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Focus documentary series GTV9 1957

At GTV, Channel 9 Melbourne, it was decided to start a 15-minute documentary programme.   From time to time, we would receive film for the news service with enough material to make a much longer story.  It was felt that these items would be a a good source of material suitable for a news/documentary programme.  In addition, there were many subjects that could be specially assigned.

I suggested the name “Focus” because it could focus on anything and could, therefore, encompass any subject that happened to be around during a given week.

To do this, GTV invited George Odgers to join the staff.  George had worked for the Melbourne Argus but had lost his job when it was bought and buried by the Herald-Sun Group.  George was a great writer and had previously written a number of historical accounts of the Australian forces in war, including the official history of the air war in the Pacific.  He was a renowned author and journalist.

George Odgers has been credited in one account to be the producer of Focus.  That job was done by Peter Maund, the deputy News Editor.  George was totally responsible for the writing of the commentary and, at the same time, contributing to the input required to complete the programme. George had a peculiar habit concerning his commentaries.  All the time a given edition was in the course of production, from the original idea to script writing, he would think of a good phrase, write it down on a small notepad, tear off the leaf and put it in his top jacket pocket.  When he had my shot list for the finished film, he would drag all the pieces out of his pocket and spread them out on his desk.  Then he would reject any that were not, now, relevant and finally place all those he did want to use in some sort of order.

The programme went out on a Sunday night and, quite often, I would not start to edit the programme until Sunday morning.  On occasion, the camera crew would have been working until late on the Saturday.

The programme proved to be very popular.  After all, it was one of the few local programmes being broadcast at that time.  It was also one of the earliest news/documentary programmes to be shown on Australian TV.

One week, the subject was to be a visit to a Rehabilitation Centre at Mount Martha in the Mornington Peninsular.  I drove to Frankston to pick up Ren Leslie, the cameraman who had his shop, selling radios and television sets, which was on a side road that ran parallel to the Highway as it went through Frankston.   At the centre, we filmed the routine activities of the inmates and the work of the staff. It was an interesting subject.

Another programme consisted of the film I directed at Pentridge Prison (click here to read the article). The programme revealed a view of prison life that was not the accepted view of the population at large at that time.  These examples show the variation within the subjects used in the programme.

Australian Aborigines

Pastor Douglas Nicholls (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After several weeks of broadcasting “Focus”, we were visited by one Pastor Douglas Nicholls.  He was an aborigine Methodist Minister.  He brought several reels of film with him that had been shot in Western Australia by William Grayden.  He asked if we would be interested in the subject for “Focus”.  As soon as we screened it, Deputy News Editor Peter Maund said “This is dynamite” as indeed it was.

The film had been seen in a limited fashion at public meetings under the title: “Their Darkest Hour”.  The film was silent and had no titles or production credits. At a public meeting, the commentary written by William Grayden and Pastor Nicholls would be read aloud by a speaker.

It’s first viewing was at the Central Methodist Mission Hall in Perth in March 1957, Grayden read his own commentary.

The film told the story of the plight of the aborigine people in Western Australia.  A tribal group of forty people had been starving.   Several of their group had died on the long walk to the Mission.  The other part of the story of some desert people, who had wandered into a Methodist Church Mission for aborigines, after walking for days, only to be told that it was closed for the Christmas season and they should go on to the next one.  The next one was a week’s walk to the North.

One of them, an old man had a foot missing and could barely walk at all.  It was a harrowing story and when broadcast, under the title of “Manslaughter” proved to be a sensation.  The following days, the story was carried by the media throughout Australia.

GTV-9 former premises in Richmond

GTV-9 former premises in Richmond (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been reported that GTV, knowing about the existence of the film, sought to use it.  This is not true. GTV had never heard of the film or the story behind it.  Pastor Douglas Nicholls came to the front door of the studio at Bendigo Street unannounced.  He asked to speak to the Head of News, it was Peter Maund who went down to see him.  After speaking with Nicholls, Peter Maund rang me in the film department and asked me to come down to the projection room to look at some film.

Years later Peter Maund was quoted as saying that the film was a “home movie“.

I am sure that William Grayden was an amateur cinematographer, but there was nothing amateurish about the film.  It was 16mm and in colour of fair quality and well shot.  The film was silent.

We had a missionary come through the door with some home movies he shot in the outback in Western Australia, showing a tribe of aborigines who were in real trouble because of the bad season, they were having to exist on quondam seeds and things like that – a terrible story.  And he had this home movie film, so we were able to, based on those movies, to build the story about the plight of aborigines focussing on this tribe and that was done as a one off.

He says that “we were able, based on those movies, to build the story.”  I have to disagree, again, we had no other material.  The story was built entirely on what was provided.  My final disagreement with him is that he said it was a “one off”.  I remember it as an episode of “Focus”.

We sent the film away to produce a print that we could edit.  The transformation to a black and white print seemed to enhance the quality of the image.  I edited the film to the length requirements of the Focus programme and George Odgers wrote the commentary.  I believe that Tom Miller did the voiceover.

It was Pastor Doug Nicholls who approached GTV. It is obvious that the screening that had been held in Perth and later in Sydney had not made as great an impact as was required.  Nicholls and Grayden had deliberately gone with the investigating group to the Warburton Ranges to ensure that a fair report would be produced.  They also needed evidence to counter what they regarded as bias by the press.

The General Manager, Colin Bednall, a former journalist (in fact it took me until 2004 to find out that he had been a well-known war correspondent working for the Daily Telegraph) sent for the News Editor Jim Byth, to tell him that he wanted a contentious subject every week.  When I heard that, I said to my colleagues that there was no guarantee that we could find such a subject every week, by the week.  Colin Bednall insisted that we were to stir up trouble with the programme.  Every week ?  I thought it was impossible to imagine that such stories would show themselves every week.  On a given week, there could be several and then we could go for months without finding another.

Bednall insisted and we went ahead on the basis he required.  Eventually, the programme ran into the buffers as they had to start inventing subjects that did not really exist.

Eventually, after I had moved on, they took Focus off the air and immediately replaced it with “Night Watch” which focussed on car accidents, strip joints and as Peter Maund recalls, “what was happening in less salubrious parts of town” on a Saturday night.

Interviewed many years later, Peter Maund said of Night Watch that there was as division of opinion at GTV as to whether Night Watch was legitimate, informative news or whether it was tabloid journalism.

Whatever the view it proved to be very popular and ran for several years but it bared no resemblance to the original “Focus” programme and its diverse mix of documentary subjects – one of the first of its kind in Australian television.

The great shame is that, as far as I know, the version of  Grayden and Nicholls film I edited, according to communication I had with the late John Bowring, was discarded by Rodney J. Biddle, along with many other important moments in Australian television history because “no one needs old newsfilm!”.

Additional link: Their Darkest Hour: the films and photographs of William Grayden and the history of the ‘Warburton Range controversy’ of 1957

© Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com, 2012.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For other articles about GTV click here.

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