CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

INTERVIEW:
TERRY DONOVAN

 


Copyright 2005 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


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This interview originally appeared in TV EYE No. 10, December 1996.

Terry Donovan has appeared in a number of Australian films and television dramas, and is probably best remembered for his role as Det. Mick Peters in Division 4. Recently we talked with Terry about his career, as well as the politics of Australian television:

Was your first acting role in Consider Your Verdict?

For television, yes. There were a few things that I did before that, including some guest appearances as a singer on Channel 7.

You were a singer?

Yes, I started off as a singer, and as I went on I thought that maybe as an actor I would have more longevity, but I still kept the singing up. To sustain a career in television for your whole life is not impossible, but it's virtually impossible, from the point of view that you find your way through a maze of television stations but you have to be very lucky to consistently work all the time in television. So the only way I thought that it would work for me was if I could cover all things and work in the theatre, television and film. And that was a Godsend, because when television work wasn't available, or if I wasn't chosen, I could do a bit of theatre work in musicals and things. But getting back to television, my first role was Consider Your Verdict which was in 1961, though I actually started professionally in the business in 1960. Consider Your Verdict was a one hour show with only three hours of studio time, so if you stuffed up you were in real trouble, and you had to get out of it as best you could. I was playing a member of the bar, a young Defending Counsel, and if the witnesses said the wrong thing you had to get them back on track. Which was legally wrong, because you were leading the witness, but time was costing an enormous amount of money for Crawfords, so they only had three hours and you had to do it in that time.

A lot of the witnesses' dialogue was adlibbed.

They weren't always adlibbed, but they did allow that to happen because people didn't always stick to the script. But you had to stick to the proper format and what the story was all about - for instance, you had to make sure the right person was killed, and you had to make sure you had the right day and the right time, you had to get all those details right. There were some really wonderful professional actors on Consider Your Verdict, like Keith Eden, Wyn Roberts and George Fairfax. They were a few of the people I worked with and I learned a lot from them, they were very helpful to me. At the time I was also working with The Emerald Hill Theatre, a theatre company in South Melbourne which no longer exists, and I was cutting my teeth doing some really substantial parts and learning to be an actor.

I also did a show in 1962 or '63, I think it was called The Magic Boomerang. That show was so cheap, there was no wardrobe, no make-up, no transport - you made your way to location as best you could and you took your cut lunch. We shot it at Mt. Macedon, and it was so bloody cold and there were no facilities, and I thought if this was the introduction of doing film I didn't want to know about it! I was playing a baddie, and another actor, Carl Bleazby, came with his coat on and, because there was no wardrobe, they thought I should wear his coat - poor Carl nearly froze to death! But it was an interesting time, and we all tried to do what we could for any producer that was game enough to give it a go.

They were very much the pioneering days.

Yes, and of course in doing all that Crawfords were my mentors. They were wonderful people, real pioneers, they put their money and their whole livelihood on the line to employ actors and get the whole industry moving along.

If it wasn't for Crawfords the industry wouldn't exist as we know it.

That's right. In 1956 when television first started the commercial managements promised great things, they promised to do everything and they didn't do a bloody thing. The more they could buy cheaply from overseas they tried to justify by the fact of the cost, and they got away with it. People like Robert Menzies, the then Prime Minister of Australia, sided with Frank Packer and allowed him to do what he wanted to do - hence we didn't have a television and film industry because of it. Politically, Menzies used the influence of television, radio and newspapers to keep himself in power, and that was pretty obvious. But in doing what little we did in 1963 I, like many others, decided to make the pilgrimage to London to see what we could pick up there and see what we could learn there. I, like thousands of others in the arts, whether they be actors, singers, dancers or writers, got out of this country because of the terrible situation the people in the media had created - they just wanted to buy from the United States and nowhere else, it was a very sad situation. So I spent a long time away, about four and a half years. I came back in 1968 and renewed my friendships with Crawfords, and as they were doing other shows I was put under contract.

At that stage they were producing Hunter and Homicide.

Yes, Hunter and Homicide were both on, and Channel 9 wanted a police series - Hunter didn't seem to be going in the right direction, and they wanted a vehicle for Gerard Kennedy, who was quite taking the place by storm. In actual fact they built up the whole thing around him, and we came up with the television series Division 4 and I joined that. Before that, because I was under contract with them and I was being paid, Hector rang me and asked me if I would like to come in and work behind the scenes which was really interesting for me, doing post-synch work, timing scripts and working with different people. I enjoyed that, I enjoyed the involvement - Crawfords were a great team, they were trying anything and everything and it was a great time.

Being put on a contact with no specific role in mind was an unusual move.

I suppose it was a bit unusual - they were just holding me to place me in some show, and the placement happened to be Division 4. I don't know what they had in mind actually; all I knew was in the beginning they promised me certain things and we had a difference of opinion about that, but eventually that sorted out and I accompanied Gerard in Division 4 - I was his off-sider for six and a half years.

Being under contract, were you considered for Hunter as a replacement for Tony Ward, the role which Rod Mullinar ended up playing?

I possibly may have been, but no-one told me that I was. I had been in Hunter as a guest baddie, so it wasn't something I had thought about at that time. I suppose if they had thrown it my way I would certainly have done it, but it's always pretty hard emulating someone or taking over from someone - it doesn't always work and that show did go down after Tony left. But because I was contracted to Crawfords anything they were doing I guest spotted in - I did Hunter and Homicide as a baddie, and ultimately Division 4 started and they set up six people in that: Gerard, Ted Hamilton, myself, Chuck Faulkner, Patricia Smith and Frank Taylor. We were the six it was all based around, and it became very successful - it sort of challenged Homicide, which was pretty hard, because Homicide was an institutional thing, it was the start of it all.

Division 4 was the next most popular program after Homicide.

Yes, that's right and Channel 9 promoted it well. And, of course, coming through guest spotting in all those different shows were Helen Morse, Jack Thompson, in fact everybody who's anybody came through. It was nice to be in that and meet everyone, it was good fun, a great time, a great time.

In the early days there were no suits: Pat Forster was in charge of wardrobe, and the wardrobe situation was such that actors had their own. My suit was falling off me, and Pat said it had to go. So we went to see Hector, and he said "The suit looks fine to me". So I turned around and said 'Have a look at this", and I bent over and my arse fell out of my pants! Hector said "We'll have to do something about that, leave it to me, I'll organise something". Two weeks later he'd organised it - we all had new suits, and double suits, and I thought that he went to all this trouble just because I asked about my suit. So I went to see him and I was just about to talk to him when I noticed he had a new suit on too. And his accountant had a new suit on as well, so I backed out and he said "Do you want something?", and I said "No, it's alright Hector, thanks very much for everything" and walked away. He had made a deal with Peter Jackson's Menswear, and Hector, the accountant, lan Crawford, everyone had new suits on - and they were all the bloody same!

Was the character of Det Peters much of a challenge for you?

Well, it wasn't very much of a challenge but I was grateful for the work. After starting in musicals I thought I'd stretched myself enormously to get a sustaining part in a television series - coming from playing a juvenile delinquent in 'West Side Story', having a small part situation in 'Most Happy Fellow', and being a singer and doing 'Sound Of Music' and stage managing that area - so I thought I'd made a giant step forward. But it wasn't challenging from the point of view that although I occasionally got some things to do, I was always backing someone else up - Gerard was playing the main character.

The character of Det. Peters was more than a cardboard cut-out cop - you added a comedy touch.

Yes, I always said to put the comedy in - it was a lighter sort of character than Gerard's, who was sort of knitted brow.

You had a major involvement with the 'TV: Make It Australian Campaign'.

Crawfords was a hot bed of intrigue, not only on the screen in Division 4 or Homicide or any other programme they did, but also behind the scenes it was a hot bed of unbelievable proportions. Hector Crawford was lobbying with politicians to try to gain more Australian content - he didn't want to be seen to be doing that, so he allowed us to use his business to push for it. I was Equity rep - which is the most unenviable task for any actor, nobody wants to do it and we kicked up a big stink because we weren't getting residuals. We knew somewhere down the track they'd play all these programmes again and again and again, and we wouldn't get a sausage for them. I got the cast of Division 4 and Homicide and a few others together in an Equity meeting, and the whole question of residuals was put to one side - sensibly so from the point of view that we felt what we needed was more content. We needed to push politicians into forcing the channels to subscribe to more content, putting more money back in, because all the channels were making a bloody fortune but the bastards wouldn't do anything.

In 1956 under the terms of their licence they were supposed to use Australians in all aspects of production, and all aspects of television had to have an Australian input. Well that was 1956 - in 1962 and '63 there was a Select Committee and they came up with this document - the Vincent Report. It is the most wonderful document that I have ever read to encourage Australian content. It has the reasons why it should be done, the overseas research on it, why as a nation we should have our identity on the television screens, why we should have a film industry, why in many ways it hasn't existed and hasn't come to pass, and many suggestions on how it can be implemented. The Liberal Party shelved that document and it was has never seen the light of day again. I have a copy of it here - it has the recommendations, the quota system situation, it just goes on and on, everything is just absolutely superbly set out. And there is not one argument against Australian programming, not one argument saying it shouldn't happen, because a nation with a relatively small population needs to have identity. If it doesn't have identity it becomes a carbon copy of what the Americans are, and in many ways it's heading a bit in that direction at the present time.

But every commercial television station has fought like blazes to make sure a television industry will not exist. The Vincent Report was set-up to say it should exist, but the politicians stopped it - those bastards about whom Chips Rafferty used to say to me "They'll break your bloody heart Terry, they'll break your heart", because they will not do anything unless they are forced to do it.

We as actors in the entertainment industry were so discouraged that many of us went overseas, and we did not become a political force to reckon with. Now it's a different ball game, there's a pretty big force to reckon with, and also entertainment business is big business - huge business - and it's expanding.

Crawfords was a wonderful hot bed: we were working, it wasn't as if we were out of work knocking on the door saying "Why aren't you employing us?", that wasn't the case, we were working and agitating to get the politicians on side. And things have changed for the benefit - In the 70's the industry was in a better position, the industry started to get legs, things started to happen - the 'TV: Make it Australian Campaign'.

Any politician of any colour would say "Oh yes, this is wrong", but not many of the bastards would tum around and change it, because they wanted Packer, who owned the newspapers and television and radio stations to be on side with them, especially at election time. So when I look back on Crawfords it was just the most wonderful time, the most wonderful group of people.

In effect they set up an industry in spite of the TV stations.

They did. But they almost went to the wall a few times, so it was really difficult for them to keep going. And of course Hector Crawford was known as the 'Silver Fox' because he was rather light of feet and nimble of mind, and he allowed us to use his company to agitate for these things, which he was after too - which was great.

Do you agree with the conspiracy theory that the cancellation of the three police shows was an attempt to put Crawfords out of business?

Oh absolutely, absolutely. And if they could keep Crawfords down it would virtually white-ant the whole television drama industry on the commercial side. Crawfords had three shows on - Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock Police - and the stations put them all up against each other, to undermine Hector and to break him. They had enormous ads in the paper all over the country saying 'You're going to lose all these overseas programmes if we have to make more Australian content'. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to try and screw us, and to try and screw their own country.

One of the outcomes of that was the decline in quality from Homicide to soap operas.

That's right, and people had to adjust. It was unfortunate, nobody wanted it that way - we didn't want it to go backwards, we didn't want to produce five half-hours a week instead of producing one hour a week, but that was another way of the commercial television managements saying we couldn't do it. The commercial managements in actual fact tried on several occasions to do it themselves - they could never do it, never in a month of Sundays could they do it. They could handle variety, they could handle certain other things, but they could not handle doing drama, they just did not have the expertise to do it. They always had to go outside and find a private production company who were specialised in that area.

So those years at Crawfords were invaluable, not only for me but for actors generally, and generally for the public and generally for the country. Out of that lots of actors, directors and writers came and went, and some have gone on to have their own production companies and their own shows.

You stayed with Division 4, in fact everyone stayed with Division 4 for a long time.

We did. People were leaving every other show, but not Division 4 - we all stayed except Pat Smith and Ted Hamilton.

Any reason for that, or did it just happen?

I think it was because we got on very well as a team, but we also seemed to have ideas that there wasn't much else to do, there wasn't much work out there to sustain a life. And so we stayed, thinking that when it all changes we'II make the move, but after six years they made the move for us and cancelled the show.

In the penultimate episode Gerard Kennedy left and was replaced by John Stanton for only one appearance.

John is a very good actor, a very fine actor, I love his work. I think what happened is that Channel 9 virtually wanted Gerard, and if he was going to stay the show might stay, but Gerard wanted to move on. Crawfords made the casting decision to replace him with John, but the channel had the power to cancel the show and that's exactly what they did.

So Division 4 finished, and one had to virtually reinvent oneself and get back to the theatre, which is what I did. I went back to the Melbourne Theatre Company, but I also guest starred in other shows like The Last Of The Australians. Johnny Farnham was in that episode, and of course Alwyn Kurts, who never stopped lecturing me on how to do comedy, he was an absolute pain in the arse. I blame myself for that because he is a friend of mine, and we went off to Los Angeles for a Christmas holiday. When we were in Hollywood I went to Larry's Bookshop, which is a very large show-business bookshop, and I bought a book about comedy and comedians, and I thought Alwyn would really love this book. Well, he was thrilled with it, he read it from cover to cover, then he tended to lecture me about comedy - he was an absolute pain in the arse! So when I did The Last Of The Australians he would tell me "No, no, Terry, no, no - you don't do it like that, you do it like this" and I said "Why don't you buzz off and let me be the actor!" We had lots of laughs about it.

Then I did Tandarra, in which Gerard was the lead. I had to ride a horse, and I pulled the reins but nobody told me that if you pull the reins a certain way the horse drops to the ground - just like that. The horse hit the ground, I hit the ground, the horse jumped over the camera and bolted, it caused no end of problems and took half a day to get the horse back. Later I was talking to the horse trainer and he said that he was a wonderful horse but he had these funny quirky things that he did: when he opened the door of the float, the horse would run out backwards and knock him over every time. So he went down to St. Kilda pier, put the float on the pier and opened the thing, and the horse went straight into the water! He said he never did it again!

I had a part in Solo One, in which Paul Cronin was the lead, and we had to row down a flooded river. But there was a drought and there was no water, so they kept the camera low to make it look like a flowing river, and then when they said "Cut! - Lunch!" I stepped out in two inches of water!

You were considered for the lead role in Rush.

Yes, I was going to be in that; some circumstances prevented that happening, and I wish that I had been in it. John Waters got the part, and he was good, he was very good. He's gone on to bigger and better things, and he's doing very well. I played a guest role in an episode of that.

I also did Hotel Story which was something new, but it didn't last long. It would have been a good show if the channel had persevered with it. I did Power Without Glory for the ABC, I was in about 18 episodes of 26, and I was pleased that I got the part, it worked out really well. And also it's the type of programme and material that the commercial channels would never touch. What the commercial managements do if somebody does break new ground in some area is emulate each other - if it's a police thing they all want a police thing, if it's comedy they all want the comedy thing. That's why it's essential to have the ABC there, it's just a wonderful institution - you might gripe about it, but without it the other channels would just be transmitter stations for the American pattern that comes in. There are some great American shows but there is a lot of pap.

One could be forgiven for thinking that Australia has no television history, as the only old programmes we see repeated are American.

It's such a sad situation to think that most of the stuff that we can hoist the flag up for is about America and Americans. Now I love American programmes, and I love to see what they do, and some of it they do brilliantly - but that's not to say we should have everything from there, especially in the children's area where they are influenced a great deal by things.

Did you ever work in Sydney?

The Outsiders I did in Sydney, and also Going Home, another ABC one-off drama, but there just happened to be enough work down here, plus I was also back in the theatre doing musicals.

Cop Shop I took over from George Mallaby about the end of 1978, I did about 18 months to 2 years in that. That was one of the funniest groups of people to work with. The women were just wonderful, they were so much fun to work with, they all joked around and got the job done, and yet it was one of the hardest shows I've ever had to do. In Division 4 we were doing one hour a week, but on Cop Shop we had two hours to do a week. It was most unrewarding, because my character Vic Cameron was the boss, and he was behind the desk all the time. So you could only go this way around a desk or that way around a desk, or go to the filing cabinet, and you just had this verbal diahorrea of words. I almost became an alcoholic because at the end of the week I couldn't wait to have a drink to get over it. The show was very difficult from that point of view, but the people in it were just a joy to work with, an absolute joy.

Were you disappointed with Cop Shop after the quality of Division 4?

I must say I wasn't happy with it, but I'm a working actor with a family, so because of certain personal things happening in my life I had to survive, and I think it's better to be working than waving the flag of principles. It's all very well being in a situation where you are able to say "Oh, I wouldn't do this or wouldn't do that", but the reality is you've got to survive, and if you're supporting people you have obligations. So there were some things I didn't want to do, but I did them because I had obligations to people and I had to work, and that's what most actors do. The ones who can afford to pick and choose either don't have the obligations or are financially secure. But if you've got a wife and child you've got to work just like everyone else, and hopefully pick up a few gems along the way. The Australian film and television industry is always in a process of pioneering and taking enormous strides forwards, and then having to come back and then having to go forward again. Yes, I do feel the standard of Cop Shop was a backwards step, but I couldn't tum around and sit on my high horse and think I'II live in the past - I've got to live in the present.