The Argus I

A town that performs

A love story spanning four decades between Jean-Paul Bell, Australia’s best known mime artist and the town of Murrurundi.

There’s a sign leaning against a weathered white wall on the deck of a small workers’ cottage in the town of Murrurundi in NSW’s Upper Hunter. It’s a little faded after a few years in the sun and some of the words have almost disappeared but as I lean in a little closer, I can just make them out. ‘Life is too short to be serious all the time’.

Jean-Paul Bell, one of Australia’s best known mime artists, has shaped his life around this sentiment so it’s no surprise to discover the other quirky installations dotted around this block on one of Murrurundi’s side streets. The first, a nameplate ‘Whimsy’ greets you at the front door. “I called it that because to me it is such a storybook cottage. Perhaps it’s because of my mother’s English background, but I’ve always had a bit of a panache for little cottages with white picket fences,” he explains with a wry smile. “I think moving around a lot as a kid, and we lived in a lot of different houses, gave me a great love of architecture and this is a classic workers’ cottage.”

The 69-year-old first came to Murrurundi in the early 1980s. “I was on my way to Tamworth to do some shows and thought I would stay within striking distance,” explains the man who helped establish Clown Doctors, a group of performers dedicated to visiting hospitals, in 1997. “So I trundled into Murrurundi and stayed at the White Hart Hotel. It was very cheap, something like $14 a night. I checked in and then I wandered around town. I thought, I like this place.”

In fact, this grandfather of five – “they range in age from three to 22, it’s wonderful” – liked it so much that Murrurundi quickly became a regular stop on his trips up and down the New England Highway. But it was to take nearly four decades before Jean-Paul finally became a local when he bought the house in April 2014. “I was just in love with it. It took me six months to lift my head to look at the ranges outside the back door and then I thought, god if you were a painter, you would love to live in this town.”

After living in Sydney’s Northern Beaches and Newcastle for many years, Jean-Paul’s decision to move to the country perplexed some but he was no stranger to rural life. As a 14-year-old living in another little country town, St Andrews in Victoria, he had decided to become a performer.

“We had the most peripatetic existence when I was growing up. My father was mainly a travelling salesman and we moved 117 times – my siblings and I counted them up one night as most of us couldn’t remember them all. I went to 20 different primary schools and seven high schools. But I loved St Andrews, it was a fantastic little town, and I joined the local arts association there which eventually led me into theatre.”

Jean-Paul’s work has taken him around the world to some unusual places — two trips were even the subject of documentaries Honeymoon to Kabul in 2009 and Stumbling in Hillary’s Footsteps in 2013 — but the community spirit of this little town has captured his heart.

“I’m the most gypsy like person and I love to go travelling in my little van. I’m lucky to have the most wonderful – and zealous – neighbour, Neil. Anyone comes near the house, I get a report. He’s a former bus driver who doesn’t want to go anywhere, anymore. It’s a great community here which is nice, you just wouldn’t get this in the city.”

Jean-Paul’s Address Book

1. White Hart Hotel. The place Jean-Paul stayed on his first visit to Murrurundi. 46 Mayne Street, Murrurundi NSW. Telephone: (02) 6546 6242. whiteharthotel.com.au

2. Paradise Park. “The walk I love to do, and it takes about two hours, is to Paradise Park. A walk through The Eye Of The Needle also gives you a great view over town.”

3. Passed On. A second-hand shop run by Jean-Paul and friend Dorothy Cleary. “I wanted to call it Dead People’s Stuff after a shop I’d seen in Canada but she thought it was a bit too much.” 52 Mayne Street, Murrurundi NSW.

4. Fox’s Store. Housed in the old Haydonton General Store, this is the place to stop for a milkshake and a browse through a fascinating collection of antiques. 45 Haydon Street, Murrurundi NSW.

5. Darcy and the Fox. Archibald Prize finalist and People’s Choice winner David Darchy moved to Murrurundi several years ago. His gallery shop “is full of interesting things. Great flowers and bush memorabilia,” says Jean-Paul. “David’s studio is right next door and you can often see him working on his latest painting.” 37 Mayne Street, Murrurundi NSW. 0405 817 174. darcyandthefox@gmail.com

Victoria Carey

The power of a good story told well is something this journalist, the former editor-in-chief of Country Style and Vogue Living, is passionate about. “I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t had a great story. I could have written a book about Jean-Paul,” she says.

Nicola Sevitt

This Sydney-based photographer’s work has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Country Style, Condé Nast Traveler, Real Living and The Urban List. Today she is the Special Projects Producer for Gritty Pretty magazine – Australia’s leading digital beauty magazine. “The people we met on our shoots in Murrurundi were very inspiring” she says. “It gave me a great insight into the workings of a little country town.”

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