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Oh Errol, he was just like him

14 September 2013 523 views No Comment

THIS self-published biography of the Tasmanian biologist who sired one of Australia’s greatest movie stars is a gem. With an excellent index and a revealing series of photographs, the thoroughly researched book is a credit to Hobart couple Vicki and Tony Harrison, who went down the self-publishing route after being unable to interest a commercial publisher.

Theodore Thomson Flynn was born in Coraki in northern NSW in 1883. He came from a modest background and at 15 started work as a pupil-teacher in country NSW. After completing his studies at the University of Sydney, he became, at just 28, professor of biology at the University of Tasmania. His two main fields of interest were marine biology and fisheries, and marsupial embryology and its place in mammalian development.

Through the years Flynn established an international reputation as a researcher in biological and zoological sciences. But not having been afforded what he regarded as proper personal and academic respect in Hobart, and having being hounded by university bureaucrats, he decided to look for positions elsewhere, preferably overseas.

Despite the effects of the Depression, in 1931 Flynn was fortunate enough to be appointed to the chair of zoology at the prestigious Queen’s University in Belfast. While there he also served as chief of Belfast’s Casualty Clearing Service during World War II, for which he was awarded an MBE.
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Given its subtitle, ‘Not Just Errol’s Father’, it’s no surprise this book deals in considerable detail with a comparison between Flynn and his devil-may-care son, Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn, who was born in Hobart’s Queen Alexandra Hospital on June 20, 1909.

Although both men, until their deaths, had a series of affairs, Flynn Sr, who was married only once, kept his extramarital relations hidden, while those of Errol, who was married three times, were often played out in public view.

The authors argue, somewhat controversially, that “while not as handsome as his actor son Errol, and far less of a libertine, there are sufficient similarities to conclude that Errol’s life owed a good deal to genetics”.

They suggest Flynn Sr, by all reports a charmer of women, took great pains to keep his affairs private because he had been so hurt by his own parents’ divorce and his father’s central part in it.

Their break-up heavily influenced his attitude to the institution of marriage (which he valued) and his largely successful attempts to form and maintain what the Harrisons term “a cogent and effective family”.

It is nevertheless fascinating to learn that, at age 70, Flynn Sr had a passionate affair with Melbourne-born composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks, 30 years his junior.

Despite their many differences, father and son liked and esteemed each other.

Thus one of the most fascinating, and often harrowing, sections of this fine biography canvasses the effect on his father of Errol’s death in Vancouver, British Columbia, on October 14, 1959.

Although the cause of death was listed as heart attack, it was well known the actor was an alcoholic and drug addict and suffering from cirrhosis of the liver.

It is also touching to be informed of how, after Errol’s premature death at age 50, his father, who would live another nine years, so dutifully supervised his errant son’s estate and his many properties in Jamaica.

As it happens, one of my favourite movies is the 1938 swashbuckler ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, with Flynn in the title role and the sensual British-American actress Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian.

In later life, de Havilland declared that, despite persistent rumours, she never had sexual relations with the amorous, restless and enigmatic Australian.

In that film, Flynn demonstrated he was not merely a superlatively energetic and handsome actor, but a highly professional swordsman as well. My one regret is that the Harrisons make no mention of this wonderful movie in what is in many ways an enthralling book.

‘Theodore Thomson Flynn: Not Just Errol’s Father’
By Tony and Vicki Harrison
Artemis Publishing, 238pp, $35

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of politics and history at Griffith University.

‘The Weekend Australian’, September 14-15, 2013, Review, Books, pp 24-25