The colourful life of Jack Charles: thespian, respected Indigenous elder and one-time cat burglar. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Stolen moments with veteran actor Jack Charles

Walking towards the monochrome tower of flats rising into winter cloud feels like strolling onto the set of Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Bastardy. It’s in this block of flats Uncle Jack gets offered a first-steady-home-in-10-years near the end of the documentary. Then comes another stint in lock-up, for jimmying windows and collecting back-rent on country. He gets back to the flat 12 months later, just before the end credits: paroled, off the smack, weaned down to the healthy juice and vowing to get off even that. 

“You’d better come up then,” his matter-of-fact baritone rumbles through the intercom.

I walk through the worn entry hall, past the squares of locked postboxes sunk into the wall, past the group dining hall, into the tiny lift. From Jack’s floor, the balcony looks down on green parkland on one side, car-blur of highway wrapping round the other. There’s Uncle Jack, behind the screen door: diminutive frame, grounded shuffle of a walk, warm hazel eyes ringed with grey, bushy white beard meets wild shoulder-length silver hair. The vertical furrows at the inner edge of each wild eyebrow look carved in: twirls of cinnamon-coloured tallowwood painstakingly gouged out by an expert artisan.

Slim shoulders swamped by knitted tan jumper, Jack leans back in his chair, long tapered fingers cradling a cuppa. This is the same knowing Uncle Jack of Bastardy. Same wise Jack; sharp Jack; honest Jack. But a clear-eyed Jack; clean Jack; focused Jack. Jack-at-the-ready. Same Uncle Jack, but different.

Jack’s talking about growing up in the all-white Box Hill Boys’ Home as a stolen child, about when he got out, meeting other blackfellas on the street who instantly knew which folk he belonged to. I’ve heard the story before, but Jack leans forward in his chair. A bright shaft of light shining through the bottom of the pulled vertical blinds falls across his face. His voice takes on a mellow richness. I’m in Jack Charles’s living room, watching him perform from his one-man show Jack Charles v the Crown, in which he plays himself. This is a portrait fracturing of Francis Bacon proportions.

It’s not easy to draw a man like Jack – to newly see someone so very looked-at. I ask him about the documentary experience: how it feels to be laid bare.

“No one in their right mind would let them film what I let them film. Taking drugs and that. But that was the point. I had to be honest. I wanted them to see everything. I’m just one stolen person, but it was important for people to see that one person.”

Some of Jack’s siblings have still never been found. “They would’ve contacted me by now, if they knew who they were, cause I’ve been everywhere, y’know, all over the place, now.” 

Closure might come, Jack says, once the wrongs of history are fully acknowledged, and little ones all over the country are learning about Aboriginal history, this land’s history, in schools.

Jack asks where my people are from. “I’m researching my family history, Jack. Looking for my stolen people. I found this inventory – of a whitefella in Jamaica with the same surname – a list of the things he owned when he died: an old ‘negro man’ worth £45, a ‘negro girl’ worth £10, an old horse worth £15, pewter plates worth £5. The Empire, stealing, buying and selling all those people. So I want to ask you…” I lean forward with the weight of the question. “How does it feel to just walk into one of those big houses, like you did in Kew, and take from the wealth that should be yours?”     

Uncle Jack leans back in his chair. His shoulders drop a little. A grin creeps slowly across his face. A look of sheer delight, of defiance, takes over, like a health-food-farmed kid who somehow got hold of a stick of fairy floss. “I was raised as a Christian … to believe stealing is wrong. But it felt great. Very, very satisfying.” Fire ignites behind his eyes. “Whitefella law’s different from blackfella lore. And I’m a lore man now,” he says proudly. I don’t doubt it. There’s the high court action he launched a few years back, against evidence-of-Aboriginality requirements in the arts, his recent taking-on of the “would-be drug gangsters” in his community. 

 Jack’s recently returned from a stint overseas playing chief and protector of the fairy kingdom in Warner Bros’ Pan: the perfect part for this child-at-heart. His lost boys, he tells me, were a cross-cultural bunch of charming rabble-rousers of all nationalities. “They had my ASIO file and my criminal record and everything, the film studio. They asked me how I was doing with the drugs. I told ’em I was off the stuff now. Clean.”

“Did you ever think you’d play a role like that? A fairy chief in Peter Pan? Back in the early days, when you were doing The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, or opening the first Indigenous theatre company?”

“Nah. No. I didn’t.”

Seasoned thespians can seem like faded canvas: each screen or stage life they wear eroding a little of their actual being. Not so Jack. In person, he’s a magnetic bumble of fascinating contradictions: physically small, but larger than life; quietly spoken, but loud in lesson; humble, but well aware of his standing and achievements. When you look at Jack, you’re looking into yourself: his unapologetic and generous frankness makes you painstakingly aware of your own guardedness, of how much more we could all share of ourselves.

“Are there any roles that have stayed with you, haunted you? That you’ve been unable to completely shake off?”

“When I did Blood Knot, back at the start, at the New Theatre in Sydney.” He’s quick to remember the 1970 production. “It’s a play written by a South African, about two brothers, one lighter skinned that can pass, the other darker skinned. It’s the first time I really realised…” His voice quivers slightly. 

Standing at the front of the flat door, about to exit stage left of Uncle Jack Charles’s life, I tell him I’m looking forward to an audience with him when he goes head to head with the Aboriginal Protection Board in Coranderrk, but also to watching the chief of the fairy kingdom with the considerable cat-burglary record fearlessly guard Neverland: second star to the right, and then straight on till morning.   


This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 16, 2014 as "Stolen moments". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is The Saturday Paper’s poet laureate, and the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil. She is a winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry.