This interview first appeared in TV EYE No. 3, October 1994.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
During the period before
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Class Of 74, plus guest appearances in other series, films, etc, so
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!