It was possible to record a TV program on tape but those tapes were very expensive, I think they cost about 100 pounds each. If you had to cut and splice them they couldn’t be used a second time. To get round that they did the exterior scenes on film about six weeks before the studio production. That gap was fraught with peril if an actor got sick or was run over by a bus but we got away with it. During those six weeks the film scenes were cut and edited. The studio scenes were recorded on tape but if a 17 second film scene was coming up a gap of exactly that length was left and the film inserted later. Each episode had two directors. One of our own men who directed the exteriors and somebody from the studio who did the interior scenes. That sounds crazy but it worked. Each week we had actors who had never been on TV before. Dorothy used to take them on one side during rehearsals and give them individual coaching.
Quite soon after my arrival I pointed out that 3 weeks was not really the requisite writing time. That was based on how much of his time Ian Jones booked to writing. In between he directed film scenes and gestated his next script. He then dictated it direct to the girl who typed the stencils.
I analysed how often each staff writer contributed a script. The best writer took just over 4 weeks. Poor Della who cared about her writing and was extremely conscientious took just over 5 weeks and was the perennial villain. My memo unwittingly made things worse for her. When I had the chance to work with Della I grew to appreciate her more. She was Canadian and older than the rest of us. Her father died when she was 16. As the oldest child she took it on herself to support her mother and siblings by writing radio plays.
All our scripts were vetted by a serving member of the police force but he was a dead loss. “You can’t do that” he’d say and leave us hanging. In frustration there were times when I’d comment that we were making the program for millions of viewers throughout the country and not for a few thousand members of the Victoria Police Force. But getting those details right helped to make the episodes seem more authentic. Della had her own consultant. He was a smartly-dressed detective with a natty bow tie (he resigned rather hurriedly in later years just before a major enquiry into police corruption) but he was marvellous. “You can’t do that but there was this bloke…” and he’d give you a story that was exactly right for the script.
We had to book our time to projects. Most of us worked overtime and at home in the evening and on weekends but a day was 7.5 hours and couldn’t be exceeded. There was a time later when they introduced a book to be signed on arrival and leaving. I objected but Dorothy said that she signed it and why shouldn’t we? Because I refused to sign on principle I used to get memos from the Manager saying that I hadn’t signed on a certain date. I screwed them up and threw them in the wastepaper basket. For some weeks I was prepared to be fired over this rather than give in but by that time I was useful to them and it all fizzled out.
My predecessor, Phol Freedman, was an extremely good writer but his idea of script editing was to take the script and rewrite it. I didn’t know enough to ask sensible questions so I asked a rather foolishly vague one that got the answer that it deserved. “The most important thing about script editing, Harold, is to go round the writers every so often and pop a Relaxatab in their little mouths.” Perhaps it was fortunate that I didn’t have enough confidence in my own writing to do rewrite jobs. That meant that instead of following Phil’s system I had to work it all out for myself.
One day in a library I saw a book on marriage guidance counselling. I thought we might do an episode that needed some knowledge of that subject and I picked it up. When I opened it I found a page that said that you didn’t make statements you asked questions. “What would happen if…” “I wonder whether…” Those were the sort of phrases that I had found myself using intuitively. At that time I knew nothing about non-directive counselling yet that was what I was doing.
Gradually I got better at it, much helped by the more experienced writers, but also still producing as well as a drama script a week, a weekly TV current affairs program. At the Christmas break I decided that life on those terms was not worth living. In that situation you either have to give up on life or change the terms. When Hector came back from holiday there was a memo on his desk. I felt that I wasn’t doing my best work on either job. I didn’t care which but could he take me off one task or the other. I heard nothing for several days and then he sent for me.
He recited all my failings. They’d tried me as a writer but that hadn’t really worked out. I was OK as producer of the current affairs program and I seemed to be managing as a script editor but I was very slow. Then he gave me a rise. People, especially writers, had a love/hate relationship with the Crawfords. Although I liked Hector, admired and respected him, at that moment I hated him. He had obviously thought that my memo was a bargaining tactic. His own tactic had been to demean me first before giving me what he thought I wanted. However I got off the producing job and during my editorship (it would have got there anyway but I think I helped) the program became no 1 in the national TV ratings.
The channels hated Hector for that because it destroyed their excuse for buying cheaper American programs. Not only did Australian audiences like seeing their own streetscapes, Melbourne trams etc but they preferred Homicide to the overseas competition. Within a year Hector was saying that I was the best script editor in the country (which wasn’t too difficult as there were only about 3 or 4 of us). The new program was called Hunter and it featured a James Bond type fighting sinister communists. I had quite enough on my plate but I kept an eye on what was happening along the corridor.
She never said this directly but it was reported to me that Dorothy had said “I don’t want Harold on Hunter. This is a young person’s program.” (I was in my early 40s). However the show wasn’t rating and eventually I had to take it over and try to save it. A main problem was that the star wasn’t very good. He alienated the writers by saying in print that what was wrong with the program was the scripts. Ian Jones wrote a script that began with Hunter jumping from an aeroplane, his parachute didn’t open. He was killed and there was mourning and a funeral. At the end of the episode it was revealed that he had faked his death in order to go undercover and he was really alive after all. Our Welsh writer Howard Griffiths read it. “Great script, Ian. Sad ending.”
To backtrack slightly. In preparation for this program Hector entertained the country’s head of security. By late evening he had drunk so much that he had to be poured into a taxi.
My main changes were to the format. The program had permanent villains. That meant that Hunter could never get a cleancut victory. Episodes tended to end with him shot in the ankle and hobbling after the commies who were escaping again. I got rid of those characters. One of the great attractions of Homicide was its 11 minute exterior film content. With a larger budget they gave Hunter twice the film content. That meant that there wasn’t enough time in the interior scenes for situations to be sufficiently developed. Speedboat and helicopter chases etc weren’t exciting if you didn’t care whether the characters lived or died. I changed the proportions. The show improved and went up dramatically in the ratings. It actually survived a year after I left.
But by that time I was negotiating secretly with the ABC in Sydney to move north. I don’t know why I approached them. Perhaps I read or heard something. It was one of my long shots which came off. When I told the incredulous Hector that I was leaving to go to the ABC he said “I can’t see you sitting and doing the crossword all day.” In fact I worked very hard but a lot of that was work that I made for myself. After six months I got a letter. “We want you back. Don’t muck about. What do we have to do to get you?” I wrote that I was looking out over the Pacific. The sun was shining and the sea was blue. I was thinking “Do I want to go back to Melbourne?”
A couple more incidents from the Crawford era before I move on. When I was producing a current affairs program we did something on alcoholism. As our expert on the subject, and a person well-qualified to stress what an evil it was, we had a senior psychiatrist from the prison service. A long time later the firm was toying with the idea of a program dealing with social welfare, or something similar. It never happened but Hector invited round some leading people from the field one evening. This psychiatrist was one of them. He stayed longer and drank more than the others and became maudlin drunk making it clear that he would have done much better in life if he hadn’t been underappreciated by his family who favoured his brother who played hockey for England. Later he fell down in the toilet and cut his head.
The last Homicide program I edited before moving on to the other program was written by Della. I’d enjoyed working with her and had got some good scripts out of her and had worked hard to build her confidence. This last episode went very well. Next day she was on top of the world. Hector had rung her at home to congratulate her and that was something that hadn’t happened for two years. Then Dorothy hit her with a memo that listed how long she had taken on each of her recent scripts and more or less implying that she was ruining the firm by her slowness. I thought that memo, and especially the timing of it, was bloody stupid. I expressed these views to Dorothy as tactfully as I could. She told me that she hated doing it and had actually had the memo ready for some weeks but had been waiting for a good time to send it. She thought when Della was happy because she had had a success etc. After I’d passed on my opinion she gave Della flowers and the two of them ended up crying in each other’s arms.
I mentioned before how many of us had love/hate feelings about the Crawfords. This was a perfect example. We overlooked some flaws as one does with members of your family and close friends. Dorothy, for example, used to say “You know, I get a wage packet every week like everyone else.” Of course we all knew that her flat in Melbourne’s most exclusive district, her car, her phone, her food, her dry cleaning and I imagine a lot of other things were charged to the company. But every so often they did something so utterly crass that you found it unforgiveable. Yet I was genuinely fond of Dorothy and she taught me a lot. She and her brother worked hard and had taken immense risks in order to build the business. That was the other side of why we liked them. next