CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

SHANNONS MOB


Copyright 2013 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


SHANNONS MOB
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Shannons Mob was the final series produced by Fauna Productions (also known as Norfolk International). The company was formed in the mid-60s by John McCallum, Lee Robinson and Bob Austin, three of the principals behind the well-received feature film They’re A Weird Mob. Fauna was responsible for the successful television series Skippy, Barrier Reef and Boney, yet they could not repeat this success with Shannons Mob. Not only was Shannons Mob Fauna’s least successful production, it was one of the least remembered series of Australian television’s first twenty years.

There are many reasons for this; however, looking back it may be considered that Shannons Mob was judged too harshly. It was the second of only a very few espionage series produced in Australia - Hunter being the first, pioneering the genre way back in 1966. Spy shows were flavour of the month when Hunter was produced, but were considered old hat by the time Shannons Mob turned up in the 1970’s.

The title refers to a clandestine government intelligence agency headed by Dave Shannon in Canberra, who is never seen in the series, and in fact is hardly ever referred to. The official name of the ‘Mob’ is FIASCO - an acronym for Federal Intelligence And Security Control Organisation. Nothing original here - acronyms such as UNCLE (The Man From Uncle), CONTROL (Get Smart) and our own COSMIC (Hunter) readily come to mind.

FIASCO’s function is to anticipate and deal with or prevent any crime or situation that could have international repercussions or prove politically embarrassing for the Australian Government. FIASCO is a top-secret, autonomous department - its existence is known by only a few and it is answerable only to the Prime Minister.

Leading agent in the field is Andrew Blake, played by Robin Ramsay, and his offsider is Michael Jamieson, played by Frank Gallacher. Like all good spies they are both astute and daring, and they always work undercover. They operate from a nondescript office in Sydney, never draw attention to themselves, and never disclose who they are, who they work for or what they do. FIASCO has far-reaching tentacles - Blake and Jamieson both carry rank in all the armed services, and are somewhere on the establishment of every government department and statutory authority - but always under a different name. Publicity for the series described it as ‘weaving thrilling plots from a web of international intrigue against familiar backgrounds of the Sydney scene’.

The series opening titles commence with a shot of Parliament House in Canberra, although most of the action takes place in Sydney. The spectacular scenery, particularly of the Harbour, is fully exploited - perhaps to be expected from a company that previously filmed on location in the outback (Boney) and on the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland (Barrier Reef).

Pre-production of Shannons Mob began in July 1973, when auditions were held in most states of Australia, with actual production commencing in October. 26 colour episodes were planned, although only 13 were completed.  The series was pre-sold locally to the Nine Network, and it was intended to be a major feature of their 1974 programme line-up.

Many of the crew from the earlier Fauna Production shows were retained for Shannons Mob. Executive Producers were John McCallum and Bob Austin; Producer was Lee Robinson; and Joy Cavill was Associate Producer. Music was by Eric Jupp.

Production of Shannons Mob was completed in May 1974. The Nine Network then decided to defer screening of the series for a year until March 1975 in order to have a spectacular local show with which to introduce colour transmission. However, colour was introduced and the series remained on the shelf. Finally, a special preview screening of episode 1 was shown by GTV-9 Melbourne in October 1975, and the remainder of the series commenced in November 1975, the majority of it being shown over the summer non-rating period. TCN-9 Sydney treated the show similarly, however QTQ-9 Brisbane eventually showed more faith in Shannons Mob and screened it during prime time in 1976.

Nine’s change of attitude towards the series, from ‘big gun’ of 1974 to ‘silly season throwaway' of 1975-6, came about because they considered the final product would not be able to sustain a peak ratings audience. The critics agreed, most of them panning the show as out-dated, and lamenting the let-down from the company that had previously delivered the excellent Boney series.

Surprisingly, the producers tended to agree with the criticism! John McCallum, in his book Life With Googie, said that Shannons Mob was not different. Their previous productions all had a uniquely Australian ingredient: Skippy featured a kangaroo, Barrier Reef was filmed at one of the great natural wonders of the world, and Boney featured a half-caste Aboriginal detective; but Shannons Mob was stereotyped.1

McCallum actually did not have a lot to do with Shannons Mob - he helped set it up with Bob Austin and Lee Robinson, but then he went to London for a stage production, and was away for most of the production period. (While in England McCallum's wife, Googie Withers, landed a lead role in the British prison series Within These Walls). Lee Robinson and Joy Cavill took over production of Shannons Mob, Robinson being the major creative force behind the series.

As mentioned earlier, the timing of the series was wrong - spy shows were considered ten years behind the times when Shannons Mob finally made it to the screen. The Nine Network did not have faith in the series, and Fauna Productions lost interest in it. And so the decision was taken to end production after 13 episodes.

Unlike all the previous Fauna series, there were only minor overseas sales of Shannons Mob. In addition to the programmes other shortcomings, a series of only 13 episodes made overseas sales difficult.

Television critic Veritas, writing in the Melbourne Truth, was merciless in his panning of the series, saying it went "close to being one of Australia's worst TV dramas in recent years".2 He even took Nine to task for chasing ratings by including a "dreaded" nude scene in episode 10, ‘The Playpen’. He stated the scene "evidently gave producers the chance for a hefty slice of titillation", and then incorrectly credited the actress involved as Arna-Maria Winchester.3 He seems to have a valid point - the scene in question, and a similar topless scene with Joanne Samuel in episode 3, 'Trip To Nowhere', were hardly essential to the plot. However, Veritas was not in a position to take the moral high ground, as the tabloid that he was writing for always pictured a topless girl on page three.

Jerry Fetherston, writing in TV Week, also dished out scathing criticism of the series, stating "without question, it is possibly the worst locally made series in the past 10 years".4 F.C. Kennedy, the resident critic writing for TV Times, also wrote the series off, but that was hardly surprising for it was rare that Kennedy ever praised any local drama series.

It would be easy to suspect that the treatment by Nine of Shannons Mob, coinciding as it did with the cancellation of the three Crawford cop shows (Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock Police), was part of the plot to sabotage Australian production. However, there is no evidence or even speculation to suggest that anything was deliberately done against the series - although it would be safe to assume that in the prevailing climate nothing positive would have been done to help the series either.

Shannons Mob was to be Fauna Productions' last project. "Series, for the time being, are just not on, for both financial and programming reasons," said McCallum, "and it's nobody's fault. We've never done studio work. All our series have been on film in colour, which is much more expensive than tape production, but it's the only way to export. This means we need investment capital and we need world markets, and neither is available to us now. The world has become a shrinking market, where other countries are becoming more nationalistic, wanting to make their own shows and introducing quotas just as we are. America is getting more and more difficult. They won't even buy Boney because it has too much thinking and not enough guns. I've no complaint about local networks. They pay a premium price for local production which compares favourably with anywhere in the world, but it's still only half our production cost. Without both markets we could never get our money back."5

Even though Fauna was no more, John McCallum and Lee Robinson continued to work together, and in 1979 created a half-hour adventure series set in South-East Asia, Bailey’s Bird, under the banner of John McCallum Productions.

Shannons Mob had some excellent production values - technically it was as good as any other production of the time, the camera work was superb, and there were good performances from the actors. There was some clever writing, although some episodes were let down by too many 'walking and talking' scenes to bridge plot developments. Frank Gallacher said the series was a disappointment to him: "I think the main fault was in the scripts. Robin and I wanted to develop our characters but they kept writing at us rather than in tune with us."6

However, the basic fault of Shannons Mob was the bad timing. Looking back at it now, the timing is irrelevant. Now it is simply another old spy show and can be enjoyed for what it is, on it’s own artistic merit, in the same way that any other show from the era can.

 

SHANNONS MOB EPISODE DETAILS

 

1. John McCallum, Life With Googie, (Heinemann, London, 1979) p 239.
2. Veritas, Melbourne Truth, Dec 13, 1975.
3. Veritas, Melbourne Truth, Dec 20, 1975.
4. TV Week, Nov 29, 1975.
5. TV Times, Aug 24, 1974.
6. TV Times, Dec 23, 1978.



The two cast members of Shannons Mob: Frank Gallacher (left) as Michael Jamieson and Robin Ramsay as Andrew Blake.


Shannons Mob opening titles.


FIASCO agents Jamieson and Blake question a Chinese ship's officer.


Frank Gallacher as Michael Jamieson in the FIASCO office.


Robin Ramsay, Kevin Manser and Joanne Samuel in a scene from episode 3, 'Trip To Nowhere'.


Frank Gallacher (right) as Michael Jamieson with James Condon as the British High Commissioner in episode 3, 'Trip To Nowhere'.


Joanne Samuel and Frank Gallagher in more scenes from episode 3, 'Trip To Nowhere'.


John Nash (left) and Alwyn Kurts in a scene from episode 5, 'Stock In Trade'.


Robin Ramsay, Max Cullen and Chantal Contouri in a scene from episode 10, 'The Playpen'.


Andrew Blake (Robin Ramsay) is on the wrong end of the gun in this scene from episode 6, 'Hot Spot'.


Michael Jamieson (Frank Gallacher) questions a ship's crew member (Anthony Wheeler) in a scene from episode 1, 'Without Incident'.


Frank Gallacher and Robin Ramsay.