Vale Hilary Linstead

Vale Hilary Linstead

Remembering a Force of Nature
 Louis Nowra

Australian author, playwright and screenwriter Louis Nowra pays tribute to Hilary Linstead who passed away on 6 August 2022 at the age of 83.

Hilary Linstead was a force of nature. Actor, casting director, agent and film and stage producer. With her trademark ebullience and endless enthusiasm, she nurtured and promoted some of Australia’s most famous artistic talents, including directors such as John Bell, Baz Luhrmann, Gillian Armstrong, Jim Sharman, Jane Campion and Neil Armfield, many writers, designers, composers, cinematographers, choreographers, comedians and performers.

Early life

Head and shoulders shot of film producer and agent Hilary Linstead.
Hilary Linstead

Hilary was born in London in 1938, the only daughter of Aileen Edith Ellis Rowland Abbott and Reginald Patrick Linstead. Her parents met as fellow science research students in London. She was never to know her mother who died of sepsis 6 days after giving birth. She was brought up by a beloved nanny until the age of 4 when her father remarried. Patrick was a highly respected chemistry academic who was knighted and became Rector of Imperial College, London where its Linstead Hall was named in his honour.

Educated at Frances Holland School in London and Cheltenham Ladies College, Hilary fell in love with the arts and performing. She came to Australia as a professional actress as a member of an English touring company and, as she once said, ‘I realised I had my limitations as an actor’. She found her metier as a casting director and worked in an advertising company and at International Casting Services representing actresses. In 1962 she married Leon Stemler and a year later her only child, Duncan was born.

Agent and Producer

The turning point in her career came when Hilary joined Liz Mullinar to found M&L Casting Consultants, which became a formidable and highly influential company that was to ride the crest of the boom in television and film in the 1970s. They went on to cast productions such as The Rocky Horror Show, Jesus Christ Superstar and many Oz film classics, including Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career and Sunday Too Far Away. One time Hilary was questioned why she chose a certain actor. She replied, 'he clangs when he walks. Women will love him.’ Which they did.

In 1973 Hilary started the first Australian agency representing writers, directors, composers, choreographers and cinematographers. If you were represented by M&L, then you were someone special. Not content with this, Hilary also branched out into producing, among other things, the hugely successful The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin, directed by Richard Wherrett and starring Gordon Chater. Written by Steve J Spears, it was a daring play with a gay character in the lead. From the small downstairs space at Nimrod, it went on to play off Broadway and the West End in London.

In 1981 she found herself helping director Gillian Armstrong produce her seminal documentary about teenage girls, 14's Good, 18's Better. The project seemed to be going nowhere and typically, as Gillian says, 'Hil, with determination and chutzpah, said, "I’ll help you make it." She hit the phones …cleverly pushing it as a teen sex story.' The documentary and 4 more episodes won many awards over the next 30 years.

A year later she packaged and produced her first feature film, Heatwave, directed by Phil Noyce, followed by Molly, a children’s film about a singing dog, starring Claudia Karvan. As she was to ruefully reflect, ‘the dog could sing, but couldn’t act'.

Hilary Linstead & Associates

In 1985 the M&L Casting Consultants partnership terminated and Hilary and Viccy Harper partnered to form Hilary Linstead & Associates. They continued to represent directors and such clients as designers Brian Thomson, Roger Ford and Michael Wilkinson; writers Louis Nowra and Andrew Bovell; and performers Wendy Harmer, Magda Szubanski and Jean Kittson.

Hilary was an intensely curious person and believed in talent, whether it be those working in opera, film or cabaret. Between 1985 and 1995 she produced the cabaret group Pardon Me Boys, the stage production Buzz and was Associate Producer on the film The Castanet Club directed by Neil Armfield.

She also produced Dein Perry’s Tap Dogs, which has performed in over 500 cities, including off-Broadway New York and return seasons in the West End. Dein remembered how ‘Hil took a tap-dancing kid and taught him how the business worked. None of our success would have been possible without her mentorship, drive, passion, and her belief in me more than I believed in myself.' Her final film Bootmen, inspired by Tap Dogs, was produced in 1999 and directed by Dein Perry. Bootmen collected 5 AFI Awards.

Cover of a book titled 'Growing Old Outrageously'

In 2000 the agency was renamed HLA Management and is helmed by one of her mentees Kate Richter. It was then that Hilary set off to travel the world and later published Growing Old Outrageously, which she co-authored with her old school pal and travelling mate Elizabeth Davies. It’s a hilarious memoir of travel, food, friendship and how to defy one’s age.

Lifelong friends

Her mother was said to have had a genius for friendship and so did Hilary. Her lifelong list of friendships is testament to this – from the nucleus of her agency, Hilary Furlong, Viccy Harper and Frances McDonald, to many of the artists she promoted and befriended.

Hilary’s cheerfulness, enthusiasm and excitement was infectious. If she believed in your talent then she was ferocious on your behalf. But more than that, she was a visionary who believed that too many Australians didn’t realise just how important the arts were and she viewed her job as making sure they knew. She was a truly remarkable woman and, as the author Mandy Sayer says, ‘We will miss Hilary’s no-bullshit straight-talking, her curiosity, her intelligence and enduring warmth. I absolutely adored her.’

In 2018 Hilary began to experience poor health culminating in a form of leukaemia and died peacefully at home. She is survived by her son Duncan, her daughter-in-law Juliette and their 3 children Scarlett, Paris and Django.

Louis Nowra

From GAYLE LAKE, NFSA Chief Curator

What to say about Hilary Linstead?  Business visionary, champion of talent and all forms of creative expression, perfectionist, a loyal and generous friend and ally. If Hilary believed in something or someone, look out and enjoy the ride. Ideas and creative expression were everything, they gave meaning to the world as far as  Hilary  was concerned.

The combination of a fierce intellect and pursuit of excellence led to the best outcomes. Hilary's ability to identify and nurture talent was remarkable and the national audiovisual collection, of which the NFSA is custodian, is better for it. Hilary lived life to the fullest. We thank Louis Nowra for his beautiful words describing Hilary’s enormous contribution to Australian arts and culture.

– Gayle Lake, NFSA Chief Curator