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How to Make Gravy, the ‘near-mythological’ song by Paul Kelly, to be immortalised in film

Paul Kelly faithfully performs <i>How to Make Gravy</i> at all his shows. And now, at the Carols by Candlelight on December 24.

Paul Kelly faithfully performs How to Make Gravy at all his shows. And now, at the Carols by Candlelight on December 24. Photo: Getty

On talkback radio stations and TV breakfast shows on December 21 every year, iconic Australian song How to Make Gravy by Paul Kelly gets played in full over its five minutes and 10 seconds.

Ordinary, everyday folk stop what they’re doing, turn the radio up, reflect on the year they’ve had, feel nostalgic about their childhoods and what Christmas Day was like around the dining table, and remember anyone doing it tough or who has died.

Respectfully, they want to hear Kelly talk about his beloved song.

They want to listen to why he wrote it in 1996, who exactly was Rita (she’s the one who saved him) and why was Joe in prison anyway, hear his distinct sound and get him to sing a live acoustic version … oh, and laugh fondly at his recipe for Christmas turkey (or ham, chicken or pork) gravy that includes tomato sauce.

Now, Foxtel’s Australian television streaming platform Binge has announced its first original feature film will be none other than an adaptation of the song How to Make Gravy.

The song was about Joe’s letter to his family, about getting Dan to kiss his kids on Christmas Day, and about all the other relatives and friends he’s missing and a reminder of how to make the gravy … as he’ll be making a stack of it behind bars.

A brilliant storyline for a feature film.

On ABC Radio in Melbourne in 2021, Kelly, now 68, reminisced about how he was asked to record a song for an annual charity Christmas album, but when his chosen song had already been recorded, he was asked to come up with an original.

“I started thinking … maybe I’ll write it from the point of view of somebody who is missing Christmas, who can’t get to Christmas,” he said at the time.

“Why can’t they get there? Maybe they’re overseas and they can’t get home. Then I thought, oh, he’s in prison. The song wrote itself from there.”

Kelly rolls out his protagonist for a third time, after To Her Door in 1987 and Love Never Runs on Time in 1994. Joe finds himself in prison and heading into Christmas, hoping to be out by July with good behaviour.

The lyrics centre on his remorse for his actions and the reality he will be apart from his family for Christmas.

In his correspondence to his brother, Joe also verbalises his fear that his brother may make advances on Rita (Joe’s partner) as he knows his brother likes her and pleads with him not to stab him in the back and make a move on her.

Concert tours were named after the song, T-shirts with “Give my Love to Angus”, “Hello Dan, it’s Joe Here” and “& To Frank and Dolly” would sell out as Christmas presents, and tellingly, the song has been a solid fixture on his playlist throughout his illustrious 40-year career.

“It was a song that doesn’t have a chorus, it’s set in prison, so I never thought it would be a hit song or anything,” Kelly said.

It quickly became an important cultural song on the calendar and the title track of that historic four-track EP, so much so Gravy Day was born.

‘Is it true a movie is going to be made?’

A few weeks before Gravy Day last year, Kelly posted a beautiful old photograph, presumably of his own childhood memories of Christmas.

Suddenly, the messages lit up.

“Every year here in the UK I make about a gallon of gravy … Never without a dollop of tomato sauce for sweetness and that extra tang! True story.”

“Is it true there is going to be a movie based on ‘How To Make Gravy’,” another asked … “would be a great story.”

Indeed.

Cast announced

Daniel Henshall (Snowtown) will star in the film.

So who will play Joe, Dan, Rita, Angus, Frank and Dolly?

And what about Roger? Mary? Stella, who’s flying in from the coast?

Who’s going to make the gravy?

As production gets under way on the Gold Coast in Queensland, the key cast set to star in the film, led by the highly regarded Daniel Henshall (Snowtown, Mystery Road: Origin) and Hugo Weaving (Love Me, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix), with Brenton Thwaites (Titans, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), Damon Herriman (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Mr Inbetween, The Bikeriders), Kate Mulvany (The Twelve, Hunters, Lambs of God), and, making her English-language debut, celebrated French actor Agathe Rousselle (Titane).

The film will also feature cameos from Australian musicians, including powerhouse Adam Briggs and rising rap talent Dallas Woods.

“I’ve listened to the song for decades, often on my own Christmas road trip, conjuring up the characters, wondering if Stella made her flight and if the brothers made it down from Queensland,” Binge boss Alison Hurbert-Burns said.

Adapted by Queenslanders Meg Washington and Nick Waterman, they reckon the world and characters within Kelly lyrics are “so vivid” and they’re “proud to have the honour of bringing it to life”.

So how do you make gravy, Paul?

“She’s the one who saved me, and I’m going to make some gravy,” he says in the lyrics.

According to the National Film and Sound Archive, the song has a “cultish following”, has been downloaded five million times, and the recipe is real.

Just add flour, salt, a little red wine. And don’t forget a dollop of tomato sauce

For sweetness and that extra tang

“While Joe may be a character from Kelly’s imagination the gravy recipe is not, being a family standard passed down by Kelly’s then father-in-law, when he was married to Hilary Brown (they divorced in 1984).”

Adds Hurbert-Burns: “We can’t wait to share it with Australia, in what we hope will become a beloved addition to Gravy Day, for many years to come.”

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