CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

INTERVIEW:
DAVID LEE

 


Copyright 2004 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


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This interview originally appeared in TV EYE No. 8, May 1996.

David Lee started work for Crawford Productions before the inception of television. He was Assistant Film Director to Ian Jones on the early Homicide episodes, and later worked in a range of Direction or Production capacities on many Crawford series, including Homicide, Hunter, Division 4, Matlock Police, Ryan and Bluey. He has also worked for the Grundy Organisation on a variety of projects including Bellamy, and more recently, with Jan Bladier, was responsible for the two commemorative specials Homicide ...30 years On and The Crawford Story.

 

Was Take That the first series you worked on?

I started with Crawfords in radio, I can't remember the exact year, but it was in the mid-50's. I was an office boy sending radio transcriptions all over the world, and when the guy that was doing the musical effects left, I did all the music and effects for the radio programs, which I did for about 18 months to two years. Roland (Strong) was wrapping up radio because Dorothy (Crawford) was doing Wedding Day for television, and we then went into Take That.

'Moran's Guide To Australian TV Series' claims that Noel Ferrier was a regular in Take That, but our research suggests he never appeared in the show.

No, he was never in the show. Phillip Stainton was the rotund teacher, who died shortly afterwards.

Was his ill health the reason why the show was cancelled?

No. It was never meant to go all that long. There were pressures for the folk in the series, such as Frank Rich, Joff Ellen and Irene Hewitt, to do other things in television. They had done radio and other bits and pieces, and as time was to prove they were naturals for television.

Take That went to air live, which was not unusual in those days.

Yes. We rehearsed it in Crawfords' studio, which was then in West Melbourne, in Batman St at King St, where they also had a television school. We had a hall and that was it, that's where we rehearsed a lot of things, and also put down the music. It wasn't a proper studio, in that it wasn't soundproofed, but at that stage King St only had horse drawn transport, well it wasn't that long ago, but it didn't have the traffic noise it does today. So we did rehearsals there, and it was quiet enough to do musical things for Peters' Club and other bits and pieces.

Drama was important in Crawford's radio programmes, such as D24 and CIB, but television was mainly quiz and game shows. Drama didn't surface on television until Consider Your Verdict. What was the reason for not doing drama?

I think it was just too expensive. It certainly wasn't for lack of actors, because they had all been acting their socks off on radio and in theatre, so one would assume there would be no reason why they couldn't go and do something on television. It was purely economics, and like anything else in those days, why pay for Australian drama when you can get American programmes so cheaply. That was the story up until 1964. The closest we ever came to going straight from radio to television was the play Seagulls Over Sorrento, which was early in the piece, if I remember correctly we rehearsed it in late 1959 and it was done in 1960.

So how did Homicide get off the ground in that economic climate?

I guess at that time it was probably because the Americans were all doing cop shows, Highway Patrol and Dragnet and all the rest of it, and they thought it would be a good idea. In 1962 we experimented with a version of D24 for television, but it was far too expensive, because at that time we didn't have videotape, we only had film. It was going to be a doco-drama, about the regular life of the Victoria Police. We were living in a police car for seven days, and we filmed everything that moved. Because it was on film, and we would really need three or four crews in a week to make it really fast and sleek, it was too expensive.

The pilot was actually completed for D24, wasn't it?

Yes. We - Roland, a cameraman and myself - actually lived in a police car, with a police driver and radio, and we did the whole thing. It never went to air. D24 was way ahead of it’s time - over 20 years later the Americans started making similar programmes such as Rescue 911 and Cops. But Hector just kept on batting for some sort of police show, and came up with Homicide. The only way to make a pilot was to totally fund it himself, which he did; and the story about mortgaging the house and all the rest of it is true. It took nearly a year for Hector to sell the program, eventually to Seven.

How did you get to be Assistant Film Director after starting out as the office boy?

We had been playing around with film for about twelve months before Consider Your Verdict with docos and all those sort of things, and we were also doing very short film pieces of in-house stuff for places such as Myer's and Coles. By doing that we learnt about film, then by the time we got to doing film inserts for Consider, we had practiced enough for them to be sort of OK, and then we got another camera, and we got better and better. Ian Jones, who was then still at Seven, and Ian Crawford and I had been playing with film - we had a camera and we muddled our way through it. We just tried to, in our own way, make film look interesting, to do our own thing with Consider, it was trial and error. Ian Crawford turned out to be a brilliant with the camera because he was Graham Kennedy's number one cameraman for many, many years - apart from working at Crawfords, he had a night job at Channel Nine.

Homicide then was very pioneering, as everybody was learning their craft.

We knew what we were doing, we didn't know how to do it properly. One sees documentaries on how to make film and all the rest of it, but there wasn't time to apply a lot of those things. We didn't have any lights, we only had reflectors and a couple of battery lights, so we didn't do night scenes all that much. The logistics of getting it done in time, with an absolute minimum of equipment and trying to make it look good, was the difficult part. We made it look as good as we could make it in the time, but time was the all important thing. If we didn't get it done, we would have to work on the weekend, and that meant we would muck up the actor's rehearsal time, so it was always against the clock, to do the best you could within the time. 

After a few episodes did a routine settle in with the development of short cuts and improvisations?

I think it was a fair way, not just a few episodes down the track. I really think it took the first six months to a year before it became more comfortable and we ironed out most of the bugs. 

Was the lack of outside sound a problem?

With the equipment we had, we got away with a little bit of outside sound, effects and things rather than dialogue. We gave it our best shot, but again it was down to time - worry about the picture first and the sound second, which is unfortunate. 

The situation obviously improved as the budget increased.

After the second series of thirteen episodes we had more lights and more time. By then it had been very well accepted by the viewing public. We, the film side of Homicide, got more money and more time because they realised it was the exterior shots that was really making the show work. Australians were seeing Australia for the first time, seeing Australian streets and Australian cars, and it was then that they increased the ratio of film to interior video. 

Why was Lex Mitchell's character written out so early in the series?

There were a number of reasons, but in the end it was Lex's decision I think. Some say Lex was a bit wooden, but by the same token nobody gave him much to do. This is a problem with a lot of shows when someone doesn't have anything to do but they are in a three shot. What do they do? The best in the business is Terry Donovan. To watch Terry in a three shot, he would do all sorts of things - blow his nose, scratch his ear - anything to keep interest in the thing, and he did it without distracting anybody else, and I think it was good. 

Did you take over film direction on Homicide when Hunter commenced production?

No, I took over Homicide before 'Flashpoint' (ep. 56 - Ed.), but Ian Jones came back to do 'Flashpoint' and some of the other episodes that he wrote. I directed the first ep that Ian wrote since he'd been out of it, and I hated it. I tried to shoot it the way I thought he'd shoot it, and I semi-stuffed it up, because I was doing something that wasn't me. It was a bit disjointed, because I was trying to do some of the shots that I know he would do, and from then I said 'You write it, you do it', and it was a good year or so before I did another one of his scripts.

I tried to give Homicide a semi-documentary approach, so that we weren't always on tracks, not that we had them all that much. The technique was first used on Homicide, when Len Teale had a flu or something, and was really hoarse. What we did was put the camera in the back seat of the car, hand held, and when Terry McDermott got out we did too with the camera, and physically walked as Len would walk. We did the whole scene with a subjective camera and later got Len to dub in his lines, and it worked because there were enough uniform cops and ambulance guys and people in the scene that it didn't look ridiculous. We used it on a few occasions after that just for an effect. 

How did you find working on Hunter?

I think we must have been getting another pilot going or something at that time, because I thought it would be really nice for a change to do Hunter, and I couldn't because I was doing something else. I didn't get into Hunter until it was a few episodes in - I don't know exactly how many I did, but it must have been about ten. I really enjoyed doing it, because it was a change from a cop show. I enjoyed working with Tony Ward, and there was a lot more equipment, it had a bigger budget, it had a whole new approach, and a lot more time. And the way the writers wrote it with all their gizmos and gadgets, we had to get extra lenses to make it all work.

I think the unfortunate thing about Hunter was that it was just that much ahead of its time - we weren't quite ready for a James Bond or whatever in this country. That's why I think it would still stand up, for an old show, as well or probably better than some Homicides, some Division 4's. It had its own style, and Tony and Gerry (Kennedy) were good. It was never meant to be a spoof, I don't care what anybody says, it was never meant to be, and of course we were meant to take the thing seriously. For what it was I think it was a good show and, unfortunately, a bit ahead of its time.

It was a lot of fun making it - and it travelled. Sydney, South Australia, Queensland, Singapore. It was unfortunate that we didn't travel more with Homicide, which is something I mentioned to the management and the management said it was too expensive. Because we had to do 48 eps a year it came down to time, and we couldn't travel so much. But when we went to Geelong, or Ocean Grove or whatever, the co-operation we got, not only from the essential services but from the public, was just fantastic. Without the public, Homicide would never have been as successful as it was, because we didn't pay money to use locations or whatever because there was no money. Homicide worked so well for Melbournians that it was a pity we couldn't go to country areas more often. 

Hunter didn't seem to have any restraint on travelling.

It had more money. They wanted it to work, and there was more money right from the start. I don't know if the budget was ever increased, I think the money was always there, and it was meant to travel. Another reason Hunter stands up well is because we had that three years on Homicide where everybody did an awful lot. After three years it was nice to have a different show to work on, everyone was enthusiastic, and they were still enthusiastic about Homicide because there were new people coming in on that show, and everything was getting bigger. Hunter was a recharge of the batteries for those of us who worked on Homicide. It was a different approach. It was shoot it from any angle - wide, or big, or Sydney; it was also different in a fight scene or whatever because a lot of the time you were only covering one guy, and not three of the detectives. So you could hone in, and perhaps be able to do a couple of shots extra with the one guy, and build it up. Hunter was just a little bit slicker, it had more time, it had different equipment, and it was a change. 

Opinions differ on whether Kragg should have defected or remain as a bad guy.

I don't think Kragg should have defected. There was still a lot of time for a lot more interplay between the two characters. One could sit down and be deep and meaningful for quite a while about why and how, but, no, I don't think he should have defected. The closest I would come to would be having him as a double agent, to perhaps add that smidge more intrigue. 

After Tony left the series the writing was on the wall.

It was. It was just a matter of time. I guess it just should have stopped when Tony left. But then I also think Homicide should have stopped before it did. I think when you've been with something for sometime you can feel when it gets a bit laboured. It needed either a major change or to stop, and there wasn't enough money for a show that had run that long to have a major change. 

That is interesting, because many people regard the colour Homicides as world class.

I think they were. I think the whole thing picked up when it went colour. But I felt it had run its course. 

After an innovative show like Hunter, was moving to another police show with Division 4 a backward step?

No. It was a different show, I think it was good. I've got to say what I.J. (Ian Jones) said in his interview: if we had been able to do it as Saints And Sinners out of St. Kilda it would have been a better show, as Bluey would have been if it was done out of Sydney. But I think Division 4 just missed that something, that 'it', that wonderful 'it'; it hasn't got 'it'. I think it was a great show, and again it was a lot of fun to work on. There were more characters than you could shake a stick at - it had a great mix between the plain clothes and uniform guys. It was also a change, it did not have that semi-documentary feel, this was a full on piece of entertainment, while remaining true to life with dramatic licence. It was treated the same as Homicide in that we tried to make them both spot on with police procedure where we could. It was just different, it was fun, it wasn't as much fun as Hunter, but it was fun. Although nothing could ever replace Homicide in those early years, not any new show, no matter how much money you had. 

Those pioneering days are the ones you have the fondest memories of.

Well, yes, I just think being there was great. That pioneer thing. I mean, with Divvy 4 everything was there, it was all set up, everyone knew exactly where they were going, what they were doing, but it was still a lot of fun. Terry and Gerry worked well together, as did the rest of them. 

How far was the concept for the Vice Squad series advanced before it was dropped in favour of Matlock?

I don't think that ever got off the ground. There was always the question of what was the third show going to be about, obviously it was going to be about cops because 0-10 were the only ones who didn't have a cop show, but I don't think the Vice Squad concept even got to the network. I think that happened somewhere between Crawfords and TV Week - there were a lot of titles for a lot of shows, a lot of them didn't happen, and a lot of them happened under other things. Once again, Matlock, although a police show, was different, and I think that is why it worked. 

Ryan was Crawford's first failure, not because it was of inferior quality, but rather because it was badly programmed by the network.

Yes, but by the same token Ryan probably has made more money overseas than all of the others. Not all of them put together, but for the amount of episodes made Ryan has done very well overseas. Again, I don't know that Ryan was at the right time either, and I'm not saying for Australia, I'm just saying for whatever was coming from the States at that time. Interestingly, people writing in after The Crawford Story special were asking 'Why couldn't there be more shows like Ryan? At least they knew how to speak'. Rod (Mullinar) and Pamela (Stephenson) both enunciated quite nicely - it was a good show. 

The Box was the first attempt at a soap opera, and being at the time the police shows were cancelled one after the other, it kept the company afloat.

Yes it did, and it's just a pity they didn't do it a little bit earlier. It was there, it was on the drawing board earlier, and it was a pity it didn't come in before Number 96. But I still say The Box is better than 96, and it will go down in the annals of history as being the better show. 

The Last Of The Australians was Terry Stapleton's baby. Did you work on it?

It certainly was. He wrote every episode. No, I didn't work on it. 

You were always employed by Crawfords, then about 1980 you started working on projects like Bellamy for Grundy's - why the change?

That question is simple. After ten years of police shows I wanted a change. It was, as I.J. said, unfortunate that Against The Wind, and I'll go further than him and add A Town Like Alice and others, couldn't have been Crawford Productions. It wasn't to be in that time; a lot of people dropped out - Ian Jones, Henry Crawford, and others - a lot of people wanted diversity, things that weren't the standard run of the mill commercial television stuff. They wanted to do mini-series and things, which Crawfords would do much later, but they weren't prepared to wait and so they left. In my case, I needed a change, I was there for 23 years. We just wanted to go away outback, we love Australia, and we took six months off, and we didn't have the faintest idea what we were going to do when we got back. Maybe even go back to Crawfords, I don't know, I didn't even think about it. When we did get back Grundy's were saying they wanted to do a police show, and by that time a couple of producers and writers had moved into the Grundy Organisation. But the Sydney cops were very hard to get on with, and basically Grundy's employed us because of our track record down here, and that's how we started on Bellamy. The NSW cops had in the past gotten some very bad imagery from television with some one-offs and a few other bits and pieces, and they vetted every single scene for the first few episodes. 

Was the 1993 Bony series in any way relevant to the Boney series produced by Fauna in the early 70's?

No. That was a co-production between Grundy’s and Germany, and the German version was better than what we got to see here in Australia, because they got a longer version per episode, and there was a little more detective work, and a little more of what the Germans like. It could be said that the series was really made for the German market. 

Do you subscribe to the theory that the rapid cancellation of Division 4, Matlock Police and Homicide was a conspiracy to put Crawfords out of business?

I was there. I must. I do. 

There is no way that it was just coincidence, just falling ratings?

No way. No way. I believe it's probably the only time, and probably will be the only time ever in the history of Australian television, where there was more than a hint of collusion. 

Someone should write a book about it.

Someone will.