Anyone who has seen the
American series Baywatch would probably have noticed that the format is
an obvious copy of an Australian series which predated it by over ten years: Chopper
Squad, an action adventure series centred around a helicopter surf rescue team. Both
series portray outdoor summer life with copious amounts of sun, surf, sand,
bikini girls, deft
stunt work and corny scripts. However, Baywatch doesn't have a resident helicopter,
and its quality (or rather its lack thereof) makes the rather average Chopper
Squad look like a pinnacle of artistic achievement in comparison.
A 90-minute pilot episode of Chopper Squad
was made by TEN-10 Sydney in April 1976, and went to air in November 1976. Producer of the
pilot was Roger Mirams, well-known creator of many children's series including The
Magic Boomerang, The Terrible Ten and Adventures Of The Seaspray. Mirams was no
stranger to adult drama either, Spyforce and Silent Number being among his
credits. He had just completed the 26 episode series of The Lost Islands prior to
tackling Chopper Squad. As The Lost Islands was also produced
for the 0-Ten Network, many of the crew also continued across to the new project.
Chopper Squad is based on the
activities of a helicopter surf rescue team on Sydney's northern beaches. The pilot was
written by Everett de Roche and was directed by Simon Wincer, both of whom have had
extensive experience in various Australian television dramas, particularly those from the
Crawfords stable. TEN-10 Sydney publicity director Tom Greer said, "They'll be using a
lot of external locations which is always a risk because of the weather. There'll only be
two to three internal sets. We're hoping this will go into a one-hour TV series as an
action drama - with a bit of sex and pathos as well."1
The lead roles were played by Dennis Grosvenor, Eric
Oldfield and Robert Coleby. Dennis Grosvenor was well known for his part as Sen. Det.
Michael Deegan in Homicide, and he played Jebbie Best, principal member of the
three-man rescue team. If you think that's a weird name, you're not alone: a scene in
the pilot episode when Jebbie is introduced is met with the incredulous response,
"Jebbie! - what sort of name's that?".
Eric Oldfield, who played Gary in The Godfathers,
appears as Phil Hardy, the second member of the team. The third man is Robert Coleby, who
portrays Barry Drummond, the helicopter pilot. Coleby would later appear in the ABC series
Patrol Boat and Timelapse.
Other principal cast members in the pilot included
Rebecca Gilling as nurse Georgia Batie, who is also the operator of the base radio and a
romantic interest for Jebbie; Tony Bonner (Flight Ranger Jerry King in Skippy) as
Frank, the surf-club captain; Graham Rouse as Roly, Frank's offsider; Tony Hughes as Tim
Lynch, a member of the club; and Max Osbiston as Rodney Coombs, one of the club's
Right from the start Chopper Squad featured
plenty of action; some critics suggested there was even too much action. The
pilot episode had two major plotlines, one involving a stoned hippie hang-gliding over
Sydney Airport disrupting air traffic, and the other concerning the apprehension of an
escaped criminal. These were interwoven with various sub-plots: rescuing a topless swimmer from
the surf, investigating a crewless yacht, saving a pregnant woman from the path of a
bushfire, and searching for a missing club member feared drowned. Tony
Bonner was optimistic: "I thought the pilot was quite good. The acting was
up to standard and perhaps the only criticism I could make is that the
plot was a bit busy. There were all sorts of things happening, but just
the same that could be smoothed out to make a good series."2
The 0-Ten Network were obviously impressed by the
pilot as they gave the go-ahead for a series before the pilot was aired.
However, two days
before production was due to start in late 1976 the
show was nearly axed. The 0-Ten Network decided the scripts which had been submitted
weren't up to scratch, and Ian Holmes, General Manager of TEN-10 Sydney,
wanted to see 13 complete scripts of an acceptable standard before
allowing production to commence. There was considerable doubt whether the series would proceed, but the
scripts were sent back and re-worked to a standard meeting the network's requirements, and
production got underway in 1977 - just over a year after the pilot episode was made. A second
series of 13 episodes followed, making a total of 26 (27 including the pilot episode).
The series differed from the pilot in some respects.
Roger Mirams was no longer involved, and the series was now packaged by Reg Grundy
Productions. This was a result of a change of management at the 0-Ten
Network, and the concomitant
internal politics (a factor which also contributed to delaying production of
the series for over a year). An American, Howard Leeds, produced the first
five episodes, and the remaining episodes were all
produced by Don Battye, who had previously worked on various Crawford police shows. New
opening titles and theme music were also introduced.
There was still some doubt about the
future of the series when early episodes had been completed. Mike Midlam,
an Executive Producer with Reg Grundy Productions, said work had been done
on the first six episodes to 'salvage' them: "The episodes are now so good
that I don't think viewers will be all that aware of the bad patches. The
series picked up noticeably with the introduction of producer Don Battye
and hasn't looked back. After a very wobbly start, we found Paramount
asking for another 13 episodes, which gave us all a tremendous boost."3
Dennis Grosvenor, Robert Coleby and Eric Oldfield
retained their original roles, although Phil's surname was changed from Hardy to Traill.
Tony Bonner and Rebecca Gilling did not feature in the series - Rebecca's character, nurse
Georgia Batie, became a doctor and was played by Jeanie Drynan. Graham Rouse continued as
Roly, now promoted to surf-club captain, and Tony Hughes continued to play Tim, with his
last name changed from Lynch to Gray. The role of club benefactor Rodney Coombs was taken
over by Willie Fennell, and Noel Trevarthen was introduced as Dr. Edward Allen. Both
Fennell and Trevarthen only appeared in five episodes, although Trevarthen was
featured on the end credits for the entire first series. Suzanne Church also appeared in a
support role as Sue, a nurse at the local hospital.
A different helicopter was also used in the series.
The pilot episode featured an Airfast helicopter, but for the series the real-life Wales
Rescue chopper was used. This helicopter was a Bell Jet Ranger 2, many of which are still
in use today. It was sponsored by the then Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac), and was
used for filming Chopper Squad during the week. On weekends the
helicopter was engaged in
actual rescue work based at Long Reef, near Collaroy. When the series was
completed the aircraft was used full time as a rescue helicopter, and as
at June 1995 was in use for tourist flights around Ayers Rock.
The helicopter pilot in
the series was Alan Edwards, who was assisted by Terry Lee. Interior
scenes with Robert Coleby as the pilot were filmed in an actual cabin from
another helicopter of the same type, salvaged from a crash in Queensland
some time previously. Chopper Squad was the second Australian
series to use a helicopter on a regular basis - the first being Skippy,
which used an older Bell 47.
The first series had the team based at Dee Why Surf
Club, but in the second series the location was shifted to North Palm Beach.
There were also some cast changes, with Jeanie Drynan and
Graham Rouse not appearing in the second series. Dr. Georgia Batie left to
take up a position in New Guinea, and the replacement doctor at Mona Vale
Hospital was played by Kerri Eichhorn as Dr. Anne Harris. Roly was killed
off in the last episode of the first series, a victim of a heart attack,
and his place was taken by John Clayton as Sam Wright, the captain of the North Palm
Beach Surf Club. Clayton appeared in only four episodes before being
replaced by Tom Richards as
Derek Price, the new surf-club captain. Tom had previously played Sen. Det.
Steve York in Matlock
There was a time lapse of six months
between the first and second series. Dennis Grosvenor commented on it in a TV Eye interview:
"Look, I tell you with this series you didnt know what you were doing from one
week to the next! Because the pilot had been shown on television I think people assumed
I was fully employed, and I didnt get offered any work. I had virtually nothing to
do for a year, then they started the series. There was quite a lapse of time between the
first and second series too. Unlike Homicide where you film throughout the whole
year, we just filmed 13 episodes and then they sent us away, and then we came back six or
seven months later and started the second series... When we finished the second series
nobody bothered to tell us not to come back for a third, they just assumed wed all
drift away. Nobody said, thats the end of the show - thats the way
we were treated."4
The initial scripts not
being considered up to scratch by the 0-Ten Network is an intriguing point, as
the improved scripts that were finally accepted are by far the weakest aspect
of Chopper Squad. The first series episodes would have at least three and sometimes
five different plotlines. A loose thread, and occasionally an actual plot, would hold the
episode together, but for the most part one drama would be wrapped up and the action would
move on to another. Sometimes this worked well, particularly in a straightforward rescue
scene, but often plots and characters would be developed only to be suddenly dropped.
The formula for the second series altered slightly -
the three or more plots were retained, but usually each event was happening more or less
concurrently, and all plots were weaved throughout the episode, alleviating the 'three
short stories rolled into one' feeling.
Unfortunately, the quality of the scripts
varied immensely. Some episodes had excellent dramatic narratives, and the
viewers would be on the edge of their seats watching the rescue process.
Other plots were contrived merely to justify the use of a
helicopter, or to show off some other facet of the surf rescue operation,
or were just corny. This variation in quality occurred not only from
episode to episode, but quite often within an episode.
Episode 8, 'Long Weekend', is a good (or bad)
example. Phil has a day off and is at an outdoor concert at the Opera House
(featuring Perth group Chalice performing 'Deeper And Deeper'). A singer is
seriously injured by a bottle thrown from the crowd and, rather than call an ambulance to
take him to a nearby city hospital, the helicopter is summoned to take the patient over 20
kilometres away to Mona Vale Hospital. Later the same day, Phil just happens to be first
at the scene of a car accident and the chopper is called in once again. Why did they need
a chopper at an accident site? Because this is a helicopter rescue series.
The same episode sees a young boy buried in a sand
tunnel at the beach which collapses. His young friend feels responsible, so he runs away
and hides in a construction site. Jebbie follows him, and, of course, the young lad climbs
up a crane - with a plethora of hiding places the boy could have chosen, where else could
he go but the one spot that would require a helicopter to lift him off!
Corny lines were also prevalent in the series.
Another episode, No. 4 'A Dream Before Dying', sees a rock climber, played by Alwyn Kurts,
have a heart attack while scaling a cliff face. The helicopter drops Georgia on the
rockface to tend to him, but the rock is not stable enough to hold the weight of two
people. So the rescue team have to lift them both off. The rock climber insists Georgia
goes first, but before they can get back to him he announces that his time is up. The
rescue team, Georgia and the man's wife all stand around while he makes a speech about
climbing mountains and then dies. It is a credit to Alwyn Kurts acting ability that
he gave such corny lines a credibility they didn't deserve, but it got worse. Georgia then
says, "He gave up his life for mine", to which the rock climbers wife
replies, "It's all right - he climbed his mountain." Cringe...
There was some improvement in the second series. For
example, episode 21, 'The Other Man's Grass', featured some good dramatic scenes and good
performances from the guest artists. Episode 22, 'People Can See', written by Luis Bayonas
(known for some 'out there' Homicide episodes), balanced the dramatic with the
light-hearted in an expert manner, and featured some good comic relief.
Episode 16, 'A Deed Without A Name', carried a strong
message against senseless vandalism, and featured some good characterisation, particularly
with the eccentric Perry Quixote Roland played by John Krummel.
However, episode 24, 'No Strings', with its
predictable plot, high level of coincidence and reliance on Murphy's Law
(anything that could possibly go wrong does) was as big a stinker as anything from the
Some episodes only had two plots, and one, No. 18
'8:52 A.M.', had a single storyline. This episode concerned a ferry crash on Sydney
Harbour, and was filmed during an actual simulation of a disaster for training of
emergency services personnel. As the Wales Rescue helicopter was taking part in the
training exercise, to maintain continuity the Wales chopper had to feature in the rest of
the episode. This was explained in the script by the Surf Rescue helicopter being away for
a service, and the Wales helicopter acting as a substitute. As mentioned before, both
helicopters were one and the same - for filming, a 'Surf Rescue' sticker was usually
placed over the 'Wales Rescue' insignia.
If the scripts left a lot to be desired, the same
could not be said for other aspects of the programme. The actors all give
good performances, and the technical quality is excellent by any
standard. Extensive external location work was used, with internal sets being kept to a
minimum. The camerawork is second to none, highlighting the magnificent scenery of the
Sydney coastline to great effect.
The most striking feature of Chopper
Squad is the stunt work. The nature of the series - helicopter rescue work - meant
there was plenty of scope for stunts. Dennis Grosvenor and Eric Oldfield often insisted on
doing their own stunts, usually against the wishes of the Producer. "I have to fight
them all the time," said Producer Don Battye. "All three want to be heavily
involved in their own stunts. I admire their enthusiasm, but I want to see them last it to
the end of the series."5
One particular stunt which Dennis was keen to do,
and the Producer adamantly refused to let him, resulted in the professional stuntman
breaking his ankle. Quite a contrast from the pioneering days of Homicide and Hunter
where the actors had no choice - budget limitations meant they had to do their own
Grant Page was the resident stuntman, and the stunts
came thick and fast in every episode. Episode 25, appropriately named 'Stunt', proved to
be a showcase for Page. He played a bank robber and the story follows the efforts to
capture him, allowing for a multitude of stunts to be performed: car chases, helicopter
chases, dune buggy chases, motor bike chases, boat chases, diving from a cliff, fight
scenes, etc, etc.
Episode 12, 'Dangerous Weapon', had some scenes filmed
on the 'Turon Springs' town set which was used for the colour episodes of the ABC series Rush.
The final episode, 'The Big Trip', featured extensive location work in Canberra - the only
episode to be filmed outside of Sydney.
Most filming naturally took place over the summer
months, but because of the need to complete 13 episodes in a year some filming commenced
or finished in winter. In Sydney this can be a very cold time of year to be wearing
T-shirts or splashing about in the ocean.
Water sequences in Sydney always
pose a potential problem with sharks - some scenes near Palm Beach were filmed in an area
which local fishermen referred to as shark alley. A stuntman in scuba gear,
often Rangi Nicholls, would usually be sent down to look out for sharks during water
filming. "And what he used to carry was a Bowie knife," remarked Dennis
Grosvenor. "What the hell good was that going to do against a bloody shark?!"6
After one scene, Dennis
Grosvenor was in the water with actress
Maggie Blinco waiting for the pick-up boat, when they noticed a long, black shape hovering
a few feet beneath them. Thinking it was a shark, they became quite concerned,
and when the
boat finally arrived they quickly climbed in. As they did, a big smiling Maori face
broke from the surface of the water - the shark was Rangi Nicholls in a black
Paramount Pictures bought the world distribution
rights for Chopper Squad, which was sold to 16 countries and proved to be very
popular overseas, particularly in Japan and Asian countries. The series was actually seen
overseas before it was screened in Australia. It premiered in Melbourne on April 6, 1978,
and in Sydney on April 14. (The pilot episode was screened much earlier, in November
1976). However, in contrast to its overseas success, Chopper Squad flopped locally,
averaging a rating of 12. It lasted little over a month in Melbourne before it was taken
off air. It fared slightly better in Sydney, but was still relegated to a non-ratings
period timeslot before the first series was aired completely. In Adelaide,
following the poor performance in Sydney and Melbourne, the series was
relegated to the summer non-ratings period, and premiered on December 19,
Chopper Squad was repeated many times,
usually in timeslots aimed at younger audiences, and actually achieved higher ratings
than when it was first shown in prime time. It was last screened in the mid-to-late 1980's,
but as of 1995 the Ten Network's rights to the series had expired. In
spite of its shortcomings, Chopper Squad is still an enjoyable
Perhaps the last word should go to
Dennis Grosvenor, who said in his TV Eye interview: "I dont care that
much if people say Chopper Squad was corny. Youve got to remember that this
was 1977, and it wasnt made for arts graduates or people with degrees in English
literature - it was made for kids and young teenagers. And in comparison to something like
Baywatch, which has millions of dollars spent on it and is being made currently, it
doesnt stand up too bad at all."7
CHOPPER SQUAD EPISODE DETAILS
TV Times, April 3, 1976.
2. TV Week, Jan 1, 1977.
3. TV Week, Dec 24, 1977.
No.6, Sept 1995.
TV Week, May 6, 1978.
TV Eye No. 6, Sept 1995.
A scene from the pilot episode: Dennis Grosvenor as Jebbie gives the 'hoist away' signal
to the rescue helicopter hovering above a crashed police car.
The three principal cast members of Chopper Squad: (l
to r) Dennis Grosvenor, Robert Coleby and Eric Oldfield.
The helicopter in action rounding up some suspicious
characters on a beach - a scene from ep. 7, 'Lifeboat'.
First series cast: (l to r) Dennis Grosvenor,
Robert Coleby Jeanie Drynan and Eric Oldfield.
Chopper Squad opening titles.
Chopper Squad commercial integration.
Dennis Grosvenor as Jebbie Best comes to the aid of Alexandra Hynes as a
parachutist in difficulties, in a scene from ep. 2, 'Cliff Rescue'.
A scene showing the Surf Rescue jet boat. Graham Rouse as Roly is at the controls watched by Alyson Best as Penny.
Entrants in a beauty contest pose beside the Surf Rescue
helicopter during filming of episode 3, 'Surf Carnival'.
Graham Rouse as Roly and
Tony Hughes as Tim.
Dennis Grosvenor, Jeanie Drynan, Eric Oldfield and
Jeanie Drynan, Tony Hughes and Alyson Best in a scene from episode 13, 'The
Two scenes with actors performing their own stunts.
Above: Eric Oldfield as Phil rescuing a swimmer at sea. Below: Dennis Grosvenor as Jebbie
hanging from the helicopter about to drop onto a boat.
The Surf Rescue crew carry a patient to the helicopter
for transport to hospital.
Dennis Grosvenor on a wet bike in a scene from episode
21, 'The Other Man's Grass'. The bikes were the first in Australia, and the manufacturer
offered them for use in the series.
An advertisement for Chopper Squad that appeared
in an Adelaide television magazine.