CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

INTERVIEW:
GARY GRAY

 


Copyright 2005 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


HOME

 

INTERVIEWS

 

CHRONOLOGICAL
OVERVIEW

 

F.A.Q.

 

LINKS


This interview originally appeared in TV EYE No. 15, January 1999.


GARY GRAY (not to be confused with Gary DAY of Homicide and Murder Call) is one of only a few child actors who successfully continued into an adult career. Starting out as one of the cast members of The Terrible Ten, Gary later became well-known for his roles in Adventures of The Seaspray and Bellbird.

You started out working for Roger Mirams, who is still going strong.

About a month ago I went to Sydney for Roger Miram's 80th birthday, who was the producer of so much early television in Australia. He's quite an extraordinary character actually, and an amazing thing is he's still going. I asked him what he is doing now, and he said "I'm still doing a bit of work for Grundy's, but I'm also working on a couple of new projects". And he's 80 years of age! He'd just come back from selling one of these concepts to German and French television and he'd only been back a few days.

How did you get involved in acting?

It goes back a long time for me, to when I was about 7 years of age, around 1957 probably. My mum sent me along to Crawfords where they were running an 'introduction to television' school, to train people in the art of television technique. I remember it cost one guinea a lesson, which was a lot of money in those days, and it was held on Saturday mornings in a West Melbourne church hall. As a result of that I got sent along to an audition, which was in the old boiler room at the old factory out the back at Channel Nine. There was Roger Mirams, Chris Stewart and Jim Davies, who were all expatriate New Zealanders, and they had a company called Pacific Films.

Roger's story, as you probably know, is that he had been a war correspondent, and later he came to Melbourne for the 1956 Olympics. He actually had picked up the film rights for the Olympics - nobody else wanted them - and he became the official film cameraman, and he was responsible for so much of the footage from that event. I think it was the beginning of film rights being considered an issue for special events, and as a result a lot of other cameramen were barred from filming.

Anyway, he obviously liked Melbourne and stayed here. He had this association with Chris Stewart, who ended up being the CEO of the Bank Of Melbourne, and a sound recordist from New Zealand called Jim Davies. They had a small film company at the back of Channel Nine, and they were about to embark on production of a children's series. They had already done a pilot with a lot of their friends, and they were looking for a young voice who could 'talk proper', so I ended up auditioning for a narrator's part. I actually got the job as narrator of the first episode of the Terrible Ten, or The Terrific Adventures Of The Terrible Ten as it was known, and at the end of that they asked me, "What do you do on weekends? Would you like to come away when we shoot the next episode?" Of course I said, "That'd be great!" I got 5 pounds for doing the narration, which was quite good money, and I got 2 pounds a day for going away Saturday and Sunday to be in these programmes. It was somewhat less, but that was immaterial really, it was so much fun.

Was that in Macedon?

Yes, although the first episode we shot in Templestowe, but then very quickly we moved to Macedon. Roger was doing a few TV commercials at that time to keep the pot boiling to finance these other projects. So every Friday night I'd get picked up at Toorak Station in a grey Holden station wagon to go to Macedon. We stayed in the old Austrian embassy up there, which had a vacant lot behind it, and they turned the old hall into a miniature studio.

We had a crew of two: Roger, who was the director and cameraman, and a sound recordist. Then they added Bruce McNaughton as an assistant cameraman to Roger, and so the crew exploded out to three, with Bruce as the first crew employee. Bruce later went on to become a well-known cinematographer with his own company. Roger used to write a lot of the scripts on the back of an envelope, literally, and he would change it all the time during filming. He would see something interesting and decide to write it in.

Apparently that used to happen as late as Spyforce!

Ha ha! I'm sure that's true! He always had an eye for what was 'commercial', so he'd change things if he saw something that he thought people overseas would like - scenery, or animals or whatever. So we went along doing that for around about 6 or 7 years.

Were they ten minute episodes?

They were initially 15 minute episodes, probably only 10 in actual length, but they fitted a 15 minute commercial timeslot, sponsored by the Bank Of New South Wales on Channel Nine. I can remember doing promos sitting in deck chairs with our names on the back, like they do in the movies from the U.S.A. So our life was very much intertwined with Channel Nine in those days, and even later when they built a studio out the back. I think they called it Studio Nine and it was quite a substantial studio, like a production studio with an edit suite and all that sort of stuff. I can't remember what they actually built it for, but not long after Pacific Films took it over and that became our home for some years. Our interior scenes were done there and our location scenes were still done at Macedon.

Sometime in that period we moved in Macedon from the old Austrian Embassy to a guest house, and eventually we moved to Woodend. At this stage the company was becoming more prolific, this would be about 1963, and a series was out called The Ten Again. They were churning those out for the ABC and they had international sales, they'd sold stuff to 50 or 80 countries, I can't remember the exact number, but it was an enormous amount of countries.

The Ten Again was a half-hour series?

Yes. The Terrible Ten developed into the half-hour The Ten Again. I think we did 50-odd episodes of The Terrible Ten, I'm not sure. We did a season number, 26 or 39 or 52 quarter-hours, as seasons were in blocks of 13 in those days. It was certainly more than 26 for Channel Nine, then we moved to the ABC.

Did you move to studios at the ABC?

No, we stayed at the Channel Nine studio and just sold the programme to the ABC.

So it was The Terrible Ten at Nine and The Ten Again at the ABC.

That was the name change. It moved from The Terrific Adventures Of The Terrible Ten to The Ten Again at the ABC. By now Roger had established his stock-in-trade and he was a great marketer of stuff overseas, especially to Europe where kids are cooped up in apartments. He capitalised on the Australiana dream of kids riding horses and the 'Our Gang' concept, and eventually he sold to Japan which was a big coup.

The Magic Boomerang would have been the next major production.

Yes. About this time is when we moved from Macedon, where we were based on the Mount, to Woodend. Which we eventually termed 'Holly-Woodend' because by this stage The Magic Boomerang was coming on, they had 39 eps to do of that, which was also an ABC sale. We had two units working, and we took over the Mechanics Institute at Woodend and used it as a studio. By then they were out of Channel Nine and had moved to an office in Moray Street South Melbourne, a small building with an edit suite and a sound mixing set-up. All the filming was done at Woodend with the Mechanics Institute as a studio, where they built some sets and employed carpenters and set-builders. The whole thing was starting to take shape as a real operation. There were often two units working and there were now about 12 to 14 people in the crew. Then we took over the cinema across the road which had closed, so we had two studios, one each side of the highway, and we moved into shooting The Magic Boomerang.

By this time we had established a company of 'senior' kids, of which I was one, and David Morgan was another, plus Roger's daughter Joanne, Rodney Pearlman, Gavin Ellis - a range of kids who had been around for a while. We used to float other kids in underneath and we also used a lot of local kids. Then David got the lead in The Magic Boomerang and I played his mate in some episodes, and when I wasn't working on a Ten Again episode I used to be Assistant Director on The Magic Boomerang, and so I got a lot of behind the scenes experience as well.

Your next series was Adventures Of The Seaspray?

Yes. When The Magic Boomerang started to wind down they developed an association with Screen Gems in the United States. Screen Gems had a programme developer called Dan Enwright - he was involved in that $64,000 Question quiz show scam - and he was keen for Pacific Films to do a joint venture. So they decided to make a pilot for Adventures Of The Seaspray, and off we went to Fiji. We previously had a trip to New Zealand and I think to Fiji with The Terrible Ten, as Roger loved the romance of all these exotic locations. So we went off with one of our resident directors at the time, an Irishman purporting to be an American called Joe McCormick. We found out later he wasn't American at all, he was Irish, but he was a hell of a nice guy and a bloody good actor. Joe had been a radio actor in Australia for a long time, and had also directed a lot of stuff, and he came along and played the lead in Seaspray as the father. He also directed the episode and I played the son.

The pilot was shot in black and white and they eventually sold the concept, and then they had to decide who was going to be in the show. David Morgan and I auditioned, and I got the part. Jacki Weaver and Susan Haworth auditioned for the girls role, Sue got the part and Rodney Pearlman got the part of the younger son. So there was me as the elder son Mike, Sue as the daughter Sue and Rodney's part of Noah. They searched around England for an appropriate father role and found this ex-New Zealand actor called Walter Brown. They cast him in it and said "Off you go, do 39 eps", and we lived in Fiji for eight months.

It was actually based in Fiji, not Australia?

Yes, it was based in Fiji. We lived there for 8 months on two ships. We had the schooner 'Seaspray' plus a 112 foot cruiser, which was an old war-time patrol boat. It had been turned into a tourist boat and we lived on that, we filmed on the 'Seaspray' and we travelled the islands for eight months.

We also spent ten weeks in New Zealand. We were flown up onto Mt Cook on the glacier to shoot some stuff and it was amazing. 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. There were 16 of us, and the director, Eddie Davis, was about 73 years of age; certainly in his early 70's. He was reasonably fit, but old. They had brought him out from the U.S., where he had worked on Cisco Kid, Bat Masterson, Tombstone Territory, all that sort of stuff. So all 16 of us had to get 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 8 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. It was quite exciting.

When we started the Seaspray series back in Fiji we had David Baker and Joe McCormick directing. We were on the first episode, the first production with Screen Gems, and it was scheduled to be turned around in six days. After three weeks we hadn't shot the first episode! We had some problems with rain, but Joe was disorganised - he had a lot of personal problems at the time and the whole thing was a debacle. Then they flew David Baker in. He'd done a lot of work for Roger, he was quite a crazy character, and he got things rolling again, but the Yanks just couldn't handle him at all. So by episode 3 we had an American director come out, Eddie Davis, and he was a consummate professional, with a long history in film-making. So with all his experience he came along and totally reorganised everything and we shot the first of his episodes in 4 days. He knew all the short cuts, 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. So he got the whole thing rolling and then we were on a very slick production schedule. We went from Fiji to New Zealand, from New Zealand to New Guinea, then we came to Australia, all up it was about 14-16 months filming.

Were any episodes filmed in Melbourne or Sydney?

Yes, we certainly filmed one in Melbourne - Keith Eden was the guest star. Most were done in Fiji. The ship, 'Seaspray', was based in Nelson in New Zealand, and that's where we started. We took it to Fiji, back to New Zealand, then to Melbourne, and from there to New Guinea, then back to Northern Australia.

That was it, apart from some pilots. We did Birds Of Paradise College, a pilot for Screen Gems at about the Seaspray time. Fred Betts was the headmaster, and Kay Eklund was one of the teachers. Liza Goddard was in it and a whole lot of gorgeous girls, and I was just at the age when I found gorgeous girls very interesting - although they were just a little bit older than me and out of reach. We did another pilot for Screen Gems called Wildes Of The Outback, Owen Weingott played the father and I played the second eldest son, and Gary Day played the eldest son and I think Sue Haworth played the daughter. It was shot in Sydney and in Alice Springs, and we hired a DC-3 to fly to Alice. They cast John Meillon in the lead guest role and we shot that at the old Artransa site in Sydney. However, John was having some personal problems at the time and he was replaced by Wyn Roberts. Both those pilots never saw the light of day.

Was there a reason Joe McCormick didn't continue in the series of Seaspray?

The Yanks didn't want him - he was overweight and a bit too old. Joe had actually played Superman for a while on the radio - he was a very successful radio actor.

They wanted someone who would better fit the 'hero' stereotype?

Yes, the classic sort of agile, tanned, good-looking figure, and a bit younger - which Walter was.

You obviously had guest roles in the ubiquitous Crawford shows, plus a regular part in Bellbird.

Oh yes. When I came back from Fiji, what could I do? I'd been an actor all my life, I was now 16 years of age, so I then started working in theatre for a year or so, and of course did all the regular guest appearances in Homicide and all that sort of stuff. Then I was asked by the ABC to audition for a part in Bellbird as John Quinn's son, which Jonathon Sweet eventually played. So I missed out on the role, but they said they've got another part coming up in about eight weeks, and I didn't audition for that, they just cast me. I was in Bellbird for about nine years on and off. During that period we produced a feature film of Bellbird, Terry McDermott, Fenton Rosewarne and myself, called Country Town. I wasn't in Bellbird every week - they way they constructed it they had 15 actors, and they'd write the scripts and budget it so you'd actually work 4 weeks in six or 5 weeks in 8 or something like that, it was that sort of ratio. So you had to pick up other work, and I was lucky. Eddie Davis put me in Colour Me Dead with Tom Tryon, plus I did the whole gamut of Crawford stuff, Division 4, Hunter right through to The Last Of The Australians and Young Ramsay. About 18 years ago I started to develop some business interests, and my present business is going along quite nicely, but I've also kept in touch with the industry by doing voice-overs.

Why was the film called Country Town rather than Bellbird?

Because the ABC wouldn't let us use the name Bellbird. In fact, the ABC were going to take out an injunction against us, but it turned out that they didn't own the characters. They owned the name Bellbird, but they didn't own the characters. The creator of Bellbird, Barbara Vernon, wrote the script, and that's how we were able to go ahead - as long as Barbara Vernon wrote the script we were safe. But we couldn't call it Bellbird, so it became Country Town.

Would you ever go back into acting?

Yes I would, one of my ambitions is to indulge myself in it sometime in the future. The great thing for an actor to have is financial independence - it means the difference of going for a part that you have to get, or going for a part that would be nice if you got it. As a working actor I was lucky - I worked all my life from when I was 7 until I was 30, but the reality for most actors these days is that in between jobs they have to do other things, like wear panda bear suits and parade around shopping centres to earn a crust. And I didn't want to be in that situation with a wife and family. But I'd like to do some acting again because I enjoy it - I was brought up from age 7 to 17 and beyond making films, so it's a big part of my life.