When I got to Melbourne I found that having an English accent was far from a handicap in show business. That was a positive but practically everything else was negative. There was no way I could write a script in 3 weeks especially as writers were required to write a detailed scene breakdown first. The program was called Homicide. Like most new writers on a cop show I tried to think up an ingenious way to commit murder. The better writers concentrated on the characters. By the end of 3 weeks I’d got nowhere. They wrote off my first attempt, extended the trial to 6 weeks and made it possible for Lorna and our baby to join me for a while. We stayed in a posh hotel which I thought was being paid for by the company. I didn’t know about contra deals at that time. Because we couldn’t afford to eat meals at the hotel we smuggled food in. We’d be standing in the lift with well-dressed businessmen and there’d be a suspicious smell of fish and chips. We had a stroller with the rubber missing from one wheel and it left tracks on the hotel’s carpets. When she was leaving a cleaner said to Lorna “We’re going to miss that squeaky ould stroller.”
By the end of 6 weeks I was not much further forward. They said they liked me and offered to make the trial 3 months. I said I had a wife and baby in Sydney, a rented house etc. I was very sorry, I felt awful that I’d let them down and rejected the offer. They then upped it to 6 months and offered to pay my moving expenses. Later I realised that they hadn’t considered my regret genuine but had thought it was a negotiating tactic to get a better offer. Anyway, I accepted and we moved to a rented house in Melbourne.
One general point about Australia in 1964 that I missed. At the time I left England it was rare to see a drunk in the street but in the early evening in Australia you saw them slumped in doorways, squatting on the edge of the footpath or staggering down the road. The reason was that the law required pubs to close at 6.0 pm. That led to what was called the Six O’clock Swill. Men rushed from work to the pub and then drank as much beer as they could, as quickly as they could before closing time.
I finally found an acceptable subject that was based on an actual case. It was early November when I went to Melbourne. Working there was a bit nervewracking, especially as I was struggling. About 5 o’clock every afternoon the internal phone would buzz and it would be Dorothy Crawford (Hector’s elder sister and the real creative brains of the outfit. Hector was the entrenpeur and showman) asking if I had anything for her. Then she’d take the unrevised pages that I’d written that day. When Christmas came they all went away on holiday and I had the place virtually to myself. I decided that my days were numbered and I met as well let myself go. I had the detectives returning to the scene of the crime and reenacting it. That meant film within film that had never been done before on that program. The script was accepted and it went into production but by that time I had totally lost confidence in it and I didn’t see it until it went to air in April. It was well received within the firm but it was a bit too late for me.
I’d been desperately trying to make myself useful. Hector found out that I did shorthand. If he was writing to the Prime Minister or somebody else important he would give me the gist of what he wanted to say, I would draft it and then he would dictate it to his secretary. I always aimed for clarity in my writing but sometimes he wasn’t keen on that. He’d say “But that’s too clear. We’d better muddy it a bit.” As a sideline the company made industrial documentaries and I did occasional editing work on those. One of the good things about being there at that time was the belief that anybody could do anything. One of the less good was that people were elastic and you could keep piling more and more work on them. Before the end of the 6 months they told me they intended to keep me on. That helped but I was still keen to prove myself in any way I could. With no previous experience, but nor had anybody else, I found myself producing a weekly TV current affairs program. The idea, and even the title, had been pinched from a Canadian radio program.
We recorded two programs alternate Sunday evenings. There were hardly any current affairs programs on TV and I think we were the only one on commercial TV and then only because we were cheap. They went to air late at night on Sunday in Melbourne and Saturday in Sydney. When I rang up well-known people to appear on the program I used to think that I would have to explain it but it seemed that they all watched it. We had low ratings but many viewers who were opinion leaders. The format was that we chose a subject and put up one or more speakers on each side of it who spoke in opposition. There was a studio audience with questions from the floor. I realised that the key to a good program was to get the right mix of opposing views in the audience. That format has an advantage. Politicians have a fair idea what a professional interviewer will ask them and prepare accordingly but the questions from members of the general public are unpredictable.
One or two moments that might be worth passing on. We had the leader of the Opposition Gough Whitlam (and later rather famous Prime Minister) once. There’d been quite a bit of juggling of dates and after every phone call with members of his staff I wrote and confirmed the arrangements. He came in, shook me by the hand and said “This is the most efficient TV program in the country.” My face must have revealed what I was thinking: “You don’t have to butter me up, mate. I’m going to vote for you anyway” because he said “No. I mean it. You write and confirm everything. Those buggers at the ABC ring you up but when you arrive at the studio three weeks later they’re not expecting you.”
A young academic made some outrageous comments to the effect that Ned Kelly and his gang were homosexual. (Ned Kelly was a notorious outlaw who was hanged in the 19th century but is something of an Australian legend.) It so happened that the country’s leading authority on Ned Kelly was just an office or two away. Ian Jones wrote, directed film and was also a director of the company. I didn’t have too many spare moments but if I did want a diversion I’d drop into Ian’s office and get him talking on his favourite subject. An Irishman who was staying in a hotel in Melbourne saw the program when it went to air. He jumped into a taxi, hammered on the door of the studio and demanded to see the moderator of the program. He was going to kill him because of the things that had been said about “our Ned.” The fireman had to explain that the program had been made two weeks previously and in any case the studios were shut up for the night and he was the only one there. next