CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

EMERGENCY


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EMERGENCY
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The first television series made in Australia was The Adventures Of Long John Silver, produced here by overseas interests in 1955. Drama production over the next few years following the introduction of television had been limited to a live-to-air sit-com (Take That - 1957), a soap opera (Autumn Affair - 1958-59) and several one-off plays. As technical standards improved, it was inevitable that an Australian drama series would be produced.

Roland Strong, one of Australia's top radio scriptwriters, had written a pilot script for a series to be set in the casualty ward of a busy metropolitan hospital. The script was presented to the management of Melbourne's GTV-9, who could see the dramatic potential in such a setting. They gave approval for the series, now titled Emergency, to begin production.

Realising that such a series would be quite expensive to produce by itself, GTV sought a sponsor and entered into a contract with BP/COR Petroleum. The contract allowed for the production of 52 half-hour episodes, after which time the situation would be reviewed.

During this period, Strong had not been idle. He extensively re-wrote the pilot script, correcting what he felt to be major flaws. He had also settled on a cast - Brian James in the lead role of Dr. Geoffrey Thompson, and Syd Conabere as orderly George Rogers, Thompson's trusted assistant. Judith Godden was cast as Nurse Jill Adamson, and Moira Carleton featured as Matron Evans. Natalie Raine played May, the hospital switchboard girl who had a soft spot for George Rogers, and Nevil Thurgood appeared as an Ambulance officer. James, Conabere and Carleton had all worked extensively in theatre, and in radio and television plays, while Godden was a relative newcomer to the industry.

A huge set, designed by George Havrillay, was constructed in GTV's Studio One, the same studio where the enormously successful In Melbourne Tonight variety programme was produced. Production of Emergency began early in January 1959. For technical advice, Strong contacted the Royal Melbourne Hospital, which loaned various items of medical equipment and provided coaching for the actors in its usage. An ambulance and an ambulance officer were supplied by the Victorian Civil Ambulance Service. GTV even sent a programme executive to London to learn about the production methods on a similar British series, Emergency Ward Ten (which featured Australian actor Bud Tingwell).

Roland Strong directed all the rehearsals, and Denzil Howson, GTV's Assistant Programme Manager, directed the series when in Studio One for actual production and tele-recording. This always took place on a Monday, commencing at 6:30 AM, and the studio had to be vacated by 6:00 PM so that the huge set could be removed to allow the IMT set to be moved in, ready for rehearsals at 7:00 PM.

The first episode went to air on February 16th, 1959. After an opening voice over proclaimed, "The doors never close in Casualty; the lights never go out", viewers saw the tale of a car accident which injured a married couple. They regain consciousness in hospital and ask about their young daughter, who is still lying seriously injured in the wreckage. The child was then raced to hospital, where Dr. Thompson battled to save her life.

Audience reaction was generally favourable, and the episode rated well. Emergency went to air on ATN-7 in Sydney a fortnight later, to a somewhat less enthusiastic response. (At that stage ATN-7 Sydney was affiliated with GTV-9 Melbourne. The Nine and Seven Networks would not emerge until several years later, following changes in station ownership). GTV, and their sponsor BP, were justifiably proud of launching an Australian drama production, and a voice-over on the opening titles stated: BP Australia Limited presents Emergency. Some episodes added: an all-Australian production.

From the start, Emergency had more than its fair share of problems. The programme was recorded on kinescope, as videotape was not available at that time, and kinescope was the only process available to record television images on 16mm film. (A special 16mm camera was focused on a high intensity screen and the pull-down was synchronised to occur during the second frame of the interface). While this process had the advantage of speed - each scene could be viewed as it would appear on screen, without having to wait for film rushes to be developed - it also had one serious drawback. GTV-9 management decreed that a sliced film could not be telecast, therefore each 13 minute block had to be recorded in its entirety (the programme had a centre commercial break). If an actor had trouble with a line of dialogue, or a set shook, the scene could not be re-shot. This inability to remove errors from the finished episode was one of the primary sources of criticism for the series. As reviewers commented, viewers don't expect to see actors stumble on lines in a filmed show.

Another source of criticism was the quality of the scripts. Because the top scriptwriters in Melbourne at the time did not want to be involved with the project (most thinking that Emergency, with its limited facilities, had no future), Roland Strong was forced to write many of the scripts himself. Strong's wealth of experience as a top radio scriptwriter (notably on Crawford's landmark series D24) should have guaranteed quality scripts. It didn’t. The episodes were still being written largely as radio scripts, without sufficient allowance for the visual impact of television. For example, viewers would see a patient in a bad way in a hospital bed, with the doctor nodding grimly and saying, "Yes, he's very sick" - something immediately obvious. Some segments were, in effect, 'radio with pictures'.

Roland Strong probably wrote more than half of the scripts, however in later stages this task was shared with GTV programme executive Denzil Howson. They both wrote under various pseudonyms because the General Manager of GTV-9, Colin Bednall, thought it was blatant nepotism for all the scripts to be written by the same two GTV people. Therefore a number of fictitious writers were credited, and Bednall was never aware of the deception.

Emergency did have several points in its favour - an excellent performance by Brian James in the lead role, a solid supporting cast and generally good sets. The audio crew of Wally Shaw, John Cannon and Rex Israel worked wonders with sound, hiding microphones in bed-pans, under pillows and behind vases of flowers, and inserting recorded music bridges 'on the run' - there was no post-editing.

Emergency also featured brief filmed sequences on location in some episodes, shot by a Movietone News cameraman on 35mm to ensure maximum quality when transferred to kinescope. It must be remembered that Emergency was one of Australia's first drama series, and very much a pioneer effort. Regular production of Australian drama series did not come about until 1964 with Homicide, by which time video tape was available for studio scenes, with outside location work being shot on film. The early episodes of Emergency rated fairly well and, given time, the production difficulties could have been sorted out.

The demise of Emergency, however, was due almost entirely to a scathing attack made on it by a Sydney daily newspaper, which ran a half-page article ridiculing the series. So vicious was the article that BP/COR executives called a crisis meeting with GTV management, and announced they were withdrawing their sponsorship. GTV was unwilling to absorb the production costs alone, and as the Emergency set took up space which could be used for more profitable variety programmes such as In Melbourne Tonight, production was halted after the 16th episode.

While Emergency was as good a first attempt at drama as could be expected, it would be a further five years before GTV-9 would make it's next venture into in-house production with the situation comedy Barley Charlie. From that point on, drama series produced at GTV would be packaged by independent producers, such as Hunter and Division 4 from Crawfords. Only six complete episodes of Emergency are known to exist, and it is extremely doubtful that any others have survived.

EMERGENCY EPISODE DETAILS


 
Nurse Jill Adamson (Judith Godden) assists Doctor Geoffrey Thompson (Brian James) tending to a patient.

 


Emergency opening titles.

 


Doctor Geoffrey Thompson (Brian James), Nurse Jill Adamson (Judith Godden) and orderly George Rogers (Syd Conabere) with patient Mrs. Green (Joyce Turner) in a scene from the first episode.

 

 
Doctor Geoffrey Thompson (Brian James) prepares a needle watched by Nurse Jill Adamson (Judith Godden).

 


Syd Conabere as orderly George Rogers.

 


Moira Carleton had a support role as Matron Evans.  She is seen here with Doctor Geoffrey Thompson (Brian James).

 


Brian James as Doctor Geoffrey Thompson