June 7th, 2022Philip’s time to shine
“IT’S not about the time on earth – it’s what you do with that time.”
That’s the affirmation 77-year-old Clunes local Philip Oyston lives by and each day this ‘oldest roadie in Melbourne’ lends his heart and time to those around him.
Philip is the son of Australian television and stage actress Sheila Florance, best known for her portrayal of Lizzie Birdsworth, the elderly alcoholic convict in the television series Prisoner.
He has suffered sadness and loss in his life. His sister died when he was a child. His second wife, a local Melbourne singer, died with cancer, with Philip by her side the entire time. “You could say I was the oldest roadie in Melbourne while Jan was singing. I was by her side as her roadie and greatest fan and cared for her in her final years. I simply can’t describe the pain of losing her.”
While Philip has always been behind the scenes in the entertainment industry, it is only now he feels the freedom and confidence to be the one on centre stage.
“Reflection is extraordinary. I’ve always admired theatre and television actors but discovered I can be spontaneous on stage, whether it is changing the lyrics to a song or reciting poetry. At the recent Booktown in Clunes someone suggested I get up at the poetry readings one night. There was a lovely woman Kodie who had lost her father – a wonderful local Bob McKinnon – and she recited one of his poems. It was moving and an incredible tribute to Bob. I wondered what I could possibly recite and it was all very spontaneous. I remembered a song from the folk era of Melbourne in the 60’s, I gave my love a cherry and there is an incredible moment when you are on stage and hear yourself,” he said.
For Philip, he describes his upbringing as quite dysfunctional but educational and loving the same time. “There were a lot of parties. A lot of booze and cigarettes and when Mum would come home late from a stage show, Dad would be having a session with his muso friends. The word eccentric wasn’t commonly used back then but that’s a word to describe my childhood.”
Philip recalls the day his family discovered his sister had died. “My mother aged instantly. There are no words to describe what it would be like to lose a child. I’ve lost loved ones but my mother was never the same. My sister and work friends had gone to work and before work she and her friends would go up onto the roof. We will never really know what happened but it changed our lives changed forever,” he said. Philip was nine years old.
His mother, Sheila, was born in Melbourne and began her stage career at 15 and at 17 she married in Melbourne and then sailed to England with her husband Roger. It’s believed she continued her career on the stages of London during the war. In 1944 her husband died in action. She returned to Australia where she continued working in theatre and became involved in television when it came to Australia in 1956.
“Actors of her generation transitioned to television because it was here. Early television used theatre actresses and crews. My mother even worked in the ABC as a floor manager in 1959.”
Florence died in 1991 from cancer. Only three days before she died Sheila was awarded an Australian Film Industry Award for best actress in the Paul Cox-directed A Woman’s Tale. Philip received the award at the AFI awards night at the Opera House and the next day went straight from the airport to the Cabrini Hospital where she was and gave her the award. Three days later she died. “She went out at the top,” Philip said.
While his mother’s involvement in the entertainment industry had an influence on him from an early age, Philip left school at 16 and became an apprentice hairdresser at an upmarket salon. He then got a job in photography learning the skills of developing photos (his love of photography continues to this day) and from there he got a job sorting mail in the original Mail Exchange Post Office.
He married his first wife at 21 and after a number of attempts working in television, he had various truck driving jobs. He then got a job at Channel 7 driving for a year and then got into the staging department.
“There were a lot of new productions but half of the shows collapsed so they put half of us off. I heard about a job going with Crawford Productions and ended up driving a 28-foot caravan plus was assistant grip on Division 4. “My last 12 years at the ABC I was a grip working on mainly drama programs.” In 1987 Philip took a redundancy package and 10 years later completed a carers course and worked at the Alfred Hospital until he was 73. It was this role that cemented his need to give back.
During this time he was also a carer for his partner Jan and during times of respite would find comfort travelling to Clunes, Maldon and Trentham. He made Clunes his home following Jan’s death.
Philip, like his late mother Sheila, is a wonderful raconteur, with a talent for telling stories that inspire and move you. Now he has found his voice and love of performing at 77, and is living out the next chapter of his colourful and incredible life. But his love of giving back and helping others is his purpose in life.
“If anyone needs a hand, I’ll be there. We all have a story and all have times of need. It doesn’t matter what the need is, it is so important to me to be there for others.”
Words & main image: Narelle Groenhout