The Fruit Flyer 1958
Within six months of joining the Australian Broadcasting Commission, I had already directed a couple of documentary programmes. I was now the Supervising Film Editor. The A.B.C, had no directors on staff.
Towards the middle of December 1958, the Rural Department asked for me to work with them. The first job I did with them was called “The Fruit Flyer” for the “Country Call” programme. This referred to a train which travelled daily from Mildura, some 350 miles north of Melbourne, to the city carrying fresh vegetables and citrus fruits which grow in the region of Mildura. For me this was the first film that I had total charge of. I started with the proverbial blank sheet of paper and finished with a programme that was broadcast with titles at both ends.
There was something magic about having total control. It would have been the culmination of a dream, except that I could never have dreamt that I would finish up being a documentary film director. There was, indeed, a dream-like quality to the whole affair. I could imagine what I wanted and then I could put it into practice. Who could ask for more ?
Our crew consisted of American Frank Few on camera, Ottmar Wunsch, German, on sound. The Rural producer/presenter, was John Muldoon.
We were taken to Mildura by train. I believe the train was called “The Sunraysia Express”. An “Express” it was not. It was a long and tortuous journey, the further north we went, the hotter it became. The landscape was, first of all, bush country and then even more arid as we went north. The problem with the train journey was the rails which were a bit uneven forcing the train to limit its speed. The train rocked a bit and never did more than about 50 miles per hour.
As we got closer to Mildura, we could see patches of green where horticultural farms had been created using artificial irrigation.
We arrived in Mildura in the morning and made our way to the hotel on foot, carrying our baggage. We left the camera gear at the station until we could pick up a car on hire. When we arrived at the hotel, John Muldoon looked around and turned to us saying “The bastards have booked us into a temperance hotel”. Here we were in hot and dry country, the height of summer, with no alcoholic drink in the hotel.
I said that we should delay booking in and, if they waited in the hotel lobby, I would go looking for an alternative. I did not have to go very far, across the road was the St. George’s Hotel which was certainly not temperance. It had a huge bar and was extremely well-appointed. They had rooms for us.
I went back to the TT Hotel and went to the desk to say that there had been a mistake. We picked up our bags and went to the St. George’s Hotel.
I had a number of contacts to see in Mildura. We had to visit one Mr. Leng, who was well up in the Murray River Citrus Farmers Association.
He had, among others, a seven acres orange orchard. He explained that, at the end of the Second World War, returned soldiers were given an option of taking a loan for the purchase of land for citrus farming. The loan also covered the building of a house and all the equipment.
The men were then obliged to plant the orange saplings, tend them for seven years until they bore fruit. In the meanwhile, they had to do odd jobs on other farms and live off their loan. What was magical for them was that eighteen months after their orchards bore fruit, they could pay off their total debt to the Government.
The equipment they would have had to buy included a pump to draw water from the River Murray and piping to take it to their property. The River was lined with these small pump-houses as farmers of various crops used the fresh water to irrigate their land.
Without this water the land would have produced nothing. It was arid, almost desert in the region and every farm only existed because of the pumps.
Because of this, there were large tracts of land growing vegetables, fruits and grapes for the wine industry. Further down river toward South Australia, there were several wine-growing areas which had been founded by immigrants from Europe, particularly France, Italy and Germany.
Mr. Leng had already established himself as a grower of fine oranges since he got his first tract of land in 1946, but, almost immediately, he had decided to produce a seedless navel orange. This he succeeded in doing and produced what became known as a “Leng Navel”.
We filmed a whole sequence on his orchard, mainly showing the picking of the fruit and loading them into great “coffins” in which they went off for processing.. We then went to the citrus fruit processing plant, where the oranges were washed, waxed and printed with their name. They were now ready for packing and sending to the train.
We went to an Italian farm that was producing lettuces, tomatoes, cucumber, aubergine and green vegetables. The older people on the farm were still only speaking Italian.
It got dark pretty quickly and we would be back in the hotel by 6 pm. Like the closing scene of “Ice Cold in Alex”, we approached the bar in line-aside.
What a sight, the bar was very modern and clean. Behind the bar were glass cabinets which held glasses. Yes, glasses were in the fridge. They were set up in front of us and each filled. The barman did not even let go of his “gun”, knowing that we would down the first beer and then require another. Talk about the “Amber Nectar”!!.
Our coming did not go unnoticed among the local inhabitants and we had visitors at the hotel asking us to join them for a drink. Of course, all the local farmers knew we were coming, but then, almost everyone in Mildura was either a farmer or someone servicing farmers.
On various nights, we were entertained at the various clubs. Mildura, at that time, did not have a Hotel other than the St. George’s for drinking purposes. The local population all went to their clubs. A half-dozen people could start-up a club and get a licence to operate and, therefore, sell beer to its members.
We went to the Settlers’ Club which was owned and run by the owners of the land on which all the crops were grown. The Settlers were what passed for the “Upper Class”.
In the club, we were fed and plied with the finest beers. We were made members of the club and I still have my membership card.
Another night we went to the Working Man’s Club, this, of course, being the direct opposite of the Settlers’. Once more we were fed and plied with drink. What interested them was that we were from the television industry and they did not have television, but they realised that what we were doing would put their town on the map. It was a town of some 30,000 and some 4,000 were members of the club.
They claimed to have had the longest bar in the world. I would not dispute that. The bar was in the form of a hollow letter T with a dozen or more barmen inside the T. The perimeter measurement could well have exceeded 120 feet. They said that the previous world record holder had been a bar in Chicago, but that had burned down.
Everyone wanted to talk to us, we were made most welcome.
We also had an evening at the Dog Club and the only amusing thing I remember about that was that the toilets had quaint signs on their door. On the men’s it said “Pointers” and on the ladies’ it said “Setters”.
A good deal of our time there was spent at the railway station as examples of all the vegetables and fruits we had been filming over the previous week were being loaded onto the train.
We checked out of our hotel mid afternoon and went to the station to finish filming and film the departure of the train. This had to happen twice because we were going to be on that train. Fortunately, we had control of the train for the time being.
In making this film, I had a few points to make for the benefit of my employers and some of my colleagues.
I had John Muldoon appear on-screen every so often to say a few words to move the plot along. John was a natural. This had not been done before in Australia and very seldom elsewhere.
The train was, of course, a goods train and it left Mildura at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. We were housed in the brake van, sitting on the floor with the door wide open. We looked like some of the hobo people in Hollywood movies who rode the freight trains.
The big surprise when we got to the train accommodation was that there were boxes of product inside, gifts from the various farmers, some of whom we had never met.
The train pulled out of Mildura Station and we waved goodbye to a number of people who had come along to see us off.
We travelled South, and for a long time still within the territory served by the waters of the river.
We stopped at Irymple, Red Cliffs, Yatpool, Carwarp, Boonoonar, Nowingi and Hattah .
At each station, someone would come to the brake van and say “Are you the film crew?”
As soon as we said “Yes”, they would throw bags of produce into the van as a gift. We had more stuff than we could have used in a couple of months.
The train was hauled by a diesel engine that had a door on the front. Frank Few took up position at this door to shoot the scene in front of the train. He did this between Yatpool and Carwarp when he had to get off and come back to the van.
We went on through the night, rocking and rolling all the way down until we finally got to Melbourne. We arrived at around 3am. We had not finished our job and we had to go on to film the unloading and delivery to Melbourne fruit and vegetable market.
Fortunately, we were met by two camera cars from our studios and we needed them both to carry all the produce we had been given.
We then went back to the Studios where we had left our own cars. I took some oranges and vegetables, as did the others, and we donated the balance, which was by far the larger share, to the studio restaurant.
I said that the programme was to be something of an experiment. I needed to break the mould which seemed to take over the previous output both at ABV 2 and the other stations. It had been quite common for a documentary to have background music from start to finish. Natural sound was almost non-existent.
I used, at least, fifty-per-cent natural synchronised sound, plus the sound of John Muldoon, with music taking the balance.
Because we were the A.B.C., we could make use of music almost at will, as the Commission had taken out a blanket fee for the use of music.
For the run home in the train, I used “Beyond the Blue Horizon” arranged and recorded by David Rose, who incorporated the apparent sound of a train in the orchestration. It worked like a dream.
The film was an outstanding success. What was happening now was that these films were being routinely copied and sent to Sydney, which, at that time, was the only other broadcast centre in Australia. As a result, we became noticed by the Federal department heads of the A.B.C. who were all based in Sydney.
This film was selected by the Australian Railways Association to be their contribution to the United Nations Railways Conference, held in Pakistan in 1960.
There were congratulations all round and it now seemed that the move to use film editors as directors was unstoppable.
Perhaps more important was the fact that the whole film department had a morale boost, they were all able to hold their heads up high. Producers, who mainly originated from radio, began to listen to what the film editors had to say.
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