Left bank on Broadway

By Clem Gorman

In the 1970s, the Footbridge Theatre’s Foyer Cafe was a hotbed of intellectual life the equal of any in Greenwich Village or Paris.
Image of Broadway cafe

Today cafes are punctuation marks of the city’s narrative, strategically sited. Few, though, are sites of social or political discourse. In the 1960s, however, the University was the site of a cafe whose patrons engaged in challenging and thoughtful discussion over their roasted beans.

Repins Coffee Inn in the CBD, or the Arabian and the Piccolo, both in Kings Cross, were haunts of Bohemians, intellectuals, and artists, but perhaps the most intellectually alive was the cafe in the foyer of the Footbridge Theatre. Some of the most talented and articulate young thinkers and creators in the country, many of whom were destined to have outstanding careers in the arts, journalism or academe, hung out there.

On a typical weekday one might encounter Germaine Greer holding forth on the subject for which she was to become famous; John Bell holding forth on theatre; Robert Hughes on art; or Bob Ellis, just holding forth. Richard Brennan, later a film producer, was a witty raconteur; Judith Rich was later a successful New York journalist; Mungo MacCallum Junior was developing as a political journalism; Jeannie Lewis was a leading folksinger; Frank Moorhouse was publishing his first short stories; Padraic McGuinness was already a brilliant economist; Jim Baker, a lecturer in Philosophy was a leading figure in the Libertarian Push (inspired by 1920s University lecturer John Anderson); Arthur Dignam was soon to be one of Australia’s most successful actors; Albie Thoms was pioneering alternative cinema.

Richard Neville edited the satirical Oz Magazine; Laurie Oakes was later to be the country’s best known political reporter; Clive James was investing his talent in his conversation; Ken Horler would become a highly successful lawyer; Michael Wilding would later be Professor of English at the University; Liz Fell was building her academic career; Johnny Allen was creating left wing theatre; Richard Walsh would rise to be the Publisher of Consolidated Press; and I was commencing my career as the founder of Australian experimental theatre.

Those who were there retain many memories: Germaine castigating a law student for his chauvinism; or a naked male student leaping from a female student’s high window when her lover showed up.

The conversation was often intense, frequently funny, invariably satirical, occasionally fractious, and regularly iconoclastic. It was also democratic, with lecturers and students sitting together, arguing and joking.

Many cultural and social developments which are now taken for granted were new, exciting and infectious. The Pill had liberated sexual mores. The New Left was, still, new. Censorship was loosening. Clothing styles were being revolutionised, and in the arts, modernism was giving way to postmodernism. So, why at Sydney University, and not in, say, Darlinghurst or Balmain? Perhaps because universities are, necessarily, hotbeds of intellectual ferment and cutting-edge ideas.

While the talk was in full swing in the cafe, in the theatre of which it was the foyer the latest nouvelle vague films from Europe, such as those of Bergman or Fellini, were being screened, long before there was an SBS. The venerable Sydney University Dramatic Society, led by Albie Thoms, was staging challenging new European plays. Albie organised the visit to Sydney, in 1964, of Fernando Arrabal, a leading European author of the famous Absurdist antiwar play Picnic on the Battlefield.

Those who were there retain many memories: Germaine castigating a law student for his chauvinism; a theatre set which I built collapsing during a performance; political demonstrations in the city and on campus, by the cafe’s habitués; fierce verbal battles over trifles; or a naked male student leaping from a female student’s high window when her lover showed up.

Was the Foyer Cafe Australia’s Deux Magots on the Left Bank of Paris? Was it a sliver of New York’s Greenwich Village? Actually, yes, it was. And I doubt any of those cafes were more exciting sites of intellectual and artistic cross-fusion than was this plainly-decorated cafe with its small tribe of aproned ladies, cheerfully serving coffee and raisin toast.