The original Wiggles in a final performance at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. Photo: Dean Sewell
Sydney's children have come for a party, not for a wake. Thousands are pouring into the Entertainment Centre with their parents on a Saturday afternoon. Dozens of prams are parked empty at one end of the foyer. Among the matinee crowd, triplet boys, perhaps four years old, are dressed in purple, red and yellow skivvies, wiggling their index fingers.
Behind the security doors manned by tattooed security staff, blue Wiggle Anthony Field, 49, paces hurriedly past the drinks fridge into the green room, portable microphone strapped to his head, closely followed by Paul, his bespectacled grey-haired brother and manager.
It's been so much fun and I consider these guys my best mates; I'm [going to] look out on the stage and they're not going to be there
"I'll leave you to it," says Field, motioning to his three "retiring" Wiggle colleagues, before retreating to a nearby table with his brother.
Three new generation Wiggles, plus the old blue guy: from left, Lachlan Gillespie, Anthony Field, Emma Watkins and Simon Price.
Jeff Fatt, 59, is in purple and seems characteristically quiet and subdued; Murray Cook, 52, in red, is quick with diplomatic explanations; and lead singer Greg Page, 40, with his deep, mellifluous voice, and who controversially returned for this final year of concerts after a five-year lay-off, is looking well after battling orthostatic intolerance.
Twenty-one years after forming the band together, here is where the story ends for this line-up. Fatt and Cook will continue to be involved in Wiggles business and contribute to recordings. There may even be cameos, says Fatt. Page, too, has been asked to continue writing songs for the band.
"It's a very emotional time," says Page, "the end of an era for the original Wiggles. But it's also a joyous occasion because the Wiggles are continuing on with Anthony sticking around, and it's great to see that what we created 21 years ago can continue on as a legacy."
How is his health? "It's good, thanks, and I'm really on top of it. I think this year's been a good test for me and I've survived the test and (am) pleased to see that I know how to manage the disorder now."
The way the departing Wiggles tell it, they each decided to retire. But the Field brothers have been known to force swift change; in January last year, replacement Yellow Wiggle Sam Moran, 34, was swiftly axed after five years to make way for Page's return, causing angst among fans.
Much earlier, there was the "fifth Wiggle", classical composer Phillip Wilcher, now 54, whose history with the band was virtually erased when the group re-recorded its first CD, removing all of Wilcher's substantial contributions. Wilcher recalled in a 2003 Herald interview with me that he'd made it clear he no longer wanted to appear with the band, but a "verbal agreement" for him to contribute to their second CD was reneged upon. The band said Wilcher simply quit.
Now, replacing Page, Fatt and Cook will be a "new generation", of sorts: in an Australia Day concert at Hyde Park, fans will see Field carrying on the Wiggle tradition, but in purple will be Lachlan Gillespie, 27, previously a Wiggle dancer and Captain Feathersword; and in red Simon Pryce, 40, who has earlier toured with the group as Ringo the Ringmaster.
In yellow will be Emma Watkins, 23, formerly costumed as Dorothy or Wags the Dog. She will be the first female Wiggle, if you don't count Kylie Minogue, who once guested as a pink Wiggle.
Inevitably, though, there is speculation that all this swapping of skivvies is to staunch the Wiggles' financial bleeding.
From humble beginnings at Macquarie University in 1991, the band became a global brand. Their gross annual earnings often reached well above $30 million, but slipped to $17.1 million in 2012. More to the point, BRW reported that parent group The Wiggles Holdings Pty Ltd posted a net loss of $2.5 million in 2011, on revenue of $21.4 million.
Is the personnel change occurring because of the Wiggles' financial situation? Field asks for the question to be repeated before answering: "Like everything we do, money has got nothing to do with anything. I suppose the financial situation of the Wiggles has meant we've refocused our business things, but not the Wiggles themselves ... If it can continue and it's profitable, great, but it's not about that; it's about entertaining children."
Touring, they say, inevitably took its toll. "We tour 10 months of the year and for a lot of that time we're out of the country. My kids are almost grown but it's still pretty hard," says Cook.
Page adds: "Oh yeah, that's definitely the hardest thing about what the Wiggles do. The Rolling Stones will go out on a tour for a year or two, then have two or three years off before touring again. But the Wiggles have literally toured for 21 years straight."
Field returns to the table. So why a new generation now? "Because the boys are tired," he jokes, laughing. "What Murray, Greg, Jeff and myself have done over the last 21 years has been so worthwhile I think for children ... It's worthwhile continuing the fun and the music for generations to come – if we can."
He must be sad, surely? "I'm as sad as the guys. We had a beautiful year together around the world. It's been so much fun and I consider these guys my best mates; I look out on the stage and they're not going to be there."
Meanwhile, recently departed Wiggle Sam Moran's official website carries a poll asking: "What would you like to see Sam do next?" The options are: "something completely different / another solo album / a new children's show / TV hosting / Broadway show?"
What does Field think of the handling of Moran's departure? The room goes uncomfortably quiet. Field still seems rattled by the bad publicity.
"I'll just say that it could have been handled better from us, of course," says Field. "But we got blindsided: there were stories – I'd thought we'd had five years of great touring and great times with Sam, and the stories that came out about us coming into the office and sacking him on his baby's birthday and things like that were all based on ... I don't think they were based on any facts.
"No one really checked up on the stories. The only thing I'm really disappointed about the whole thing is that Sam hasn't come out and said, 'Hey guys, I had a great time and these stories aren't true'. I wish him well, always have ... It seemed like [the story] came from a publicist or somebody who had a grievance with us, I think.
"I was kind of the guy that was held up because I had a bad moment on the Today show where I said, 'What about Sam?' ... So was it handled badly? We didn't see it coming. We didn't see those stories going out there."
I ask how Field chose the new Wiggles. They're friends with whom the band had a chemistry, Field says, but the mood is now unsettled. His brother calls for the interview to be wound up. Field drily thanks the Herald for bringing up the Moran subject before a show.
And with that, the Wiggles dash onto the stage.