CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

SKIPPY


Copyright © 2013 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


SKIPPY
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It could be argued that the most well-known Australian television star internationally is a kangaroo. Skippy was Australia’s greatest television export, the recent success of soaps like Neighbours notwithstanding. The adventures of a boy and a kangaroo in the Australian bush held tremendous appeal with overseas viewers, and Skippy achieved phenomenal international sales. Running to 91 episodes (plus a feature film), it was sold all over the world, reportedly to at least 128 different countries. And that figure does not take into account the individual sales within countries - for example, the series was shown on over 160 different television stations in the U.S. alone. In fact, from a global viewpoint, Skippy is our most successful programme ever, being more widely recognised than even the iconic Homicide series.

The genesis of Skippy can be traced back to even before television began in Australia. In the early 1950’s John McCallum, an Australian actor who had been working in England, tried to develop a television series based on the bushranger Ben Hall. McCallum reasoned that a series for international release with a unique Australian ingredient would be something different. This ‘unique Australian difference’ was a primary consideration that he applied to his later productions - a kangaroo in Skippy, the Queensland Great Barrier Reef in Barrier Reef and a half-caste Aboriginal detective in Boney. Although there was interest in the Ben Hall project, financial backing was not forthcoming. This was primarily because the bushrangers triumphed over the police in every episode, contrary to the then accepted television practice of justice always prevailing. However, the experience did cause McCallum to eventually enter the field of theatre management and film production. (By 1975 attitudes had changed, and a mini-series Ben Hall was produced by the Australian Broadcasting Commission [ABC] in conjunction with the British Broadcasting Commission [BBC]).

Fast forward to 1964. Australian feature film and television drama production had become sporadic, but a turning point for the industry came in October with the premiere of the ground-breaking Crawford Productions’ series Homicide. The success of Homicide paved the way for other television drama productions, which in turn provided a foundation for the revival of the Australian film industry. It was against this background that John McCallum, by this time back in Australia as part of the management of theatre company J. C. Williamson, took the first ambitious steps towards producing a feature film - They’re A Weird Mob. British director Michael Powell was very interested in the project, and a company was formed called Williamson-Powell International Films. Based on a best-selling book by John O’Grady (writing as Nino Culotta) about an Italian immigrant baffled by the Australian culture, They’re A Weird Mob was released in 1966 to considerable success, and was the first Australian film of any significance produced since 1960.

In spite of the success of They’re A Weird Mob, the financial returns were not spectacular - it seemed that everyone got their cut before the producers, resulting in an eight year wait before production costs were recouped. Production Supervisor on the film was Lee Robinson, a prolific writer, director and producer, who in partnership with Chips Rafferty made quite a number of films during the 1950’s. He was also responsible for the 1963 TV anthology series Adventure Unlimited. Robinson, McCallum and Sydney lawyer Bob Austin got together and considered that making films for television could be a more lucrative venture, and they formed a company called Fauna Productions for that purpose. Fauna always used the name Norfolk International on their productions, primarily for tax purposes. (Fauna officially moved their business from Sydney to Norfolk Island on the advice of Nine Network head Frank Packer. To keep it legal they had to have some board meetings and such on Norfolk Island, but it avoided paying a double tax on production in Australia and again on sales in overseas countries.)

Fauna’s first plan was to follow the success of They’re A Weird Mob with a spin-off series, but it was soon realised that the subject had limited appeal for overseas audiences - even though it broke box-office records in Australia, the film had little success in other countries. Unlike Crawford Productions, who were making shows primarily for a local audience, Fauna’s vision was always for the international market.

Advice from their London agents suggested that a children’s series would have much better sales prospects overseas. Looking for that unique Australian ingredient, after a few beers in the local pub they came up with the idea of a kangaroo as the focal point of a half-hour series. In his book Life With Googie, John McCallum credits Lee Robinson for thinking up the name Skippy; in fact, he thinks Robinson actually came up with the kangaroo idea, and attributes most of the credit for the series to him.1 A series with an animal as the ‘star’ was not new; overseas they already had a dolphin in Flipper, and dogs in Rin-Tin-Tin, Lassie and The Littlest Hobo. An Australian variant was a legitimate alternative, and a kangaroo seemed a logical choice.

A pilot episode was made in 1966, produced on film and in colour. Up to this point, local drama series had been made in black and white with only two exceptions - The Adventures Of Long John Silver (1954-55) and Adventures Of The Seaspray (1965-66). There were some similarities between Seaspray and Skippy: both were half-hour adventure series, both were filmed in colour, both were aimed at a children’s market with a view to international sales, and both featured a widowed father and his children. However, that’s where the similarity ends - Seaspray was a sea-going series set aboard a schooner cruising the South Pacific, whereas Skippy was set in a national park in New South Wales.

Lee Robinson and Bob Austin took the pilot episode on a world trip to gauge possible markets. England and Europe appeared to offer good sales prospects, and the NBC network in America was initially enthusiastic. NBC wanted to see a few more examples with a view to purchasing a series of 13 or 26 episodes. Lee Robinson was initially dubious about the potential of the Australian market, reasoning that although there was obvious strong international appeal, Australians would not accept the concept of an intelligent kangaroo. But they needed finance, and John McCallum offered first refusal of the show to Frank Packer, head of a vast media empire that included the Nine Network television stations. Packer arranged for the pilot episode to be shown in the boardroom of his Sydney Daily Telegraph newspaper office, and was sufficiently impressed to pay the asking price of $6,000 per episode - for perpetuity, which was quickly negotiated to ten years, with an option for another ten years at $3,000. Packer indicated that he would buy as many episodes as they could produce. It was widely reported at the time that it was the highest price the Nine Network had ever paid for any series.

Filming commenced in May 1967, on the strength of the sale to Channel Nine and the optimism of covering the remaining two-thirds of the costs from overseas sales. Considerable preparatory work was required before filming could commence. Production offices had to be set up in Sydney, and permission was required from the NSW State Government to occupy land in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park north of Sydney. Co-operation was received from the NSW National Parks And Wildlife Service and the Ku-ring-gai Chase Trust, who set aside 24 acres of land for use as a film set, and granted access to a further 500 acres of surrounding park. A house was built in the park to function as Ranger Headquarters and residence in the series, both for exterior and interior scenes. Power and  water supply had to be connected and roads had to be constructed, together with a helipad and servicing area for the helicopter. A number of expensive ‘props’ were used in the series: a helicopter, a speedboat, an elaborate two-way radio set-up, and several motor vehicles. All of which added up to quite a significant investment.

Filming was not restricted to the Ku-ring-gai Chase Park; other national parks were utilised, as well as the streets and beaches of Sydney and surrounding districts. The Australian bush provided an excellent scenic backdrop, which was much appreciated by local and overseas viewers alike.

Skippy was set in the fictitious Waratah National Park, a conservation area open to the public for recreational pursuits, where all plants and wildlife are protected. Head Ranger of the park was Matt Hammond, played by Ed Deveraux, an accomplished actor who had appeared in many film and television roles in both Australia and Britain, including They’re A Weird Mob and the ABC mini-series My Brother Jack. Initially, Deveraux did not want to be in the series: “I said I didn’t want anything to do with what I thought was going to be children’s TV. I thought it was a sort of ‘low grace’ thing.”2 Deveraux changed his mind when he learnt it was going to be sold overseas, when he learnt how much he would be paid, and when he negotiated a percentage of the profits.

Matt Hammond had two sons, 16-year-old Mark played by Ken James, and nine-year-old Sonny played by Garry Pankhurst. (Mark and Sonny would age over the course of the series to 18 and 11 respectively). Matt was a widower in his early forties, his wife Mary having died not long after Sonny was born. Sonny’s constant companion was Skippy, the bush kangaroo, with whom he practically grew up with. Sharing the Ranger Headquarters residence was the helicopter pilot, Flight Ranger Jerry King, aged in his mid-20s and played by Tony Bonner, who was cast on the strength of a relatively minor role in They’re A Weird Mob.

Feedback from Robinson and Austin’s initial world tour led to a couple of additions to the cast. Blonde German actress Elke Neidhardt was introduced as Dr. Anna Steiner, a research scientist working in the park, and a potential romantic interest. Elke first appeared in episode 3, ‘Cage Of Koalas’. Liza Goddard, daughter of new ABC drama department head David Goddard, was cast as Clancy Merrick, the teenage daughter of another park ranger. When Ranger Merrick is transferred to a new reserve ‘up north’, taking his family with him, Clancy remains behind boarding with the Hammonds so as to complete her schooling. Liza made her first appearance in ep. 7, ‘No Time For Clancy’. Lee Robinson explained the changes: “The series was originally planned as a children’s series until I found there was a substantial overseas market for shows that fill peak-viewing timeslots. That is why we added the romantic interest.”3 The addition of female cast members gave greater depth and breadth to the show, but, as it happened, the romantic interest was never developed.

Elke Neidhardt as Dr. Steiner was only a support role, and she vanished from the park after appearing in only six episodes. Her character was mentioned in several more episodes although not seen, and eventually, in ep. 32 ‘Date In Dalmar’, it was stated that Dr. Steiner had gone away and was now working in Tasmania. Liza Goddard as Clancy, however, became a regular member of the cast and stayed for the first and second series. Dr. Steiner lived and worked in her caravan parked at Ranger HQ, and at first Clancy shared the caravan with her, but at some unspecified time after Dr. Steiner ‘disappeared’, Clancy was relocated to her own room within the house.

There was also a recurring villain - the very wealthy Dr. Stark, who will go to extraordinary lengths to catch Skippy, and other animals, for his private zoo. Stark was played by Frank Thring, who had extensive film and television credits both in Australia and the United States. A TV Week reporter asked the question: “Why is the elegant Mr. Thring appearing regularly in what is basically a children's TV show?”. And Thring replied: "Ah, yes, but after all, Skippy is a world class show. The production unit is first rate - as good as any I've worked with overseas. And then it's such fun. And, you see, dear old John McCallum rang me and said: 'You simply must come up to Sydney. There's this part of a lunatic millionaire doctor simply made for you.' So I said: 'Well, you can write me in for a few episodes whenever I get a break from my stage work.' "4 Dr. Stark was introduced in ep. 2, ‘Long Way Home’, and although it was widely reported that it would be a regular support role, Frank Thring only appeared in two other episodes, both in the first series.

Another recurring role was that of Sir Adrian Gillespie, chairman of the Waratah National Park administrative Board of Trustees, played by John Warwick. His role, as Matt Hammond’s superior, was comparatively minor, and he only appeared as required. First introduced in ep. 22, ’Double Trouble’, he made more frequent appearances in the second and third series.

The title role, of course, was that of Skippy. Strictly speaking, Skippy was not a pet, as it is illegal to keep kangaroos as such, and it was often reiterated in the series that Skippy lived in the park and was free to come and go as she pleased. Skippy was found in the bush as a baby by Sonny - an orphan, her mother having been killed by some yobbo out shooting. Sonny, with help from his father and brother, looked after her - in fact, without Sonny’s care, Skippy would have died. It was always understood that once Skippy was old enough to look after herself she would go back to the bush, but a strong bond had been built up between Skippy and Sonny and the rest of the Hammond family. It became clear that Skippy was an exceptionally intelligent kangaroo, and although technically she lives in the Park, she chooses to hang out with Sonny most of the time, and eats and sleeps at Ranger Headquarters. A record was released, narrated by Producer John McCallum, that told the full story of how Skippy came to be ‘adopted’ by the Hammonds.5

Skippy is a remarkable kangaroo. Capable of near-human thought and reasoning, she can understand everyone, can open doors, carry things in her pouch, cross streams on narrow logs, foil villains, rescue hapless bushwalkers, untie ropes, collect the mail, and even operate the radio. In one episode she plays drums in a band, in another she places a bet - and wins - on a horse at Randwick Racecourse.

A television show featuring a dog with extraordinary ability, such as The Littlest Hobo or Inspector Rex, does have some foundation in fact. Dogs in real-life are quite intelligent and can have a variety of ‘jobs’ - seeing-eye dogs, guard dogs, police dogs, cattle dogs, sniffer dogs, etc. A kangaroo, though, is a different matter altogether - in reality kangaroos are not very smart, and certainly none have ever held down a steady job. It required a significant suspension of disbelief from the audience to accept that a kangaroo could be that remarkable - but it worked. The stories were largely realistic even though Skippy’s extraordinary capabilities were not. The situations were usually believable, and good performances from the cast heightened the credibility.

There were, however, quite a few times when credibility was stretched to the limit, usually in scenes where Skippy had ‘conversations’ with her human counterparts. An example is the following exchange from ep. 64, ‘The Hikers’, where Skippy brings a dead snake to Jerry King:

Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: What have you got there, Skip?
Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: Why on earth would you kill this?
Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: Alright, alright, I know you didn’t. It’s been killed with a stick.
Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: Where did you find it, Skip?
Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: No, don’t bother Sonny, he’s busy doing his classes. You and I will handle this.
Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: Hasn’t got anything to do with the schoolteachers, has it Skip?
Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: Did they kill it?
Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: It didn’t bite one of them, did it Skip?
Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: Ah, no! Must be real panic going on out there. Come on, Skip, you’ll have to show me where they are.

Or this exchange from ep. 61, ‘Axeman’, where Skippy brings a broken car distributor to Jerry (after operating the radio and summoning Jerry back by saying “Tchk tchk tchk”):

Jerry: What’s wrong, Skip? What’s happened?
Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: (picking up distributor) What is it?
Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: Where did you get it?
Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: It’s not Matt’s. Then why the urgency?
Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: Jim?
Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: It’s from Jim!
Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: He’s in trouble, his car’s broken down, he can’t get to the show! Is that it, Skip?
Skippy: Tchk tchk tchk.
Jerry: Come on, Skip, we haven’t much time.

Skippy’s trademark ‘tchk tchk tchk’ noise was entirely fictional. Kangaroos make no such sounds. But some sort of sound was needed for the series, and someone came up with the idea of clicking their tongue to make the ‘tchk tchk tchk’ sound. “Kangaroos make a horrible noise,” explained Liza Goddard, “And it was decided that wasn’t a very suitable noise for a children’s programme. And so the soundman invented ‘tchk tchk tchk’.”6 To this day, many people in overseas countries (and even some ‘city-slickers’ in Australia) believe that kangaroos make ‘tchk tchk’ noises!

Executive Producers of Skippy were John McCallum and Bob Austin. Producers of the first series were Lee Robinson and Dennis Hill. Hill was also instrumental in the development of the show, however he only worked on the first series. Producers of the second series were Robinson and Joy Cavill, and Cavill was the Producer for the third series. Most episodes were directed by Max Varnel or Eric Fullilove, both of whom had extensive experience overseas.

Scripts were written by Australian writers, and Lee Robinson said that “Each story has the underlying thought, which is the preservation of wild life”. However, the directors were initially from overseas: “We have no Australians capable of doing the job,” said Robinson, “but we plan to train Australians as the series develops.”7 (There actually were Aussies qualified for the job, but they were mostly already working for Crawfords, Roger Mirams or the ABC).

Production, writing and directing were of a consistently high standard, and in addition to the action and adventure there was a fair amount of humour - many episodes had a deft comedic touch. Skippy’s role varied in importance, from being the focal point of an adventure to other episodes where she actually had very little to do. Some episodes were simplistic, and some were fanciful bordering on ridiculous; yet others were cleverly crafted with depth and intriguing plot twists. Skippy is the classic family adventure series - the line between good and evil is always clearly drawn, with good always triumphant.

Accomplished musician, band-leader and composer Eric Jupp, who had a long career in Britain before moving to Australia, was responsible for the theme and incidental music for Skippy. “It took me a few days to write the Skippy theme,” said Jupp. “I’d already written three or four versions and then rejected them. But the effort has proved worthwhile because about 30,000 records of the theme have been sold in Australia alone.”8

The opening titles showed a scene of Sonny calling Skippy by whistling through a gumleaf, and Skippy responding. The cast members then received an individual credit, with the curious exception of Liza Goddard - for some reason she was never included in the opening titles. The final credit, naturally, was for ‘Skippy the bush kangaroo’. The opening neatly demonstrated the unique relationship between Sonny and Skippy, and showcased the bushland setting. The closing credits were superimposed over a scene of the helicopter on the helipad.

The first week of filming (ep. 2, ‘Long Way Home’) was hampered by heavy rain which made roads impassable and conditions very muddy. The use of a vintage Rolls Royce for the episode was withdrawn when the owner saw the condition of the roads, and a substitute vehicle had to be hastily procured. The episode showed scenes of Skippy being caught in a cattle grid and almost being run over by a truck, which prompted the RSPCA (Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) to investigate allegations of cruelty. The allegations proved groundless, and Frank Thring’s reaction was typical: “You must be joking! That little kangaroo gets better treatment than us humans in the cast. Skippy is pampered and cosseted like a Hollywood queen – and so she should be!”9

Shooting was five days behind schedule, but the episode eventually got completed, and by September 1967 filming had settled down to a smooth routine with a number of episodes ‘in the can’. It was now time to try and secure some overseas sales.

Taking their half-dozen or so completed episodes, John McCallum and Bob Austin headed off abroad to flog their new show. First stop was the offices of NBC in New York, where they previously had met with an enthusiastic response. Not so this time. The NBC executives did not like the stories, or the acting, or the Aussie accents; they said the series could not be sold in America, and, in any case, all the available timeslots were already occupied by cartoons. The other two networks, ABC and CBS, were equally unenthusiastic. So, somewhat dejected, it was off to London, where they met with a much better response. Global Television Services were impressed with the show, and sales were soon made to England, Holland and Belgium.

In Australia, the series premiered in February 1968 on the Nine Network, in a 7:00 PM Monday timeslot in most capital cities. Some regional channels also started showing the series, and it soon proved to be a ratings success everywhere. Overseas viewers also liked Skippy, and more sales followed - Canada, Japan and many European countries, plus other Commonwealth nations all bought the series. Even though the European sales amounted to approximately only $400 an episode, the situation was looking more and more promising.

There were many cash flow problems, and a number of emergency board meetings were convened to come up with ways to keep production going. Packer helped out with a cash advance, and he took up his option - albeit at a bargain price - several years early. Potential investors, banks, friends - all came to the party, and the first series of 39 episodes were completed. In spite of the financial difficulties, continuing overseas sales inspired optimism, and in April 1968 a second series commenced production.

The first series commenced with a ‘teaser’ before the opening titles, but for the second and third series the ‘teaser’ was dropped and the episode started with the stock opening. After four episodes, the opening was altered, commencing with ep. 44 ‘The Raft’. The same structure was retained, the only change being different scenes for the actors, necessitated in part by the fact that Garry Pankhurst, and to a lesser extent Ken James, were noticeably older. There was still no credit for Liza Goddard, however on the closing credits Liza was now listed with the other cast members (whether she appeared in the episode or not), whereas in the first series her credit was included with the guest actors.

A menagerie of animals and birds were utilised for the show, including dingoes, possums, emus, galahs, koalas and, of course, kangaroos, all trained and managed by Scotty Denholm, a former NSW police dog trainer. In theory there was only one Skippy, but in reality there were many stand-ins. In addition to Skippy herself, there were three other main ‘roos - Jo-Jo, Stumpy and Wildy - plus quite a few others who handled some of the less demanding tasks. “Like people, some kangaroos are brighter than others,” said Producer Dennis Hill. “Skippy is the best behaved and the best performer.” Scotty Denholm was quick to qualify that remark: “But she has a mind of her own. You either wait for her to do what you want or change the story.”10

Scotty Denholm was widely regarded as Australia’s top animal trainer. Two police dogs he trained, Zoe and Tess, both German Shepherds, won world renown for their feats which included tracking of criminals, locating bodies and finding lost children in the bush. Zoe became the first dog in the world to work from instructions relayed to a radio which was strapped to her back. Kangaroos, though, were difficult to train: “Roos are cute animals, but they aren’t terribly intelligent,” said Denholm. “They require a lot of patience to teach them even simple commands. But they, like all animals, respond to kindness. Skippy, of course, is the best of the bunch. She is quite intelligent for a ‘roo and will obey most simple commands.”11

The animals were registered with the NSW National Parks And Wildlife Service, and officers from the department inspected them regularly. However, tragedy struck when one young kangaroo died after students from the University of NSW attempted to kidnap Skippy and hold her for ransom. On the night of June 30, 1968, the students raided an enclosed compound where six young kangaroos, being trained as stand-ins for Skippy, were grazing. They succeeded in capturing one, and left a ransom note for $50, the idea being to publicise the university’s Foundation Day celebrations and donate the money to charity. Unfortunately, during their bid to capture a kangaroo, one of the terrified animals in a panic rushed against a high wire fence around the compound and broke its neck.

Scotty Denholm tried to nurse the injured animal for 24 hours before it died. “I’m more hurt and disappointed at the students’ foolishness than I am disgusted at what they have done,” said Denholm. “I’m sure they were doing it in all innocence, and it is rather unfortunate that one of the animals, a very promising one too, died as a result.”12 Student leader Gary Ross tried to defend their negligent actions, saying the whole thing was intended only as an amusing stunt: “As soon as we realised that the prank had gone sour we returned the kangaroo we were holding.” When told how upset people were by the whole stunt, he replied: “We might remind people of the hundreds of kangaroos which are being slaughtered in the outback areas.”13 The fact that worse atrocities were being conducted elsewhere was no excuse for their own irresponsibility, and local police and an inspector from the RSPCA conducted an investigation of the incident.

Although Scotty Denholm did a marvellous job training the animals, there are limits to what you can get a kangaroo to do. Often the actors can be noticed patting the kangaroo to get her to move, or holding her to prevent her moving. Use of clever camera work and skilful editing enhanced many of Skippy’s feats. It was originally intended to train the animals for most tasks required of them, but an early attempt to film Skippy posting a letter cost Fauna Productions a hefty amount in lost time and exposed film, so out of necessity inanimate stand-ins were introduced. Kangaroo-paw bottle-openers, of a type that could be purchased at any souvenir shop, were utilised for close-up scenes of Skippy opening doors or picking up objects. There was even a stuffed ‘roo from a taxidermist, used for scenes from behind, or when Skippy was required to jump into a confined space, such as the helicopter - the stuffed ‘roo would be thrown in by a crew member.

“Difficulties working with a kangaroo? Absolutely!,” recalled Ken James. “Because, kangaroos - you can’t train them, you can tame them, you can get them used to a human environment, but you can’t say, like a dog, fetch this and bring it back. You can shoot me talking to the kangaroo on Monday, and do a close-up of the kangaroo looking at an object on Thursday, and you think they’re together. They used to have these fake paws, and they’d get a tight shot of, say, an envelope, and all you’d see is the envelope and these two little fake paws, then you’d cut back to the kangaroo going ‘tchk tchk tchk’. Put it together - editing - and it looks like the kangaroo is trying to open a letter.”14

Tony Bonner concurred: “The difficulty of working with a kangaroo is they have absolutely no mental capacity at all, they have no retention of thought process. To get the kangaroo to do what you required him to do in the script took patience, to just wait and get the shot that was needed of the kangaroo looking somewhere, of reacting or doing something. So it was difficult from that technical point of view to get the shots you needed. And of course for those little shots of turning a television on or off, or any of those other wonderful things that Skippy did, the old bottle-openers snuck into frame and did it.”15

Of the other animals, their ‘roles’ were usually confined to scenes in the bush or the quarantine area. Hector the emu, however, had some larger roles in a few episodes. “The emus were the worst because they were absolutely violent,” said Liza Goddard. “So what they had to do was give it half a bottle of whisky, this emu (Hector), and then it was OK. If they gave it a bottle of course it fell over drunk, and the next day had a hangover and was even worse.”16

There is an old adage among actors that you shouldn’t work with either children or animals, as both are scene-stealers. Ed Deveraux worked with both on Skippy, and he dismissed the idea: “It’s a lot of rubbish! I have four boys of my own. And I like Garry. He’s practically a fifth son. There’s none of that kind of trouble on our team.”17

Garry Pankhurst was required to spend at least 20 hours a week studying, to satisfy Department of Education regulations. To that end, a caravan was specially equipped for use as a classroom and a qualified teacher, Pat Barker, was employed to tutor him. In the series, Sonny Hammond had to do his schoolwork using the bush radio system - the ‘School Of The Air’, which was set up so that kids in remote outback areas, literally hundreds of kilometres from the nearest school, could still have the benefit of ‘classroom’ tuition. For a touch of authenticity, Pat Barker’s voice was used as Sonny’s teacher on the radio. The exact location of Waratah National Park within the state of New South Wales is not specified, but in a number of episodes it is shown to be within a couple of hours drive of Sydney, which hardly seems sufficiently remote to justify a School Of The Air. Nonetheless, it added an interesting touch to a series which already highlighted many of the unique aspects of living in the Australian bush.

In common with most productions of the time, actors often performed their own stunts. “There was one episode with Kathy Troutt,” said Ken James, “She played a marine biologist, and my character got out of the helicopter and dived onto an anchor line. I look back now and I think, ‘I was crazy’.”18 The episode, No. 13 ‘The Marine Biologist’, featured World Deep Sea Diving Champion Kathy Troutt, who set a world record for the deepest scuba dive by a female when she was only 17. In addition to her diving prowess, Kathy also happened to be a pretty girl who could act, which made her an obvious choice for a number of parts in various film and television series (including Riptide, Chopper Squad and the film Blue Lagoon), particularly if diving or swimming scenes were required. However, she only appeared in one episode of Skippy.

Diving scenes were featured in a later episode (No. 58 ‘The Shark Taggers’) plus the Skippy movie The Intruders, but these were all handled by famous husband-and-wife team Ron and Valerie Taylor, as were the extensive underwater scenes in Fauna’s next series Barrier Reef. The Taylor’s were world-renowned underwater experts, and Valerie appeared on camera as a diver in ‘The Shark Taggers’.

Character actor Gerry Duggan appeared in ep. 10, ‘The Swagman’, as Mr. Trundle, an old tramp who befriends Sonny and Skippy, but who actually was Miles Vincent Archer, the head of a vast corporate empire. He reprised the role in ep. 29, ‘The Empty Chair’. Although Duggan had appeared in guest roles in many Australian series, it is those two episodes for which he is best remembered. “For some reason or other that episode has never left me," said Duggan. "I think Mr. Trundle’s appeal to viewers was that here was a man who could do good by stealth. The character obviously made such an impact that I’m very surprised the producers didn’t write a series around him.”19

Episode 19, ‘The Waratah Festival’, was filmed during the annual Sydney Waratah Festival float procession. Taking part in the actual parade was a ‘Waratah National Park’ float with the cast members plus Skippy and Hector the emu on board. While in the procession, action was staged on the float which was used in the episode. So while the real-life audience at the festival were watching a Skippy float in the parade, all the while it was being filmed for use in an episode where a ‘Waratah National Park’ float has been entered in the procession. A neat two-pronged plan - publicity for the series in a high-profile community event; and a unique setting to film an episode of the series.

“In Sydney, rather like the big Moomba parade in Melbourne, we had the Waratah parade, and it was fabulous,” recalled Tony Bonner. “One of the writers came up with the concept of having the kangaroo and the emu and Waratah Park on a float going round the city. To keep an emu and a kangaroo on a float on the back of a jeep, pulling it around with eight million people screaming is not logistically the easiest thing to do! So I think the old emu was given a fair whack of ‘Teachers’ whisky just to kind of mellow him out a bit, so he wasn’t going to rip the crap out of everyone on this float. One of the kangaroos was roped down so he wouldn’t go too far, plus now we’re trying to do a drama of bad guys and people jumping off and on this float as it progressed around the city. That was an interesting one to do, just purely for the ludicrous aspect of trying to shoot a kangaroo and an emu, shoot a drama episode, A and B cameras, people talking and walking – it was chaos!”20

Members of the Aboriginal Theatre, from Yirrkala in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, made guest appearances in three episodes of Skippy when they visited Sydney. They appeared in ‘Tara’, ‘Be Our Guest’ and ‘They’re Singing Me Back’. In the latter episode, guest actor Candy Devine performs two songs, ‘Walk You High’ and ‘I Must Go’.

Episode 34, ‘The Last Chance’, is something of a self-parody. In the episode, Skippy stars in a film, performing a number of far-fetched extraordinary deeds - very similar to that featured in the series! Many of the Skippy crew appear in the episode as extras portraying the film crew of the story.

Sydney pop group ‘The Executives’ appeared in ep. 35, ‘The Bushrangers’, the title referring to the name of a band that the group portray in the episode. Four of the six members of the group took part in the episode, with actor Fred Sims playing the fifth band member. They perform two songs in the episode, one being a specially written variation of the Skippy theme tune. Being the talented kangaroo that she is, Skippy even joined the group as a drummer!

The pilot episode, ‘Man From Space’, was included as part of the first series, but it was screened at various times. In some places it was shown early in the series run, whereas most cities (including Sydney and Melbourne) showed it towards the end of the first series or during the second series. There were some differences in the pilot: Garry Pankhurst as Sonny looks noticeably younger, and Ranger Headquarters is a completely different building - the house used in the series was not constructed until after the pilot had been made. The end credits feature a view of the (different) Ranger HQ instead of the usual helicopter on the helipad scene, and the original opening titles were later substituted for the series two stock opening.

Many guest actors of note appeared in Skippy episodes, including Chips Rafferty in ep. 33, 'No Trespassers’. Conspicuous by his absence, however, was Executive Producer John McCallum. An accomplished actor, McCallum was seen in his later productions Barrier Reef and Boney, but never fronted the cameras for Skippy.

John Laws, well-known as an outspoken Sydney talkback radio host, appeared as a villain and performed a rendition of ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ in ep. 41, ‘Honest Jack’, his first major acting role. His part in the episode led directly to him being cast in a lead role opposite Googie Withers in the film The Nickel Queen. John McCallum, who was also Producer of The Nickel Queen, said casting an inexperienced actor paid off: "There were a lot of people opposed to us casting Laws for such an important main role. They said 'You're crazy'. It was a big gamble, but we liked what we saw of him in Skippy. We felt he had the personality and was the right type for the part."21

Barry Crocker (who had just been signed by Nine to host Sound Of Music after Bobby Limb moved the original show from Nine to the Ten Network) made a guest appearance in ep. 65, ‘For My Next Trick’, which was specially written for him by Rene Deveraux (Ed Deveraux’s wife). Crocker, who performs a song in the episode, plays a travelling showman who tries to kidnap Skippy for use in his act, and he said he fell in love with the script: “It has a delicious slapstick sequence at the end in which the animals outwit me, and I can’t remember having enjoyed myself more.”22

When the second series commenced, plans were formulated for the production of a feature-length movie for cinema release, to be filmed after 13 episodes of the second series had been completed. “This is intended primarily for youngsters,” said Producer Dennis Hill. “It will be a Disney style of production for theatre screening during school holidays. Script and budget are complete and we expect to start work on it around June.”23

Filming of the Skippy movie commenced on October 11, 1968. With a working title of Mallacoota, a reference to the location where much of the action took place, the movie was eventually titled The Intruders (although it was often referred to as Skippy And The Intruders). Billed as a Woomera Production, a theme song titled ‘Under The Water, Under The Sea’ was specially written by Rene Deveraux - the Skippy theme song was not used. In addition to the regular filming on the Waratah National Park set, there was a large amount of location filming down the coast at Mallacoota Inlet, with some scenes shot in Eden. (Mallacoota is a small coastal town in Victoria near the border of New South Wales; Eden is the closest town of any significant size, approximately 60km across the border in NSW).

The Intruders premiered in December 1969, in time to capitalise on the school holiday audience. There was some underwater filming in the movie, handled by Ron and Valerie Taylor, and it featured a unique two-man submarine which was later used extensively in the series Barrier Reef. Basically a feature-length episode, the movie was seen as a good rollicking adventure yarn and was well-received by Skippy fans.

A number of episodes in the second series did not feature all the cast members, primarily because they were away down the coast filming the movie. In one episode, No. 71 ‘Maggie’, Tony Bonner is the only regular cast member. Quite apart from the movie project, there were a number of other episodes that Tony Bonner did not appear in. Jerry King’s absence was explained by his promotion to Chief Flight Ranger for the whole National Park Service, which would require him to be away from his ‘home base’ for varying periods.

There were media reports about disagreements and arguments between Tony Bonner and Fauna management. Near the end of the first series they had what Bonner described as “a great mix-in.” “But it cleared the air,” he said. “There were some issues I was not happy about.” Bonner gained a pay increase and a bigger role after threatening to quit. After completion of episode 61, Bonner said “At the moment about every episode in four you get a really good part. But the future is a lot of ‘ifs’. Obviously if I’m concerned with my development as an actor I’m not going to stay helicopter pilot Jerry King forever.”24 And he didn’t. Bonner left the show at the end of the second series.

Liza Goddard had also announced that she was leaving Skippy and returning to Britain, and she filmed her final episode on March 15, at the end of the second series. “I never did intend to do a third series of Skippy,” Liza said, “but the idea of going to England is a bit sudden.”25 Her character was written out in ep. 78, ‘Bon Voyage’, when Clancy finished her music studies and, there no longer being any reason to stay with the Hammonds, returned to her family. In imitation of Liza Goddard’s real-life departure for England, it was also written in that Clancy received a scholarship to continue her music studies in London, and the final scene showed Clancy leaving at the airport.

During filming of the second series, a major breakthrough occurred - a sale was made to the United States. Breakfast cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s entered into a syndication deal which would see Skippy eventually being shown on more than 160 American television stations, commencing in January 1969. At that stage the series was already being seen in 51 countries, and would be screened in 85 countries by the end of the year, and ultimately would reach over 128 countries. Lee Robinson said Skippy had proved that Australia need not confine itself to the local market: “Obviously our artists and technicians have been producing the quality necessary for world success.”26

By March 1969 the second series of 39 episodes was nearing completion, making a total of 78 episodes, plus a feature film. The company was on a roll, and the American sale ensured the financial problems that dogged the early days were now a thing of the past. It was decided to continue production with a third series, and there were media reports that a coloured actor would replace Liza Goddard and Tony Bonner. Filming commenced in April 1969, with the core ‘family’ cast of Ed Deveraux, Ken James and Garry Pankhurst, but no new characters were introduced. A Fauna spokesman said, “Tony and Liza have left the series and their characters have been written out and we’re not replacing them. Tony Bonner, as Jerry King, was never part of the family, anyway. There will be no new people appearing in the third series apart from guest artists.”27

The third series opening titles retained the same style, with different scenes of the actors, and of course the lack of a credit for Tony Bonner. (Some prints of the third series were later modified by reverting to the second series opening titles - probably to allow them to be mixed up with earlier episodes and screened in random order. Unfortunately, these altered episodes are used on the DVD release.) There were a couple of different vehicles being used in the third series, but the major changes were the absence of Clancy and Jerry King. Clancy had been written out at the end of the second series, but no explanation was given for Jerry’s departure - he, and the helicopter, were just simply not there. The audience could only assume that his duties as Chief Flight Ranger were keeping him away from Waratah National Park.

The third series ran to only 13 episodes, making a total of 91, and production was wound up in September 1969. It was never intended to make any more, partly because 91 episodes was considered enough, and partly because Garry Pankhurst was growing up. John McCallum, in his book Life With Googie, later said 91 was too many, and they should have stopped at the end of the second series. The reason was that most countries would only purchase selected episodes, ranging from a minimum of thirteen to a maximum of 78.28

Ed Deveraux agreed, fearing that he had become typecast. On the last day of filming he said: “With Skippy I overstepped the mark. I played Matt Hammond too long. There was no challenge in it for me. With Matt Hammond I had to keep disciplining my temperament simply because I was the centrepiece of the series. I had saturated myself in Matt Hammond and I knew it. I have feared for some time that people must be getting bored with me - tired of watching my ugly mug. You see, there is no escape, even off the set. I always have to be Matt Hammond. I always have to behave myself and never let my guard down because children are very impressionable and I owe it to them. To them I’m not Ed Deveraux, actor. I’m Matt Hammond, head ranger and guardian of all that a hero stands for.”29

Deveraux, who had sunk some of his own money into the Skippy venture, did have some opportunities to stretch his wings throughout the series. In ep. 22, ‘Double Trouble’, he got to play his ‘evil twin’, a bad guy who was impersonating Matt Hammond, allowing Deveraux to display some more of the depth of his acting talent. And in the third series, he directed an episode, No. 86 ‘The Veteran’, for which he received much acclaim from his peers. He also wrote or co-wrote scripts for several episodes.

Over the years, Deveraux would sometimes speak out about the down side of Skippy: “I began to feel as though I was in some kind of prison. I’d gone out to create a character - and he took over. It was the kind of character he was. And I wouldn’t be able to smoke a cigarette or have a drink because it would be a bad image for the children. I had to be Matt Hammond, and it gets too much to wear after a while.”30 But he always emphasised that playing Matt Hammond was a good thing: “Please stress that, for I am always being misquoted.”31 And the lighter side of the role: “Each week I had to face the situation of working out a problem and then, just as I was about to finally solve it, the ‘roo came along and did it for me!”32

After production of the series ceased, the film set in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park was opened to the public in January 1970 as a ‘theme park’ and animal sanctuary, with Skippy and the other animals taking up permanent residence there. Ed Deveraux was on hand, in uniform as Matt Hammond, for the official opening. Initially operated by Fauna Productions, the management of the park changed hands over the years, and was still operating as of 2006.

Skippy was the first Australian series to be heavily merchandised. You could join the ‘Skippy Club’, a fan club that boasted over 67,000 members. In Japan, short 8MM colour films were on sale; In Australia and many overseas countries you could buy Skippy pyjamas, ice-creams, toys, jewellery, soap, comics, jelly-beans, rulers, pencils, puzzles, toothpaste, shampoo, T-shirts, towels, soft drinks - the list goes on and on. The CBC Bank (Commercial Banking Company) had Skippy moneyboxes, the contents of which could be banked with the details entered into a Skippy passbook. There were LP and EP records featuring the theme tune and incidental music, as well as an adventure story narrated by John McCallum; there were several books including Skippy Annuals; and as at 2009 you could still buy Skippy Corn Flakes.

There were even promotional visits. Public appearances were organised for Skippy, usually accompanied by some human cast members, and would always draw capacity crowds. Even after the series ceased production, the promotional visits continued, Skippy appearing with her trainer and ‘manager’ Scotty Denholm. Although most kangaroos look pretty much alike, and a number were used in the series, there was only ever one - Jo-Jo - who would do the promotional visits. And when she wasn’t jet-setting around the country, she would still hold court for her fans at her home at Waratah National Park.

The popularity of Skippy was summed up by Fauna’s Marketing-Merchandising Manager, Kevin Gleeson: “Skippy is clean, non-violent fun with no sex. It’s wholesome, family-type entertainment. And there’s not all that much of this type of television around at the moment, anywhere. And most importantly, any necessary violence is innocuous and insignificant, with the old Skippy coming to the rescue at the end of each episode.”33

Tony Bonner concurred: “It’s an absolute phenomenon, the success of that show, from such a simple format: dad, son, Flight Ranger, kangaroo. No politics, no violence as such. Ed as the father figure always recounted somewhere in each episode some sort of value, family value, or society or community value that underpinned what the show was about, and that was part of the success of it. You could sit down with your family, watch Skippy and know it was going to be a pleasant journey.”34

Two scripts from the series, ep. 45 ‘Follow My Leader’ and ep. 91 ‘Fred’, were used in a textbook for students, titled ‘In Focus’.35  And Tony Bonner tried his hand at a musical career by recording a self-titled album for Festival Records in 1969, which, inevitably, included him singing the Skippy theme song.

The next series to be made by Fauna Productions was Barrier Reef, set in North Queensland, and many of the Skippy crew worked on the new show. Ken James played one of the lead roles in the series, that of diver Kip Young, but it was originally planned that he would continue his character of Mark Hammond in the new series. In the last episode of Skippy he was to be shown leaving Waratah National Park to start a new job on the Great Barrier Reef, however Fauna Productions subsequently decided he should play a new character. For that Ken James was thankful: "I was a bit worried about becoming typecast" he said.36 All the cast members went on to appear in many film and television series, both in Australia and overseas, except Garry Pankhurst - he gave up acting and never returned to the profession.

New regulations governing children's programmes were laid down by the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal in 1979, and many series, old and new, were submitted for a ‘C’ classification. This meant they would be permitted to be screened during certain periods of the day which were specifically dedicated to children’s programming. Skippy was one series which received the coveted ‘C’ classification, even though it was over ten years old at the time.

Skippy was often repeated, ensuring a continuing world-wide audience. On a weekly basis, 91 episodes would require almost two years to play through - when the run was completed, there were enough new kids for the whole process to start again. From the 1980’s onwards, the amount of repeat screenings diminished, but never completely stopped.

There were a couple of spin-off series produced many years later. In 1992 a new series called The Adventures Of Skippy featured Andrew Clarke as an adult Sonny Hammond operating a wildlife park on the Gold Coast in Queensland (sometimes referred to as The New Adventures Of Skippy). An animated series Skippy: Adventures In Bushtown was made in 1998, and featured Skippy as the park ranger in the cartoon world of Bushtown. Both these programs were made by two completely different companies that acquired rights to the series name and concept, but otherwise had no connection to the original Fauna Productions.

Skippy won a number of awards: a 1968 Logie Special Award for Best Export Production; a 1968 Awgie for Michael Wright, writer of ep. 4, 'The Poachers'; a 1968 Penguin for Best Live Show; and a 1969 Charlie Award for Best Promotion and Contribution to the Australian entertainment industry. All three series of Skippy plus the movie The Intruders have been released on DVD.37

 

 

Skippy theme song

Skippy, Skippy,
Skippy the bush kangaroo
Skippy, Skippy,
Skippy a friend ever true

 

Skippy theme ('Bushrangers' variant)
As performed by 'The Executives' in ep. 35, ‘The Bushrangers’.

Hippity hop, She’ll stop
The traffic when she passes by
You’ll stop and wish that you knew where she was going

Hoppity hip, She’ll skip,
Into your heart, you’ll wonder why
The world is all a-glimmer and a-glowing

Cute as a koala and as busy as a bee
Happy as a kookaburra laughing in a tree

Hippity hop, She’s up,
She’s up away, she’ll wave goodbye
That’s when you’ll want the whole wide world to know

That you love Skippy, Skippy,
Skippy the bush drummeroo
Skippy, Skippy,
Skippy a friend ever true

 

SKIPPY EPISODE DETAILS

 




Skippy - the adventures of an exceptional kangaroo - was Australian television's most successful export.


The original cast of Skippy: Ken James, Tony Bonner, Ed Deveraux, Garry Pankhurst and, of course, Skippy the bush kangaroo.


The lead role was played by Ed Deveraux as Matt Hammond, Head Ranger of Waratah National Park.


Tony Bonner played Flight Ranger Jerry King, the resident helicopter pilot.


Ken James as Mark Hammond, Matt Hammond's eldest son.


Garry Pankhurst played Sonny Hammond, the younger son and constant companion of Skippy.


Liza Goddard played Clancy Merrick, the teenage daughter of another park ranger who had been transferred up north. Clancy remained behind, boarding with the Hammonds in order to finish her music tuition.


And the 'star' of the show, of course, is Skippy the bush kangaroo.


Filming a scene utilising the helicopter, one of the expensive 'props' featured in the series.


Another expensive 'prop' - the Ranger Patrol speedboat, with Skippy, Sonny and Matt Hammond on board.


Elke Neidhardt had a support role as Dr. Anna Steiner, a research scientist working in the park. After appearing in six episodes she disappeared, although her character was mentioned in several more episodes.


Frank Thring as the evil Dr. Stark, who appeared in three episodes.


Ed Deveraux discussing whatever with the director. Actually, they are probably not discussing anything at all, just posing that way for a publicity shot.


Sonny and Skippy watching a man fall from a cliff, who turns out to be a stuntman practising his craft, from ep. 46, 'Tex N. Ranger'.


Inside Ranger Headquarters - Tony Bonner as Jerry, Ed Deveraux as Matt and Ken James as Mark.


Liza Goddard.


Skippy in her 'room' at Ranger Headquarters.


An advertisement for the Skippy soundtrack extended play record.


The original Skippy opening titles.


An advertisement for Skippy that appeared in television programme guides.


The opening titles as used for the majority of the second series.


A publicity shot of Ken James and Garry Pankhurst with some dingo pups.


Tony Bonner as Jerry King with Liza Goddard as Clancy Merrick.


Able to leap impassable crevices in a single bound... Rangers Matt Hammond and Jerry King look on as Skippy goes to the rescue once again.


Outside Ranger Headquarters - Ken James as Mark Hammond, Ed Deveraux as Matt Hammond and Tony Bonner as Jerry King.


 Garry Pankhurst as Sonny Hammond with Ken James as Mark Hammond.


Tony Bonner on the set at 'Waratah National Park'.


Garry Pankhurst as Sonny Hammond with Skippy.


Garry Pankhurst - and Skippy - with members of the Aboriginal Theatre from Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, who were visiting from the Northern Territory. While in Sydney they made guest appearances in three episodes.


Sydney pop group 'The Executives' appeared in ep. 35, 'The Bushrangers', which ended in a sloppy mud fight.


Garry Pankhurst and Barry Crocker in ep. 65, 'For My Next Trick'.


Filming of ep. 65, 'For My Next Trick'.


Kevin Miles, Ed Deveraux and Ron Graham on location at Mallacoota during filming of the Skippy movie, 'The Intruders'.


A scene from 'The Intruders': Ed Deveraux & Ken James, with John Unicomb in the water.


A promotional poster for the Skippy movie, 'The Intruders'.


The third series opening titles.


Sonny and Skippy.


Ken James as Mark and Garry Pankhurst as Sonny.


Some Skippy merchandise. At left is an audio adventure record; at right a comic book.


Two of the many Skippy books released. At left a storybook for younger kids, at right one of the regular 'annuals' released for the Christmas market.


Ed Deveraux and Skippy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. John McCallum, Life With Googie (Heinemann London 1979), p. 232.
2. TV Times, April 22, 1970.
3. TV Week, May 20, 1967.
4. TV Week, March 16, 1968.
5. The story is included in the DVD release of the first series of Skippy (Umbrella Entertainment DAVID0215 and DAVID0640).
6. 40 Years Of TV Special, Nine Network.
7. TV Week, May 20, 1967.
8. TV Times, May 21, 1969.
9. TV Week, 1967.
10. TV Times, April 17, 1968.
11. TV Week, March 23, 1968.
12. TV Times, July 10, 1968.
13. Ibid.
14. ‘Which Way Did they Go Skip?’, Skippy DVD (Umbrella Entertainment DAVID0215 and DAVID0640).
15. ‘Gentler Times’, Skippy DVD (Umbrella Entertainment DAVID0202 and DAVID0640).
16. 40 Years Of TV Special, Nine Network.
17. TV Times, April 17, 1968.
18. ‘Which Way Did they Go Skip, Skippy DVD (Umbrella Entertainment DAVID0215 and DAVID0640).
19. TV Times, Nov 4, 1972.
20. ‘Gentler Times’, Skippy DVD (Umbrella Entertainment DAVID0202 and DAVID0640).
21. TV Times, Dec 23, 1970.
22. TV Week, April 26, 1969.
23. TV Times, April 17, 1968.
24. TV Times, Sept 25, 1968.
25. TV Times, Feb 19, 1969.
26. TV Week, Jan 25, 1969.
27. TV Week, May 31, 1969.
28.
John McCallum, Life With Googie (Heinemann London 1979), p. 236.
29. TV Week, Oct 4, 1969.
30. TV Times, April 22, 1970.
31. TV Week, Nov 7, 1970.
32. Ibid.
33. TV Times, Jan 6, 1971.
34. ‘Gentler Times’, Skippy DVD (Umbrella Entertainment DAVID0202 and DAVID0640).
35.
Don Reid, Frank Bladwell, In Focus - Scripts From Commercial Television's Second Decade, (Macmillan Australia, 1972).
36.
TV Week, Sept 13, 1969.
37.
The series has been released on DVD in Australia by Umbrella Entertainment (DAVID0202, DAVID0215, DAVID0539, DAVID0640, DAVID0731 and DAVID1146). The movie has been released on DVD in Britain by Medium Rare Entertainment (FHED1959).