CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

INTERVIEW:
TONY WARD

 


Copyright © 2005 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


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This interview originally appeared in TV EYE No. 2, May 1994.

Tony Ward was a current affairs reporter for many years with the original A Current
Affair
, and before that with Telescope. But he is best remembered for the title
role in the classic 60's spy series Hunter. Recently we talked to Tony in Sydney:

Current affairs and acting seems a strange mix - how did that come about?

I'd been an actor since my late teens, and professional with J.C. Williamson since I was about 21. I was also a stage director as well, and I was in charge of shows, taking them around Australia and New Zealand. Television made quite an inroad into the theatre, and I became a director and a producer at Channel 9 in Adelaide. I never intended to appear on television, I simply thought I was going to be behind the desk in the control room. Then I had to appear one night when someone was missing, and from then they never let me off - they got two jobs for one salary!

I came back to Sydney and I was on staff at ATN-7 where I read news and co-hosted women's programs. Then they decided to make the first commercial current affairs programme, after Four Corners had been going about a year on the ABC, and they called it Seven Days. Because I had made a couple of half-hour documentaries I was the first person engaged to work on it. We were doing that quite happily, and then Channel 10 opened, and Bill Peach and I joined the new station and did the first nightly quarter hour of current affairs in the country, called Telescope.

How did you land the title role in Hunter?

It was while I was doing Telescope that I got a call from my agent late on a Friday. She said "There are a lot of people going down to see Crawfords on the weekend to audition for a new series. I don't know what it is about, would you like to go down?" I was an afterthought, as she already had everyone else in the place booked, and so had all the other agents. I agreed to go down, and I asked to go last when I got to GTV so I could study the script. The scene involved this chap Hunter walking into an office and giving a coded message to Miss Halliday sitting behind her desk. I went in and delivered this message, but it was all spent eyeing her up and down. There was a double edge to it all as the lines I was saying had nothing to do with what I was looking at. They stopped me half way through and adjusted the lighting and said "Do it again". They recorded it and asked me up to the control room and said "You're exactly what we've been looking for".

At that stage was there any guarantee that Hunter would go into production?

No. I was sworn to secrecy, and I don't know how long elapsed before we got any confirmation it was going to happen, so there was a danger that something would get out and cost me my job on Telescope. I arranged holidays to shoot an episode in Melbourne, and we did some filming in Sydney on the beaches, and got away with that by telling onlookers it was a suntan lotion commercial. How we kept it a secret is beyond me.

Word didn't get out about who was in it and what it was about until the first episode had been completed and transmitted up the coaxial cable to Sydney for the Packers to have a look at. Then somebody got hold of a video tape and spilled the beans to Veritas, who rang me up and said "I believe you're the mysterious Mr. Hunter". I swore him to secrecy, which he honoured. Unfortunately, he didn't get the scoop like he was supposed to, but I couldn't control publicity.

At that stage had you made any guest appearances in Homicide?

They asked me to do one, but I declined. I couldn't get the time off for that, and I wasn't going to do it anyhow. I was determined that I wasn't going to be looked at a second time. What I would do in Homicide would be nothing like Hunter.

So they asked you to do Homicide after you had been accepted for Hunter?

Yes. I wasn't asked to do one before that as I had been more or less out of drama for some years. I did do one play for Hayes Gordon, but I found the strain of rushing from Telescope to the theatre six nights a week was too much. There is a limit to what you can continuously do, so when that season finished I thought 'no more'.

Why did you leave a successful programme to join a series which was an unknown quantity?

Hunter was a project which fired my imagination, I had no doubts about giving up a good career in current affairs for an opportunity like this, it was Heaven sent. I thought I was absolutely right for it, I looked right, I was sufficiently robust, I looked like I could have been an ex-military man, I'm tall, and I've got a voice which is, you can't say mid-Atlantic, but it's not broad Australian, although I was born here and have lived here all my life. I thought I sounded reasonably professional. I wouldn't have taken the role if I didn't think I could do it well.

Hunter was very much an action series. Location scenes were actually on location, unlike many overseas shows of the period which used phoney studios with filmed backdrops, and there was no 'blue screen' available to fake stunts. How did they handle stunts and other special effects on what was, compared to overseas series, a low budget?

There were no doubles, no stunt men. It would have inhibited the shooting enormously if we had to have stunt men dress up in your clothes, trying to look like you. We tried a double once, and it was so unsatisfactory, and so unnecessary, that we decided to do the things ourselves, and be careful and be sensible.

That was the scene in 'The Benedict File' where you stepped from one car to the other?

Yes. Someone was driving the Mustang while I got out of the window, and got on the kombi van which was careering down the hill without a driver, with someone trussed up in the back, designed of course to kill them. And I had to ride both vehicles on the outside, but not step across. But in future I did the stepping across, and whatever else. I must say I didn't enjoy some of the brawl locations, the one on top of the silo in Sunshine really frightened the life out of me. I've got a bit of a fear of heights, particularly when there's nothing to restrain you, and that silo had a sheer drop. I can lean out of a helicopter with a belt around me, that's no problem, but where there's a choice of going over the side or not, like the edge of a cliff or a building without a railing, that really worried me.

The scene from 'The Tolhurst File' where you had to rescue Carmen Duncan from the sharks, how much of that was real?

It was a real shark, they had it caught outside Southport on the Gold Coast, and towed it in through the breakers. It still had a little bit of blood coming out of it which worried me. It was a whopper, I brushed against it once, and it was like the coarsest sandpaper you can possibly imagine. I suppose some of those shots of a number of sharks cruising by would have to have been done somewhere else. What worried me was that the bit of blood may have attracted something else.

The publicity of the time, that you had a death defying encounter with a shark, was a touch exaggerated then?

Yes, a touch exaggerated! Much more dangerous than that was an episode where two of us were supposed to jump out of a plane on one parachute, with me grasping the guy so he couldn't get away. We had to climb a high tension tower in the bush, and I suppose we went up about 20 feet. The prop guys went up above us with the chute open and held it aloft like a canopy. This guy and I had to jump off the tower into some saplings which were to break our fall, which they did, but it was pretty rough going, and we hit the ground fairly solidly. I can't imagine any film crew doing that to their lead nowadays - it would be madness, you'd have stunt people doing it.

There was also the celebrated knife fight quite late in the series on board a boat outside Sydney heads. I swam in a wet suit and clambered aboard secretly, and I was to have a knife fight on the deck with a Chinese chap played by Richard Meikle. The boat was rolling in the swell from one side to the other, and you couldn't keep you're feet. They used real knives, they didn't know anything about artificial knives at all, and there's this
silly director up the mast looking down through his lens framer and saying "Oh, this will
be a lovely shot from up here". That's the one time I jacked up, as I'd found that Crawfords didn't have me insured. Equity found out I was not covered by Workers Compensation in Victoria because I got a few dollars more than the cut-off figure per week, and they refused to insure me. I thought if I refused to do these sort of stunts it would weaken the character and look bad for me, so I just had to be very careful about what I did. So I told them they'd have to move the boat to calmer waters as we couldn't do it here with the boat rolling around like this. "No insurance, no fight - move the boat!" They eventually moved the boat to the other side of Manly and were able to do the scene.

You have to choreograph these fights very carefully, so you step aside when he lunges at you, and that sort of thing. You have to be very reliable - it's split second timing, and you can't do it on a boat that's rolling around. He was a cold fish, this director chap - he was the one who fired bullets after us in a river to get ricochets off the water for effect. I didn't know he was going to do it, and we got the shock of our lives as we were racing down this stream. I can't remember who it was, it wasn't Ian Jones - Jonesy would never have done anything as stupid as that, it wasn't David Lee either.

Another time we were at 'Shark Alley' near The Spit Bridge doing an episode, in which I got knocked out, had weights put on my legs, and was thrown over the side. I said "Do you know where we are - this is Shark Alley!" - being from Melbourne, they didn't know it was notorious after Christmas, and that sharks are prevalent and you don't go in the Harbour except behind a net. "We'll get blokes with spear guns and things" they said. One youth turned up with a spear gun, so I asked him about his encounters with sharks, and he said "Oh, I've seen a few outside the net at Balmoral". "Where were you?" I asked. "Inside the net" he replied. "So you've never actually had a fight with one?' "No, I've never fired the gun at one". So I said to them "One take only on this!"

We didn't have any driving accidents, and we didn't clean up any cameras. It takes a lot of practice and skill to pull up dead opposite a camera the way they want it. You don't often do that in one or two takes, it's quite tricky. I had a lot of fun driving that Mustang.

Conditions were obviously very different in those days.

Oh yes. We didn't have anywhere to change when we were out on location, we changed behind hedges or in cars, we did our own bit of make up - it was nothing like it is these days, but we didn't complain, we were so enthusiastic about what we were doing. We worked all sorts of hours, 6 or 7 days a week, there was no overtime, and there were no replay fees, even where it was sold overseas. They got 39 episodes in the second year for the same money as 26 in the first - that's not a bad deal.

Hunter was unique at the time as, although it was Melbourne based, filming was not confined there.

A lot of episodes were filmed in Sydney. Hunter was national in its outlook, and you can't ignore Sydney - espionage is no respecter of cities. Sydney is very good visually, and it's good for your local audience. We did a bit of filming on the Gold Coast and in Adelaide. The Woomera Rocket Range was just magic, being allowed to use the base and the Blue Streak Rocket as we did. Andamooka was very good - you can't fake those things, nothing looks like an opal field except another opal field. We also did two episodes in the Snowy Mountains.

We didn't get to Perth, but we did get to Singapore. That was quite a pleasant surprise, and quite exciting. They were very hard filming conditions, it was so humid. I think we had three weeks there. It was the first time I ever rode continuously in an air-conditioned car - we didn't have many air-conditioned cars in Australia at the time; now we accept it as commonplace. I was most impressed with this so I bought a kit there. I spread the parts around the various members of the company - we didn't smuggle it in, we just kept our weight to within reasonable limits. I fitted it to my Bentley which has been air-conditioned ever since, which impressed mechanics no end. We had to film sections of the Singapore episodes here - I found myself down at the dockyards in Williamstown doing some of those brawls, but a dockyard is a dockyard no matter where.

It seemed a very innovative step, as Australian television drama had only been in continuous production for three or four years at that point.

It was most ambitious. I was vastly impressed with them taking it to Singapore. It involved a lot of organisation and co-operation from the authorities there, including the Navy. The script called for me to be disguised as a Naval commander, so I had to go down to Melbourne and visit HMAS Cerberus to be trained in Naval behaviour, saluting in particular, so that I could honourably represent a Naval commander. Unfortunately the uniforms which were made for me here by a novice tailor had the incorrect number of buttons. When I got to Singapore I rang up the Naval attaché and told them that my uniform was not quite right, and asked where I could get one that was. He said "Ring Charlie Chan, here's his number". Charlie Chan proved to be a wonderful tailor.

I had a lot of fun when I was in uniform. You would come across a group of sailors who were out on leave or something, and suddenly they were confronted with rank and were madly saluting. I missed out on one golden opportunity - I was waiting to do the first arrival scene down the steps of the airport. I was standing in the viewing area waiting in full uniform, and I suddenly saw a lot of Army brass coming along the corridor. I didn't know what rank they were, and whether I should salute them or they should salute me. I took the easy way out and stood looking out the window with my back to them. I could see them eyeing me off, and I noted what they had on their shoulders and I later found, to my annoyance, that they were slightly inferior rank.

The early episodes were serialised - were you happy with that format? Did you think it worked?

It was a surprise. It reminded me of the Saturday afternoon serial pictures of my youth. I
felt it was a slightly dangerous format in as much as you had to work up to a cliff-hanger
at the end to hold your audience, and that's got inherent dangers of being overdramatic, but neither could you afford to stop the thing with a weak ending. Some of the endings were very good - I don't recall any great worries except when an ending was a bit over the top - hard to accept - a 'four-twelve' as we used to say - overacting.

What were your thoughts on the development of the series overall?

I did complain about one or two episodes. I asked for a little bit of language occasionally - more emotion from my character, to get more involved in things, to get angry instead of being a cold, super-efficient sort of guy. Surely Hunter could say a few harsh words after someone has tried to kill him - it just needed a little bit of Australianism like that, I didn't want to be saying any four letter words. Eventually they gave me one - on the tag of a bad single episode. It was really a stinker this one, and I had to say at the end of it "what a mess - what a bloody awful mess". I told the director I didn't want to say this, even though I've asked for these things occasionally, but I thought some smart critic is going to say "and wasn't he right". It was the wrong occasion - it was not a good ep.

I suppose it's hard to maintain a constant high standard, but that is the art of scriptwriting, We didn't have a great stable of writers in this country who could write for television. There was a lot of marvellous writers for radio who could paint word pictures on radio so we could sit there and visualise the scene. But you can't do that on television - it's a more realistic medium, you see people doing things and you don't describe what you see. They were still learning their trade, and there just weren't enough to go round. They didn't have any script editor at first, and an awful lot of work fell on a few people. I found myself getting phrases that were totally out of character. I never had any problem with the film directors - people like David Lee and Ian Jones picked it up straight away, and we had no problem altering phrases and lines. But we couldn't alter the plot, and there were times when the plot was bad. Although it was quite realistic to have a counter-espionage series here, it required a lot of imagination on the writer's part. Some of the writers who did work on the show are now quite famous and have done some fine things. But we did need better control of the scripts than we got, and that's why they fluctuated so much - the episodes were quite variable whereas the standard should have been consistently good and occasionally outstanding.

Did that settle down eventually, or did it stay that way?

It did improve, it took a long while - I pleaded for character development, with failings as well as the successes and emotions, more of a rounded human character - you could fall in love with some agent you were working with and then find she'd betrayed you, you might be confronted with the job of bumping her off, or you make a mistake and lose one of your own agents, male or female, there's a big emotional trauma - you needed that sort of emotion, as well as a few laughs.

Those aspects of the character were never explored?

Not enough. We had a couple of good women come into it. Jill Forster was in a few early
episodes, but not used enough - she was interesting and provocative. Very late in the piece we got Gabrielle Hartley as an agent from the past (Hunter and she were lovers), and they killed her at the end of that episode, whereas it would have been better to have her mortally wounded. Then we would have had the trauma of whether she was going to survive or not; she could have recovered after an ep or two and joined us here and there - it would have been great. That could have gone on for ages and would have given a really strong female interest in the show. It was a golden opportunity missed; 'A Dark Reunion' it was called - it was a fine episode.

What about the other characters? Fernande Glyn left after 26 episodes - did the
character of Eve Halliday not work out or what was it?

It didn't work. I don't know that they ever got to grips with writing a useable character for her. It's hard to know where to put the blame - it just didn't seem to be an effective character.

The character of Kragg obviously developed well - better than they first thought.

Ah, yes. Gerry was very good in it. Kragg and Smith were very good foils for one another, Smith with that urbane, sophisticated, long-suffering, patient attitude to Kragg, who was fanatical and slightly dull in his opinion. And Kragg with his fanaticism, his intensity and appearance to go with it, that brooding, dark quality, dark short hair and dark eyes. It was a marvellous combination, the action man and the mastermind in his office under the guise of importing toys and various other novelties. They were great foils for each other which made for interesting work together, a lot of their scenes were very good.

Also, Kragg got a lot of action in the field with his fellow agents, but it created a problem after a while because the two of us got into personal combat, and there was much firing at each other, with me always having to miss so he could be alive for the next episode. It began to give the hero a slight incompetence, and created finally a major problem which had to be solved, and the solution they chose amazed me. I got called to a boardroom meeting - the first time I think they ever asked me - and all the writers were sitting there, and they announced Kragg was going to be captured and defect to us. I was confronted by that on the spur of the moment, and they wanted my reaction and acquiescence to it. I said I thought it was ridiculous and the public would not accept it or believe it - it just stretched credibility too far to think we could ever work together; that someone who had killed so many of our people and been such a problem to us could ever be accepted as our agent. They said it would solve all the problems, and that was partly true.

In retrospect, I think what should have been done was to promote Kragg into Smith's job, so that he could be planning with all his intensity, but he wouldn't be in the actual field all the time. We could be killing off all his agents, and although he might be on the scene and would escape, we wouldn't be in this personal combat scenario. I think that would have been much more intelligent and believable.

Anyhow, they went ahead with it, and I think they robbed Gerard of everything he did best, because he couldn't have anymore that brooding intensity, that fanatical quality. It liberated my character from that nonsense, but for the series as a whole it wasn't good for two reasons: it didn't employ Kragg as effectively as it could have, and secondly it stretched public belief too far. There was nothing wrong with keeping Gerard Kennedy, I was all in favour of that, but it was a stupid solution, and much too late.

Eve Halliday and Mr. Smith were no longer in the series, and Kragg had gone from the bad guy to a good guy, and the show kept going.

It had some of its best ratings. There were some very good episodes in the later series - I wish we'd had the quality of those right from the beginning. Very good eps, but it was a bit late. I got out, and I guess I brought the series to an end because I lacked confidence in Crawfords. I felt they had not got the thing under total control and it was going to slip and go down hill, and I thought I'm not going down hill with it. None of the other actors were denied their potential earnings, they did their 39 episodes in the second year, I did about 30, and it finished. They've done some very good work since, and they've had much better conditions for working - but Hunter was sure pioneering.

What about the stories in the press about you disappearing?

I had a week off from filming, and we were only told in the studio at 11:00 on Friday night that filming for the next week was cancelled because of problems with the episode. I didn't have much to do in it anyway, so they said you've got a week free. I had an invitation to go to America which I'd earlier knocked back, and so I took the opportunity and went. I wrote to Crawfords from Fiji to tell them what I was doing because I didn't have any of their private numbers. It was wonderful publicity - 'TV star missing', 'Spy disappears', it was heaven sent, it was worth a fortune to them. GTV publicist George Wilson was brilliant the way he handled it, but Crawfords were difficult and Hector thought he'd have me on the mat when I came back, but I just said "You know what I think, I'd be happy to finish now". That rather took the wind out of his sails. I went on to make many episodes, and we did some of our best work after that.

There was no lasting ill-feeling between you, was there?

I don't know what Hector thought. I paid him a very generous tribute on the occasion of the 20th year of television. I was back in current affairs by this time and I was asked by Peter Faiman to write about TV drama and its development. I paid Crawfords quite a generous tribute, and I think a very fair tribute.

In summary, did you enjoy your time with Hunter?

It was great fun to be in. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It must have been reasonably good because they kept repeating it ad nauseam until 1974 in all sorts of timeslots. When colour came that finished it. It was good to be part of the pioneering, it was a bit more painful at times than it needed to be, but hopefully it made it easier for other people that followed.

What did you do after Hunter?

I was snapped up the moment Hunter finished and offered several series. The American chap who produced Riptide, which I did two episodes of, had a series for me called Air Taxi. Unfortunately, those who backed him in Riptide were not terribly impressed with it and backed off. There was another series set on a yacht, in which I had a couple of kids, but it didn't get off the ground. The problem then was that there was no money around, this was a problem Crawfords had, and it was very hard to get any backing. There were no Film Commissions, the Whitlam government hadn't come in and handed out grants for script development and for this and that, that great period when money was no object hadn't arrived. I was just too early for all that, and eventually after I got a wife and a family I had to be more practical, so I concentrated on further development of my banana plantation near Coffs Harbour and worked in a number of series doing episodes here and there.

When Mike Willesee decided to have a go at a nightly current affairs program to rival This Day Tonight, I was doing an episode of Boney in Alice Springs. I read this in 'The Australian' and got into contact with him and indicated I would like to be involved. He said "But you're only an actor, aren't you?!" I was speechless, but not for long. I said "You give me a week when I get back from here, and I'll get stuff out of the files from Seven Days and Telescope and I'll change your mind". He waited, and once he saw the material he said "Right, you're it". I was the only person who was in A Current Affair from the first night to the last, about 7 or 8 years. It was great, I loved it. I didn't shed any tears for not being in drama because the 70's was a wonderful period of Australian history. You had all the drama of the elections, Gorton, McMahon, Whitlam, the dismissal in 1975, the Fraser years, Bjelke-Petersen, to say nothing of everything else that was happening. Years later I got a request from Crawfords to play a television reporter in some new series, but I declined the offer. When I drifted out of current affairs in the early 80's, I thought I would like to do some acting and I went into Sons And Daughters for a few months, but I wouldn't like to be doing that sort of thing permanently - I don't find it very satisfying.

You had a part in The Long Arm for a short while.

Yes, I was one of the cops in that. That never got off the ground - I don't know who was writing that, but it wasn't good stuff really. I did some interesting work with the ABC in a series called Dynasty, said to be loosely fashioned after the Packer family. I suppose the resemblance was that the patriarch of the family owned a newspaper and a television station - one son ran the newspaper, another ran the television station, and the other was a very smart businessman who was probably more cunning and shrewd than all of them. I played a character who came from a motor car company at some stage and joined them. It was rather good stuff, quite sophisticated.

We never actually saw you die in Hunter.

I refused to die on the screen. I just had at the back of my mind that at some future stage, who knows, there might be a comeback - its been done before. I was executed, theoretically, in some foreign country, where I was put ashore from a submarine and betrayed by a British agent, and put through a trial. And because I would not be seen to die, you saw the guns being fired and heard the shots ring out, and pigeons took off from the roof, it was very effective visually. The bloke who wrote the episode manufactured a peculiar language, and in a brilliant stroke the producer, who couldn't find anyone who could handle it, said to the author "You can bloody well play the prosecutor - you invented it, you play it!" And he had to.

What about a Hunter revival? In fact, a whole intriguing plot for 'The Return Of John Hunter' could be why they faked your death...

Yes... the bullets could have been blanks as part of some elaborate intrigue to fake Hunter's death and spirit him off to some remote country where he could have been in the service of some secret organisation. I mean, if Crawfords could switch Kragg from one side to the other, it wouldn't be hard for me to survive, would it?

So if the powers that be decide to make 'The Return Of John Hunter', you'll be in it?

Yes.