CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

CONTRABANDITS


Copyright © 2013 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


CONTRABANDITS
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While Crawford Productions, through their groundbreaking series Homicide, are rightly credited with pioneering Australian drama production, there was another organisation that also had a commitment to local drama - the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). When television began in 1956, the ABC treated the new medium as complementary to radio. Consequently the production of television drama became the responsibility of the Drama and Features Department - the same department that produced drama for radio.

Early ABC drama was limited to one-off plays. In 1960 the historical serial Stormy Petrel was produced, the success of which led to the production of a drama 'mini-series' for the next five years - The Outcasts, The Patriots, The Hungry Ones, The Purple Jacaranda and My Brother Jack. The Children's Department also produced some shows, including Smugglers Beware and The Stranger.

Change was in the air. Charles Moses, General Manager of the ABC since 1935, retired and was succeeded by Talbot Duckmanton in November 1964. Shortly afterwards radio was separated from television within the Commission, and programming took on a new direction. A Television Drama department was created, and the existing Drama and Features department was limited to radio. Head of the new department was David Goddard,1 who came to Australia after leaving the British Broadcasting Commission (BBC) in 1965. He had been acting with a growing level of autonomy as Assistant Director for Television in the Drama and Features department for some time.

Many new faces turned up at the ABC during this period. Arriving at the same time as Goddard was Eric Tayler, a former BBC producer who worked with Goddard on the British series Z Cars and Maigret. In 1966 Tayler produced the first ABC series (i.e. self-contained episodes) - the situation comedy Nice 'N' Juicy. Colin Free, an Australian writer who had also worked for the BBC, joined the Commission at this time and would work on many projects in the years to come, including the critically-acclaimed Rush.

Drama output became more prolific under Goddard’s management, and was channelled into three main genres: series (self-contained episodes), serials (continuing narrative) and the traditional one-off play. The first fruits of this new policy were the long-running soap opera Bellbird and the critically acclaimed series Contrabandits.

Goddard appointed Eric Tayler as Producer of Contrabandits, and Colin Free wrote the script for the pilot episode. Considering the success of Homicide and the popularity of police shows generally, it was perhaps inevitable that the ABC would produce a crime show of its own. However, the formula was varied - instead of cops we have the Customs Special Branch, an elite group of law-enforcers intercepting contraband in Sydney.

Head of the squad is Chief Inspector Ted Hallam, a tough but human, no-nonsense type played by English actor Denis Quilley. Hallam hates drug-runners, works long hours and is a respected officer. Quilley came to Australia to take part in a stage play, and was contacted by Tayler only 48 hours before he was due to return to Britain. Some fast talking by Tayler convinced Quilley to cancel his arrangements and stay in Australia to work on Contrabandits. Securing the services of a widely experienced actor was considered by Tayler to be a great stroke of luck: "Denis' knowledge of TV pace and the restrictions of working in this medium have been invaluable to other members of the cast. He has been a tremendous help to everyone - and every actor and actress in Contrabandits is delighted to have had the opportunity of working with him and learning from him."2 Quilley returned to Britain at the conclusion of the series (appearing in, amongst many other things, the cult sci-fi show Timeslip).

Janet Kingsbury plays Mardi Shiel, the squad's office girl. Mardi is a university graduate determined to succeed in a man's world, and is frequently involved in dangerous field work.

Two other squad members made up the team. Bob Piper is a few years younger than Hallam, and is brash, outgoing and wisecracking, but likeable. Jim Shurley is the 'tough-guy' of the team - older, separated from his wife, with a chip on his shoulder and subject to mood swings. Piper was played by John Bonney, who also acted in England before returning to Australia permanently. "Eric Tayler, whom I'd worked with in London when he was head of BBC2 Drama, offered me the role of Bob Piper, and I knew I'd done the right thing coming back to Australia" said Bonney.3 Shurley was played by veteran actor Ben Gabriel, who had extensive credits in many local productions.

Bob Haddow plays a support role as Ross, the squad's radio operator, who also assists in field operations from time to time.

The series was made with the approval of the Department of Customs and Excise, and the squad is loosely based on the actual activities of the Department's Prevention And Detection Branch. In fact, the Department made an officer available to the ABC to act as technical adviser and check scripts for authenticity. Tayler stated: "Contrabandits will be fiction based on fact. We have created a special branch of the Customs Department but its application will be realistic."4

Filming of the pilot episode commenced in early March 1967, and the series was in regular production by July. Initially 13 episodes were made, each 50 minutes in length. Like most other series of the period it was produced in black and white as a film/video integration - exterior scenes on film, interior on video. A second series followed, bringing the total number of episodes to 30.5

Contrabandits was certainly the boldest initiative in drama yet by the ABC. Like Homicide and Hunter before it on the commercial channels, there was plenty of action and copious location filming. Quality and authenticity was the aim, and consequently the ABC gave the series a budget more lavish than any previous drama production. The large budget was evident not only in the extensive location filming, but also in such aspects as underwater filming in Sydney Harbour and the use of a 17-foot high-speed hydrofoil.

Contrabandits was the foundation on which the ABC's reputation for high quality drama was built. "There'll be no quackery in this show," said Tayler. "Our only gimmick will be realism, good acting and good scripts."6

Realism and authenticity were certainly achieved, with the stalwart members of the Customs Special Branch tackling not only drug-runners and smugglers, but also raiding opium dens and dealing with illegal immigrants. Tayler acknowledged the assistance of the Department: "Customs men have bent over backward to provide us with ideas and to vet scripts."7

Many scripts were based on actual cases. John Bonney stated: "The subject of the series opens up endless possibilities for stories - smugglers, drug-runners and so on. The point is, too, that the idea isn't far-fetched. This sort of thing is actually going on here, in Australia, right now."8

Tayler was also enthusiastic: "Drugs, watches and jewellery are brought to our shores by smugglers continually. Most of the stories in Contrabandits are factual and based on the work of the Customs Department. The Sydney Customs officers are flat out all the time - sometimes they even have to work 30 hours continuously. They intercept thousands upon thousands of dollars in contraband every year. We try to keep the work of the Contrabandits team reasonably factual, but naturally we dramatise the more mundane parts of police work."9

The fictional squad of Contrabandits is experimental, and sometimes its methods are not acceptable to the higher authorities. Hallam's Customs Special Branch is usually overworked, understaffed and under constant pressure to succeed when regular departments fail. Hallam's superior is mentioned but never seen - he is referred to as 'The Collector'.

Tayler commented on the scripts: "I have invited 60 Australian writers to submit scripts and I will settle for nothing but the best. The Australian viewer has accepted too much of too little in the past. That's not good enough for me. I want the best and that is what they are going to get."10

The scripts were of a high standard, but finding the writers proved to be a problem. Of the more than 60 writers tried out, only five wrote episodes for the first series. "Australians can be proud of their actors but the writers are hard to find," said Tayler. "There are plenty of people with good ideas for plots but when it comes to turning it into a TV script the system breaks down."11 Colin Free wrote several episodes, in addition to his duties as script editor for the series. In fact, some scripts required heavy editing by Free to the point that they were almost completely rewritten.

John Bonney was enthusiastic about the series: "The film unit is as good as any I've worked with anywhere in the world, the scripts are by some of Australia's best writers and first class - it's a thoroughly realistic adult show that could compete on the international TV market without our feeling inferior about it because it's Australian."12

As with most other local productions of the 1960’s, actors were often required to do their own stunts. "I said early in the piece I didn’t want to be the sort of chief who is desk-bound," said Denis Quilley. "Brother – I got my wish in trumps. I’ve found myself leaping into the harbour to rescue bods. I also managed to take to the water off the deck of the hydrofoil and in one scene where I was supposed to halt a bloke on a motorbike I did it so well that I got shot over it’s handlebars."13

John Bonney and Janet Kingsbury took up scuba diving for the series, under the guidance of expert divers Ron and Valerie Taylor.14 "I had to take deep sea diving lessons," said Bonney, "for a fair bit of diving to the bottom of Sydney Harbour I was called on to do in a couple of episodes. We did it at night in the depths of winter, and Janet Kingsbury and I had to swim around in a pool full of sharks. That was a bit nerve-racking. But it was worth it when we saw the final results on the show."15 "I saw this baby turtle come up and bite John Bonney on the bottom," Janet said. "I laughed. It was quite an experience – don’t ever try to laugh underwater!"16

Arnold Butcher composed the music for the series. There was a separate theme for the opening and closing credits, as well as incidental music. A more dynamic theme was substituted for the second series opening, also written by Butcher.

Contrabandits premiered on September 22, 1967 in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, and a week later in Adelaide and Hobart. Critics were generally very impressed with the series, and praised its professionalism. All except Phillip Adams, who superciliously dismissed the entire crime show genre, stating that "if it is not worth doing, it is not worth doing well."17

Many critics made favourable comparisons between Contrabandits and Tayler’s previous BBC series Maigret and Z Cars. Frank Doherty wrote in TV Times: "Contrabandits has the unmistakable evidence all the way through of Eric Tayler’s skill as a producer – his flawless use of background music, for instance, which was a marked feature of Z Cars and the way his players were rehearsed to the point of naturalness."18

TV Week also stated that Contrabandits had "the same accent on realism, economy of dialogue, distinctive theme music and wry little touches of humour" as Maigret and Z Cars.19 In fact, one scene in the first episode showed a dope pusher whistling the Z Cars theme as he checks out a vehicle.

TV Week also said, "Contrabandits has all the ingredients for success – apart from its big, big, budget, two of its stars are handsome and a third is a stunning blonde."20 The sort of superficial rubbish you expect from TV Week, really.

The first episode, ‘Cage A Tame Tiger’, won writer Colin Free a 1967 Awgie (Australian Writers Guild) award for Best Script For A TV Drama Series. James Workman won an Awgie Merit for the script of episode 8, 'Target, Smokehouse'.

John Gregg joined the regular cast from episode 9, 'Films Are Just For Kicks', as Customs agent Charles Keally, who is younger than the others and is enthusiastic and dedicated. He and Denis Quilley are both endowed with rather large nasal protrusions, and, while watching rushes of a side-on scene where the two confront each other, Quilley quipped, "They ought to call this show ‘The War of the Noses’."21

The same episode also caused a minor controversy due to a nude scene featuring actress Janne Walmsley. Today it would be considered so mild that one wonders what all the fuss was about.

Contrabandits was well-received by the viewing public. In addition to the traditional ABC viewers, the show also attracted an audience that would normally be confined to the commercial stations. In fact, such was the popularity of the series that a paperback novel was released, titled ‘Shark Bait’, written by scriptwriter James Workman.22

Department head David Goddard had succeeded in revolutionising the ABC's drama output. "It's taken more than two years of intensive concentration and training in all branches of production to reach Contrabandits," said Goddard. "I feel that episodes have been as good as the best of Z Cars - because they have been produced properly by Eric Tayler and his team.  From the start I was keen to get as much drama as possible on the air, to allow everyone to learn, if you like. We learned a lot from Australian Playhouse and Nice 'n Juicy."23

Filming began on the second series of Contrabandits in the autumn of 1968 - four months after the final episode of the first series went to air. The delay was apparently caused by a lack of funds due to excessive expenditure on the new (and very successful) current affairs programme This Day Tonight. Consequently, all the actors were laid off – although the crew, being full-time employees of the ABC, were kept on at full pay.

Understandably, this caused some bitterness amongst the actors, who had no comeback because their contracts were worded to allow for such a situation. One actor, wishing to remain anonymous, spoke out to TV Week: "The ABC’s attitude towards us is shabby and penny-pinching to say the least. Suddenly we found ourselves in a position where we were told to report back for work on Contrabandits ‘some time in the New Year.’ It is about time that actors were given a better deal – at least we could be placed on the same footing as the men behind the scenes." TV Week unconvincingly attributed the statement to ‘a close friend quoted a cast member as saying…’ 24

The first episode of the second series, ‘Closed Circuit’, went to air in August 1968. The episode featured extensive filming on board the ocean liner Angelina Lauro during a cruise to New Zealand. The cast and crew returned on the ship, and the film was left in Wellington to be forwarded back to Australia quickly by air. However, it was seized by a fervent New Zealand Customs official, and was finally sent on after urgent pleas from the ABC gained a special clearance. The film arrived in Sydney one hour after the ship returned!

Episode 15, ‘Samson Out Of Joint’, caused a bit of a stir, once again because of a bedroom scene. The actress concerned was reportedly only aged in her mid-teens, and asked the ABC not to reveal her name because of her age. Consequently she is not identified in the episode credits. The scene concerns a young girl who sneaks into the bedroom of a pop star, undresses and waits for him in his bed. The episode also featured Sydney disc jockey Ward Austin as himself, This Day Tonight reporter Gerald Stone as himself, and a song was specially written for one scene by Arnold Butcher.

Episode 17, ‘In For A Penny’, would prove to be the most lavish of the whole series. A harbour-side luxury home, expensive cars, an ocean cruiser, a seaplane, a Navy patrol boat and a helicopter are all used in the episode. Actor, ballet dancer and choreographer Robert Helpmann featured in the lead guest role, and Eric Tayler said they were "very fortunate indeed" to procure his services. "When we first approached him we didn’t think we stood much of a chance of getting him, but he agreed to give us a week. That had to cover everything – learning the script, rehearsal and shooting. He has been wonderful to work with and everyone connected with the show feels it has been a great privilege to have him in the cast."25  "The reason I'm doing it," said Helpmann, "is that I saw some of the episodes they made last year and I thought the quality of the production was superb."26

Episode 23, ‘Write-Off’, featured some spectacular aircraft scenes shot at Camden Aerodrome on the outskirts of Sydney, directed by Ken Hannam. One scene had cameraman Lloyd Shiels lying flat out on a runway filming a plane landing, which passed only a few feet over the top of him. The same episode features an appearance by pop singer Frankie Davidson.

There was some real-life drama during the filming of ep. 29, ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’. The cast and crew were on location in Palmer Street, Darlinghurst, on October 31, 1968. One of the actors, unnamed, told the story to TV Times: "As we did the filming, louts were standing around, ribbing and taunting us. Further down the street, several boys with dogs were set upon by a gang of motorbike hoodlums, then some men rushed out of a nearby café and got stuck into the hoodlums."27

But the worst was yet to come. Only a few hundred yards away from the filming a 38-year-old Greek man was shot in the stomach, apparently the victim of mistaken identity. The gunman escaped in a car. John Bonney, who had trained as a medical orderly, administered first aid to the victim. "We thought they were starting pistol shots," said Bonney, "but I saw this man lying on the pavement and knew something dreadful had happened. I rushed to comfort him. These ugly incidents made us feel awful, but we carried on filming until 5 A.M."28

Despite its success, there were no plans for a third series of Contrabandits. This was partly attributable to Denis Quilley’s decision to return to England in the New Year, but was mainly due to the development of a new series, Delta, which would feature John Gregg in one of the lead roles. Drama department head David Goddard was very instrumental in setting up Delta – in addition to his normal duties, he produced the series, which was shot entirely on film.

Quilley found no shortage of work upon returning to England. "In all, I was two and a half years in Australia, and that's a long time to be away from London," he said. "I was prepared to be out of work for a long time, but as it turned out, the British TV companies that knew me were glad to have a face they knew, yet had been off the British screens for a while."29  Quilley looked back on his Contrabandits role with affection: "Although Hallam was a goodie, he was a very tough goodie. He wasn't all sweetness and light. It was a great pleasure to play someone with a bit of depth to his character. Although I'd done a great deal of TV work in London, I'd never had the opportunity to play the same character in a continuing series until I made Contrabandits. The character of Hallam was very sympathetic to me. I liked him very much, and I found that as the series progressed I was able to develop his personality. I think I made him more believable as time went on. So from the point of view of my own professional skill, the series was most useful to me."30 

The repeat screening rights for Contrabandits were sold to the Seven Network in July 1969. HSV-7 considered that a commercial station could attract a new and larger audience for Contrabandits than the ABC, and they initially screened the series in a peak timeslot commencing on August 7, 1969, when the Australian-made adventure series Riptide finished its run. This was the first time a commercial network had bought a locally produced drama series from the ABC, and it commenced a trend that grew over the years and is still followed today.31

Contrabandits was an excellent series by any standard. In addition to the two ‘Awgies’ it won for writing, cast and crew were also recognised with four Penguin awards: Ben Gabriel - Best Supporting Actor (1967); Eric Tayler - Best Producer (1968); Denis Quilley - Leading Talent Commendation, Drama (1968); and Janet Kingsbury - Supporting Talent Commendation (1968).

Unfortunately, Contrabandits has not been screened since the advent of colour television.

 

The Contrabandits 'bird'

As part of the publicity for the series, the ABC distributed stickers of the Contrabandits emblem, which resembles a bird in flight. However, it seems everyone had different ideas about which way the ‘bird’ should fly – even the cast and crew could not agree – and the stickers appeared with the ‘bird’ flying in all sorts of weird directions. So the official word came from the ABC that the ‘bird’ flies from left to right – and this is the way the emblem was consistently shown in features in all the major television periodicals and on the cover of the novel. Which is all very satisfactory until one glances at the opening and closing credits of the series, and observes that the ‘bird’ always flies in the opposite direction, from right to left…

 

CONTRABANDITS EPISODE DETAILS

 


1. David Goddard is the father of actress Liza Goddard, whose first major role was as Clancy Merrick in Skippy.
2. South Australia TV Guide, Aug 18, 1968.
3. TV Week, Nov 25, 1967.
4. TV Times, July 26, 1967.
5. Some reference works state incorrectly that only 29 episodes were made, including Tony Harrison Australian Film And Television Companion (Simon & Schuster, Sydney, 1994) p. 163; and Albert Moran Moran’s Guide To Australian TV Series, (Australian Film Television & Radio School 1993), p. 126. The latter work has a significant number of errors.
6. TV Times, July 26, 1967.
7. TV Week, Sept 16, 1967.
8. TV Week, Jan 28,1967.
9. Melbourne Listener In-TV, Sept 16, 1967.
10. TV Times, July 26, 1967.
11. Melbourne Listener In-TV, Sept 16, 1967.
12. TV Week, Nov 25, 1967.
13. TV Times, Sept 20, 1967.
14. Ron and Valerie Taylor are world-renowned diving experts, known particularly for their photography. They would later direct the underwater sequences for the Fauna Productions series Barrier Reef.
15. TV Week, Nov 25, 1967.
16. TV Times, Sept 20, 1967.
17. Sydney Australian, Sept 30, 1967.
18. TV Times, Oct 4, 1967.
19. TV Week, Sept 30, 1967.
20. TV Week, Sept 16, 1967.
21. TV Times, Sept 27, 1967.
22. James Workman Contrabandits: Shark Bait (Horwitz Publications, Sydney, 1968).
23. TV Times, Dec 13, 1967.
24. TV Week, April 14, 1968.
25. TV Week, June 22, 1968.
26. TV Times, July 3, 1968.
27. TV Times, Nov 13, 1968.
28. Ibid.
29. TV Week, April 24, 1971.
30. ibid.
31. This does not include the arrangements pertaining to The Interpretaris, Vega 4 and (later) Phoenix Five, which were produced by the ABC in conjunction with Artransa Park Studios. Because of the relationship between Artransa and ATN-7, these series had repeat screening rights on the Seven Network slated from inception. Later ABC series that were repeated on commercial networks included Woobinda (Animal Doctor), Power Without Glory and Alvin Purple, amongst many others produced from the 1980's onwards.



The original Contrabandits cast. (L to r) Ben Gabriel as Jim Shurley, Denis Quilley as Chief Inspector Ted Hallam, Janet Kingsbury as Mardi Shiel and John Bonney as Bob Piper.

 


Three of the Contrabandits cast in a pose reminiscent of early Homicide publicity. (L to r) Ben Gabriel, Denis Quilley and John Bonney.

 

 
Bob Haddow as Ross, the squad's radio operator and sometime field operative. He is pictured with Denis Quilley as Inspector Hallam.

 

 
Janet Kingsbury and John Bonney both had to become proficient at scuba diving for their Contrabandits roles.

 

 
A publicity photo using the Sydney Harbour Bridge as a backdrop.
(L to r) Ben Gabriel, Denis Quilley, John Bonney and Janet Kingsbury.

 

 
Contrabandits
opening titles.

 


Janet Kingsbury and Denis Quilley.

 


Janet Kingsbury as Mardi Shiel.

 


John Gregg joined the regular cast from episode 9 as Customs agent Charles Keally.

 


Denis Quilley reading the Contrabandits novel.

 


Chivalry was not yet dead in the late 1960's. Hallam (Denis Quilley) helps Mardi (Janet Kingsbury) with her diving gear.

 

Scenes from episode 14 filmed aboard ship en route to New Zealand:

Denis Quilley, Janet Kingsbury, Janne Walmsley and Producer Eric Tayler.


Janne Walmsley wearing a dress promoting the ABC's London-based show Now Time.


Denis Quilley and Janet Kingsbury.


Janne Walmsley, ship’s captain E. Ummarino, Janet Kingsbury and Denis Quilley.

 


Rowena Wallace made a guest appearance in episode 20, 'Game For Two Players'.

 


Janet Kingsbury and John Bonney prepare to go diving in Sydney Harbour.