just looked at me, I mean, here’s one of these rugby playing oafs writing this. He didn’t really like me, but in the end he gave me this book by David Niven. He said, this fellow seemed to irritate people, so he might be your cup of tea.”

Ever since McInnes was revealed as a surprise festival guest, excitement has been growing. In addition to the Opening Address, he is appearing in conversation with The Project’s Claire Hooper as well as joining a theatre panel alongside Rhoda Roberts and Alison Croggon. McInnes is a popular draw, and given how recognisable he is across so many different fields, I’m curious what strangers most often want to talk about with him.

“Because of lockdown, a lot of people have been streaming stuff, so now they come up and talk about Blue Heelers or Seachange, which is sort of remarkable because frankly, it’s like another lifetime ago. It’s a lot of fake tan and hair dye under the bridge, twenty years and twenty kilos ago. And the books, they’ll come up to talk about them. Lately some old bloke came up and I thought he’s recognised me, and he yells “You bloody parked me in!”. He had no idea who I was, other than this inefficient Volvo driver at Bunnings. Actually, I was recognised at the checkout in Bunnings once. One of those guys with a too-loud voice. ‘Who’s that guy? He’s that guy on the telly. What’s his bloody name, don’t tell me. You were on the cop show! You were on Matlock Police!” Matlock Police? I was in grade three when that came out! It’s about the closet I’ve ever come to telling someone to fuck off,” McInnes laughs. Though even incognito, it seems he can’t escape recognition.

“You know, I had my Covid test. I had my big hat on, my scarf, some stupid speed dealers I’d bought from the servo. And they had this medic doing the swab test, the chimney sweep of your nostrils. And I was just the next person in line, but when my nose was presented, she looks at it, looks up at me and says, ‘Weren’t you in Blue Heelers?’”

McInnes has 11 books under his belt now, which he thinks of as being part of one giant work – the fiction and non-fiction alike. His compulsion to write and the unexpected treasures of reading are still very much thriving, and no matter the art-form, it’s hard to picture him slowing anytime soon.

“Reading, you’re basically a prospector mining for knowledge and opinions, and even wisdom sometimes. That’s the great thing about reading. And festivals, it’s a great idea when people can come and share things. Lots of people may think they’re in a space that no one has been before, but reading, storytelling lets you know that someone has felt like that before. Writing, [performing], it’s all telling a story. When you act with people, it’s a team sport, and when it’s good, it’s such fun. Theatre is a little more, you’re on your own. When you write, most of the time you think, I’ll just get this out and someone might look at it. Sitting down to do it is a burden sometimes, but having written it is a buzz. I was sitting in a terminal once and saw someone laughing at one of my books, pointing out something to their friend, and that’s something you can really pocket.”

Before we finish, I mention how Jane Hutcheon once described him ‘maintaining the optimism of youth’, implying both that we lose our optimism as we age, but also that we forget connections to our younger selves. Does he indeed still carry that same optimism?

“Yeah,” he muses, “but sometimes I just want to tear someone a new one. But I grew up with people who always preached the glass half-full philosophy, and married someone who believed that too and we had a family together, and we both tried to instil that in our kids. And I like those people. It doesn’t mean you have to be sunshine and lollipops all the time. You know, we’re not here for that long in many respects. So it’s better to try and look to the sky, as Anne Frank said, and see the beauty that’s there.”

WHAT The Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival
WHEN 11-13 June (long weekend)
WHERE Bellingen Showgrounds