CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

DELTA


Copyright 2013 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


DELTA
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The decision to create a separate Television Drama department within the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) in the mid-1960's was vindicated by the success of their first two productions: the serial Bellbird and the critically-acclaimed crime series Contrabandits. Department head David Goddard presided over this success, and decided to follow up Contrabandits with another series, Delta, in which he took an even more personal interest. Goddard took on the responsibility of producing Delta himself, and even directed some episodes, in addition to his normal duties as head of the department.

Delta was in the planning stages by late 1968, and production commenced on April 21 the following year. The advent of Delta was a major factor in the decision not to proceed with a third series of Contrabandits.

Delta was a very ambitious series. It did not follow any proven and established genres, but instead chose to break new ground by following the adventure and intrigue of a scientific investigation unit. It had a large budget, and it featured extensive location filming. The series was produced entirely on film, at a time when most local productions were integrated film and videotape. A special film unit was created for the series, but despite the generous budget there were no plans for colour filming, and the entire series was shot in black and white.

Delta was devised by Colin Free, who was also Script Editor for the series and wrote a number of episodes. Free had a very prolific output with the ABC, being involved in many series including Contrabandits, Nice 'N' Juicy and (later) Rush.

Music was composed and conducted by George Dreyfuss with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The closing theme was a slightly slower version of the opening theme.

The series title refers to the 'Delta' group, a fictional body loosely based on the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation). The relevance of the name is not clear - delta is the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet, and the organisation's symbol reflects this, consisting of the lower case letter enclosed within an upper case letter. If 'Delta' is an acronym, no reference is made to what it stands for.

The 'Delta' organisation is an independent, non-profit research establishment, on call to anyone - individuals or groups, industry, community or government bodies. They are in effect 'scientific trouble-shooters', utilising mobile laboratories equipped with the latest instruments to tackle any sort of problem anywhere in Australia. The mobile labs are backed up by scientists and research workers in many fields.

The 'Delta' group tackles a wide range of issues from industrial espionage to disease and bushfires. The organisation has a huge charter, which provides a solid basis for a TV series - almost any facet of Australian activity could be utilised for dramatic effect. David Goddard said Delta "had been designed to provide the widest possible range of location and plot".1

In this it succeeded. Although primarily filmed in or near Sydney, episodes were usually set in rural Australia, and filming took place in various locations, including Lake Eyre in South Australia and the Awaba coal mine near Newcastle. Scripts were based on scientific possibilities, and dealt with all sorts of problems and intrigue, including pollution, share-dealing, forgery, mining, conservation - even faith-healing and a lost satellite.

The two lead characters in Delta are scientist Jeff Mallow and his assistant Inger Petri. They are members of a mobile field team, typically the front line staff in any assignment.

It was reported that Robin Ramsay was originally considered for the role of Mallow, but as it happened the part was played by John Gregg, who previously appeared in Contrabandits. Gregg said of the role: "Mallow is a fairly straight character in that he doesn't have any character quirks. He's fairly precise and logical but inclined to be short-tempered at times. Unlike the more impetuous Inger Petri, Mallow stays on an even keel."2

Inger was played by Kirrily Nolan, and was one of only a very few lead roles for women at the time. "I think it's the most interesting Australian TV role ever written for an actress," said Kirrily. "I see Inger as a woman trying to do a job in what is essentially a man's world."3

This was Kirrily's first lead role. She had previously made guest appearances in film and TV, however she was most widely recognised from a commercial for 'Ajax' cleaner. After repeatedly being asked, "Aren't you the 'Ajax' girl?", she decided she would never do any more commercials.

"I like Inger," said Kirrily. "She is feminine only in the nicest way. She is fairly direct in her approach, but she manages to remain a woman. In fact she often pits woman's intuition against John Gregg's more factual scientific information. And sometimes she comes off best. It's good she doesn't always win because that wouldn't be human. Both roles are fairly well drawn and some of the problems we explore are interesting."4

As the series is plot-driven rather than character-driven, the two regulars were introduced quickly. We learnt more about their characters as the series unfolded, but as the emphasis in Delta is on the assignment rather than the characters, they were not explored to any great depth.

Kirrily: "Australian writers are still inclined to make characters such as Inger and Mallow rather precious, and always doing the right things. But viewers like to see characters with faults and prejudices. They like to see characters on the screen and be able to say, 'Now that's just the sort of stupid thing I would do'."5

John Gregg concurred: "Because the pair have to be diplomatic in their approach to human problems, there isn't any really strong characterisation."6

A third cast member was Kevin Miles, who played super-efficient scientist Brian Fitch. Fitch's supercilious manner proved a great foil for Inger's impetuousness.

Delta premiered in Sydney on September 25, 1969. Melbourne viewers saw the series the following day. It was shown in an 8:00 PM timeslot nationally, either on Thursday or Friday night depending on regional programming.

The opening titles were very unimaginative, consisting of an aerial view of the 'Delta' mobile lab travelling along an isolated country road. Titles and credits were superimposed over this scene, with the 'Delta' symbol leaping up at the screen at the last minute.

The series received a mixed reaction from the critics. Some praised it as an excellent production, others thought the pace was too slow compared to offerings from the commercial channels. Perhaps some critics missed the point - Delta is an intelligent series, and it thrives on typical ABC drama understatement. It was not intended as a mindless time-filler for couch potatoes.

Another regular support character was introduced in the final episode of the first series, although it was not planned that way. The episode, titled 'R.I.P.', was being filmed on location in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. During rehearsals, the original guest actor contracted for the episode, Katy Wild (Spyforce, Good Morning, Mr. Doubleday, Our Man In The Company), fell from a horse and broke her leg. "I couldn't work for six months," said Katy, "my part was replaced by Patsy Trench. I lost nine episodes of Delta and three of Barrier Reef."7 Patsy Trench (who previously appeared in the childrens sci-fi series Phoenix Five) was called in as a last minute replacement, and Producer David Goddard was so impressed with her acting ability that she was signed up for the regular role in the second series.

Patsy plays the part of rebellious 'Delta' employee Jackie Stewart, an expert scientist who also has a proclivity to 'rub people up the wrong way'. "She's not really a bitch," said Patsy of the character, "but she is tremendously independent, tough-minded and has no regard whatsoever for others."8

The first series finished screening in December 1969, and the second series went to air in July 1970. There were 12 episodes in the first series, and 11 in the second, making a total of 23 episodes. The second series was screened in a Friday night timeslot in all states.

The new series also had a large budget. Episode 14, 'Look Thy Last', had segments filmed on location near Newcastle - underground! Producer David Goddard said, "'Look Thy Last' was the first time an Australian film crew has filmed a drama down a coal mine. It was very important and exciting for the crew to work so far underground."9

An even more exotic location was a dried salt lake in South Australia. Episode 17, 'Deathwalk', had segments filmed at Lake Eyre, but the crew ran into severe problems. Because of the remote location, eleven days had been allowed for the shoot, but it ended up taking 17 days when unexpected rain - the first in 14 months - flooded the usually dry lake.

Director of the episode, Wolfgang Storch, said, "The yearly average rainfall is supposed to be two inches, but we had 75 points in three days. During the fourth and sixth days we encountered vicious sandstorm winds up to 40 miles an hour. This meant part of the crew had to help hold down the hut we were filming in.

"On the ninth day it began raining persistently for two and a half days, during a scene in which the cast were to be found wandering in a desert-like atmosphere. Lake Eyre was covered in six inches of water, and we had to re-shoot scenes in sand-dunes near Newcastle and Cronulla (NSW)."10

In most states the second series was seen at 8:00 PM, following the half-hour current affairs program This Day Tonight, which put it out of alignment with the commercial stations one-hour slot at 7:30 PM. In spite of the awkward timeslot, Delta developed a solid following, although its overall rating in Melbourne was only 7. "Even from the start we received a great deal of mail from children and other viewers," said Kirrily Nolan. "A lot of the children asked us to stay at their properties when next the Delta team was in their district."11

There was no romance between Inger and Mallow, although to many it would have been an obvious character development. "As a matter of fact I'm rather disappointed that Inger and Jeff didn't become engaged or have a romance," said Kirrily. "Viewers would perhaps have become more interested in the two of us if there had been some romance. However, I don't think our lack of romance spoilt Delta one bit. Perhaps it could have made it better, that's all."12

Although Delta was plot-driven rather than character-centred, and lack of romance notwithstanding, Inger Petri and Jeff Mallow were in competent hands. Kirrily Nolan and John Gregg did an excellent job portraying the two characters, developing a rapport between them which added depth and interest to the show.

Asked whether he preferred Delta or Contrabandits, John Gregg replied, "Delta is better in the sense that is has much wider scope. Contrabandits was tied down like Homicide and Hunter. You are a Customs man or a policeman and you do the job in a certain way. But in Delta each episode is different.

"Even in Delta we have to do tedious things such as carrying a lot of plot lines. I find this dissatisfying at times. Quite often the good stuff is written for the guests because writers find it easier to create new characters than to write for the established ones. But somebody has to keep the plot moving and this is generally the lot of the regulars like me."13

"The best aspect of Delta," said Kirrily Nolan, "was that it set out to do something entirely new. The idea of a series based on a scientific team was original. Of course this made it a little difficult at first for all of us. But I'm glad it wasn't a cops and robbers show. I would have loved Delta to have been made in colour so that the series could be sold overseas. Judging from the reaction of some overseas people I know who saw the series, I'd say that other countries would probably be fascinated by it."14  The ABC did manage at least one overseas sale - to Britain in 1972.

Two Delta episodes won awards: Episode 1, 'The Short Sell', won an Australian Film Institute Bronze Reel Award; and Tony Morphett was joint winner of an Australian Writers Guild Awgie award for Best Script For A TV Drama Series for episode 19, 'A Touch Of DFP'. (The award was shared with John Dingwall for Homicide episode 208, "Everyone Knows Charlie').

When Delta first went into production it was expected to have a longer life than Contrabandits, although initial planning was only for two series. David Goddard said he thought Contrabandits had exhausted most of its possible script situations, whereas Delta had the potential to last longer.15 As it happened the original two series planned were all that were produced.

There were a number of reasons why a third series did not eventuate. Delta ran over budget, not least because of the problems filming the South Australian episode, which could explain why only 11 episodes were made in the second series, instead of 12 as in the first series. Also, David Goddard was not finding it easy running his department in addition to producing Delta and occasionally directing episodes. These factors plus internal politics led to Goddard resigning from the ABC and returning to England in 1970.

Goddard's successor was John Cameron, and the Drama department gained a new steadiness under his direction, while continuing to build on the foundation that Goddard had established. This transition, coupled with the budget over-run, caused any ideas of a third series of Delta to be forgotten. The next series to be produced by the ABC Drama Department was Dynasty, adapted from the novel by Tony Morphett.

Although the ABC had produced quite a few drama programs previously, Contrabandits and Delta were the foundation stones in the establishment of a viable TV Drama department within the Commission. The department continued to produce high quality drama in-house for the next twenty-odd years, after which the ABC pursued a policy of co-productions with outside packagers.

The cast moved on to many and varied things, all appearing in various film and television roles. Kevin Miles went directly to lead roles in The Link Men and Dynasty, and John Gregg had the central role in the 1979 ABC series The Oracle.

A script from the second series, episode 14, 'Look Thy Last', was used in 'Close-Up', a textbook for students.16

Delta has not been screened since the mid-1970's, in common with most Aussie productions of the era. It is the sort of material that should be released on ABC Video/DVD, but because of the logistics associated with residuals it probably never will.

 

DELTA EPISODE DETAILS

 

1. Melbourne Age, Sept 26, 1969.
2. TV Times, Nov 12, 1969.
3. TV Times, Nov 26, 1969.
4. TV Week, Nov 8, 1969.
5. TV Times, Nov 26, 1969.
6. TV Times, Nov 12, 1969.
7. TV Times, July 15, 1970.
8. TV Week, Feb 21, 1970.
9. TV Times, July 29, 1970.
10. Ibid.
11. TV Week, Aug 22, 1970.
12. Ibid.
13. TV Times, Nov 12, 1969.
14. TV Week, Aug 22, 1970.
15. Melbourne Age, Sept 26, 1969.
16. Don Reid, Frank Bladwell, Close-Up - Scripts From National Television's Second Decade, (Macmillan Australia 1971)
 



John Gregg as Jeff Mallow and Kirrily Nolan as Inger Petri, the two principal field officers of the 'Delta' organisation.


Kevin Miles as specialist scientist Brian Fitch.


Kirrily Nolan and John Gregg in a scene from episode 10, 'A Beautiful Burn'.


Kirrily Nolan.


John Gregg and Kirrily Nolan as Jeff Mallow and Inger Petri in the 'Delta' laboratory.


Kirrily Nolan admitted to being a conservative dresser before Delta.16 As Inger Petri, Kirrily often dressed 'Nancy Sinatra style' in mini-skirt and boots. Her outfits were supplied for the series, and attracted favourable comment in fashion circles.


Kirrily Nolan and John Gregg on set in their personal chairs.


Delta opening titles.


Between takes on location in northern New South Wales for filming of episode 15, 'The Fatted Calf'. Left to right: Patsy Trench, John Gregg and Kirrily Nolan.


Another scene with Kirrily Nolan as Inger Petri and John Gregg as Jeff Mallow.


John Gregg and Kirrily Nolan in a scene from episode 8, 'The Initiates', filmed on location at an historic homestead at Appin, near Sydney.


Filming of episode 17, 'Deathwalk', on location in South Australia at remote Lake Eyre. Kirrily Nolan and John Gregg are in the vehicle.


A group photo taken during filming of the final episode, 'Overkill'. Up the ladder on the left is guest actor Maria Goddard (daughter of producer David Goddard, and sister of Liza Goddard who played Clancy in Skippy). Next to her is Katy Wild (who later appeared in Spyforce) made up in 'blackface' for a guest role. In the front row from left is guest actor Don Pascoe, and regulars Patsy Trench, John Gregg, Kirrily Nolan and Kevin Miles.


Patsy Trench, who played scientist Jackie Stewart.


John Gregg and Kirrily Nolan on location.