There was a time when we invited the Minister for Education but he sent a Senator who was a backbencher in his stead. We’d lined up two formidable opponents and he had a rough time. It was usual for us to have a drink with the speakers later but it looked as if he was happy to go on drinking all night. I had to tell him that he was welcome but, unfortunately, the studios didn’t belong to us and we had to vacate them. A day or two later I got a letter from him thanking me. That was unusual and I was puzzled in view of the tough reception he’d received but I understood it a couple of weeks later when he was rewarded for going in to bat on a sticky wicket on behalf of the government by being made a junior minister.
Just one more story. This was the time when Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) was controlled by a somewhat unlovely white man called Ian Smith. We did something on the country and speaking for Ian Smith and his regime was the leader of an ultra right group, anti semitic the lot. The director was Jewish and he kept going in tighter and tighter on the man’s face so there’d just be his piggy little eyes or his cruel mouth filling the screen. I had to tell him to knock it off. While I was clearing up in the Control Room Eric Butler, with a small knot of his supporters, was standing in one part of the studio floor and his opponent, a marvellous personality called Francis James, was with a group of his admirers a short distance away. Eric Butler called for attention and said that the speakers had been invited by the producer to have a drink but he wasn’t going to have a drink with a man who’d said such harsh things about Mr Smith and his gallant regime. Francis replied; “Well, old boy, I’ve never let a principle come between me and a drink but I say again that Ian Smith and his gang of thugs should be put up against a wall and shot.” Butler turned deathly pale and stalked out.
In between times I was struggling with a second script but didn’t really have much opportunity to work on it. That brings us to about September when I received a message to go to Hector’s office. I’d seen old films with scenes set on the trading floor of the famous insurance house, Lloyds of London, when they had just rung the Lutine Bell to announce a major disaster. The atmosphere in Hector’s office felt much the same.
There was a chair for me near the door. A short distance to my right sat the staff writers looking most unhappy. A bit further away to my left were the four directors of the company, Hector, Dorothy, Ian Jones and Dorothy’s son Ian Crawford. I felt sure that something awful had happened. Perhaps the firm was going broke.
Hector explained that they’d sold a new program to a different channel. It would need writers so he was taking some writers away from Homicide. The Script Editor was also the best and most experienced of the writers and it was proposed to relieve him of his script editing duties to let him concentrate on writing. That meant the program needed a new Script Editor. “I’ve talked to the writers and they’ve agreed to try you.” Nicely said to chop away what little confidence I had left. I looked at the writers. They studied their feet. In the days when men were hanged for murder it was said that you could tell the jury’s verdict as soon as they returned to the courtroom. If they’d found the prisoner guilty and thereby condemned him to death they didn’t look at him.
Before moving on I think I need to cover one or two general matters. This program was breaking new ground and I arrived when it was only about 20 episodes in. Although there had been sporadic attempts to do local drama on commercial TV, to the great relief of the channels these had never been a great success. A small group of Melbourne identities, Hector, two leading academics (including one who later became Governor General of Australia) and a highly regarded architect lobbied for government support for the Arts, a revolutionary idea in Australia at that time. They had a pamphlet printed at their own expense and distributed to politicians. One of them was inspired to ask a question in the house about local drama on commercial TV. The person responsible for broadcasting at that time, the Postmaster General, said that there couldn’t be local drama because there weren’t the writers, the actors or the directors and even if there were the public didn’t want it. The commercial TV channels threw up their sweaty nightcaps and cheered. Meanwhile Hector was quietly making a very cheap, semi-scripted program set in a courtroom which was not doing too badly.
Ian Jones, who could usually push the Crawfords into trying new things, came up with the idea of a program called Homicide and that was the one I was about to edit.
The channels much preferred American programs which they could buy more cheaply and which were less risky because they had already succeeded in the States. They were much easier to sell to advertisers and to promote to the public. To illustrate this mindset an incident from the time when I was doing anything and everything to make myself useful.
The firm did a children’s game show called Video Village. The young actress who starred in it also worked in the office typing the scripts. After some years it was nearing the end of its natural life. I was asked to come up with an equally low-cost replacement. From memory Video Village had the studio floor laid out like a giant boardgame. Children progressed round the board getting a small prize or a forfeit depending upon which space they landed on. I’d no idea what to do so I copied that format exactly. Only I set it on the moon – I think I called it Moonscape or something – and I dressed it up to look different but it wasn’t. Where VV had a prize I had a prize. Where it had a forfeit I had a forfeit and so on. Hector and Dorothy liked it and went to pitch it to the Channel. When they came back they were optimistic. The presentation had gone well and they felt sure they would sell it. But next day the station head was on the phone. How had it gone in America? Hector said it wasn’t American, it was original (it wasn’t really but no one ever twigged that) However the word “original” killed it stone dead and we didn’t hear any more.
Because of the lack of precedent Crawfords had to work out everything from scratch and a great deal of what they did made a difficult task even harder. Let’s start with the script. In those comparatively early days quite a few production houses, and I think that included the BBC, used a two column layout for TV with the audio down one half and the vision down the other. We did that but with the sides reversed. It was not nearly so easy to write in as a conventional feature film script particularly if you wanted a sound effect and an action happening simultaneously. It was a management requirement that the actual time of day had to go on the head of each scene. That led to some ludicrous situations. I’ll make up an example. We have a scene that’s late afternoon. At that time of the year it got dark at 6.0 pm and we put 5.57 on the head of a scene that ran rather less than a minute. There followed a 20 second scene which couldn’t be 5.57 and had to be 5.58. Another shortish scene had to be 5.59 and suddenly according to the time it was dark but we needed to avoid night scenes. That meant going back and juggling times.
Instead of numbers each scene had a letter of the alphabet. During my editorship when I was trying to speed things up there was pandemonium when a writer wanted more than 26 scenes. Dorothy said we were already up to scene Z and that was the limit. I argued to be allowed to go to a double alphabet. We got to the point when you had to stop to think about whether scene JJJ came before or after scene HH before they finally let us number the scenes. Writers had to list the characters in each scene as part of the heading. That helped the production but I said it was a clerk’s job and a waste of a writer’s time but I lost that one. Eventually I won the right for writer’s to work from home instead of following the old Hollywood studio system of having their own offices and coming in to work regular hours. A lot of years later a writer from those days told me that the time when he learned most was at Crawfords before they let you work from home. Although I thought the previous system was too restrictive it had advantages because it was like a standing seminar. We read each other’s scripts and made helpful suggestions. Somebody would come in and say “Did you see Danger Man last night? Well, you ought to watch it. Remember episode so-and-so where we couldn’t work out how to do such-and-such? They had a similar situation. What they did was…” next