CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

INTERVIEW:
LEONARD TEALE

 


Copyright 2005 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


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This interview first appeared in TV EYE No. 3, October 1994.

Leonard Teale was a multi-talented performer, well known for his radio rendition of 'Superman', his recital of 'The Man From Snowy River' and, of course, his role as Det. Sgt. Mackay in Homicide. He was the longest serving of all the Homicide detectives, appearing on screen from 1965 through to 1973. This interview with Leonard took place in March 1994 at his Sydney home, and is probably his last interview about television before he unfortunately passed away a few months later.

 

What was your first television appearance?

Well, I go back before television on television. When I was with ABC radio on the Children's Hour we used to go around to the various Shows - the Exhibition in Brisbane, The Royal Melbourne Show, The Easter Show in Sydney - in which the ABC had various studios. The Children's Hour had well-known characters, and we did a whole variety of things such as plays and serials, so it was an ideal thing for the listeners to actually be able to see the people doing the job while it went out on air from the various studios. Because you had people in a studio talking, moving, sometimes wearing funny hats and interacting with the audience, we were in fact for a couple of years doing closed circuit  experimental television before television actually came, so I had some experience of it when it actually started.

What year would that have been?

About 1954 to '56. I left the ABC then because I knew that television was coming, and I  had an opportunity to do a tour with the Elizabethan Theatre Trust. Television came in about September of 1956, if I remember rightly, with the Olympic Games in Melbourne.  I think one of the first things I did, strangely enough, was something on the ABC's Children's Hour.

I vividly remember doing an orchestral piece called 'Green Water', which was verse to a symphony orchestra, again with the ABC. By that time 'The Man From Snowy River' record had been released and I had a bit of a reputation for speaking verse. I remember 'Green Water' because I had no idea, I tried to learn it and it was a bit difficult to learn in a hurry, and I didn't know when we were coming to camera, I had no idea of anything like that. Nobody told me, nobody gave me a script and said we'll be coming to you on this verse, then we'll be covering the orchestra until that verse, then we'll come back to you for two lines here, nothing like that. In absolute terror I went through this entire verse, which lasted perhaps five or ten minutes, but felt like five hours. We got through it, and I asked my brother what he thought, and he said "It was very good - the face was smiling, and the eyes were saying HELP!"

After that I did a number of one-off plays. I remember one called 'Shadow Of A Pale Horse', which was the story of a murder in a country town. It looks like the culprit is going to be hung, and a wise old man suggests that the father who wants this boy hung should defend him, and the person who was going to defend him should be the prosecutor - a reversal of the roles, and so the whole town begins to change; it was a brilliant idea and beautifully done.

In the early days of television it was still a medium for not only information, but also for what you might call 'cultural pursuits' - as there were plays especially written for radio, so too plays were especially written for television. The BBC still do this, but we followed not the BBC so much as the American pattern. To me, it's interesting the change that came about when American television shifted from the east coast to the west coast; most marked, the difference in quality. As soon as it got to Hollywood the quality plummeted - absolutely plummeted. All the really good shows came out of New York, and amongst them some tremendous one hour plays, and we did exactly the same thing here - the one hour play was a feature of radio on a Sunday night, the BBC did it on television, the Americans did it, and so we did it too.

At this stage the only local television productions would have been these plays, plus quiz and game shows, and variety.

Yes, that's right. But as far as drama was concerned it was all American. There were a couple of local attempts made, Autumn Affair, a soapie, was one, but none of them actually met with much success. The ones that did succeed were those the ABC did on a Sunday night, the historical serials. The first one was Stormy Petrel with Brian James, the second was The Outcasts, then The Patriots, and after that The Hungry Ones. I had a small part in, I think, The Patriots and I played the lead in The Outcasts.

But what had been happening before then, at the same time IMT started, was a variety show called Sydney Tonight. I'd been doing throughout the 50's a radio show called The Bunk House Show, which was a variety programme with singing and comedy and so on. It was written by George Foster and I used to play the character comedy parts, and I ended up doing the Sydney Tonight comedy segments.

After The Outcasts I did a couple of years with the Mobil Limb Show, replacing perhaps the greatest comic on television, Buster Fiddess, who had left to do his own show. Bobby and Dawn (Limb) had another show called Singalong ready to start during the summer holiday break and they got me, as a frustrated singer, to compere it. At the same time I was doing voice-overs for the news on Channel Nine, and I must say that the news studio where I was at Channel Nine has not altered in thirty years.

Around this time there was a marvellous variety programme on Channel Seven in Sydney called Revue, with Digby Wolfe. Every so often they would have poetry readings, and by this time 'The Man From Snowy River' had been out for about five years, and I became the resident poetry speaker.

Then when Channel Ten started up they were looking for shows to put on, and I was folk-singing at the time in coffee shops all over the place. I put up this concept that we should do our own programme of folk-singing which they accepted. They started taking surveys about episode 7, and when the first survey results came out they overnight decided to cut all live entertainment, except for the news and Telescope, because the ratings were so bad. The highest rating was 14, and that was the test pattern! The simple reason for it was that there wasn't a biscuit in the tuner of most sets to be able to take Channel 10 - there was no one able to watch it, and the reason the test pattern was rating so high is because the technicians were watching it when they put in the biscuit.

During the period before Homicide with all the American programmes on television, was there any feeling of frustration or resentment amongst actors that there was no work opening up in television?

Very much. My first foray into the political scene was in the late 1950's. I was one of the senior vice presidents of the union, and we did a march by motor car from Sydney to Canberra to talk to various ministers about having a quota system, such as they had in England, where a certain amount of material had to be Australian.

It was never intended that it should be like that: In 1952 or 1953, three heads of big Hollywood studios came to Australia unannounced, but the papers found out and asked them what they were doing here. They said "Holidays" - and the place they were holidaying was Canberra! At that time the film studios were fighting a battle in America against television, and one of their weapons was drive-ins. And they wanted to get into Australia before television came.

As it just happened the American ambassador had direct door-openings to the PM, who at the time was Menzies. They finished their holiday after a couple of days and went back to America. We were ready to go to television then, but Menzies suddenly decided we would have hearings, and effectively the opening of television was held up for at least two years by this moving sideshow, which toured each capital city and held inquiries and decided who was going to get the licenses for it. That could have been decided in a lot less than three years. When TV eventually did come in 1956, the defences of the film industry had been set up. Now that may have been entirely coincidental - we didn't think it was.

That started a lobbying not long afterwards for Australian material on television, which has gone on ever since. The model that we took was the English model - sure, they turned out a lot of rubbish but the Yanks turned out a lot of rubbish too, as we know they do. Only their best shows came out here, and we knew there was no way we could compete with the garage sale prices they were charging.

As far as quality was concerned, we were afraid of losing the whole of the Australian character, the whole Australian culture, because the economics were a little bit difficult - at least that was our argument. That was why in '57 or '58 I took an interest in politics, and throughout the Menzies years I supported the Labour Party. So, yes, there was a very strong movement, certainly from the union, against this tremendous flooding of the country with American material.

It literally is to the detriment of the country when you do not have your own culture represented in the media. Even these days - we got the whole of the Gulf War from CNN. Liz and I were in America the year before last and put on the television in our hotel room, and we could have been watching Australian television. The basic material is the same as we have here, and it isn't any great wonder to me that most kids are going around with baseball caps worn back to front.

Did this visit by the film studio people have anything to do with tying up the stations into playing old American movies and TV series?

No. The idea was that they knew television was inevitable but they had no defence for it in Australia. The defence they had for a long time in America was the drive-in - until they bought out television companies and started producing television shows themselves. It was drive-ins which were set up in that period when Menzies organised the hearings all round Australia - but I know that they were ready to go with television long before that. It was a good delaying time, and a good way to start off television with early American films.

Another interesting point is that we could have gone to colour long before we did, except that Treasury didn't have the funds to 'colourise' the ABC because it was all going to the Vietnam war. They said when the war is over we'll move into colour, which is pretty well what happened.

At the original licence hearings for the TV stations they continually stated they would have Australian production, and to a point they did as far as variety and news was concerned, but when transmission hours expanded they were filled with American programmes.

You can say anything at a hearing, but once you've got the licence it's not likely to be revoked, and nobody when asked the question "Are you going to show a certain amount of Australian material?" is going to say "No, we're not, we're going to use only overseas material!"

When the Americans came out here to make Whiplash, were there any notable differences in the way they handled their production?

No, not really, because the Australian film industry has always been pretty good. Long John Silver was made in the early 50's and the quality was terrific. Sure, it had an American director, and it probably had an American producer and maybe a writer, but that was it - all the rest were Australian. In fact with our experience, the Americans were a joke. The director was no better than any other director - for some Aboriginals in a Whiplash episode he told the costume girl "More gum leaves - we're not making French movies here!".

But most of the time the people who came out here were second-stringers - they wouldn't leave Hollywood if they weren't. And that was the terrible part - they could do format, they were practiced at format. The scriptwriters had no idea - that's why I played a white man who turned into an Aboriginal!

That particular episode, 'Dutchman's Reef', was written by Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek.

Was it really? In those days, which was long before Star Trek, they'd just take an idea and throw a script together - they didn't research it.

Consider Your Verdict was Crawfords first attempt at television drama.

Yes, that was interesting, because courtroom drama always goes well on radio and on television. It was radio to begin with, and on television it was radio with pictures - even with Perry Mason, the interest is the people, it's not about running from one place to another, or car chases. It was an adventure of the mind. One thing of passing interest, the jury in Consider Your Verdict almost always came from one of the service clubs, the Lions or Rotary or Jaycees or whatever.

What was it about Homicide that changed things? Suddenly Homicide is on air, the ratings jump through the roof, it runs for 12 years and there has been continuous Australian production ever since.

I think it was the Melbourne people that decided it, and the fact that it was the first outside action series and the people spoke the Australian language. I can't be sure exactly why, but all those things were part of it I think.

Right from the outset the use of the camera was terrific. Liz was talking yesterday how good episode 3 ('The Rosary') was - the camera work was startling; the lighting in the church scenes was so good - it had a stamp on it. So that was one thing. Also, I think it might have been the first to marry film and video on a regular basis.

It didn't do well in Sydney for about the first 15 episodes. The same fate that came to Emergency almost came to Homicide - it was pretty close. But it was the Melbourne people who made the ratings so good, because they were seeing their own city for the first time, and they were seeing Australian characters, and they were hearing their language. It was Melbourne's love of television - I don't doubt that Sydney Tonight was just as good a show as IMT (In Melbourne Tonight), but Sydney has never had the same loyalty to its stars as Melbourne had. Homicide could never have come out of Sydney; similarly, the idea of a nostalgia television magazine (TV Eye) could never have come out of Sydney.

Perhaps the Sydney environment and Melbourne weather had something to do with it...

Yes, perhaps! Whatever the reason, it was the Melbourne people and their loyalty to their television that kept Homicide going. I don't know if, because I was well known in Sydney, that I could have pulled a bit more of the Sydney audience - that's a vague possibility. But I don't think so - at that time, after the first 12 to 18 episodes, they were really working so well together, it was coming in at budget price, and the ratings in Sydney were just starting to lift, and that saved it. And it just kept on getting better and better and better, and the ratings got better and better and better. These days it doesn't matter where a programme is made - I think a lot of that Sydney - Melbourne rivalry has disappeared to a large extent.

You didn't actually join Homicide till episode 27 - how did that come about?

It was extraordinary. I went into Channel 10 to do some pre-production for Folkmoot, the folk programme, and they told me it was finished. The following day I went to my agency, and they said Crawfords were looking for someone to replace Lex Mitchell in Homicide - would I be interested? I said yes - put my name down. The following day I asked if they heard from Crawfords yet and they said "Yes, we did; No, they don't want you, you're too old". By then I was in my forties, and Lex was playing the young character. Suddenly my head filled with a concept that was halfway between an Australian detective who was very hard but had a soft side, and 007 - you may be able to see something of that in Mackay. And so in just a couple of sentences I said "Tell them I've got a great idea for the part". And I described it, and it was coming into my head as I was saying it.

So this is where Mackay who was a detective demoted from Sergeant came about?

That's right. She rang Crawfords up and said "Look, he's got an idea", and they said "Oh that sounds interesting", and so they wrote this bit about the rogue cop. I went down there on probation, and the character settled into the parts that had actually already been written for Lex. After about a month or two when it was working my salary went up from 40 to 50 pounds per week, which wasn't all that bad for those days.

In the early days people would not have been used to seeing film crews in their streets.

Yes, once a bloke ran into shot to help out at a car crash we staged. A lot of people really believed we were police - which isn't surprising, because we worked in closely with the police. To begin with the policemen on film were actually rostered from their local stations onto the film set, so we were constantly with coppers, and I spent a lot of time with them. In fact, before I did any shooting at all I went down to Russell Street, and I went out with the real Homicide squad for about 2-3 weeks just to get the feel of it. I went back again after a few years, as I wanted to keep Mackay as a realistic portrayal of a detective. Gordon Timmins was our police adviser, and he'd go through all the scripts and advise on how to make scenes more realistic without losing the drama. He eventually left the police force and joined us full time, and he played Det. Doug Marshall in the show on a part time basis.

What was the all-film episode, 'Flashpoint', like?

It was extraordinary. Norman Yemm, who played the criminal, was very good. That episode was a marathon. I think the sound man worked about 22 hours a day. We were shooting a scene with dialogue near the cafe, which was on a gravel road, and it took about five attempts to get it because every time a car would come along or a plane would go overhead or something. For the first time they realised what the difficulties would be and from then onwards Ian Crawford was absolutely sure you couldn't get any suitable sound on location, which is why we continued to post-synch in that square butter-box, the studio which had the terrible dull sound, long after it was necessary.

I had a credit for location dialogue on some episodes because I was the dialogue director on the post-synching. The only way we could convince them that you could get sound outside instead of using this terrible double audio dubbing technique - which I think they did magnificently, it was extraordinary how successful that was - was to make the guide track so good, it was better than post-synch. All that was the result of that terrible time we had during 'Flashpoint' trying to get good sound on location. It was so difficult because we'd never done it before, we didn't have any trained film operators or trained recordists.

A lot of the time we found in the early days that we departed slightly from script and we couldn't go with the post-synch. One of the classic times was when somebody just licked their lips and Ian said "What did he say?", and the fellow, I think it was Terry McDermott, he said "I didn't say anything - I just licked my lips". And Ian said "But it looks as if you said something - we've got to have something there". And they racked their brains and came up with "He's early" - it was the only thing that fitted. That's what it was like in those days.

One week we were having problems and we badly needed to have some sort of guide track, because you'd depart from script and nobody would know you'd done it, and you'd be faced with trying to work out what on earth was said. So they asked if anyone had a tape recorder at home and knew how to operate it, and this kid put his hand up and they said "You're now the sound recordist for Homicide." So they gave him a machine which was full track, and the one he had at home was half-track, so that when he got to the end of the tape he'd turn it over. We didn't know anything about this, and when we got in we said "Where's the sound? What happened to what we did this morning?" - he'd wiped it out. So that was where sound came from - we were building up our expertise from one disaster to another!

When you left the series it had just begun in colour - there was a lot of speculation at the time as to how they would write both you and Alwyn Kurts out in the same episode.

They were marvellous the way they used to get rid of people - they shot Terry McDermott on a golf course, they blew up Mike Preston into smithereens, they dropped a rock on Lionel Long - the way you went out usually gave you some idea of whether you were in Crawford's good books or not. They liked Les Dayman, so he left due to a nervous breakdown caused by pressure on the job, and I think they did similar with George Mallaby and Norman Yemm. Poor old Alwyn must have been in the bad books, because they shot him, and he died in my arms, and I was promoted to Inspector and sent to Ballarat.

And they brought you back in the last episode they made.

It was a wonderful device. The cast said goodbye to me as I went out the office, but in fact because they were looking straight at the camera, they were actually saying goodbye to the viewer.

You avoided what a lot of actors don't, which is typecasting - after playing Sgt. Mackay for so long you moved on to roles in Seven Little Australians and Class Of 74, plus guest appearances in other series, films, etc, so Homicide obviously didn't do you any harm.

It didn't do me any harm, it did me a lot of good. I would never have met and married Liz if it hadn't been for Homicide, and that's the greatest thing that ever happened to me. It lead me into motor racing, it lead me into all sorts of areas I wouldn't have got into otherwise. Besides, it was fun!