At 16 David Helfgott was Australia's answer to Horowitz. By 30 he was written off as a babbling lunatic. Now he's the subject of an award- winning film. Michael Church met him in Melbourne
Films that cast a long shadow before, usually do so because marketing men have decreed it. No such banality accounts for the bushfire success of an unpretentious Australian film due to open in Britain next month. Shine chronicles the life of pianist David Helfgott, who sprang like an exotic bloom from grinding poverty in Perth. At first all went well: local fame, accolades from virtuosi, glittering student success in London. Then all went wrong: a psychotic crack-up, followed by 12 years in assorted asylums. Then came a miracle: written off as a harmless imbecile, Helfgott wandered into a wine bar and started to play the piano. Instant stardom again, though now as a freak-show: the man who gabbles nonsense while immaculately playing Liszt; the smart crowd in Perth simply couldn't get enough of him. Finally he was saved by the love of a good woman, a gutsy astrologer who house-trained him - though he still gabbled and still cavorted naked - to a point where he could return in triumph to the concert platform.

The film is a wonderful fairy-tale, and a horrendous tale of fathers and sons - Helfgott pere is a Polish Jew who saw most of his relatives perish in the Holocaust. His obsession is to see his talented son succeed, though not at the cost of breaking up his family. Both proud and paranoid, he supervises the boy's studies, and jealously rejects help from any other quarter. When David finally defies his authority, he beats him and banishes him forever. Does this stress precipitate the madness? Nothing is spelt out, but the implication is yes.

This suffocating small-town drama is delivered by a cast including Googie Withers, Lynn Redgrave and John Gielgud, with a mesmerising performance by Australian actor Geoffrey Rush in the central role. The film was fought over by distributors at the Sundance Festival, swept the board in this year's Australian film awards, and is likely to figure in the forthcoming Oscars. Wherever it opens, it's a box-office hit.

But a parallel furore has been raging in the Australian press, and of a very different sort. The father may be dead, but mother, brother, and three sisters are still around, some violently disputing the film's veracity. David's elder sister Margaret leads the case for the prosecution, contending that Peter Helfgott was a model father who neither beat his son nor caused his psychotic illness. "Everything in the film has its origins in reality," replies director Scott Hicks, while conceding that - in the interests of shaping a story - fictional liberties have been taken. He went to a concert by David in 1986, was seized by the Helfgott mystery, and has spent a decade researching his film. Apart from Margaret (who lives in Israel) all the family saw the final script, and none, he claims, raised any serious objection; Peter's violence is vigorously attested by the younger brother. Meanwhile, David's saviour - now wife - Gillian Helfgott has published her own account, which endorses the film.

And David himself? Well, two days on tour with him in Melbourne leave me - to coin a phrase - bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. It is suggested that I should meet him at his hotel pool, where he will be most relaxed. There I find a whippety little figure ploughing up and down, under the watchful eye of a matronly peroxide-blonde. She summons him out, and he obediently trots over to be towelled dry and enveloped in a dressing gown. Then he snuggles up and puts an arm round my shoulder, kisses me repeatedly on the cheek, and fills my ear with muttering laughter. I had assumed the film's portrayal was an exaggeration, but realise with a jolt that it's exact.

I ask about the programme for his forthcoming concert, and the reply comes like a fusillade. "Funerailles, Sospiro, La campanella, Ravel's Toccata, Ondine, Rachmaninov's second sonata." Heavy stuff then? "Yes, I've got to be fit - got to be fit - I wasn't always like this you know - very costly, very costly, it's awesome, it's awesome - you can get CNN here you know, 24 hours a day - I must got some release, get some release - can I swim again now darling? "No," says Gillian in a wardress-tone. "You have to do the interview." David, she explains, is a past-master at avoidance techniques. "Gotta play the game, you know, gotta play the game!" he whispers with desperate urgency. "Just relax, just relax," he goes on. "Keep to the point - you should be aware - such a problem." What is the problem then? "No idea, no idea - pressure, pressure - and you've come all the way from London - I should be grateful - but you can't have it all your own way." How would he prefer to have things? "Well I'd have much less, much less - but it's all planned, all set up - freedom freedom - it's awesome - very tricky - I should make sense - very costly."

This is ghastly. If he doesn't want to talk, then I don't want to make him, least of all about the pain in his past. Yet in a flash he's gone back there unprompted. "You came from London - I was in London - three good years - my vintage years. I was popular, and I was lovely, and I played beautifully, and looked beautiful. But when I played in the evening I was sore in les yeux. Bonjour tristesse." Eyes: not only does he make no eye contact, but his eyes are constantly closed, as though in a trance. And the connotations of "sore" seem both emotional and physical; he's bothered by the effect of the chlorine, and asks Gillian to make the soreness better.

How did they meet? "No idea - it was all set up, all planned - by fate, by God - she arrived on my doorstep - I was in rainy nights and cafes - keep trying, keep trying - what can you do? And when I met her I was cheery - too much coffee and cigarettes - it's risky isn't it! Now it's great because of Gillian." One of Gillian's incontrovertible achievements has been to wean him off smoking (125 cigarettes a day) and cut down his caffeine consumption (25 cups a day) to a sensible level.

What was the first piece he ever played? "Might have been Fur Elise." What sort of things was he playing when he was eight? "My father put me on the most difficult pieces straight away. Made me play Pisseray.' (David's invented name for Chopin, explains Gillian.) "Pisseray and the Grieg concerto." Whereupon Gillian interrupts: "Darling, get things in the right order! You weren't playing the Grieg concerto at eight." - "Yes I was," he replies. "Father said play it all - loving father - mistaken father - can be a disaster - saying play it all. Father put some stress on me - never mind - better now! It's all a matter of survival, but you can't get complacent, mustn't get complacent." But you have survived, and you're famous! "There's a price you pay for this privilege." After which - as after all his replies - he gives a rueful, shuddering laugh.

Whether swimming, or turning a bathroom into a swirling ocean of suds and sodden towels, or simply washing up, David's water-obsession is legendary. What is it about water? "Don't know - just one of those things - happens to the best of families." I try again: why does he like swimming? "It's calming and relaxing and soothing, and after half an hour I've swum my worries away. Keep it simple - don't be like that David - I was better once you know - can I have another swim now?" Agreeing that he's earnt it, Gillian lets him go.

"When I first met him in that wine bar," she confides, "I thought he was incredible, amazing, irresistible. He asked me to marry him on the second day, and though it took a little longer than that -" pursing her lips like Dame Edna -"we didn't shilly-shally. But when I realised he was doing a come-back concert I knew I had to take him in hand, because he was far from ready to go on stage. If I'd put him on more medication, I'd have had a far easier life, but who wants to live with a zombie?" She evades my next question, about his clinical diagnosis: "I just like to describe him as delightfully eccentric." And his speech patterns? In answer to that, she summons a young woman who has been reading behind a nearby potted palm: this is Alissa Tanskaya, co-author of her book about David's return to "normality". "Joycean," declares Alissa firmly. "Joyce would have loved his word play, very profound and metaphoric, and not nonsense by any means." I am only half convinced. For Helfgott, whose brain is swirling with voices (many of them not his own), word play seems to have a more desperate purpose.

Later in the day, after going for coaching to a Russian pianist he refers to as Kharkov-and-Kiev, he is ready to talk further (though for this stage of the interview he sits on my knee). One question about his past gets an anguished reply: "I'm trying to remember. Sometimes I concentrate quite well, other times my thoughts - my respectable thoughts - fly right out of my head." But he loves the flowers, the fresh linen, the luxury of hotels. "Life can be good now, got to enjoy ourselves now, now - this is heaven - I'm in a unique position, more privileged than Prince Charles, because he only has a few minutes of heaven, then he has to go down and socialise again, doesn't he! But you've got to go through hell to get to heaven." On the pad by his bedside - indeed, on any scrap of paper that's lying around - are what he calls his "tragic fragments", little musical doodles on hurriedly-drawn staves. What are they for? "I've got to keep my mind prompted. I've got to get my mind in gear." Why tragic? "Because they've got to grow, they've got to expand. It's very expensive - you've got to be sharp - you've got to survive - just staying alive."

"It's all set up," he repeats again and again. "There's a ccontinued from page 3

grand plan for all eternity." Yet danger and precariousness haunt him every minute. He and Gillian are due to go off for an evening with some cousins in Melbourne, where they expect to be royally fed. "Have to make up for Auschwitz," he says matter-of-factly. "Because they went through Auschwitz - or was it Bergen-Belsen? Same thing either way. We lost Hildy, and Gertrude who played the piano very nicely." This is the tragedy underlying the entire Helfgott saga: mass death in the camps.

While Gillian tells me about their new home outside Sydney - whose improbable address is Never-Never Creek Road, The Promised Land - David keeps up a running commentary. "Very costly, very costly - it's the loveliest house in the world, and all I want to do is get back to it." Then he wanders across the room and looks out over the busy streets below. "It's the flow," he says eagerly. "It's all computerised. You'd better look at the traffic, because you can draw energy from it, and cure yourself. There seems to be a pattern in it. It's all set up, isn't it?" It sure is: Gillian does up his buttons, and whisks him out of the door.

NEXT EVENING, Melbourne's concert hall is packed and expectant. Inside the programme is a slip containing last-minute announcements, one of which begins - shades of Dame Edna - "Gillian Helfgott is dressed by...", on every seat a rolled-up streamer has been placed: no one needs telling what to do, in this carefully stage-managed event. Then he is on, at a run and with a beaming smile, resplendent in a white Cossack shirt: four quick bows to the corners of the compass, then straight into Liszt's Funerailles. Crashing octaves, very assured, but - when the score allows - with a fist raised high to reinforce the drama. But he's also singing! And talking - to the piano, and about the piece. "Aha!" he cries, as the musical line takes an unexpected turn. "Oh, that's nice!" when he produces an unusual colour. Sometimes he gives a musical sigh, in counterpoint to the music under his hands. He takes his bow with eyes closed, teeth bared in a crazy grin, and fists jammed at his sides like a little boy. Then he trots off.

Then he trots back to play Un Sospiro, then La Campanella, then he growls along with Ondine. And one starts to get used to the strangeness - no stranger, after all, than the performances of the late Glenn Gould, who not only growled but played crouching on the floor - and one listens to the music. His interpretations are certainly unorthodox, but the textures are ravishing, and the technique is sometimes brilliant. But there's a sweet modesty about his playing: he doesn't set out to dazzle. His response to each piece is quintessentially poetic.

When he's done, we inundate him with streamers, which get entangled in the glissandi of the encores. Taking his final bow ankle-deep in coloured paper, he seems in his seventh heaven. Then he leans down ecstatically, and sightlessly shakes hands with the people in the front row. But this is emphatically not a freak-show: he's a born performer, and a bit of a clown. For this audience - virtually all of whom have seen the film - he's a hero who has returned from a dark journey.

At the party afterwards he's high as a kite, as any successful performer would be. On stage tonight, he says, he "felt like a leaping lion". Gillian is pleased: she never knows in advance how he will play each piece, or how loud his voice-over will be, and this performance was one of his best. So what, David, is the purpose of those voice-overs? "Pep talks, pep talks to myself. I'm inspiring myself. You have to keep talking, have to keep talking, because every word is valuable." Then he goes into his standard mantras, but with a different twist. "You gotta be obedient - keep it simple - break free - image image - take a risk, have a different image - don't be like your mother and sister, be different, break free - you can never live in the past, you gotta have fun now, now." And, at 49, he is. Shine is in his view "brilliantissimo - better than Ben Hur".

ON MY WAY back to London I stop off in Perth to visit Alice Carrard, the Hungarian virtuoso who was Helfgott's piano teacher when he was 16. Taught in her youth by Bartok, and due to celebrate her 100th birthday in four months' time, this dignified lady remembers her pupil with affectionate asperity. "He had the most marvellous fingers, like Horowitz or Rachmaninov. He loved every minute of his lessons, but I was never sure he understood what I told him. He couldn't imitate - he could only do things his way. He was very intelligent, but very strange - he was never a normal boy. He mostly just said yes or no - usually yes, even if it was really no. That is why his father and I were against his going to London when he was 17." Ah, so she was partly to blame for that bust-up? "No, David was not ready to go alone, he was too vulnerable. I shall never forgive the father for not going to London with him.' This puts a very different complexion on things.

How does she remember the Helfgotts? "The mother was a sweet nonentity, the father was authoritarian. He was a little man, a little fox." Then she recalls David's return from London. "He looked dreadful, thin as anything, and forlorn. But he came to the piano and started to play the Brahms First Concerto - orchestra and solo part together - and he was still unique! He needed love, and that's what he found in Gillian."

YES, IT'S CLEAR he did. Gillian's book - entitled Love You to Bits and Pieces, in honour of one of David's favourite phrases - illuminates the case in a variety of ways. The main symptoms of David's condition, she writes, "are his near-permanent state of elation and slight manic tendencies. In simple terms, most of the time he is sick with happiness and excitement. A chemical imbalance in his brain speeds up his thought processes, hence the rapid speech; it makes him incredibly alert, hence the ESP-like qualities of being able to see, hear, and feel more than would seem possible, and makes him easily distractable, although his concentration at the piano is almost superhuman."

She also reports how he describes his condition. He may say he is suffering from "dommage", or from "sore les yeux", or that he is caught on "the hook". He sometimes calls it "a foggy, misty sort of condition". The fog descended when he was 13, and only began to lift when he was 40.

So how should we view David Helfgott? He is far too intelligent - and far too knowledgeable about a great many things - to be insultingly labelled idiot-savant. Some people flourish him as another demonstration of the fine line dividing madness from genius - like the schizophrenic masters currently on show at the Hayward - but that is altogether facile. He has an illness, which is being contained. He has been through horrendous experiences in mental institutions, and emerged full of optimism and hope. And he is an eccentrically wonderful artist. I think we should take him at face value, and cherish him

`Shine' goes on general release on 3 Jan 1997. David Helfgott will be performing music from `Shine' at the QEH, SBC, London, on 5 May and Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 3 on a national UK tour, culminating at the Royal Albert Hall, in September. His recording of the concerto is released on BMG's RCA Red Seal label on 6 Jan. `Love You to Bits and Pieces' is published by Viking on 16 Jan