CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION
Copyright © 2005, 2022 Don Storey. All rights reserved.
In the first twenty years of television, three Australian half-hour adventure series were set on boats. All three were filmed in colour with a view to overseas sales, and all three were aimed at a family audience. Barrier Reef premiered in 1971 and was made by Fauna Productions, and before that, there was The Rovers, made in 1969-70 by NLT Productions. The first of the ‘boat’ series was Adventures Of The Seaspray, made in 1965-66 by Pacific Films.
Pacific Films was headed by Roger Mirams, a prolific producer who is to children’s television what Hector Crawford is to adult drama. Mirams’ first television project was The Terrific Adventures Of The Terrible Ten, a series of 15-minute programmes for kids, shot on film in black and white; it later evolved into The Ten Again. This was followed by a more elaborate project, The Magic Boomerang, a half-hour adventure series also produced on film in black and white. The Terrible Ten was filmed on location at Macedon and The Magic Boomerang was shot at Woodend, both in Victoria in the ranges north of Melbourne.
Mirams’ next project was to be his most ambitious yet: The Cruise Of The Seaspray, centred around a widower and his children who travel around the South Pacific in their schooner ‘Seaspray’. Previously, The Terrible Ten and The Magic Boomerang had notched up some overseas sales, and so for Seaspray overseas sales were sought from the outset. It was obvious that the series could not be funded by Pacific Films with Australian television stations alone, therefore Mirams sought financial backing through a co-production deal with Screen Gems, a large American production and distribution company, a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures.
A pilot episode was made in 1965, and it was filmed in black and white. In a bold step for an Australian production company at that time, the episode was shot entirely on location in Fiji. Authentic locations were pivotal to the success of Seaspray - there would be no point filming off the coast of Australia pretending it was somewhere else.
One of Pacific Films’ resident directors, Joe McCormick, directed the episode and, as he was also an experienced actor, he played the lead role of Captain Dan Wilder. McCormick was an Irishman, but, for reasons known only to himself, pretended to be an American. Because McCormick spoke with an American accent, the character of Captain Wilder was an American who had married an Australian girl. Now a widower, Wilder lives and works on the schooner 'Seaspray' with his three children, Mike, Sue and Noah. Mike was the eldest at 17, Sue was a year younger and Noah (an appropriate nautical name) was the youngest at 14. Wilder, aged about 50, is a freelance journalist who supplements his income with charter work and occasional cargo transport.
The pilot was considered to have strong potential, but some major changes would be made before Screen Gems gave the go-ahead for series production. The Americans decided Joe McCormick was too old and too fat for the lead role, and New Zealand actor Walter Brown, who had been working for several years in England, was substituted. The Captain’s name was changed to Dan Wells, and his nationality changed to Australian. Walter Brown was younger (late 30’s/early 40’s) and more agile, enabling the series to incorporate a lot more action with a stereotypical ‘hero’ figure in the lead role. To reflect the increased level of action, the title The Cruise Of The Seaspray was altered to Adventures Of The Seaspray. Filming shifted into colour, a move considered essential for the necessary overseas sales, to say nothing of doing justice to the photogenic locations.
The children, Mike, Sue and Noah (with their surnames altered to Wells) continued to be played by the same actors as in the pilot. Rodney Pearlman was selected to play Noah, and for the other two roles the choice had been narrowed down to two possibilities each. David Morgan, who previously played a lead role in The Magic Boomerang, and Gary Gray were both considered for the part of Mike, and Gary Gray was subsequently cast. Jacki Weaver and Susan Haworth both auditioned for the role of Sue, and Susan Haworth got the part (Haworth’s Christian name was spelled Susanne on the end credits).
Another character was added to the cast: Willyum Lesi, a crewmember of the 'Seaspray' and a Fijian native, played by Leone Lesianawai. Lesianawai was a real-life police officer in Fiji, and appeared as such in a minor part in the pilot episode. Mirams was impressed by his talent, and invited him to join the cast - Lesianawai accepted, taking leave from the Fiji police force.
Many of the cast and crew had worked previously on various Pacific Films productions; indeed, Gary Gray was already a ‘veteran’, having had a lead role in The Terrible Ten, as well as being Assistant Director on and occasionally appearing in The Magic Boomerang. Rodney Pearlman had a regular role in The Magic Boomerang, and Susan Haworth had guest roles in The Magic Boomerang and a part in the Terrible Ten feature film Funny Things Happen Down Under. In a reversal of the situation that applied to The Magic Boomerang, David Morgan became the Assistant Director on Seaspray. The Producer was Roger Mirams and Production Manager was Chris Stewart, the same functions they performed on the earlier shows.
It was initially planned to produce a series of 26 episodes, which was later increased to 39 episodes. As it happened, 32 episodes were made. The pilot episode, being significantly different, was not incorporated into the series and was never screened.
Seaspray was a series with an international setting, being filmed at many locations in the South Pacific. Other series would film an occasional episode overseas (Hunter in Singapore, Spyforce in New Guinea, and Homicide in Fiji are some local examples), and it is common practice for British and American shows to 'fake' an overseas setting in their own studios, but seldom would a series from any country feature a truly international setting. Seaspray, although an Australian production, had only a few episodes filmed in Australia - most were shot in Fiji, and many others were filmed in New Zealand and New Guinea. Even the actors were of diverse origins: Australia (Susan Haworth and Gary Gary), New Zealand (Walter Brown) and Fiji (Leone Lesianawai).
Series production commenced in August 1965, at Nelson in New Zealand, where two boats were picked up. One was a tourist cruiser, converted from an old patrol boat, which housed the cast and crew. The other was the 'Fifeath Ban' (a Gaelic name for 'White Raven') which was featured as the schooner 'Seaspray' in the series. The 'Fifeath Ban' was being used as a charter boat in New Zealand, and was returning there from Fiji when Roger Mirams heard about it. He chartered a light plane to fly over the boat, decided it was just what he was looking for, and arranged for it to be used in the series.
The cast and crew then travelled to Fiji where they were based for eight months, filming both in Fiji and on nearby islands. Next, they sailed back to New Zealand for ten weeks filming, before heading across to Australia in mid-1966 to film some episodes in Melbourne. The 26th episode was filmed in Sydney, and the next port of call was New Guinea for six more episodes before heading back to Australia, making a total of approximately 15 months filming on location. As Pacific Films was a Melbourne-based company, pre- and post-production of Seaspray was handled in Melbourne.
The first few episodes were beset with problems. Rain had disrupted filming for a while, and the Director, Joe McCormick, was disorganised due to some personal problems. Things soon got severely behind schedule. Six days were allocated for shooting each episode, but after three weeks, the first episode had still not been completed. The panic button was pressed, and another long-time director for Pacific Films, David Baker, was flown to Fiji to take over. “He (Baker) was quite a crazy character,” said Gary Gray, “and he got things rolling again, but the Yanks just couldn't handle him at all.”1
Screen Gems decided to send in Eddie Davis, a very experienced American director, and he reorganised the entire production. “He (Davis) knew all the short cuts,” said Gary Gray, “things we'd never seen before. He wouldn't even bother shooting the reverses in reverse, he'd just swing the camera a few degrees, say ‘look left (or right)’ and ‘action’. He wouldn't bother re-setting up as long as the background was different and your eye-line was right.”2 Davis, who was also credited as Production Consultant for the series, was completing an episode in four days, and filming was soon back on schedule.
After eight episodes, the character of Noah was dropped when Rodney Pearlman left the series. Having already spent several months in Fiji, Pearlman wrote to his parents and said he wanted to come back and return to school because acting was not for him. He was not replaced in the series, and the ‘Seaspray’ continued to sail with a crew of four.
Episode 16, ‘The Hostages’, was filmed on the south island of New Zealand, on the Tasman Glacier on Mt. Cook, where bad weather caught the cast and crew by surprise. Gary Gray tells the story: “There was snow and ice everywhere, and we were shooting away and suddenly we were caught in a mist, a cloud, it was like someone just poured it out. It was literally over us in about 15 minutes, we were enshrouded in it. We had two guides with us and they said, 'We could be in a bit of strife here!'. We didn't have radio contact, and the guides said we're going to have to make a decision before nightfall whether to stay up here, because the plane can't get in to get us out. So all 16 of us had to be roped together, and we had to go trekking through this mountain, missing all the crevasses, with the guides leading us. We had to climb up to a hut, which is there for exactly this sort of thing - people stuck on the glacier. There were 16 of us in this hut for the night, which was only designed for eight people, and in the hut was a radio. We put all the cameras in an ice cave where they would be protected from the weather. Fortunately, the next day the weather cleared and we made our way back down.”3
Sydney during filming of ep. 19, 'The Surfers', Gary Gray was
asked if there had been any victims of seasickness. "Several,"
he replied, "me included. There was a six-hour night trip we
did into Suva that I don't want to remember in a hurry. Sue and
Walter haven't been worried by seasickness at all, but Mike, our
cameraman, is another story!"4
Australia was not the first to see the series, however. Sales to England, Canada and New Zealand, as well as Australia, had been finalised while the series was still in production, and Seaspray had its world premiere in England in late 1966.
The opening sequence showed scenes of the ‘Seaspray’ sailing in open water, with titles superimposed in ‘Old English’ style lettering. A caption read, 'These are the adventures of a charter schooner, of its Captain – journalist Dan Wells – and of his children as they roam the South Pacific'. Walter Brown received an opening credit, but the other cast members were only recognised on the closing credits. The episode title followed, and the sequence concluded with another caption: 'Filmed Entirely in the South Pacific'. Eric Gross was responsible for the majestic piano theme music, as well as the incidental music, and in this task was assisted by John Egginton.
Adventures Of The Seaspray was a quality series, and captured the spirit of adventure nicely. It had all the right ingredients: an Australian family sailing the South Pacific coming across smugglers, haunted islands, shipwrecked sailors, criminals, native tribes and hidden treasure. As the title suggests, it was an adventure series, with no underlying themes apart from the standard ‘good will always triumph over evil’. Likewise, there was not a lot of depth to the characters, but there did not need to be. The Wells family were portrayed as a typical unit (albeit with only one parent) with admirable values and morals – they were not a vehicle for social commentary or syrupy sentimentality.
Seaspray was notable for several achievements, apart from a high standard of production. It was filmed on location in an international setting; it was the first Australian television show to be filmed in colour since the 1955 series The Adventures Of Long John Silver (made before Australia had television); it was the first co-production with an overseas company; and it had a Fijian native in a lead role, the first Australian series to give such prominence to a non-white person.
Seaspray chalked up a significant number of international sales, and proved to be quite popular with overseas audiences, especially in Britain and Canada where it achieved very high ratings. However, some countries with a predominantly black population would not buy certain episodes: "Some of the storylines had the Fijians as the baddies," explained Mirams.5
In spite of a large number of overseas sales, the co-production deal left Mirams with the blunt end of the stick. In evidence given to the 1972 Tariff Revision Enquiry into Motion Picture Film and Television Programmes, Mirams stated he could only fund half of the cost of the pilot episode, and had no money to contribute towards production of the series – Screen Gems provided his share of the costs after taking out an insurance policy on his life! He also stated that after production costs and distributor commissions were deducted he received no money from the American sale. Screen Gems, however, did quite nicely out of the series, even if Mirams did not.
Two Seaspray paperback novels were published in 1967, ‘The Spoils Of War’ and ‘The Man Who Was Too Rich’, both written by John Gunn.6 The theme music was also released as a single in the same year.7
The characterisation in Seaspray established a pattern that would be followed to a degree by subsequent half-hour adventure series. The widowed father, young boy, pretty girl and non-family crew member had parallels in Skippy, Woobinda (Animal Doctor) and The Rovers. (For Walter Brown as the widowed father Captain Dan Wells, substitute Ed Deveraux as Ranger Matt Hammond in Skippy, Don Pascoe as Dr. John Stevens in Woobinda and Eddie Hepple as Captain Sam McGill in The Rovers. For Rodney Pearlman as the young boy Noah Wells, substitute Garry Pankhurst as Sonny in Skippy, Bindi Williams as Kevin in Woobinda and Grant Seiden as Mike in The Rovers. For Susan Haworth as the pretty girl Sue Wells, substitute Liza Goddard as Clancy in Skippy, Sonia Hofmann as Tiggie in Woobinda and Rowena Wallace as Rusty in The Rovers. For Leone Lesianawai as the non-family member Willyum, substitute Tony Bonner as Flight Ranger Jerry King in Skippy, Lutz Hochstraate as Dr. Peter Fischer in Woobinda and Noel Trevarthen as Bob Wild in The Rovers). This is not to accuse the other series of plagiarism - in portraying family situations, some similarities are unavoidable and inevitable - but it does highlight that a tried and true formula was pioneered by Seaspray.
After Seaspray, the Pacific Films company was wound up. Roger Mirams went on to become Producer of Woobinda (Animal Doctor) for NLT Productions, and also devised The Rovers and produced the pilot episode of same for NLT. He later created and produced (with Ron McLean) the war-time espionage series Spyforce in a co-production deal with Paramount Pictures, before again teaming up with Ron McLean to create and produce the police doctor series Silent Number. Mirams was also Producer of the childrens series The Lost Islands and the pilot episode of the surf rescue series Chopper Squad. He later took up a position with the Grundy Organisation as a developer and producer of various childrens television series, continuing in the job until he unfortunately passed away in February, 2004, aged 85.
As at February 2005, the 'Fifeath Ban' was being used under her television name 'Seaspray' for tourist cruises out of Fiji. A majestic boat by any standard, her obvious appeal for tourists is enhanced by her claim to fame as the 'star' of a television series.
Although Adventures Of The Seaspray was made in colour, it has not been shown in Australia for several decades. Maybe one day, as the powers-that-be at Columbia Pictures go through the Screen Gems archives, it will appear once again on our screens as a DVD and/or streaming release. But don’t hold your breath.
15, January 1999.