Reg Grundy Productions,
later known as the Grundy Organisation, had been a prolific producer of
quiz and game shows since the 1950’s. In 1974 they made their first foray
into drama with the early evening soap opera Class Of ‘74, which
continued into the following year as Class Of ‘75. In spite of its
American sounding title, Class Of ‘74 was very successful, and gave
Grundy’s invaluable experience in drama production. Although the
follow-up Class Of ‘75 did not fare as well, Grundy’s soon mastered
the art of the soapie and became the undisputed leader in the field of
serialised melodrama, with the long-running series Neighbours
perhaps being their greatest success.
In 1975, Grundys decided to try their hand at serious adult drama and to
this end they procured the services of prolific scriptwriter Ron McLean,
who had previously worked on Spyforce and Silent Number
among other things. Grundys Managing Director, Lyle McCabe, thought their
capital and McLean’s expertise would be a good combination, and he made
McLean ‘an offer he couldn’t refuse’.1 The first thing McLean came up with was ‘City Hospital’, which later
developed into the soapie The Young Doctors. The next series that
McLean devised was the police drama King’s Men.
The original concept was ‘King Of The Cross’, based on the
almost-legendary New South Wales policeman ‘Bumper’ Farrell, who had been
stationed in the Sydney red-light suburb of Kings Cross. The series was
to be centred on a tough old cop who was based at Kings Cross during the
Second World War, since transferred to different areas in the police force
and had now returned to his old territory. According to McLean, “it was
sitting somewhere around the Maigret / Van Der Valk area”.2
It was then that the series changed direction. Inspired by the American
series Mod Squad, the company decided to modify the concept by
adding young cops working undercover. The emphasis of the series shifted
from one central character to an ensemble focussing on the operations of
an undercover squad. “On two minutes notice it didn’t work,” said Ron
McLean.3 A new working title ‘All The King’s Men’ was soon reduced to simply
The Nine Network commissioned Grundys to make two 90-minute pilot episodes
– one for King’s Men, and another for a courtroom series Case
For The Defence. The King’s Men pilot was made in July 1975. Veteran actor Gordon Glenwright was cast as the
Inspector in charge of the Kings Cross
police station - named Harry King (what else!). His immediate
subordinate is Detective Senior Constable Ben Brice, played by Shane Porteous. Det.
Brice, who formed the undercover squad, is in charge of
its day-to-day operation. Members of the undercover squad are Const. Hal
Whelan, played by Don Barkham; Const. Tim Harper, played by Don Spencer;
and Const. Maple Brown, played by Jane Harders. The title was an obvious
play on words and referred to species and not gender, especially
considering one of the operatives was female. (One wonders if, in today’s
world of overboard political correctness, the show would have been called
The pilot episode was average, being let down by some stilted dialogue and
a dodgy fight sequence. The opening titles were garish and uninspiring,
and would have been far more suited to a programme such as The Green
Hornet. Before the pilot episode was screened, the Nine
Network ordered a series of 13 one-hour episodes,
which went into production on March 15, 1976. Producer of the series was
Reg Watson, who described King’s Men as Grundys most ambitious and
expensive project to date4
- hardly surprising, considering their previous efforts were quiz shows
and a soapie. (The Case For The Defence pilot was made in August
1975, and also entered series production during 1976).
Some aspects of the series differed from the pilot: two cast members were
replaced, some changes were made to the main characters, and the opening
titles were completely revamped. To accurately reflect NSW Police
practice, the Constables in the undercover squad were elevated in rank to
Senior Detective, and the squad co-ordinator was promoted from Senior
Constable to Detective Sergeant. Gordon Glenwright continued to play Det.
Insp. Harry King as head of the Kings Cross police station. Shane Porteous was replaced by Tom Oliver, who played Det. Sgt. Frank Weston,
the co-ordinator of the undercover squad. Don Barkham and Don Spencer
played the same roles, as Sen. Det. Hal Whelan and Sen. Det. Tim Harper
respectively, only their rank being changed. Jane Harders was
replaced by Tina Bursill as Policewoman Jaybee Giddings.
The opening titles were changed completely. The pilot episode graphics -
yellow stencil writing on a bright red background, with individual cast
credits - were replaced by night scenes of a cat prowling around the city. Credits were superimposed on these scenes, and finally the cat slips
through Insp. Kings office door where we see a group shot of the cast. The ‘buzzing bee’ theme music of the pilot was replaced by an effective
slow low-bass theme.
In spite of the changes to the original concept, the character of Insp.
King was still largely based on ‘Bumper’ Farrell. King is of the old
school, a hard-boiled old-fashioned cop in his fifties known to be tough,
but fair. King believes in justice rather than law, and will tolerate
some small crimes in order to put down larger ones. Gordon Glenwright
described the character: “He suffers the undercover operation but doesn’t
really approve of the squad’s methods or the way they look. He uses them,
but certainly wouldn’t mix with them socially. He’s a widower, a bit of a
loner, who lives with his sister. He’s only got one interest outside of
the force and that’s the odd game of golf, which he plays badly. And he’s
got a lot of respect for some of the criminals he knows.”5
And the criminals even have respect for him. He is referred to as 'Mr.
King' by most criminals, and colleagues call him 'Sir' or 'Inspector' -
only Sgt. Weston gets close enough to call him Harry. King is a hard man
to get to know, and has little time for social pleasantries. His rugged
appearance reflects his character, emphasised by a scar on his right cheek
- which the make-up lady had to apply to Gordon Glenwright before filming.
"King is supposed to have been in a brawl some time during his career, and
he collected a broken bottle on his face," explained Glenwright.6
Det. Sgt. Frank Weston is in his late 30’s and, as the officer responsible
for the day-to-day operation of the undercover squad, acts as a buffer
between King and the squad’s more free-and-easy attitudes. It would be
easy to assume that Tom Oliver replaced Shane Porteous because Det. Brice
in the pilot episode was not a very strong characterisation, but Oliver thought it
was solely due to availability. "Shane Porteous played (the character) in
the pilot,” he said, “but then by the time it was decided to go ahead with
a series he was involved with other things and couldn't do it."7
Sen. Det. Hal Whelan is a longhaired, bearded, motorbike-riding Vietnam
veteran who bummed around the world before joining the police force. Intelligent, articulate, brooding and as hard as nails, Whelan lives
constantly on the criminal fringe. Whelan and King do not get along and
are often in conflict. For the role, Don Barkham was required to ride a
900cc motorbike, a prospect he found somewhat daunting: “I think this bike
is 82hp and will go up to 240kph, but I suppose you don’t learn to ride
until you’ve fallen off a few times.”8
Sen. Det. Tim Harper usually works undercover as a well-to-do
‘man-about-town’, always on the lookout for kicks, gambling and girls -
although he can and does switch characters as the situation requires. A
TV Week reviewer described Don Spencer as ‘uncertain’ in the role,9
which was a valid criticism - Spencer had very little straight acting
experience, and was previously better known as a country and western
musician, and also as a presenter on Play School.
Policewoman Jaybee Giddings (Jaybee stands for Joanna Barbara) is an
attractive and intelligent university graduate with a keen, investigative
mind, and is a lousy cook. She can easily pose as anything from a
prostitute to a social worker with equal conviction. “It’s only revealed
in later episodes that Jaybee wants to write a book on law and sociology
and joins the police for some background,” said Tina Bursill. “Before we
started filming I went to Sydney Uni to check out the women students. I
wanted to know about their course and, although they had a high mental
attitude, all they wanted to do - which surprised me - was get married!”10 It was reported that Tina was chosen from 100 girls who were considered
for the part.
King’s Men was produced on videotape and in colour, and each
episode was self-contained. Insp. King and Sgt. Weston represent the
traditional police figures, with the younger team members, who look like
anything but cops, assuming a different undercover role for each case. The function of the undercover squad is to infiltrate the underworld of
Sydney’s crime scene and either prevent crime or solve it from within. The producers received a lot of co-operation from the NSW Police
Department, which included the loan of ‘props’ such as uniforms and police
cars. Gordon Glenwright said, “We’ve worked very closely with the police
in making this series and their co-operation has been marvellous.”11
from some technical problems, which resulted in production delays. One problem was that night filming was not permitted in Kings Cross.
To overcome this, the crew shifted location to Manly on Sydney’s northern beaches, where the main
shopping street, The Corso, was dressed up with various signs and lights
to resemble Kings Cross.
Episode 3, ‘The Butcher’, caused some controversy, and
withdrew it from screening. The episode was based on the exploits
of the infamous ‘Toe Cutters Gang’, a criminal group who allegedly hacked
the toes off other criminals in order to make them surrender the proceeds
of robberies. Originally scheduled for screening on June 10, TCN-9 felt the episode was too close to the real thing. The
episode was re-edited and approved for screening, scheduled for July 22.
It was decided that another episode, 'Contract For King', would be held
over for the series finale, as the episode closes with Insp. King being
shot and his recovery left uncertain. With these two episodes
rescheduled, production was now only a few days ahead of airdate. "We were two weeks ahead," said Grundy's production director Ray Newell,
"but now production is line-ball. The episode we finish on the
Saturday goes to air in Brisbane on the following Tuesday and in Sydney on
the Thursday. It makes it difficult, but not impossible."12
Further setbacks came when two cast members became ill. Episode 6,
‘Takeover’, had to be rewritten at short notice when doctor’s orders forced
Tina Bursill to take a week off. Peita Toppano stepped in to take her
place, playing a policewoman who was brought in from outside the squad. Then Tom Oliver became ill, and scripts were again amended to minimise
disruption for the few days he was off work.
King’s Men premiered in Sydney on the 27th May, 1976, at
9:30 PM on Thursday. Gordon Glenwright criticised the timeslot, claiming
that it was unrealistic and unfair for a locally produced series, and
accused TCN-9 of not being prepared to give the series a fair go at a more
desirable time.13 Lynton Taylor, TCN-9 programming vice-president, disagreed with Glenwright,
and described the time as ideal: “In Sydney King’s Men replaces
Police Story, which was a very successful series for us, and follows
S.W.A.T. which is rating very highly. We think we have given
King’s Men a very warm timeslot.”14 Ray Newell concurred: “Gordon, of course,
is entitled to his opinions, but we in no way share them. We are
perfectly happy with what Nine has done with the show. For an action
series, it’s a very nice spot.”15
King’s Men received only a lukewarm reception from the critics. Jerry Fetherston’s comments in TV Week were typical: “King’s Men
is, at best, an adequate series. It isn’t a disaster but it’s not very
good either.”16 Viewers obviously agreed, as low ratings caused TCN-9 to drop the series
in mid-July after less than half of the episodes had been shown. Production of the 13th
episode was completed at that time, and plans for a second series were
cancelled. "We finished making the 13 episodes of King’s Men a
couple of weeks ago,” said Tina Bursill, “and everyone involved has been
very disappointed at the fact that only four or five have gone to air. Originally, of course, it was hoped that it would go into a second series,
but that wasn't to be. I just hope Nine does something soon with the rest
of the King’s Men episodes."17
QTQ-9 in Brisbane commenced screening the series at the same time as
Sydney, and NWS-9 Adelaide followed four months later on September 20. In Melbourne, GTV-9
decided they were not going to waste a prime time spot on King’s Men
after its dismal performance in Sydney, and the series went to air during
the summer non-ratings period, commencing on the 20th of
November 1976. It was pulled from the schedule after only five episodes
had been shown, and the rest of the series did not appear for another
three years, finally being screened during the 1979-80 summer non-ratings
King’s Men was not as good as Homicide or Bluey or
any of the other police series from the Crawfords stable, but it wasn’t
bad either. The late change of direction to incorporate the undercover
squad was a significant factor in the show's demise. If more time had
been allowed for development, King’s Men could have been a
successful, polished product. Its strengths were in the characterisation,
particularly the animosity between Whelan and King; its weaknesses were
some stilted dialogue and some miscasting. Being shot entirely on video
tape did not help either - unlike film, video tape in the 1970’s looked
cheap and amateurish.
Grundys did produce three more drama series in the late 1970’s (Case
For The Defence, Glenview High and Chopper Squad), and
they made a worthy police series in 1981 with Bellamy.
For the most part, however, they stuck to what they knew best - soap
Young Doctors, The Restless Years, Prisoner, Sons And
Daughters and Neighbours are just a few of the copious serials
produced by Grundys. While many people are dismissive of the whole soapie
genre and regard these shows as a load of old rubbish, they were nonetheless a
very successful load of old rubbish. The concept of an undercover squad as
the basis for a police series surfaced again in 1998 with Stingers,
which enjoyed a long successful run before being cancelled in 2004.
Albert Moran, Making A TV Series: The Bellamy Project, (Currency
Press, Sydney, 1982), p. 45, interview with Ron McLean.
4. TV Week, Jan 17, 1976.
5. TV Week, July 3, 1976.
6. TV Times, June 12, 1976.
7. TV Week, June 19, 1976.
8. TV Times, Nov 13, 1976.
9. Jerry Fetherston, Viewpoint, TV Week, July 3, 1976.
10. TV Times, Sept 25, 1976.
11. TV Week, July 3, 1976.
12. TV Times, July 3, 1976.
13. TV Week, June 12, 1976.
16. Jerry Fetherston, Viewpoint, TV Week, July 3, 1976.
17. TV Week, Aug 7, 1976.
The King's Men
cast: Tom Oliver, Gordon Glenwright, Tina Bursill, Don Spencer and Don
Opening titles from the pilot episode.
Gordon Glenwright as Insp. Harry King.
Tina Bursill as Policewoman
Don Barkham as Sen. Det. Hal Whelan.
Oliver as Det. Sgt. Frank Weston.
Don Spencer as Sen. Det. Tim Harper.
King's Men series opening titles.
A scene from ep. 6, 'Takeover'.
Make-up girl Michelle Lowe
preparing Tina Bursill for the cameras.
Guest actor Noeline Brown with Don Barkham in
a scene from the final episode, No. 13 'Contract For King'.
Tom Oliver and Don Barkham.
A scene from King's Men
with King's men in King's office in Kings Cross listening to Insp. King.
From left: Don Spencer, Gordon Glenwright, Tom Oliver, Tina Bursill and Don Barkham.
On location under the 'Big Dipper' at Luna Park for ep. 10, 'Public Enemy No.
1' - Tom Oliver, Gordon Glenwright and Don Barkham.
When Tina Bursill became ill, Peita Toppano
was brought in at short notice to replace her in ep. 6, 'Takeover'.
Gordon Glenwright as Det. Insp. Harry King.
Tina Bursill as Jaybee Giddings.
Don Spencer as Sen. Det. Tim Harper, in
disguise for an undercover operation.