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Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Boy on a Dolphin


This almost forgotten film is noteworthy for two reasons: it was Sophia Loren's English-language debut, and much of it was shot on location on the Greek island of Hydra when George Johnston and Charmian Clift lived there.

Living at Marina Zea in Piraeus - see here - , just metres away from where those Russian-built 'Flying Dolphins' left for Hydra, I visited the island several times in the early 80s. Situated 70km south of Athens, the ferry would skirt what seemed little more than a bald rock in a boundless cerulean ocean when, abruptly, the town of Hydra would reveal itself like a quixotic watercolour print — its dramatic terrace of garish white houses perched enigmatically above the harbour, where pastel skiffs gently pitter-pattered against the ancient stone walls.

Beyond a few cosmetic nip-and-tucks, the island scarcely differed from the island the Johnstons sailed into in 1955. Old men still crouched over tables in the meniscus harbour playing plakoto and downing cups of black coffee, while nearby donkeys bellowed, awaiting the next shipment from the mainland.

During their years on Hydra, George Johnston and Charmian Clift presided over an extensive bohemian community of artists and writers and became Australia's greatest love story and, some 20 years later, a Greek tragedy because, within five years of returning to Australia, Clift committed suicide, Johnston succumbed to his illnesses just a year later, daughter Shane suicided in 1974, and son Martin died from alcoholism in 1990. The fate of their son Jason, who was born on Hydra in 1956, is unknown.

During 1963, amid the partying and the drinking, George began to write his iconic Australian novel My Brother Jack but confided to his friend Leonard Cohen, "I just don't know what to call it". "What's it about?" Leonard said. "My brother Jack," George replied. Leonard said: "There you are."


Island of Love. Charmian & George are best seen in the wedding scene as they are coming out of the church. Charmian in big straw hat is directly behind the groom; George is to her left and the man on her right is Gordon Merrick, best-selling US author who also lived on Hydra. The children, Martin (in black-rimmed glasses) with his sister Shane, are clearly seen in their own full-frame shot walking along the port, and in the next shot Jason with his friend Evangelina.


The filming of "The Boy on a Dolphin" and two other movies, "Girl in Black" and "Island of Love", caused great excitement on the island and got a mention in both George and Charmian's writing. The whole family were extras in these movies. See if you can recognise them.


Girl in Black. The Johnston children are extras in this film.


Charmian writes most Charmianly about this invasion of their little island by the people from Hollywood in her book "Peel Me a Lotus" in the chapter "September". You won't be able to rush out and buy a copy as it has been out of print for a long time but you might find a second-hand copy on ebay.

One of George Johnston's friends was the LIFE magazine photographer James Burke. James came to Hydra in October 1960 and photographed the expat community. His photographs of that era are all on the Google LIFE archive and can be viewed here. To this day the locals call the house the Johnstons lived in, the "Australian House".

As for me, as soon as I hear Zorba the Greek's theme music - oops! sorry, wrong version! try this one - or see the movie's opening scene, set in a Piraeus taverna just a few streets up from where I lived, I'm right back in Greece, long before "the full catastrophe" happened ☺