CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

INTERVIEW:
IAN CRAWFORD

 


Copyright 2004 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


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This interview originally appeared in TV Eye No. 12, July 1997.

lan Crawford, son of Dorothy Crawford, was one of the creative forces in Crawford Productions, working behind the scenes on all of their well-known dramas, including Homicide, Hunter, Division 4 and Matlock Police. Recently we talked to lan, and he provided an interesting look at the pioneering of Australian television drama:

 

Your involvement with Crawfords began in radio.

That's right. I joined around 1953 and I was in the music and sound effects department, which we used to play from discs - 78's. To line them up, you couldn't play them backwards, because they were old metal needles which would hit the disc at an angle, and if you played it backwards the whole thing would jump, so you had to play it forwards, and to get it right you had to stop it a quarter turn before the bit of music you wanted. Or if it was the beginning of a disc you wanted to line up, you had to put the needle on, time the number of rotations before the music starts, then put it on again, carefully lining the label up and stopping it a quarter of a turn before the number of turns you counted, and then cross your fingers that you'd done it-right. We were recording on to 16 inch discs, and if you made a mistake you had to throw the disc away and start the episode again - there was no such thing as tape in those days. And that's where I started.

In radio Crawfords were doing drama, but when the company moved into television you started off with quiz and game shows.

We only did quiz and game shows because we couldn't get dramas off the ground. Nobody would buy dramas - they were too expensive.

So how did Take That, which was a comedy, get started?

That was expensive. I don't know why Channel 7 bought it. It was a quarter hour length, and it was recorded on to kine. English actor Philip Stainton played the teacher, and there was also Keith Eden, Frank Rich, Irene Hewitt, and Jeff Ellen with his initiation into television. We made these marvellous episodes in which there were explosions all the time, and the explosions would regularly set off the smoke alarms. The Fire Brigade would respond and try to get in, and Channel 7 would then be fined 25 pounds because they forgot to tell the Fire Brigade that we were setting off smoke bombs.

Every reference we have come across states Take That was produced live-to-air, but that was not the case?

No. It was all pre-recorded on kine and I don't think there is one bit of kine left of it, which is a shame.

The next venture into drama would have been the play Seagulls Over Sorrento.

Yes - the play had been going great guns in Melbourne, and we managed to sell Channel 7 a televised version of it. It wasn't done in the theatre, it was done in the studio at Channel 7. This was in 1960. It had a large cast and Alf Potter was directing it. The play was produced in studio 1, and commercials, which were live, had to be done in studio 2, and as they needed a microphone boom for studio 2's commercials, we only had one microphone for the play. I was just about to get married, and we had been given a honeymoon trip to Japan by my father-in-law, and as a second mike boom of some sort was really needed, Hector asked me to pick one up while I was there. We were to be in Tokyo for a week, and father-in-law had business contacts there, so he arranged a guy to show us around, and it all seemed terrific. This guy took me to the factory on the first day of the honeymoon - we left just after lunch and got back at half past six at night, because that's how long it took to get to the factory across Tokyo. They arranged to see me the next day, so I did the whole trip again, the third day I had to go over to pick up a list of what they recommended, and the fourth day I had to go and order it. So the honeymoon was a disaster!

There was a five year gap between television starting and Crawfords getting their first drama series, Consider Your Verdict, off the ground.

We eventually got Consider Your Verdict up and running because it was comparatively so cheap - it was very easy to make because it was a static production. It was very cheap for Seven because we could do it in three hours of recording time for the one hour programme, whereas for one hour of Cop Shop, years later, you'd have fifteen hours in the studio, plus rehearsal. So we did our three hours on a Saturday afternoon and eventually we got it extended by a half hour to three and a half hours!

Consider Your Verdict was recorded at Channel 7's Fitzroy teletheatre, which was actually terrible as a drama studio. It had a lot of echo, which was all right for a court, but worst of all was the roof which wasn't sound-proofed. So any time it rained you'd hear it, and we had to keep going through that, because you couldn't be sure it would stop raining in the three hours we had. We used to put up a large note to the judge, and the judge would say "Excuse me Witness, would you please speak up? - The rain on the roof you know!" And we carried on! It explained the rain on the roof, they'd speak up over the noise, and on we'd go! It regularly happened, particularly in winter.

For some reason we usually had barristers, real barristers, as our judges, and one of them was Sir Eugene Gorman QC, and he was mad on racing and was an incessant smoker. We kept having to go back and start the segment again, and throw the bit of film away that we'd recorded on, because we could hear the bloody race broadcast from a radio under his bench, or you would see a wisp of smoke coming up from his hidden cigarette.

There was another interesting aspect of Consider Your Verdict. Dorothy Crawford, my mother, was a fantastic radio producer, and she used to get people off the street for all the smaller roles. They were not actors - she got people off the street that she thought looked suited to the role, and she'd get these wonderful performances from them because they were not fully scripted. The questions were fully scripted, but the replies were in telegraphed form that forced the witnesses to put it in their own words, and so it sounded right. We got some marvellous performances out of these people, and many of them were contacted by the ABC and given roles in their drama productions - and they turned out to be dreadful when they were given proper scripts - awful!

That explains why you see a lot of faces in Consider Your Verdict that haven't been seen since.

Exactly. A great day came when we started recording Consider Your Verdict on videotape instead of film, and we could make edits - splices. On the first day we had it we thought it was terrific, and we'd say to the technical director "We"ll just go back to the beginning of the scene, you'll be able to splice there, OK?" "Yeah, that'II be fine". After the third splice he said "I'm sorry, I can't do any more". I said "Why?" He said "That's the limit. We're only allowed three splices per hour." They'd worked out that, because you couldn't record across the physical splices, with more than three splices in an hour the remaining tape wasn't going to be long enough to be re-used for making commercials. Electronic edits came later with Homicide.

We got the extra half hour eventually towards the end of its run. We talked Channel 7 into paying a bit more and using the extra time by having an opening segment, a sort of a teaser which was outside the courts. Hector was able to sell that - get it out of the court, give it a new lease of life. Some of these new little segments were recorded on video in the Fitzroy tele-theatre. But about one out of every three we'd do on film, and then we'd transfer it to video. We had no sound, but we couldn't have people being shot without a gun noise, it just looked ridiculous, and we found also that music didn't cover car door closes, so we recorded all those sound effects and voice overs on a quarter-inch tape, which we'd then play alongside the silent film and record onto videotape. But it had to be precise, it had to be right in synch, and we found we had to supply our own quarter-inch tape recorder, because everybody else's recorders all played at slightly different speeds, so that after half a minute it would be out of synch. So we always took our own recorder along, and we'd roll it and get in synch to within a frame - fortunately it was at the beginning of the episode, so you could do it again if there was a problem with the synch. And that was where we got our experience from to be able to tackle Homicide - those opening scenes.

Was Homicide in the planning stages while Consider Your Verdict was being produced?

Not really. We had in the planning stages then a sort of television version of D24. D24 was a radio programme that was highly successful which Roland Strong had written and narrated, but he never really got it off the ground as a television programme. But we did get Homicide off the ground - the pilot episode was two hours long, the second hour was in the court. It was a different court set, but it was still done in the Fitzroy tele-theatre, and the Homicide detective's offices were in the Fitzroy tele-theatre too, with this extraordinary echo. By this time every now and again we had to have the occasional word of dialogue said on film to help the story along, and that was always post-synched because we didn't have field sound recording equipment yet, and we had to put echo on our post-synch to match the echo in the tele-theatre!

There was difficulty in selling Homicide. Was Channel 7 the only station interested in buying it?

Hector hawked it around everywhere for over a year. Eventually I think Channel 7 just bought the bloody thing to shut Hector up! They had no idea it would be a success.

When Homicide rated well, were Channel 7 willing to put more money in to lift the standards?

A bit by bit. But soon we got to this extraordinary 53% rating, and because we had about 8 to 10 minutes of exterior film per hour, Hector said to Channel 7 "Look, let's have some more film. It can get better, let's get more exterior in it. It's going to cost, but I reckon we can increase the ratings further, maybe by four or five points, with the injection of a couple of thousand dollars per episode". And Channel 7 said "Well, look, if we agree to four or five points less can you reduce the price? We don't want 53! What can we do with a rating of 53? 48 is great - we'd be delighted with it, and we'll pay two thousand dollars less!"

Homicide ran at a loss for quite a few years.

Homicide nearly always ran at a loss! It was always very close to the bone. Certainly in the first 13 weeks we lost 6,000 pounds or some extraordinary amount like that, but somehow we always survived.

Why the perseverance with something that was running at a loss? Why not go back to the quiz and game shows?

Oh no! We wanted to dump the quiz and game shows as quick as we could! We'd also produced live commercials in the studio to make a crust before we managed to get dramas going, and hated that, of course.

So there was definitely a commitment to get an Australian drama industry off the ground?

With us, yes. In radio we never made anything but dramas. We were drama people, and that's where Dorothy shone, in making dramas, and nobody considered doing anything else.

It was obviously an uphill battle getting drama off the ground.

It certainly was. Moreover, we were building an industry from scratch. There were only 5 or 6 of us on the production unit, as against maybe 85 if you're making a TV drama these days. For example, I was blocking the studio aspects of the show, being in effect the director; I did all the sound effects; I did all the -music; I did all the integration of the programme; I did all the recording of the programme; and Dorothy worked similarly. Four days a week I was in the office at half past four in the morning doing the music and the effects - it was the only time I had to do it. They were heady days; really heady days because we all did everything.

After Homicide came the spy series Hunter.

Channel Nine wanted a drama programme, and they specifically wanted a police programme that was as successful as Homicide, and Hector said "No, no, no" and talked them into buying Hunter. We had all sorts of problems with Hunter. The villain Kragg, played by Gerard Kennedy, defected to the West so we could use him as a hero, because we found he was very popular. He was meant to be an out-and-out baddie, but he was more popular than our good guy Tony Ward, so we eventually had to make changes.

Division 4 capitalised on his popularity.

Yes. When the renewal time came for Hunter Hec said "No, I don't want to sell any more, I want to make a police programme." Nine asked "Do you think Australia can have two home grown police programmes, Hector?" "Of course!" says Hector, and eventually talked them into it. And Sir Frank Packer said "If it doesn't rate as well as Hunter I'II have your bloody balls, because Hunter is starting to do quite well, rating in the 30's, thank you very much". So one week we shot the last episode of Hunter and the next week we shot the first episode of Division 4.

Division 4 hit the heights of course - 48's. So then Reg Ansett at Channel O wanted a police programme, and wouldn't be talked out of it, and that's how Matlock Police started.

Very early on we ran into trouble over a Matlock episode. Reg Ansett rang Hector and said "Hector, Hector, I've got this terrible trouble over an episode you've done. Can you come over straight away so we can talk about it?" Hector says yes and Reg says "You better bring young lan too, he directed the bloody thing!" Hector asked me "What the hell have you done?" I said "I don't know!" So we get there and Reg says "We've got this terrible, terrible scene right at the beginning of this latest episode. These two naked women!" Hector asked me "Are they naked, lan?" I said "No, no, they've got bras on!" Reg said "That's the trouble! They're down to their bras. I wouldn't have my teenage daughters viewing that! That's disgusting! I wouldn't have it on even at 8:30 at night! I can't have my teenage daughters seeing that sort of smut!" I said "But it's just one girl undressing. She's going to have a shower!" Hector asked "What is this episode about?" I said "It's about two girls, one's going to have a shower..." He said "Do we see her in the shower?" I said "No! We hear her screaming and she finds a dead body in the shower." "Oh!"

We then had a look at the programme and Hector said "Look, it's surely all right." Reg: "No way, no way. That's dreadful stuff to serve up at 7:30 PM. Shocking!" So Hector says "Look Reg, let's go to the Broadcasting Control Board. If they say it's OK for general exhibition at 7:30 at night, let's do it then". Reg said "Well, they're not going to!" Hector: "Look, just in case. Let's go by the umpire's decision." "All right, all right! You've lost straight away, you might as well not even go down there, but, all right, if you want to."

So when we get down there at the appointed date and time, who's in there already? Reg Ansett! Wording them up. Telling them it's got to be censored! So we all sit down and the Chairman says "Well, we've looked at the episode and we must say, Sir Reginald, we see no problems with it going to air at 7:30." It never went on at 7:30 though - Reg had it telecast at 8:30 with a message saying it was unsuitable for earlier showing!

In the early 70's Crawfords had Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock on air and doing very well. The next step was to shift into colour with Ryan, which didn't do as well.

No. But it did very well overseas. Much better overseas than here.

Was that because the network here programmed it badly?

I don't think so particularly. I think probably the real reason was that people didn't believe that Australian private detectives would go around with guns. Overseas they would believe that of Australian detectives, they don't know any better, and here we would believe that of American private detectives because we don't know better. I'm sure that's what it was.

Audiences reacted well to Hunter though, with secret agents running around with guns.

Yes, I suppose that was because it was ASIO, and nobody knew about ASIO, there were only rumours. But they knew that a private detective in Australia just dealt in divorce, and not much else. So a show based on ASIO was probably more credible to the Australian audience than a show based on a gun-toting private detective.

The shift to colour was obviously due to the imminent arrival of colour television in Australia. Were there ever any earlier plans to film in colour for overseas sales, as was done by Fauna with Skippy, NLT with Woobinda, etc?

No. And in fact the only reason Ryan and Homicide went to all-film colour was because Channel 7's colour video equipment wasn't ready. Otherwise we would have made it the same way we made Division 4 - integrated.

It is widely thought that Homicide became all-film to ensure the highest possible quality.

No. Seven could well have preferred it in black and white - cheaper with the same rating! No, it was purely because Seven were not ready with their equipment, and they realised they had to have it in colour by the time it went to air. I can't remember if Hector reluctantly agreed to put it on all-film and then put the hard word on them to buy Ryan as well - there may have been some of that.

Ryan ran for 39 episodes, and was Crawford's first failure after a long run of success.

39 is not a failure. One is a failure. We had some real failures later on!

The Last Of The Australians was a new direction after doing so many dramas.

Terry Stapleton was very good at comedy. Terry talked Hector into trying a comedy, and we tried everybody in the lead role, and couldn't find anybody suitable. We ended up with Alwyn (Kurts) largely because Hector said "Let's try Alwyn". Everybody else was saying "Let's not try Alwyn - he's only a compere from Raising A Husband or Inspector Fox!" But it was extraordinary, he was terrific.

He made the show.

Absolutely.

It was filmed before a live audience. That was an unusual step.

Oh, it was wonderful. It was Australia's first attempt at a fully scripted sit-com in front of a live audience. The audience made the whole show change from the rehearsal to recording because of the effect of the audience on the actors.

It stands up very well today.

Yes. It was very exciting. You were flying by the seat of your pants because you had no idea what the timing was going to be. Some of the cameramen didn't like working on drama series, because they were unable to use their own creativity, as we always pre-blocked our programmes. The Last Of The Australians was pre-blocked too, but there was some room to manoeuvre because it was all done in one hit, non-stop, rather than doing this scene and then a bit of that scene, making it easier for the director to accept input. There was more rehearsal time as well. Further, the cameramen enjoyed working on it because there was much more ad-libbing.

Do you agree with the view that the cancellation of the three police series at the same time was a deliberate attempt to cut Crawfords down to size?

It may have been. I think the networks certainly were mindful of Crawford's importance once Channel 7 had started repeating Homicide - at one stage they had 7 hours a week on: Homicide, Best Of Homicide and Midday Homicide stripped five days a week - plus Nine had Division 4 on three times a week, and Channel O were showing Matlock twice a week. That's a huge spread of Crawford programmes, and it wouldn't surprise me if they wanted to cut Hector down to size a bit. But Hector always blamed the fact that they put them to air and caused this repeat situation. According to him, the audience just got sick of all these repeats.

Adelaide was interesting - repeats of Homicide in Adelaide always did better than the first run - much better. Apparently the original first-run Homicide never worked in Adelaide, because they kept changing it around to different nights trying to get the ratings the other states had. So eventually they put repeats on and just left them there, and the audience figures kept going up - much higher than they ever got on the first run!