CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

INTERVIEW:
CHARLES 'BUD' TINGWELL

 


Copyright 2005 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


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This interview first appeared in TV EYE No. 4, February 1995.

Charles 'Bud' Tingwell has had a long career in film and television, both in Australia and England. He has appeared in many films and television series, including the long-running British series Emergency Ward 10, and also has worked on many projects as producer and director. He has received a TV Week Hall Of Fame Logie award, and, of course, played Inspector Reg Lawson for three years in the colour episodes of Homicide.

 

When did you leave Australia for England?

1956. We were shooting The Shiralee in New South Wales, and I wanted to do another film with Chips Rafferty. It was based on a novel by Jon Cleary, and it was such a good novel I thought they should just put the shot numbers in, and not do anything else! It was about an outback copper having to track down a really dangerous tribal criminal, to be played by Robert Tudawali, and there was an involvement with a big cattle station nearby, of which I was going to play the young owner, and Chips was going to play the outback copper.

It was a very good idea, but they got a bit creative on it, and eventually they put it to me to play the copper and I said 'No, I'm not right for this role if you follow Jon Cleary's novel, Chips has got to do it'. But they said they were getting a bit worried that Chips was appearing in everything, and Lee Robinson went along with this idea of not using Chips except as producer, with Lee directing. I suggested 'Why don't you get Ken Wayne?', and eventually they did. I ended up simply doing the interiors for The Shiralee, not that there were many, but as they were being filmed in England it was better for Ealing Studios to fly me over there rather than try and do the scenes here, and that's the only reason I went to England.

In Australia at that time television was just around the corner...

Yes, although Grace Gibson had given it a go earlier, which is very under-reported. Grace was one of the big radio producers, and she decided it was time we did an experimental telemovie, hopefully episode 1 of a series, in 1952. She got Ken Hall to direct Alan White, who hadn't gone to England yet, in a test scene to send to some colleagues she had in America, whom she used to sell a lot of her radio shows to. I remember going out to the studio when they were doing Whitey's test scene. It was for the lead role, an American character who served in the Army in World War 2 and decided to stay in Australia and become a private investigator.

It was a simple format, and Whitey had a good American accent, but the next thing we knew the American end decided they wanted to test a few more people. They flew out their director who was Francis D. Lyons, an Academy award film editor for Body And Soul, and he directed all the screen tests. Joe McCormick, myself, Ken Wayne, Whitey, we all did the screen tests, but after they flew the tests back to Los Angeles they asked me to do the part. When I asked who decided it, they said it was the office staff! Their method of casting was to test everybody and call the typists, the cleaners, the canteen people, and say 'you tell us'; they went on that decision, because they were typical people, not high-tech brilliant producers and technicians.

We nearly made a series, in fact that was one of the reasons why I turned down a seven year contract; if I signed a contract I immediately thought I wouldn't be able to do the rest of the series. The American end wanted us to guarantee 39 half hour eps in 39 weeks, but we weren't sure of our capacity to do it that fast, because we shot the half-hour pilot over about 10 shooting days. We knew it was too slow, but that was because it was a pilot. Anyhow, it was released as a supporting movie in the cinemas with the title I Found Joe Barton. So Grace, I reckon, was the proper pioneer of television.

The other real pioneers were Colin Scrimgeor and Cecil Holmes, they got together to make a film called Captain Thunderbolt which Grant Taylor and I did in 1951, just after we finished Kangaroo. That was a year before Grace did it, and technically they claimed they were making a television film, but it was good enough to release as a feature film in the cinemas. So that, I suppose, was the first proper attempt at television, although it got sidetracked into the cinema.

Was there anticipation that with television coming there would be large amounts of Australian production?

No, there was a huge move to stop us doing it. In fact a couple of days before I left I bumped into a journalist from one of the big papers in Sydney, and he said 'I hear you're going overseas, can you give me a story?' I told him I was doing a last job for Harry Dearth, would you believe with the title 'Exit The Hero'! (Harry had given me my first big break when I got out of the Air Force a few years before, when he gave me the lead in 'Great Expectations'). The journalist wrote everything down, and I went overseas and a few days later in London there was a letter waiting for us. It was from the journalist, who said he put the paragraph in but it was sub-edited out, and they were given instructions not to give any Australian actors any publicity until further notice.

I heard Bruce Gyngell talking about this not long ago - I think there was a general attempt to try and play down publicity in Australia because, as the way Bruce put it, if you get too famous you ask for too much money. I think that's why our industry in that period was very under-reported. There was a bit of publicity, if you were starring in something you got about a paragraph, whereas if Joe Blow in Hollywood got a headache there would be a full column. I think that's one of the basic truths of showbiz - the powers-that-be are not too happy when people get terribly famous, because it may not affect the ratings all that much, it may not sell too many tickets in the theatre, and it may not sell too many tickets at the cinema, and if the product is any good people will go anyway by word of mouth. So if you start getting too many headlines their agents get a bit ambitious and ask for more money. But according to this journalist, and he's a very respected journalist, they were certainly under instructions not to give us too much publicity. So there was a general feeling then of course that we weren't good enough to do it anyway.

A very experienced director had been over in France watching them about to shoot this big scene, and he said they did this scene absolutely superbly on take one and printed it, and he said that this is the skill we've got to have in Australia. I looked at him aghast because he left out the rehearsal process - they probably rehearsed all day yesterday to do that run in three minutes. When he said we have to get skills like that the implication was you walk off the street, make-up on the set, action, and do it. So those who thought we couldn't do it may have been correct from that point of view.

Was there any resistance from the networks because it was cheaper to buy overseas programmes?

I would say that would have to come into their thinking - a lot of people don't remember the only reason we had a radio production industry was because of World War Two. In those days all the overseas recordings of dramas and serials came out on 16 inch discs, and a stack of those discs would take up a heck of a lot of space which could be used for wartime supplies, so the government brought in a rule that you couldn't import anything that was not war essential stuff. The moment they brought that rule in the next day we had a radio industry - and nobody ever talks about it! Had we had high speed tape, or even wire, we may have been able to tuck it in down beside the guns and bombs and whatever. But because one series of so many episodes would take up a large amount of space and be very heavy, World War Two actually caused the start of our radio industry.

There were the pioneers of course, but it was very hard work and they were competing with stuff which had already been paid for 50 times over in America, just like our television guys were competing. Crawfords were competing with stuff that has been paid for and in profit months or years before. I thought we should have brought in some regulation to protect the industry, or make sure the imported stuff pays some sort of duty that brings it up. But now we're going against that into open markets and whatever, so how are we going to compete?

The British were tough - I found when I got over there they had an 87% local content regulation - so for every form of television, 87% of it had to be made in the country. I don't know if it is still that high, they may have varied the figure, but when you think of how popular Neighbours and things like that are, it means we are beating the Americans.

When Homicide was cancelled in the mid 70's there were a lot of theories then that it was almost a second attempt to wipe out Australian production.

They did it very successfully too. They did it the simplest way possible - they put us all on in competition with each other, so you divide the ratings by three - one week you are all rating 30 on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the next week you are all on Monday each rating 10.

I got involved with the 'TV Make It Australian Campaign', and Edward Woodward was in town doing a stage play, and he heard about this difficulty we were having, and he and I went on channel 7 one night when Brian Naylor was there, and Brian chaired a discussion between Teddy and I and a representative of the television stations. I did a hell of a lot of research on the number of hours and things, and at that time FACTS (Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations) were putting big ads in the paper saying 'Do you agree that you should be forced to watch programmes like this?' and there would be a still of us from Homicide, 'and be prevented from watching the most glamorous American shows?', and I said 'phoney, phoney' because that's only 48 minutes of our show. When we went on air he stopped and said 'You guys have really done your homework', and after that we'd sort of won the battle - it wasn't just that, but by then it was starting to make sense. They're tough guys, and if I were in their position I would probably try to be just as tough.

There's one big, big element that Chips Rafferty and his partner discovered many, many years ago and tried to use in Canberra as a very strong argument for a supported local film production, long before television. They discovered that in a traditional British market area, say Malaysia or somewhere in South East Asia, the British share of the markets, be it cars, shoes or whatever, their curve was starting to decline, and the American curve was going up, and they couldn't work out why. Then somebody thought to look at the proportion of movies in the cinema, and they found the two curves were exactly the same - the British curve was going down and the American curve was going up. But it wasn't firm enough, you couldn't swear it was exactly the cause, but there was a very strong link. They took it to Canberra and the politicians were interested, but it wasn't enough evidence. Similarly, you can't tell how much stuff we are selling in England or wherever Neighbours is showing just because Neighbours is there.

You can obviously see the effect of American influence on our culture, with kids swapping baseball cards, etc.

Yes, it's a little bit scary, I think it's inevitable, and I think it's worldwide. We used to worry about it years ago, and I think the Americans themselves are conscious of it. I found working over there that they are very aware of it, they don't particularly want to swamp other people's cultures, but it's inevitable if your films are popular. As a rough old Aussie I'd love to see our language preserved, I think that's one of the great things about watching The Sullivans, there is some good rich Aussie language there.

When you were a director on The Sullivans, did you see much future for the serial after the war ended?

There was a lot of really classy adventure stuff involved with the Snowy scheme which we could have used in The Sullivans in an ongoing way, and gone all over the place with it. It could still be running - we were getting up some very high ratings when it closed, but whether people were switching on because they heard it was ending is hard to tell, but I reckon that it was getting stronger as a show, there were certainly some very good things happening with it.

Perhaps one of the problems was the Sullivan family disappearing from the show - John had left, Grace had left, and Dave was about to leave.

It's always a danger when you name a show after a character or a group of characters. I've had a theory about television drama in particular, and I think it was also true of radio, that in anything ongoing, the less you involve your leading characters in drama of their own, the more powerful the show is. If you think of the format of a show like Homicide, very seldom do the leading coppers have problems, but they are often involved in other people's problems.

I noticed this with the medical series Emergency Ward Ten I did in England - when it was at it's best we seldom had any problems or dramas ourselves, but we could have intense, vigorous, sometimes almost violent arguments about whether to treat a patient this way or that way. In fact a classic example of that was when they came up with two bits of advice about a particular medical condition they wanted to look at. The show was brilliantly researched with the very best medical advice from various hospitals, universities and colleges, and one group of medical people said it would be fatal to operate first without doing several months of very careful, conservative treatment, and the other group said exactly the opposite - so they wrote it in.

I was playing an Aussie surgeon, so they had me as the surgeon recommend the conservative treatment and no operation for six months, and the physician played by Jane recommend the opposite - immediate surgery. We had some fantastic scenes, and Jane, who played the female doctor in the series, and I just happened to work very, very well together - so much so that they actually married us off in the show!

But this is only my theory, and Homicide and shows like that fit my theory perfectly, and I think if I were asked to put on a serial for television I would keep the regular cast down to manageable proportions, not too many, and then have the writers write really interesting characters for the family up the street or whatever, and the central cast be obviously involved just as anybody is in the community. The theory stands up - you would write really excellent acting scenes for the regular actors whenever they are involved with other people, etc, and you would then write excellent roles for other actors who come in and out, exactly as they did in Homicide. Then you are not having ten regular characters all with horrendous problems, and you won't lose your credibility with the audience.

Occasionally you would involve your regulars personally. I had a lovely episode once in Homicide where something horrendous had happened to a girl. They cast a very good little actress as my daughter, she didn't have much to do in the episode, but it was mainly when Inspector Lawson got home from work terribly concerned because his daughter hadn't come home yet. She had gone off to a dance or something and everything was alright in the end, but suddenly he had a possible copy of what had gone on at work. It was good, strong stuff.

When Homicide was cancelled, production began to shift from a once-weekly self-contained episode to two episodes a week of soaps churned out.

We were guilty on Homicide of setting that up, although we didn't know at the time. When Ryan was cancelled, which was also an all-film series, they put it to us on Homicide that if we agreed to try to do two episodes a week, in a six day shoot using the second crew, with the various guest actors filming two different episodes, with two different directors and two different crews, that would save them having to retrench the Ryan crew. They were an excellent crew on Ryan, no better or worse than on Homicide, they were two classy crews.

All the Ryan scripts were on green paper, and Homicide was on yellow paper, so they put the second Homicide on green paper. So we had Homicide 'green' and Homicide 'yellow', and sometimes we actually ran from set to set to do it. We did some of the best episodes we ever did in that time, but it was a blur, because we were doing a six day shoot and two eps. But it did prove that you could do two 48 minute eps in six days, and it was about then that they decided they could probably do a show like The Sullivans.

The fast production meant horrendous schedules, and I remember when I was directing I had the record at one stage of going till two in the morning to get an episode finished, and somebody else beat me and went to four in the morning. On the first eps of Skyways which I was acting in, I can remember I was having to go out to Grundy's to supervise some direction at 7 in the morning, and Tony Bonner told me to go and sleep in the corner, and it was about 4 am when we finished that. So they were really horrendous schedules to get it off the ground, but once you got it going it was possible. I don't think anybody could argue that The Sullivans quality suffered.

I remember directing a Cop Shop and Peter Adams was just about out on his feet. He'd been in every shot since 7 o'clock in the morning, and it was now a scheduled late finish, maybe 8 o'clock at night. He was in every scene, and they were long scenes, and somehow he got through. The actors have done wonderful work to get these tough schedules going, but we understood at the time it was terribly important, it was the only way we could compete.

That would be one of the reasons why shows like Cop Shop and Skyways had a large cast.

Yes, that's true, to share the load. But, assuming the economics demand that you must have a Neighbours schedule to get by on video tape, I'd still like to try this thing with a smaller group of regulars, with cleverly written, better guest roles, and still work that same speed. That's exactly what we did on the Homicide 'green and yellow' period, we didn't change, there were only the four regulars, but instead of having eight guests you might have sixteen guests, and to me that's better for the industry too.

Did you notice a big change in the local industry when you came back from England in 1972?

Oh, astonishing. I saw some really marvellous work. We were already watching 8 Aussie television series in England regularly anyway in 1970-1972, and that included Seaspray and Skippy and Spyforce, and that was inside that very strict local content requirement. The Aussies in London were saying 'Oh no, I don't watch it, I'm embarrassed by it', but the English were watching them, and they were alright, there was some good stuff there.

But when I got back I saw what they were really doing behind the scenes. We hadn't seen Divvy 4 or Matlock over there, Homicide was on in Scotland so we may have seen one or two eps of that, so I suddenly started seeing those shows. I remember seeing Ron Roberts give one of the best performances I'd ever seen on television in a black and white Homicide. It was astonishing, and all my mates were then accusing me of saying all the right things because I'd come back from overseas, but no, I wasn't.

Hector had written to me just before I'd left London, saying 'Michael Pate and his wife tell me you're visiting, would you like to come and do some work for us if you can', so I came down to play a guest spot in Division 4. The first director I had on the location work for Divvy 4 was George Miller, and the first scene was on top of the Big Dipper at Luna Park, which is the most horrifying thing I've ever been asked to do. I got up there, and David Cameron and Gerard Kennedy and the whole crew were on top of the Big Dipper, and I had to climb up there after the bad guy. But when we started to do the rest of the stuff I could see that George really knew what he was doing.

In those days Divvy 4 had a different director for the tape stuff back in the studio, which on this occasion was Ian Bennett, a marvellous director. It was then I discovered we could stop and start the tape, and they could do that bit and this bit and then glue it together later on. We weren't allowed to do that in England, we knew you could, but we weren't allowed.

When we first used tape in England we had to treat it as live, and if a set fell over it went to air like that. The first time we used tape on the medical show there was a lovely old character actor, John Gardiner, who had been in the show a long time before, had been ill, came back, and was playing a nice old country doctor. I was being his locum, and we had a lovely scene after the commercial break (in those days we used to have the commercial break in the middle), and he dried when we were actually doing it. He had an awful look on his face, and I ad-libbed and did the usual actor thing and helped him round it, and he looked at me as if I was mad, and then he realised and picked it up. But then he dried again, and we stumbled our way through the scene. At the end of the show he came up to me and said 'Why didn't you stop?, and I said 'We're not allowed. It's going to air like that'. And he thought 'Oh no, my career!' John thought it was on the old tele-recording onto film from electronic camera, which you could stop and put the scissors through, but nobody told him it was this new thing called video tape, and the director, who was very sympathetic, actually rang Lew Grade at home to get permission for us to do that half of the show again for the sake of this man's career.

When I got to Australia if anything like that happened it was 'Oh, sorry, re-cue, start again,' and I was astonished. We were working here in a more flexible way, and I thought it was fantastic, it was better than film because you've got instant control.

I was told, I must admit, by Len Teale and Alwyn Kurts at a telethon, that I was lucky to have been working with great directors, because ours were very inexperienced. But I think then that perhaps Len and Alwyn had an inflated idea of the quality of things overseas, and that's a very typical Australian thing. We always think they're better in Hollywood or London.

A lot of that thinking comes from the fact they have bigger budgets.

I'm a bit cynical about budgets. With a producer's hat on I've had to work with limited budgets, and as long as you know what you are doing you get by. OK, you might not be able to hire that actor because he wants $1000 a week, so you can only hire the other actor who wants $500, so, fine, he's nearly as good as him anyway.

I was asked to direct a movie by a very eminent writer, and the budget was $400,000. The writer met a producer who had access to more money, and thought we could get $800,000. And he said 'Of course, your fee doubles', and I worked it out - a lot of fees are worked on the basis that the director gets 3% of the budget - so if he had said 8 million I would have been even happier! I remember hanging up the phone and saying to my wife 'I now have a vested interest in higher budgets'. But I've done films on a modest budget and I don't think we could have made the film much better if we had a bigger budget, and I get funny feelings when I hear about a $10 million movie - I think someone is going to get a whopping great fee!

Australian programmes like Homicide and Division 4 were made for about a tenth of the cost of an overseas series, and yet out-rated all of them.

Sure. It's almost a cop-out thing. Some modest budget films achieve great results by being very clever - they don't think let's do it on the cheap and get somebody to do this for nothing, or hide a camera at a railway station to get a crowd scene, it's just very cleverly worked out. I think a lot of the really thoughtful film makers did that in the past - there's not an awful lot of money up on the screen, but there's certainly some wonderful stuff, and that's become a bit of a symbol to me.

When you were in England you did some work for Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.

Yes. They worked slower than here, they would probably get three minutes done where we would do six. I was part of the Thunderbirds voice team, and we did a dirty big cinemascope version of it, then we did another show called Captain Scarlet, but that one wasn't all that successful. Everyone was saying to the Andersons 'When are you going to use people?', so they said 'All right, we'll use people', and did UFO, which I had a guest role in one episode.

What were the circumstances surrounding the Homicide scenes filmed in England?

It happened when I joined Homicide. We had to go back to England to organise our affairs, because I hadn't planned on staying. Crawfords said while I was back there they'd send over some scripts, and they might do some scenes of me being asked to take over on Homicide. So there were a couple of nice scenes outside Scotland Yard, and they had Aussie director Ian Bennett over there, and he was able to direct them. Those scenes were done in December and it probably would have been the middle of January before we did the rest of the episode. ('The Kooranda Killing', ep. 384)

So the London scenes happened almost by accident as you were going to be there anyway, and they adjusted the script to include your trip?

Very much so. Or the London trip gave them the idea for the show. There was another time we had to go back to London at the end of 1974, and there was yet another year of Homicide to come, which we didn't know was going to be the final year. Again they said there may be a story if they come up with a script, and a couple of scenes in London might be a good idea.

Actor-writer John Drew was in London, I think he was visiting his family, and he played another English copper over there, who liaised with Inspector Lawson. But they were making it up as they went along, and I remember Igor Auzins, who was also producing at the time, he kept ringing us in London and saying 'we think it's going to be about this'. Gary Conway was also in London, so Gary directed some scenes between John and I, in which we had to go to a canal somewhere and find a body in a barge, and when we got back they expanded that idea and it became the telemovie 'Stopover'.

There are many differing opinions about 'Stopover', particularly regarding the camera work and editing.

That would have been Igor, he was a good cameraman of course too. The other interesting thing is that they built a set for The Box movie, and instead of pulling it down they redressed it and used it as the set for the airport scenes.

'Stopover' had a totally different look, and we knew it was going to shock people. Originally it was going to be one episode of 48 minutes, but they kept extending it, adding a bit, adding a bit, and so they had enough for a telemovie length. Then some people thought it wasn't going to hold up, so they were going to cut it back to the standard Homicide length. And then they added a few shots, including a sunrise scene they shot at sunset and reversed the film, so I think it expanded and shrank and expanded again.

I thought it was a great experiment, some of the fantasy and drug stuff may not have been done all that well, but I thought what Jon English did was very interesting. It was a very good ep to work on because it was experimental, and they sort of made it up as they went along.

Which is your favourite Homicide episode?

They played my favourite recently, 'The Friendly Fellow', which Fred 'Cul' Cullen wrote, and it was my second or third Homicide ep. It was originally planned for John Meillon to play the part of Buddy Rand, and when he wasn't available Cul played it himself. We saw it about a week or so after we finished and I was staggered - it really was very, very classy.

Cul Cullen said at the time he wanted to write a Homicide episode without a car chase. Later eps often did not have car chases, in fact some later eps of Matlock didn't even have a crime, with the police just being involved in community affairs.

That's interesting, isn't it? I can remember when Cul got a Logie for it, and he made a crack about it to Hector, which may have been a bit unfair, saying 'No car chases Hector!' I think it may have unfairly blamed Hector for car chases.

Was it the offer to do Homicide that made you decide to stay in Australia?

Oh yes. I'd finished a play 'There's A Girl In My Soup' and my agent wanted me to stay in London. It was just that Alwyn Kurts resigned at that particular time.

So if he hadn't resigned...

I would have gone straight back. There were quite a few opportunities opening up and it would have been a very interesting time to stay. But I was just so excited to see an industry starting here where there hadn't really been one when we went overseas. There was a much more positive attitude around. Australia was a very exciting place around the end of 1972, just as it was a very interesting time to be in England in the early 1960's.

How long would you have stayed in Homicide if it had kept going?

Till now. My mates were leaving the medical series Emergency Ward 10, and the only reason I left was because I had a definite offer to come home to the theatre in Australia for six years. I could have done Emergency for another ten years, but I had this offer from J.C. Williamson, and after I resigned from the show and they adjusted the storylines, Williamson lost the rights to the play. I wouldn't have made the break otherwise.

If Homicide had gone on for as long as you like I would have stuck with it. I loved the way the whole thing was being shot, and I might have talked Hector into letting me direct one or two. One thing I did say to Hector when I agreed to do Homicide was 'If it does fall apart, is there any chance of doing some directing or producing?' He said 'I'll keep you up to it'. So eventually when Homicide ended, and Matlock, and Division 4, there was a lot of gloom of course, and I remember saying to Hector 'I suppose this is probably the world's worst time to remind you of our conversation', but about six weeks later he got me to direct The Box. He stuck to his word.