CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

BARRIER REEF


Copyright 2013 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


BARRIER REEF
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In the first twenty years of Australian television, three series were made featuring similar characteristics:- Adventures Of The Seaspray, The Rovers and Barrier Reef. All three were half-hour adventure series set on a boat, filmed in colour with a view to overseas sales, and aimed squarely at a family audience. (There was a fourth 'boat' series at the time, Riptide, but it was quite different in concept - a one hour adult drama).

The third of these, Barrier Reef, was packaged by Fauna Productions (which was formed by John McCallum, Lee Robinson and Bob Austin, and featured an on-screen credit as 'Norfolk International'). Fauna’s first television series was Skippy, and, with an eye on overseas sales, the formula of a uniquely Australian ingredient (a kangaroo) was repeated in Barrier Reef with, obviously, the Queensland Great Barrier Reef. The series was devised by John McCallum and Lee Robinson, who spent many, many hours discussing ideas for the show.

Barrier Reef was originally titled 'Minus Five' when production commenced at Hayman Island on September 15, 1969. 'Minus Five' was not just a title on paper - some of the early episodes were actually completed with 'Minus Five' opening credits. In fact, some prints still retain the 'Minus Five' title, although none have gone to air. The name was not changed to Barrier Reef until April 1970.

The series was filmed in colour and entirely on location in North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef, with the exception of the first episode which also had some scenes filmed in Canberra. It was the first series in the world to feature extensive colour underwater filming on location - no tanks were used. It was one of the few local series to be produced outside Sydney or Melbourne, and was also reported at the time to be the most expensive series ever produced in Australia.

Many of the Skippy crew also worked on Barrier Reef, which commenced production shortly after Skippy finished. Barrier Reef was not an easy series to make, especially in the early days when the crew seemed to spend more time maintaining the boats than shooting film, but they had been together for three years and were willing to do what was needed to get the job done.

Producers of Barrier Reef were Lee Robinson and Joy Cavill, and Executive Producers were John McCallum and Bob Austin. Directors on various episodes were Peter Maxwell, Brian Faull, Lee Robinson, Eric Fullilove, Howard Rubie and Neill Phillipson.

The real 'star' of Barrier Reef is the majestic barquentine 'New Endeavour', a 135 feet long windjammer which weighs 220 tons. It was built in Svenberg, Denmark, in 1919, and worked the Scandinavian coast until it was hit by a mine during World War 2. It was rebuilt in 1945 and came to Australia fitted out as a crew ship in 1965. Fauna Productions purchased the ship for $60,000 and spent almost $100,000 on repairs – which included some new hull planks, fitting her with new sails, air-conditioning, a desalination plant, accommodation, tiled shower rooms, a generator and new pumps and engines. The below decks area was converted into a small studio, including the 'Minus Five' control room.

Barrier Reef is about the adventures of a scientific search and recovery team working for General Trust Corporation, a large Australian industrial and pastoral group. The team work aboard the barquentine 'New Endeavour', which houses the sophisticated 'Minus Five' electronic equipment. 'Minus Five' was specifically developed for General Trust projects, and stands for 'Mineral Identification Nuclear Undersea Seismography Mark V', and, among other functions, it can give accurate geological analyses of the seabed and the earth below it. This technological marvel is affectionately known by the ship's crew as 'Grandma', from the fairy tale line "What big eyes you have!"

'Grandma' is kept top secret because of the political and commercial interest it could generate, not least due to it's ability to locate mineral deposits or turn up sunken wrecks carrying valuable cargo. The team on the 'Endeavour' is very much in favour of conservation and opposed to the exploitation of the Reef, and they are often required to carry out duties for the Government.

There is a lot of specialised equipment used in the series, including a sleek two-person mini-submarine, futuristic looking scuba gear, sonar guns, underwater radio communication and jet-powered speed boats capable of running at 100 kmh. The mini-submarine was actually made in Italy and imported by a Sydney diving company. It was purchased by Fauna Productions for use in the Skippy feature film The Intruders, and is 18 feet long, of fibreglass construction, propeller-driven and powered by four 12-volt batteries. Also, specially constructed rafts with outboard motors were utilised for camera crews to work near the water for sea-level shots. Other props included a shark and a large groper fish, both made of fibreglass.

Leading the cast is Joe James, who plays Ted King, captain of the 'Endeavour'. His first mate and diving expert is Jack Meuraki, a Thursday Islander, played by George Assang. Jack and Ted actually go back a long way, having grown up together on Thursday Island. The ship's bosun and one of the divers is Steve Gabo, played by Harold Hopkins.

Ken James (no relation to Joe James) plays another diver, Kip Young. Ken was previously seen as Mark Hammond in Skippy, and it was originally intended that he would continue that role in Barrier Reef. In the last episode of Skippy he was to be shown leaving Waratah National Park to start a new job on the Great Barrier Reef, however Fauna Productions subsequently decided he should play a new character. For that Ken James was thankful: "I was a bit worried about becoming typecast" he said.1

In what industry sources considered a surprise move, an Egyptian actor, Ihab Nafa, who had recently taken up residence in Sydney, was cast as Dr. Paul Hanna, a Government scientist seconded to the 'Endeavour' from the Science Council. He appeared in the first 17 episodes.

He was replaced from episode 18 by Rowena Wallace as Tracey Deane, a General Trust Corporation scientist. Rowena had just completed filming of The Rovers, so in effect went from one boat straight to another.

Susannah Brett also played a scientist, Elizabeth Grant, who operates the Minus Five equipment. She appeared in the first eight episodes before her character was recalled to Melbourne. Press reports suggested there was discontent on the set, and tension between Susannah and production staff. A Fauna spokesman denied this, saying, "As far as we are concerned her character has merely dropped out of the series as a natural event. One expects a nucleus of actors to be there almost continually, but some characters can be eased in and out. This is a case in point."2 Susannah said, "My contract ran for only six episodes. I enjoyed working on the series and am sorry it's over."3

Susannah was replaced by Elli Maclure, who joins the team in episode 9 as Diana Parker, a scientist with a computer-like mind for figures. It was intended that Elli would stay for the rest of the series, however she had to leave for personal reasons, and made her final appearance in episode 20. Her character was not replaced, and her responsibilities on the 'Endeavour' were assumed by Rowena Wallace's character.

Tina Cornioley is seen as Kelly Clarke, a radio operator at the Trust's on-shore field office at Bowen on Queensland's north coast. Publicity material stated that her part was a semi-regular role, but in fact she only appears in two episodes, although her character is referred to in others.

This led to Elli Maclure reverting to her maiden name, as her married name, Tina Julien, was causing confusion with Tina Cornioley. "I felt a bit silly changing my name so late in the proceedings," said Elli. "But in any case, I wanted to begin using my maiden name because at that stage my marriage had broken up. My full name is Christine Helen Maclure, so I tried to get a contraction of the first two and came up with Elli."4 Elli last used her married name in Homicide episode 242, 'Love Story'.

Other semi-regular support roles were Tom Farley as Professor Martin, the designer of the Minus Five equipment; and John Warwick as Sir John Hargreave, the managing director of General Trust Corporation. John Warwick played a similar role in Skippy as Sir Adrian Gillespie, chairman of the Waratah National Park Trust. Another support role mentioned in early publicity was that of Bob Davenport, the North Queensland field manager for the company played by Robert Bruning, but he appeared in only one episode.

The other 'stars' of Barrier Reef are the divers who substituted for the actors. They were led by husband and wife team Ron and Valerie Taylor, two world renowned underwater experts who are particularly well-known for their photography. Valerie Taylor actually had a guest role in one episode (No. 34 'His Majesty Regrets'), and Ron Taylor was credited as Director of Underwater Photography for the entire series. The Taylor's expertise in all aquatic matters - from photography to marine life - was pivotal for the success of the series.  One episode required a large groper fish as a 'guest actor', and the Taylor's found one after several hours of searching - however, in spite of being fed copious amounts of fish, the groper was very grumpy, and his temperament improved only when the Taylor's gave him some T-bone steaks! Almost every episode featured underwater scenes, the quality of which are absolutely superb - if for no other reason, these scenes alone make Barrier Reef worth watching.

The episodes emphasise action and adventure rather than dialogue, and make full use of the atmosphere created by the romance of an old sailing ship, the wonder of modern state-of-the-art technology and the spectacular scenery to be found on the Great Barrier Reef, both above water and below. Outside location work is extensive, and use of sets and studios is practically non-existent - interior ship scenes, including the Minus Five control room, were actually filmed on board the 'Endeavour'.

The main characters are not explored to any great depth, but nevertheless they are realistic and convincing. Joe James portrays an excellent ship's captain: rock-steady, understanding, always to be relied upon in a crisis, but without the contrived strutting about like a super-hero that flaws many American shows. Likewise, the other crew members are believable and not portrayed as larger than life, and all are competently played, with only Ihab Nafa's portrayal of Dr. Hanna coming across as a bit wooden.

The episodes themselves, by the nature of the series, are not intended to be 'deep and meaningful' social comments or character studies, but they are quite well structured and certainly entertaining. Occasionally there is an awkward ending, but these lapses are rare. Most episodes have credibility, leaning towards understatement rather than 'over-the-top', and the feel of adventure is captured nicely. The series doesn't talk down to the viewers, nor is it too sophisticated for the younger audience - it strikes a good balance, and is an excellent example of the 'kidult' formula.

Critics in two TV magazines panned the series when it premiered: Herb Martin, writing in TV Week, missed the point completely, comparing Barrier Reef to science-fiction shows Star Trek and Lost In Space;5 and F.C. Kennedy, TV Times' resident critic, - well, he rarely liked any programme.6

The series did capitalise on then current events. Use of the 'New Endeavour' coincided nicely with the bi-centenary of Captain Cook's visit to Australia in the original 'Endeavour', and the issues of conservation and the ‘Crown of Thorns’ starfish threat were mentioned often during the series. Individual episodes focused on other contemporary events: Episode 20, 'God Bless Her', featured the Royal Visit to Townsville, and episode 26, 'Moon Shot', concerned the ill-fated Apollo 13 spacecraft.

The most significant of these 'contemporary events' episodes are Nos. 12 and 13, the two concerning Cyclone Ada, which hit the Queensland coast and decimated Hayman Island, Daydream Island, South Molle Island, Shute Harbour and Airlie Beach, killing eleven people. The 'Endeavour' and most of the cast and crew were safely in Townsville when the cyclone struck, and they assisted in rescues and taking supplies to Hayman Island after the cyclone had passed.

One episode, 'Slipway', was almost completed when the cyclone hit. Producers Lee Robinson and Joy Cavill took advantage of the situation and quickly wrote two new episodes around the cyclone. Although they were virtually filming at one end of the ship while the script was being written at the other end, the two episodes, 'Cyclone' and 'Assignment In Shute', do not suffer because of it. The dramatic footage of actual cyclone ravaged holiday resorts provided a sober, realistic setting that could never be reconstructed.

Janet Kingsbury was filming a guest spot, and stayed for the two 'cyclone' episodes. "The reaction of the local people brought a lump to my throat," she said. "They were so grateful to see us, talk with us, to feel part of an untouched, normal world again. In one scene in 'Assignment In Shute' a man, his wife and children were asked to appear as extras. He asked me if he would be paid and was almost in tears when I told him he would. He'd lost everything and was planning to go prawning that night to get a feed for the kids".7

As most of the action in Barrier Reef centred around the regular cast, guest parts were usually limited to one or two roles, with some episodes having no guest cast at all. A number of well-known actors appeared, including Producer John McCallum in the first episode. Episode 23, 'Shark Bait', featured Hunter lead Tony Ward as a wealthy fisherman, with Sue Costin cast as his daughter. Ironically, about three years earlier Sue Costin was cast as Tony Ward's girlfriend in the first episode of Hunter!

During filming of episode 5, 'The Pewter Chalice', some of the actors got into difficulties during a swimming rescue scene. Susannah Brett, Tina Cornioley and guest actor Christina O'Brien were swept up by a strong rip, and Christina had a cramp in her foot while Tina got her foot caught up in Christina's wet clothes. As safety measures were already in place due to the potential risks of filming in the water, help was immediate and the actors were in no danger. "It was a frightening few minutes," said Tina Cornioley. "After a rest we went back into the water and did the scene again, although I understand they may use some of the film from the first scene in the actual episode because it was so dramatic."8

Rowena Wallace recalled some memories of the series in a TV Eye interview: "I went straight from one boat to another. The Rovers was filmed on the 'Derwent Hunter', a schooner, a beautiful boat but shocking in a swell. Then I went straight onto the barquentine 'New Endeavour' in Barrier Reef. They were great days because we had a wonderful ship's crew, and sometimes on a Sunday we'd take the boat over to Dunk or something with a few of the actors and the ship's crew, and come back at sunset singing sea shanties.

"It was great fun, I loved every minute of it. Peter Maxwell (the Director) would be screaming out to Mike Kitchenside, the captain, to 'keep the bloody boat still', and of course you can't keep a huge barquentine still. We used to have a spy on the boat and by the time we got back to shore the production office knew exactly what had gone on all day. It was great, it was wonderful, it was such an adventure. They're gone, those days."9

Rowena did not appear in episode 26, 'Moon Shot'. She tells the story: "Peter Maxwell (the Director) and I had a game going where we would change the name of the episode on the clapper board. We were filming on Hayman Island, and we were all going a bit troppo, and we thought we were very funny doing all this. Anyway, Joy Cavill (the Producer) comes up to me and says, 'We are absolutely disgusted at what you have been doing, it's outrageous and unprofessional, and we are going to punish you for it. You're not going to be in an episode!' So they made me sit on the beach and have a wonderful time; my hand was slapped and my punishment was not to have my face on television!"10

Veteran actor Willie Fennell played a desk-type security agent in ep. 36, 'Pilgrims Progress', a 'serious' character embellished with some comic overtones. One scene required him to fall overboard: "The director, Peter Maxwell, insisted on having someone take the fall off the ship for me," said Fennell, "but I had to go out in a small boat and be dropped in the water to do the scenes where I'm fished out by Kip Young. Peter insisted I wear flippers for the water scenes and I found they were very necessary. Have you ever gone swimming in a business suit? It was so heavy it was tough to keep afloat, and I was near drowning when they dragged me into the boat."11

Barrier Reef was sold to over fifty countries, including Britain where it was screened by the BBC. In the U.S. it was picked up by NBC, who were impressed by the underwater scenes, which they referred to as ‘glug glug’. Other countries that bought the series included Canada, Japan, South America, South Africa and most of Europe.

Locally, Barrier Reef was seen on the 0-Ten network, as the series was set up financially following a deal made with Sir Reginald Ansett, the head of both Ansett Airlines and ATV-0. It premiered in Melbourne on February 5 1971 (it was already being seen in Britain and Canada), and ATV-0 screened the series out of sequence. It debuted in Brisbane on February 12, but Sydney's TEN-10 decided not to screen the series until September, in order to get maximum benefit from newly introduced Australian content regulations. "If we were to screen it now, it would be a repeat programme by September, when the Broadcasting Control Board's stringent new requirements for first-run programmes come into operation," said TEN-10 General Manager Leslie Peard. "We will therefore hold Barrier Reef until that time to help us meet our programming requirements under the regulations."12 Shortly afterwards ATV-0 followed suit, taking the series off air in March and returning it to the schedule in September. SAS-10 Adelaide and TVQ-0 Brisbane also deferred the series, however many country stations continued screening the show without interruption.

39 episodes were produced of Barrier Reef, which were all that were initially planned over a twelve month shooting schedule. However, Barrier Reef was not as financially successful as Skippy because it went over budget. This was mainly due to problems with the underwater scenes, which could be held up for several days if the water was not clear enough for filming. In fact underwater filming was still taking place when all other filming of the series had been completed.

Barrier Reef was repeated many times during the 70's. Its popularity worldwide was sufficient for a couple of Annuals to be published for the children's market (along with Skippy and Woobinda).13 The script from the first episode was included in a text book for students, 'In Focus'.14

The cast moved on to many and varied things: Joe James joined Number 96, Rowena Wallace played Constable Jane Bell in the last episodes of Division 4, Harold Hopkins replaced Michael Laurence in The Godfathers, Ken James appeared in The Group and Elli Maclure had a role in Birds In The Bush, to mention only a few. The 'New Endeavour' was used for pleasure cruises in Sydney and Melbourne before being sold, and Fauna Productions embarked on their next television project: the critically acclaimed Boney series.

Barrier Reef is not as well known as Skippy, or as sophisticated as Boney, or as popular as Homicide, but it is nonetheless significant in Australian television history. It has passed the test of time, and stands up well alongside other programmes, local or imported, contemporary or otherwise.

 

BARRIER REEF EPISODE DETAILS

 

1. TV Week, Sept 13, 1969.
2. TV Week, March 1970.
3. Ibid.
4. TV Times, Nov 6, 1971.
5. H. Martin, Viewpoint, TV Week, Feb, 1971.
6. F.C. Kennedy, TV Times, Oct 23, 1971.
7. TV Times, May 6, 1970.
8. TV Week, December 1969.
9. TV Eye No. 3, October 1994.
10. Ibid.
11. South Australia TV Guide, Feb 12, 1972.
12. TV Times, March 17, 1971.
13. Barrier Reef Annual 1972, (World Distributors, Britain,1971); Barrier Reef Annual 1973, (World Distributors, Britain,1972)
14.
Don Reid, Frank Bladwell, In Focus - Scripts From Commercial Television's Second Decade, (Macmillan Australia, 1972)



The original cast line-up: (l to r) George Assang, Harold Hopkins, Susannah Brett, Joe James, Ken James and Ihab Nafa.

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A scene in the Minus Five control room from the first episode: Susannah Brett as Liz Grant is seated at the console, with (l to r) Ihab Nafa, John Warwick, John McCallum and Tom Farley.

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Ihab Nafa as Dr. Paul Hanna.

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The Barrier Reef opening was effective in its simplicity, consisting of three scenes (above). The original ‘Minus Five’ opening was more complex, with additional scenes including shots of the principal cast members and the title superimposed over the control room (below).
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Filming from one of the specially constructed rafts fitted with an outboard motor.


Director Peter Maxwell with Susannah Brett.

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Susannah Brett as Elizabeth Grant.

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Elli Maclure as Diana Parker.

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The final cast line-up: (l to r) Ken James, Harold Hopkins, Rowena Wallace, George Assang and Joe James.


Joe James as Captain Ted King.

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One of the divers in the mini-submarine.

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Joe James as Capt. Ted King, George Assang as Jack Meuraki, Ken James as Kip Young, Harold Hopkins as Steve Gabo and Rowena Wallace as Tracey Deane.

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Joe James as Capt. King and Rowena Wallace as Tracey Deane in the Minus Five control room.

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Janet Kingsbury in a rescue scene from episode 12 ‘Cyclone’.

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Ken James, Harold Hopkins and Joe James on one of the high-speed jet boats.


Ken James (left) and Harold Hopkins as divers Kip Young and Steve Gabo in a scene from episode 22 ‘Sea Fever’.

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An illustration of Captain Ted King that appeared in the Barrier Reef Annual 1972.


Susannah Brett, Tina Cornioley, Elli Maclure and Rowena Wallace.