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JOAN AND LESLIE


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JOAN AND LESLIE
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In-house drama production for the Seven Network largely emanated from ATN-7 in Sydney. HSV-7 in Melbourne, by contrast, would usually buy programmes from outside packagers using the studio facilities of HSV (such as Crawford Productions, whose credits include the landmark Homicide series).

Occasionally, however, HSV would produce a series completely in-house, and such was the case with the 1969 situation comedy Joan And Leslie.

The genesis of Joan And Leslie lay in a change of direction by Seven Network management, which would ultimately lead to a successful marketing campaign dubbed the ‘Seven Revolution’. Charles Dorning had just been appointed General Administrator of HSV-7, and wasted no time making a number of changes, which included dropping Barry Jones’s current affairs programme Encounter and the variety shows Time For Terry and Sunnyside Up. Another change he planned was to commission a new comedy series, and to this end he held discussions with British comedy actor/writer Leslie Randall who visited Australia in April 1969.

Randall had just spent two years working as a writer in America, and prior to that he and his wife, Joan Reynolds, had developed and played in a successful comedy series in England, titled Joan And Leslie. As the British series had not been seen in Australia, it was decided to adapt it to Australian conditions, and consequently it retained the same title.

Leslie Randall and Joan Reynolds arrived in Australia on July 23, 1969, to begin pre-production for the series, with filming to commence in August. A group of local writers assisted Randall in the final drafts of the script, to ensure that the use of colloquialisms was realistic and not over-done. Randall and Reynolds would feature in every episode, with supporting cast members to be played by local actors. Randall also functioned as Producer and Director of the series, a task that was shared with Graeme Arthur.

The series was produced mostly on videotape in black and white, at HSV’s studios in Fitzroy before a live audience (who were primed with sherry). Some episodes had short film sequences shot on location, and the opening titles were also shot on film.

The series centres around two middle-aged British immigrants, Joan and Leslie Randall, who have just arrived in Australia. Leslie is a ‘journalist’ who has secured a job with a newspaper writing an advice column for lonely hearts under the pseudonym of Dorothy Goodheart. Joan is his actress wife who, for the last four years, has been 'resting' - largely because she has been unable to find any acting work. Upon arrival in Melbourne, they rent a unit in a block of flats, where they befriend two other characters, Gina and Merv. Gina Cotter is ‘superintendent’ of the block of flats, the Italian wife of an Aussie caretaker, and Merv Kelly is a happy-go-lucky cousin of the Cotters, always partial to an opportunity to make some quick and easy money.

Joan Reynolds and Leslie Randall played the title roles, retaining their own names for the parts (Joan used her married name for the character, and her maiden name on the credits). Merv Kelly was played by Stan Penrose, and Gina Cotter by Leila Blake. Initial reports stated that Nevil Thurgood as Gina’s husband Alf would also be a regular character, but he only appeared in the first episode.

The casting of Gina Cotter would prove troublesome. Initially the role was given to former Italian opera singer Emilica Vera, because HSV-7 officials thought she looked right for the part. However, it soon became apparent during taping of the first episode that she was not suitable. A hastily called production conference decided to replace her; fresh auditions were held, and the part was given to Leila Blake.

By this stage a production schedule had been established to tape one episode per week, and a Melbourne airdate had been decided on for the series premiere. The scenes featuring Emilica Vera were quickly re-shot with Leila Blake before taping of episode two, in an attempt to get the first episode completed in time for its scheduled debut. However, the editors struck problems with matching the re-takes with scenes from the original episode, and eventually the decision was reached to start screening the series with episode two. Episode one was never shown as part of the series first Melbourne run.

By late September, six episodes had been completed, and HSV-7 were very pleased with the series. Although none had yet gone to air, Seven were confident that they had a winner on their hands, and ordered a second series. This situation arose because Randall and Reynolds were initially signed to a 13-week contract, which commenced from pre-production of the series, and was near expiry. HSV renewed their contract to not only complete the first series of 13 episodes, but to also make a second series of 13 episodes. This should have brought the total number of episodes to 26, however only the original 13 were ever completed.

Intended for a family audience, Joan And Leslie premiered in an early evening timeslot in Melbourne on October 3, 1969, commencing with the second episode. The opening titles consisted of a film sequence of baffled locals observing a removalist truck driving through Melbourne, with luggage on the back prominently labelled ‘Joan and Leslie’. Later episodes had these scenes interspersed with shots of the cast pulling silly faces. A voice-over proclaimed: “Channel Seven Melbourne presents Leslie Randall and Joan Reynolds in Joan And Leslie”. The end credits were superimposed over the final scene.

Seven’s faith in the series was misplaced. Viewers did not warm to the series, and the critics panned it. A TV Week reviewer called the show ‘revolting’, alleging that Randall and Reynolds “seem to have brought their out-of-date gagbook with them”.1 Despite the adverse criticism, an HSV-7 spokesman said they would still go ahead with the contracted 26 episodes: "We are convinced of the show's potential. It's not hilarious, but it's a good family comedy, and we think it could turn out to be a 'sleeper'."2 It was reported that after the initial episode went to air, the studio audience for the next taping jumped from an average of 70 to a record of 240.

Further criticism of the series came from the Australian Writers Guild. Members of the Guild were quoted in the press as saying the first episode aired (actually episode 2) was ‘worse than diabolical’, and the Guild wrote to HSV General Administrator Charles Dorning to officially disassociate itself from the programme. A Guild spokesman, scriptwriter David Boutland, was quoted in Melbourne newspapers as saying the standard of scripting in Joan And Leslie was so low that he did not want people to think that the show was scripted by resident Australian writers.3

Claims that the Victorian branch of the Guild had tried to get Australian scripts accepted for the show were dismissed by Leslie Randall. “It’s all lies,” said Randall. “There have been no submissions from the Australian Writers Guild. No scripts have ever been submitted for Joan And Leslie at any time - no outlines, no drafts, and no suggestions have ever been submitted to myself as Co-producer, to Charles Dorning or to HSV-7. Joan and I arrived in Australia to play in a series of situation comedy. To say that we should not bring our own scripts is as ludicrous as suggesting that the cast of ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ should not bring the script, or that Tommy Leonetti should not sing songs that he has sung in America. The Australian Writers Guild, as a body of presumed professional writers, has attacked the work of established professional writers. I have not heard of such a thing anywhere else in the world.”4

The final nail in the coffin for Joan And Leslie came from HSV-7’s inability to sell the programme to interstate stations. Without the financial help of other network channels, the series had very little hope of survival. This, coupled with the lukewarm Melbourne ratings, was sufficient for HSV-7 to cut their losses and buy out of the contract, truncating the series at 13 episodes. Interstate sales eventually followed at ‘bargain basement’ prices, and Sydney’s ATN-7 finally showed the series during the 1971-1972 summer ‘silly season’ non-ratings period.

After the series was axed, Joan Reynolds and Leslie Randall returned to England, having finalised their connections with HSV-7. “They have made a very generous financial settlement,” said Randall. “They have paid us in full.” Of the television situation in Australia, Randall, somewhat patronisingly, said: “I’d hate to get caught up in what we now know is the TV scene in Australia. Joan and I came here because we wanted to help develop Australian TV. We wanted to help build up the industry. But with the exception of people such as Hector Crawford and Jack Neary, there doesn’t seem to be any development here. We have too much sense of humour to be bitter about it, but there is no way in the world in which we could be induced to stay in Australia.”5

Australian audiences have always been partial to good British comedy, however Joan And Leslie was, by comparison, a mediocre offering. It suffered from some ‘over-the-top’ acting by the two principals, and, although intended purely for a local audience, it was basically a British comedy masquerading as Australian, and that is essentially why it did not work.

In 1971, another attempt was made to produce a British-style comedy in Australia with the serial Birds In The Bush (known in the UK as The Virgin Fellas). Intended primarily for an English audience, it fared much better in the UK than Australia. Later, established British shows made Australian versions with varying degrees of success - Love Thy Neighbour, Doctor Down Under, Father Dear Father and Are You Being Served?

 

JOAN AND LESLIE
EPISODE DETAILS

 

1. TV Week, Oct 25, 1969.
2. TV Week, Oct 18, 1969.
3. TV Week, Oct 25, 1969.
4. TV Week, Oct 25, 1969. ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ was a contemporary stage play, and Tommy Leonetti was a popular singer of the time.
5. TV Week, Dec 27, 1969
. Hector Crawford was the head of Crawford Productions, and Jack Neary was one of the principals of NLT Productions.



Joan Reynolds and Leslie Randall in the title roles of Joan and Leslie.


Married in real-life, Joan Reynolds and Leslie Randall also played a married couple in Joan And Leslie. They retained their own names for the roles, Joan using her married name rather than her maiden name.


Joan and Leslie.


Stan Penrose as Merv Kelly.


Leila Blake as Gina Cotter.


Joan And Leslie opening titles.


Leslie making a lot of noise about nothing.


A scene from episode 5, 'Jealousy'. Joan and Leslie are in a cafe being served by a waitress played by TV Week reporter Wendy Cross.


Gina and Joan ponder one of Leslie's predicaments.


Joan and Leslie.