Billie Farnell


Billie Farnell was one of the most active pianists on the Auckland scene for nearly 70 years. New musical trends did little to unsettle him and he would pick up a new style when his work required it, but he largely stuck to the elegant, keyboard-spanning style that he adopted in his early days as a performer in the 1950s. Farnell rejected the staid norms of New Zealand society in an era when being flashy was seen as “getting out of line” and he was also a fabulously “out” gay man for decades before homosexuality was decriminalised in 1986.

Though he would seldom admit to it, William Charles Farnell was born in 1929 and he gave his birthplace as the Bay of Plenty. Others have claimed he was born in Thames or Wellington. Farnell wanted to become a pianist from a young age, inspired partly by the skilled violin playing of his mother Edith, who had played with orchestras and for theatre performances.

A portrait of a young Billie Farnell.
Billie Farnell played a central role in Diana Wong's fantasy book 'The Sad Pianist' (1973). 
Billie Farnell's MG.
Billie Farnell, in a photo from 'The Sad Pianist' (1973). 
Billie Farnell (right) and the La Boheme band; beside Farnell is Kim Paterson.
Ricky May at the Colony nightclub, 31 December 1961. Billy Farnell's piano is in the background.
Photo credit: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1269-E164-12
Billy Farnell
Photo credit: Auckland Libraries Rykenberg Collection 1269_Y7603_06
Billie Farnell, Russell Green and MP Jacinda Ardern on the cover of Ponsonby News, December 2014.
Photo credit: Michael McClintock
Billie Farnell Trio.
Billie Farnell at the La Boheme piano, 1975.
In an Auckland Library oral history interview, Diana Wong discusses her book 'The Sad Pianist' featuring Billie Farnell
Billie Farnell in a fantasy encounter from the book 'The Sad Pianist' (1973).
Billie Farnell and partner Russell Green.
Billie Farnell at work. 
Billie Farnell in a photo from 'The Sad Pianist: a Grimm fairy tale for grown-ups', written and published by Diana Wong in 1973. Farnell was featured as the main character in the book, which was summarised as a "burlesque of conventional fairy tale style and plot". 
Billie Farnell and his partner Russell Green, proprietor of Shanghai Lil's.
Billie Farnell, on the far left, with his group at Bob Sell's restaurant The Colony. Billy Spearman is on percussion, Bert Brandy on bass, and Frank Conway on drums. The group later moved to another Sell venture, La Boheme. 
Photo credit: Bob Sell collection
Billie Farnell
Billie Farnell receives a Variety Artists' Club scroll from David Hartnell MNZM. 
Billie Farnell
Bob Sell and Carol Wickens at the Colony Club, Nelson Street, 1962. Pianist Billie Farnell is in the background.
Photo credit: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1269-E0178-12
Billie Farnell and Anna Hoffman
Billie Farnell with another beloved classic car.
Photo credit: Auckland Star
Billie Farnell accompanies an unidentified singer. 

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