In the early days of the Keating era, the new Australian Prime Minister was all about forging a national identity through art. Can you imagine? A big part of this was something referred to as his 'Distinctly Australian' initiative – essentially a government funded push to create cultural content which reflected Australian values and aesthetics. The golden-era of ABC Kids was largely due to this push from the Keating government.
One of its more daring programs was Li'l Elvis and the Truckstoppers. An Australian-French animated production which followed the life of the illegitimate bastard son of Elvis Presley, abandoned in the outback by The King himself (allegedly) to be raised by two mega-fans as a rockabilly wunderkind.
He played in a skiffle band with 'Asian-Australian' drummer Janet (who played upright like the Velvet Underground's Maureen Tucker) and Lionel, an Indigenous kid who infuses the otherwise classic rock group with some wild didgeridoo playing. They were essentially an outback Neutral Milk Hotel. All the while they're trying not to get exploited by grubby manager W.C Moore, a Twiggy Forrest type, who is constantly using his magic marble to beat the kids at their favourite schoolyard game (marbles.)
You couldn't make it up, but somebody did. It was a massive international production that cost 11.5 million to make. Taxpayer funded.
The program ran for 26 episodes, and now sits as a weird chunk of nostalgic ephemera floating in the hazy days of 90s Australian children's broadcasting – next to Agro, The Ferals, and Round the Twist. What I find funny is that a show designed to shift Australian children away from Americanised broadcasting and into the cultural signifiers of our national identity was essentially about the looming influence of America's cultural empire on Australia and Australian art: the bastard son of its most recognizable pop-icon, uncertain of his roots, a shadowy reflection of the great American 'other.'
But who was Li'l Elvis? And did the show succeed in its quest to be 'distinctly Australian'?
To find out, I tracked down the voice behind the li'l man himself, Stig Wemyss.
Noisey: Li'l Elvis was part of Keating's 'Distinctly Australian' initiative, can you talk a bit about that?
Stig Wemyss: Keating was a visionary. It was refreshing to have a leader that was so passionate about Australian culture, he saw the need to implement policy that ensured it lived on in our children.
It was a large and expensive project. Was there pressure to make sure it succeede'?
The pressure only came from me. I was proud to be the lead in a brave new style of animation and I felt a sense of responsibility to ensure we made it the best we could. It is a fickle industry, you can't predict what will work and what won't. All you can do is make it the best you possibly can, and hope for the best. I am proud to say we achieved that with Lil Elvis.
The villain WC More reminds me of Twiggy Forrest or even Barnaby Joyce. Is it weird that a cartoon villain reflects so much of modern Australia?
I think it reflects the brilliance of the piece. It shows maturity and insight in the writing and is perhaps the reason it has lasted the test of time. It remains one of the breakthrough children's television programs of its time. Perhaps Barnaby used to sneak into the lounge at 4.30 on weekdays and secretly watch it. I wouldn't mind betting if you asked Mr. Joyce, he would tell you he modelled his public persona on WC Moore.
What are your thoughts on the ABC Kids boom of the 90s? Will we see something like it again?
Back in the 90s the Children's Television Foundation were charged with producing vast amounts of content to meet local quotas and it was a wonderful thing for the industry. It provided so much work for and more importantly, gave Australian stories back to Australian kids. Instead of growing up in the 53rd State of America, kids were hearing about their own culture and history.
In what ways was the show indicative of 90s Australia?
It was indicative of Australian culture. It highlighted our larrikin sense of humour and showed off a beautiful part of the country that most city kids never got to see. Because it was an animation, it had a licence to go where ever it wanted with no budget restrictions. The cost to make a show like that with real actors in remote locations with those outrageous stunts, would be completely prohibitive. As an animation, Lil' Elvis Jones and the Truckstoppers provided true escapism. Fantastical unreal reality that was grounded in the one thing that sustains all of us, friendship. It struck a chord with it's audience so perhaps the best person to answer that question is the audience. What do you think Patrick, was it indicative of 90s Australia?
Is it hard to make Australian content in a market saturated by American culture?
Yes, and it continues to get harder. The more our television is flooded with American content, the harder it becomes. It already feels like American content is the norm, so when you do see the odd thing that is distinctly Australian, it feels like that is the foreign stuff. How fucked up is that?
Do you remember the songs?
Yes. I was the spoken voice of Elvis but Wendy Stapelton sings the songs. Lots of effort went in to making sure our voices matched as we transitioned into the musical numbers. Wendy was awesome.
How did you settle on a voice for the illegitimate bastard son of Elvis, raised in the outback as a music wunderkind?
Prior to the show, I had been doing voice over work for a number of years so I had collected a catalogue of character voices. It just so happened that voice number 703 was described as 'the illegitimate bastard son of Elvis, raised in the outback as a music wunderkind', so I just used that.
I always found it curious that a skiffle group had a didgeridoo player, they were almost an experimental band.
I love the didge and in that outback setting, it was totally perfect. You found it curious in the same way that some people thought it was curious that ACDC featured bagpipes in a gritty, hard-hitting Aussie rock anthem, but can you imagine "Long Way To the Top" without it?