In the early days of TV the ABC was given to importing producers, directors etc from the BBC in England with the thought that they would pass on their skills and experience to the locals. Sometimes this worked, frequently it didn’t. For the TV Drama Department they’d brought over a senior producer and director called Eric Tayler. Unknown to him the ABC’s Deputy Chairman went on another recruiting trip and signed up David Goddard as Head of the Department and over Eric. The two had met at the BBC and Eric thought that David was incompetent. It was an impossible situation for both of them. I was taken on by David and assigned to work with Eric but I was able to get on OK with both of them. When I was in Sydney waiting to be interviewed by David he had a brief exchange with Eric in the foyer. I was actually within touching distance of Eric but I wasn’t introduced. That struck me as slightly strange at the time but the full significance of it didn’t dawn until later.
The ABC was producing a cop type show involving Customs Officers. We had watched that from Melbourne and been impressed by its higher technical standards. I was now working with the Script Editor, Colin Free, and would take over from him for the second series. Like Phil he was somebody who didn’t care for the face-to-face stuff and preferred to take scripts back to his home in the Blue Mountains and rewrite them. At Melbourne we were always without sufficient writers but we did at least have a nucleus of skilled and experienced people. Here we didn’t even have that and I actually did some rewriting myself.
I was impressed by Eric – at least in the mornings. He tended to disappear at lunchtime and not return until late afternoon. David was affable but not really strong. A lady who had written a letter of complain called in to see him. He told me to see her and shut his office door. It didn’t strike me at the time but recently I’ve remembered the Sergeant in Italy who skulked in the bottom of a slit trench during a possible air raid and told me to send out a Despatch Rider. This was a similar situation. When Colin moved on to another program David decided that he wanted to direct an episode himself. This was filmed on location in the Blue Mountains. Most of the cast and crew were in one hotel and David and the principal actress were in another. Say no more! Early in the piece she had an accident and broke her leg. David shut himself in his room and wouldn’t come out for days.
The First Assistant Director had to find a replacement actress, rearrange the schedule and complete the shoot. David was invited to take part in a week’s program for writers at the University of New England. It occurs to me as I type this that sending me in his place might have been part of the same reclusive tendencies. At that time I hadn’t even been on a university campus let alone studied there. Now I paid my first visit as what was called a Consultant Resident Tutor.
He also gave me a week off late in 1968 to represent the Writers Guild at a Unesco (United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation) seminar on the professional training of Writers, Producers and Directors. I was the first to read a paper on the Monday morning (containing my own views. I never got round to discussing it with anybody from the hierarchy of the Guild.) In this I mentioned the possibility of a national Film and TV school. During the week everybody was at everybody else’s throats. The Educationists were scathing about what few filmmakers there were around and vice versa. A bloke from the unions was against everybody and especially against the government. Only one day had been set aside for discussions. There were three groups, one each for Drama, Education and Documentary. To my surprise I was asked to chair the Drama group. I realised that if anything was going to come out of the week Thursday was a make or break opportunity. I managed to get together with the other two chairmen and I said that the only thing upon which it seemed possible to reach agreement was the need for a national Film and TV school. We decided that each of us would make that our main recommendation believing that the overseas expert would also make that his chief recommendation in his final report and that it was a simple idea that even a politician could understand.
That duly happened and thanks to a sympathetic Prime Minister, and some energetic lobbying by two larger-than-life personalities, an Interim Council was formed to prepare the way for the school proper. They had some limited funds with which to send people who might be on the staff somedays overseas to gain experience. I was lucky enough to get one of the first scholarships. Also in that first batch was Peter Weir who is now in the front rank of Hollywood directors (he has had 6 Oscar nominations.)
After rather more than two years at the ABC they didn’t want to renew my contract. Whilst working out my notice I prepared a C.V. We didn’t have a photo copier in the department but there was one in the Rural Department about 50 metres up the street. (the ABC at that time was dotted in about 20 buildings scattered around Sydney.) One lunchtime I went up there and ran off some copies which I sent around. Two weeks later I went back and found my top copy lying, face up alongside the copier, for everybody to see. I must have forgotten to remove it but that didn’t do me either any good or any harm.
Whilst I was at the ABC, in 1970, my third daughter was born. I mention it to illustrate the speed with which things were changing in Australia. Whereas previously they had told me to go home and ring up in the morning, this time a young Sister came out smiling and asked if the father wanted to come in.
Now I was freelance with no regular income. That must have been very worrying for Lorna but she coped. Fortunately I got some work almost immediately on a progress film for a proposed asbestos mine. Then I grabbed everything I could. Two large correspondence organisations ran courses in TV writing. Unknown to each other I marked papers for both – one paid $1 per paper the other $1.20. I also got some film documentaries to write for the Commonwealth Film Unit (later Film Australia). The Head of Production there said “You’ll like it here. It’s full of refugees from the ABC.” As soon as possible I built up the equivalent cash reserve of 6 months survival income. It occurred to me after a time that I was actually more secure than many men of my age who were being made redundant and who never worked again. I reasoned that there were very few employers who would pay you 6 months sick leave etc.
In June 1971 I went to the University of Southern California for 6 weeks. The course involved a day per week on film history, including the screening of landmark films, and 3 days a week at Universal Studios. Here we had talks from all the heads of departments and I found that experience very valuable. I must have been contributing to one session because after it a young American girl came up to me and said: “I simply had to tell you I just adore your cute Australian accent.” I drew myself up to my full height and said in my plummiest voice “Well, actually, I’m English!” I realise I should have been more gracious because the poor girl meant well but I was caught off balance and the word “cute” jarred. A further bonus of my trip to Los Angeles was that I was able to pick up a lot of books that I hadn’t seen in Australia.
Taking myself out of circulation for that length of time had been a considerable gamble but I got away with it and gradually got more and more work. This included feature films on the brink of production but with problems still in the script. The phone would ring, a courier would arrive with the script, I’d send off my notes and in due course get a cheque. I never had any feedback or met the producer. During this time I also did more and more teaching. It worked out pretty well because I had three strings to my bow. If there was a gap in writing work I could pick up some script editing or teaching.
But my longterm aim was to be the Head of Writing when and if the Film and TV School got off the ground. In 1974 that duly happened and that was another turning point at which this narrative could end. This time I really think I will stop. next