ABV2 Film Department – A Centre of Excellence 1958
While researching articles for this website, I read an account, on the internet, of the early period at the ABC at Ripponlea. The article was written by an Australian film maker, John B. Murray. In his article The Naked Bunyip Essay about Australian filmmaking he refers to the early 1960s and making the tv series Alcheringa with Frank and Betty Few, in 1962. In the article he states, “There was no film department as such at Ripponlea, except that which facilitated the gathering of news”.
He went on to say: “Television was very new, with little or no talent to draw upon except from theatre, radio and print media.” As a member of the ABV2 film department around that time, I have an alternative view – there was a film department and it was populated by extremely talented people who deserve to be remembered for their pioneering work during the early days of Australian Television.
In April of 1958, I arrived at ABV2 Ripponlea Studios at Elsternwick. I had been invited to join the Australian Broadcasting Commission as a film editor and, later, take up the post of Supervising Film Editor. I had been employed by British Movietonews between 1945 and 1956. In late 1956, I joined GTV 9 as Senior Film Editor.
After working at GTV where the equipment consisted of one Moviola editing machine and a poor film splicer between two editors, the ABV2 cutting rooms were a revelation.
There were several cutting rooms which were specifically designed for the work to be carried out by the ABC.
In each of the three 16mm cutting rooms, inside the door on the left, was a Steenbeck machine. Another cutting room was equipped as a 35mm cutting room with a 35mm Steenbeck. Next to the Steenbeck was a viewing panel where scenes could be hung up in front of an illuminated panel. At the end of the cutting room was a synchronising bench complete with a 16mm viewer and a four-gang synchroniser. This enabled the editor to synchronise a picture with three separate sound tracks. To the right of this bench was a re-wind bench and, finally a storage rack. It was the ideal cutting room designed for one editor to work in comfort.
Adjoining the cutting rooms was a large room laid out as a negative cutting room and joining room. Here, assistants would join the films as they came out of the cutting rooms.
Later this room accommodated a Moviola with a separate magnetic sound head. This machine had a novel feature. The sound head was located in the middle of a rack along which the sound head could be made to go forward and backward, replaying the sound on the stationary track as it moved upward. To one side, there were two markers which one could slide up and down the rack so that the sound emanating from the moving sound head would only play between the two markers. This was a wonderful innovation enabling an editor to isolate a single frame of sound. Without the need for this innovation, the sound head would be placed at a centre marker and then become a normal, separate sound, editing machine.
All in all, the facilities at Ripponlea, at that time, would have been as good as anywhere in the world.
I was introduced to five film editors, three Australian men, John Freney-Mills, John Williams and Russell Hurley, one French lady, Claire Attely, and later one New Zealander, Dennis Wahren. I thought that it would be bad manners to ask them where they learned their trade or what their previous history was. I did not ask and nobody said. They were all thoroughly competent.
However, newcomers would be introduced to me and I would be given a potted history of each one.
I have been told something of the origins of the department by John-Freney Mills, one of the pioneers. He writes:
The original film editing section – (raised for the 1956 Olympic Games, Melbourne and immediately after): Jenny Blackwood ex Film editor and director at the Department of Information film unit and PMG (Post Master General) film unit.
John Williams, formerly with Herschel Film Productions where he was editor on many of their documentary & feature productions.
Myself. (John Freney-Mills), ex Film Assistant the Department of Information. I had applied, during the Olympic Games, for a cine-camera position at the ABC, but there were no vacancies and I went looking for a position elsewhere. Somehow, my name was mentioned to Jenny Blackwood & she told John Cameron (Studio Supervisor) she wanted me for film editing. Jenny knew me from the Dept of Information. I started at the ABC just before the end of the Games & was appointed a film editor in January 1957.
Sometime early in 1957 Russ Hurley (who was living in Geelong and commuted from there every day) and Claire Attlee were appointed assistant film editors.
I recall Russell and Claire were appointed film editors in early 1958.
Editing Equipment and rooms: Jenny Blackwood and John Williams were responsible for the design of the new editing rooms. One Steenbeck, a 16mm Moviola, a Bell & Howell 16mm hot splicer and a B&H 35/16mm treadle splicer. When I started at the ABC the 16mm B&H hot splicer was sitting in a cupboard unused because Jenny & John, having been used to 35mm, would only use the B&H treadle splicer. I commissioned the 16mm splicer only to eventually have to fight the other two for the use of it !
Of the existing editors, two were routinely allocated to the news service, while the rest would work on programme and documentary material for the various departments of the A.B.C.
Eventually, John Williams worked exclusively on the news and was later joined in the News Department by Claire Attely.
The remainder worked on programme material, drama inserts and documentary material.
There were a number of departments, among which were Drama, Talks, Rural, Childrens’, Sport, and Religious.
All of these departments needed visual material from time to time, The Drama department used to transmit a live drama production every two weeks and sometimes needed location filming to be used within the broadcast. These drama inserts required high class camerawork, well lit, and they required direction and editing.
All were getting used to the idea of television and its need to be visual. They were ambitious to make the best use of visuals at all times.
In 1958, 1959 and 1960, the film department were providing, at least, two hours of broadcast material every week, not including the news service.
The camera department was staffed by Les Hendy, Chief Cameraman, Harry Lehrer, John Atkinson and Frank Few. All were excellent cinematographers.
In his article, John B. Murray wrote that Frank Few, “was released from most of his duties as news cameraman“. His work as a news cameraman was just one string to his bow. By the time John B. Murray worked with Frank Few, Frank had already been a combat cameraman in the Second World War and Korean War, he was a noted wildlife cameraman, he had worked for the Walt Disney company and was a fine documentary cameraman while at the ABC. Click here for my article on Frank Few with more information on his remarkable life and career.
It was usual for the cameramen to do a spell of news work. Harry Lehrer was permanently on news and he would be joined, on short term, by one of the other cameramen. Those not working on news worked on documentary and drama inserts. It was normal for the News Department to have only two cameramen on call on any given day. Of course, there were days when more would be needed for special events.
John Freney-Mills writes:
The camera section for the same period, other than those you mentioned: John Atkinson was ex Herschels. John had quite a few feature film credits to his name as camera operator usually to Bert Nicholas’ Director of Photography. One that comes to mind is “Sons of Matthew”. John was an excellent cameraman, definitely of world standard. You have already mentioned John but I thought the extra info might be of interest.
Harry Lehrer hired as a stringer during the Olympic Games and appointed early in 1957. Who Harry didn’t know wasn’t worth knowing!!
Stringer cameramen – Adrian Boddington (ex commercial photographer): A very good news & documentary cameraman. Lloyd Rankin: ex Army or RAAF photo. unit (not sure) A good news stringer cameraman.
As time went on towards the end of 1958, we took on extra editors.
Nándor Jenes, a Hungarian, joined us. He had long experience as an editor and had been a producer with the Hungarian National Film Unit until the uprising of 1956, when he and his family escaped to the West. John B. Murray mentions Nándor in his article, he was a Director on the tv series Alcheringa, yet Nándor never worked in News – I should know I was the Supervising Film Editor, I assigned the editors their jobs.
Jack Schenfeld, a Pole, who had been an editor and then producer with the Polish National Children’s Film Unit, he, too, got away from Communism and came to Australia.
It is well known that Stanley Kramer shot his film “On the Beach” in Victoria. While he was shooting, he set up temporary cutting rooms at the Melbourne Showgrounds.
When he received the dailies, he was able to have whole sequences edited so that he could re-shoot if a sequence was not to his liking. The editor doing this work was Mitch Luther, an American, who had been working in Hollywood. After the completion of “On the Beach”, he joined us at Ripponlea.
The editors were all keen to improve themselves. We were members of the Melbourne Film Society which enabled us to borrow films, famous films. At one time, we studied the Russians and hired out “Battleship Potemkin”, “Alexander Nevsky” and “Ivan the Terrible” Parts I and II. We analysed them and, although we admired the work of Sergei Eisenstein, it did not help much with contemporary film making.
We were also contributors to the “Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers” Journal, which kept us up-to-date with modern developments both in terms of techniques and technology. We were among the first to introduce multi-camera interviews and “checkerboard” negative cutting.
Most of the permanent programme titles were designed and produced in the film department at Ripponlea.
In the camera department, we took on Peter Purvis, who joined us from GTV9 and Robin Clarke who had been a cameraman with HSV7 from their start. He was in fact one of the first television cameramen in Australia.
Kirby Rickard came, a seasoned and highly experienced cameraman, who had worked for Pathe News and Pathe Gazette, had been lighting cameraman on a number of their non-news productions.
One could see that we did not lack in talent and, between us could turn our hand to almost any film requirement.
Our Librarian was Ewart Wade, who ran a department that was required to handle the storage of all programme material and the daily output from the news service which was at least 600 feet of film a day, seven days a week. He later became a film editor, published Lumiere magazine and became director of Andromeda Productions a film production company.
In 1958, the Departments realised that, in order to get top quality productions, they would use the Film Editors to direct their productions. I, myself, directed over twenty documentary films concluding with “Operation Crowflight” in December 1960, commended by Dr. John Grierson.
The cameraman on “Crowflight” was Kirby Rickard and the assistant cameraman was the late Keith Taylor. The producer and presenter was Gerald Lyons who went on to a glittering career in Television and journalism.
At an A.B.C. staff reunion in Melbourne a few years ago Keith Taylor was among the guests. An account of the evening says “he is, without doubt, the pioneer cinematographer behind the ABC’s Natural History Unit. When Keith is asked to name his career highlight he quotes without hesitation how he attended the inaugural international wildlife symposium in London in 1976 and, after his peers viewed some of his work, he received a standing ovation. In the ensuing years Keith became a mentor to numerous cine-camera assistants in the art of cinematography, especially lighting”.
Dr. John Grierson is one of the greatest names in the field of documentary film production.
Operation Crowflight was included in his ‘programme 231’ of This Wonderful World which was recorded on 21st November 1962 and broadcast by Scottish Television (STV), to the whole of the United Kingdom, on 4th Dec 1962. The archive, at Sterling University, includes Grierson’s script for the programme and he introduced the film as follows: (Inter alia)
“These Australians have always been great news-reel reporters. I always think of the Germans as the greatest, the Americans second but certainly the Australians third. Just have a look at this for a piece of news-reel reporting. The story yes but also the heart of the story and no pains spared to make a job of it. I know we are very good at this sort of thing ourselves, both on ITV and BBC, but if the news boys are listening to me, let me tell them that this item was completed from beginning to end in nine hours. That’s what I call first rate reporting. The reporter was Gerald Lyons and the director Terry Gallacher and my complements to both of them.”
Dennis Wahren edited the sound track on “Operation Crowflight”. He went on to become Dr. Grierson’s film editor in the production of “This Wonderful World”. After leaving Grierson, Dennis became Films Officer in Papua New Guinea, a post he held for a number of years.
The sound recordist on “Operation Crowflight” was Don Calder, who had designed and built a 16mm magnetic sound recorder, which was used on the film. He became a film editor at the ABC and later joined Dennis Wahren in Papua New Guinea. Later still, he worked with The Department of Agriculture Film Unit until its closure.
Don Calder worked with a radio microphone on “Operation Crowfllight”, one of the earliest occasions on which the radio microphone was used. Dr. Grierson saw the production as a “news” production, however, for the most part, we had complete control of what was to be filmed. Even the aircraft landings were done to our timetable.
As Tony Sloman, film critic and historian, wrote in 1999, “As the varied likes of David Lean, Robert Wise, Terence Fisher and Dorothy Arzner have proved, the cutting rooms are easily the finest grounding for film direction.”
The other editors, at ABV2, had similar records. Russell Hurley and Frank Few were assigned to work with the B.B.C. Natural History Unit when their producer/director came to produce a short series in Australia. They also worked together on a film called “Alcheringa – the People of the Dreamtime” which was broadcast by the A.B.C. around about 1959.
It was my opinion, at that time, that we were one of the best equipped and staffed film units in the world. Nothing that has happened has changed my opinion in the intervening years.
Russell Hurley eventually left the A.B.C. and worked as an editor for many years, also producing and directing a large number of television programmes. He went to England, where he worked as editor on the first film of the Electron Microscope.
John-Freney Mills writes:
When Ewart left the ABC as a film editor, he joined Crawford productions as an editor on their very popular program “Homicide”. At the same time he was editing the Film Editors Guild of Australia magazine. He decided, about this time, that he wanted be a fulltime magazine editor & that’s when he set-up Lumiere which incorporated the Film Editors Guild magazine. I still have most editions. You mentioned he was involved with Andromeda Productions – that was 1980/81 and of three productions that I am aware of he was producer/executive producer but I feel he was frustrated as he wanted to write fulltime .
Terry, after you returned to the UK I took over as Senior Film Editor and continued directing, mainly documentaries and also film insert for Drama. John Williams chose to stay with news as film editor until I was appointed Supervisor of Films and he was appointed Senior Film Editor. The film department expanded rapidly in the lead-up to colour television. At it’s peak we had a staff of approximately 132 really professional people. Some of the old hands who were there in the early days had moved on to other challenges. Most doing very well in the local and overseas film and TV industry . I would say most of them went to film production in preference to TV film production & a few set up their own production houses.
In 1959, the film department took on two trainee assistants. One of these was Scott McLellan who became an assistant editor and later an editor. He went off to England and worked for some time with the B.B.C. Later in life, he would edit a number of important television dramas produced in Australia. Another assistant editor was Ottmar Wunsch, who returned to his native Bavaria where he became a senior member of the staff of Bavarian Television.
As for me, when I left the A.B.C. in 1961, I returned to England to become Assignments Manager with British Movietonews and United Press Movietone Television. Later I became Head of Production with UPITN Productions, a post I held for twenty-one years. I produced over two hundred programmes or short films in my career.
The gathering of newsfilm and the editing and presentation of the news is an art form in itself. When the director of “The French Connection” required realism for the chase scene, he used a cameraman with news experience for the hand-held sequence.
One famous employee of the Gaumont British and Movietone Newsreels said that ”editing news meant that you could not go for a walk in the park while you decided what you were going to do next.” He also learned the art, and skill, of sound editing from a newsreel technician. He was David Lean, but, hey, who’s he ?
He also said “‘Film-editing is very closely allied to direction. Director and editor both decide what the audience has got to look at and when.”
Without the help from John Freney-Mills, I might have thought that I had imagined it all.
It should be remembered that the film editor at the A.B.C. in the late fifties, and early sixties, would have edited a huge amount of film in a short time. In three years, an assistant editor could progress to that of experienced editor, having edited an average of forty minutes of air time per week. Thus, one year in the A.B.C. cutting rooms would be the equivalent of five years in the Movietonews cutting room.
There is a danger that the early history of the Australian Television industry will not reflect the truth. John B. Murray has rightly been lauded for reviving the Australian film industry with his film, The Naked Bunyip in 1970, it’s therefore unfortunate he wrote: “There was no film department as such at Ripponlea, except that which facilitated the gathering of news”. There clearly was a film department as I have demonstrated above and the talented people within that department deserve to be remembered. There was no ‘near-enough is good enough‘ attitude at ABV2 as John B. Murray mentions in his article. In addition a television historian has stated that the pioneers were all old men and not likely to be round anymore.
When I joined the A.B.C., I was twenty-nine years old and I was among the oldest and I’m still around, as are many colleagues.
When John B. Murray arrived at the A.B.C. studios in Ripponlea, one wonders who it was instructed him on how to become a film maker, since, by his own admission he was not a film maker before his arrival and, according to him, there was no one at the A.B.C. who could make films (as such) either. John B. Murray says he resigned from the A.B.C. in late 1961 to become an Independent Filmmaker.
Many thanks to my friends and colleagues at ABV2 John Freney-Mills and Don Calder for their contributions to this article.
© 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.
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