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CHOPPER SQUAD


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CHOPPER SQUAD
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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 it’s 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 benefactors.

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 Police.

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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 we’d all drift away. Nobody said, ‘that’s the end of the show’ - that’s 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 climber’s 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 first series.

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 stunts!

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 wetsuit!

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, 1978.

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 series.

Perhaps the last word should go to Dennis Grosvenor, who said in his TV Eye interview: "I don’t care that much if people say Chopper Squad was corny. You’ve got to remember that this was 1977, and it wasn’t 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 doesn’t stand up too bad at all."7

 


CHOPPER SQUAD EPISODE DETAILS

 

 

1. TV Times, April 3, 1976.
2. TV Week, Jan 1, 1977.

3. TV Week
, Dec 24, 1977.
4.
TV Eye No.6, Sept 1995.
5. TV Week, May 6, 1978.
6. TV Eye No. 6, Sept 1995.
7. Ibid.

 



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 Robert Coleby.


Jeanie Drynan, Tony Hughes and Alyson Best in a scene from episode 13, 'The Farewell'.


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.