In the 1970s I was a regular reader of Albie Thoms’ articles on Australian cinema – with their emphasis on alternative filmmaking – in Filmnews, and appreciated him compiling the best of them for his book Polemics for a New Cinema: Writings to Stimulate New Approaches to Film (1978). I was able to draw upon this information when co-writing Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years (1983), valuing its depth and clarity at a time when writing on Australia’s alternative film history was all to rare. When I sent drafts of Australian Cinema’s two final chapters to Albie, he was meticulous in the changes and new information he provided, inspiring me to rewrite entire sections. Knowing in advance how substantial his advice about these chapters would be, I audio-recorded our almost two-hour conversation. I also recorded the entire session – including discussion between takes and material that did not make the final edit – when I interviewed Albie for “The Director’s Chair”, a 10-minute segment on his career for ABC-TV’s Sunday afternoon arts program. Both recordings are now held by the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA).
I had first become aware of Albie’s wish to document Australian film history when in the mid-1970s he asked me and Sue Adler to interview Australian surf movie pioneer Bob Evans for an article he was writing on surf movie history for Cinema Papers. Albie’s fascination with surf movies continued through his documentary Surfmovies (1981) and the book Surfmovies: The History of the Surf Film in Australia (2000). He eventually sent the NFSA all of his surf movie research papers and VHS collection, and in late 2011 he delivered a public lecture on the genre for the Museum of Sydney’s Surf City exhibition.
Albie wrote accurate-from-the-start scripts on Australia’s cinema newsreels and the history of Australia’s recorded music industry for the Capital 7 documentary series The Australian Image (1988), for which I was a fellow writer, and contributed spiritedly and with wise guidance to meetings of the series’ writing team. For some years he endeavoured to raise money for a documentary he wanted to make on the history of Australians in Hollywood, and for a feature film on the story of Australian sportsman and film star Reginald L. “Snowy” Baker. He also continued to be both an historian and an archivist for Ubu Films. During my work on the NFSA’s Australia’s “Lost” Films: Search and Rescue initiative in 2010, Albie was able to tell me immediately which out of the large output of Ubu Films were missing, and in mid-October 2012 he emailed me to let me know that one of them, Seven Yellow Months (Aggy Read, 1971), had just been found.
Out of that contact came an email from Albie saying, “If you’ve got a moment when you’re next in Sydney, it would be good to see you”. The time we arranged was the afternoon of Saturday 27 October 2012. I had not previously visited Albie’s apartment in Sydney’s CBD, and when I did, he began by taking me on a tour of his extensive collection of paintings and artworks. Albie explained the stories behind the ones that caught my eye and talked about influences in their creation as well as their connection to other works that he held. Albie then sat me down to watch a series of films. They included early 1960s issues of a newsreel produced by the Sydney University Film Group, one of which showed Albie directing Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi. They also included a compile that Albie had edited of home movies that his grandfather and father had shot across three decades from 1930. As they appeared on screen, Albie talked about the key figures in the family firm, Thomas Thoms Pty Ltd, a company that had made and still makes lead, aluminium and zinc products, and about the childhood of Albie and a younger brother who had died before he was 10. There was also coverage of family weddings and of Albie’s career as a school footballer. Albie said that the interests of his broader family were in commerce rather than creativity, and that he had been the first among them to attend university. In the 1970s Albie had made an instructional film for the employees of Thomas Thoms Pty Ltd, a film which he said by 2012 had become an historical record of technology no longer in use. More recently he had written a Thoms family history that traced the family back to Cornwall in the early 19th century.
Tina Kaufman has written, for Screenhub and elsewhere in this issue of Senses of Cinema, of the way in which Albie over the years lodged his entire film archive including films, scripts and documents with the NFSA, and indeed a search of NFSA’s online database reveals that he donated or deposited more than 8000 works with the organisation. Roslyn Barker, from the NFSA’s Collection Information (CI) cataloguing team, wrote in a blog in November 2012 that Albie had taken the rare step of visiting NFSA to answer a series of questions that CI staff had about collection identification and other issues. Albie’s final work, his book My Generation (2012), was also about communicating history – a personal journey through the creative, cultural and political ferment of Sydney in the 1960s.