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THE LAST OF THE AUSTRALIANS


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THE LAST OF THE AUSTRALIANS
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Many Australian situation comedy series have been produced over the years, however in the first twenty years of television only a few noteworthy examples stand out. One is the mid-1970’s Crawford Production The Last Of The Australians, which featured a brilliant performance from Alwyn Kurts.

As Crawfords broke new ground with Homicide and Hunter, so too they did with The Last Of The Australians. LOTA was Crawford’s first attempt at a comedy since Take That in 1957 (a 15 minute live-to-air series screened only on HSV-7 Melbourne), and was one of very few Australian situation comedy series filmed before a live audience.

The series is based on Alan Seymour’s famous play, ‘The One Day Of The Year’, which examined the vastly different attitudes of a father and his son to Anzac Day. When it first appeared in 1960, many RSL (Returned Servicemen's League) members claimed the play was unpatriotic - it was a biting social comment which, nonetheless, provided rich humour from its situations. The title of the series is taken from a line in the play.

Seymour had been approached several times for the TV series rights to the play, and he refused all offers, including one from an American film company. However, when scriptwriter Terry Stapleton approached him on Crawford’s behalf, Seymour agreed to sell the rights. This was because scripts that Stapleton had prepared were given to Seymour, and he was pleased with the way Terry had handled the character interpretations. "I have appeared in three Australian productions of the play," explained Stapleton, "the second of which Alan Seymour directed. We developed a good rapport and he trusts me."1

A pilot episode was made in late January 1974, with production due to commence in April 1974. It seems it was inevitable that the series would be sold to the Nine Network due to a running joke between Hector Crawford and Leon Hill, then General Manager of GTV-9 Melbourne. TV Times quoted Hector Crawford, head of Crawford Productions:

"Early on in the days of Showcase (a talent quest series produced by Crawfords), Leon told me I should produce a situation comedy show. I gave him a flat 'no' because, frankly, I was frightened of comedy. I’ve seen so many Australian produced comedy shows which have been failures, so I was very much against us trying. TV comedy is the hardest of all things to produce successfully and I was quite happy with the drama series we were doing.

"However, every week as we adjudicated Showcase Leon would bring the subject of comedy up, and every week I would say 'no'. It got to be a running joke between us. He would suggest it and I would say 'no' as a matter of course". Some of Crawford's own employees had been pushing for consideration of a comedy series, and one day Hill was quite surprised by a 'yes' to the standard question after years of saying no!2

The central character of The Last Of The Australians is Ted Cook, a noisy, bigoted ocker in his late fifties who feels the country is going down the drain. He went through the Depression, fought in the Second World War, and now works as a lift driver because some obscure war injury prevents him from doing anything else. He is a Liberal Party supporter, and intensely dislikes the Whitlam Labor Government, long-haired youth, the permissive society, Italians, communists, Roman Catholics, the Essendon football team, women’s lib, in fact anything that doesn’t fit in with the way he was brought up. He is a staunch Collingwood supporter, and he believes a woman’s place is in the kitchen and that there should always be a roast for Sunday lunch. Ted is dictated to only by his prejudices, but is nonetheless a kind-hearted man who loves his family, despite his outward blustering.

Ted is played by Alwyn Kurts, who was a natural for the part. Alwyn had previously appeared as Inspector Fox in Homicide, and proved himself to be an excellent actor by competently handling these two very different roles. Many were surprised when Kurts took on the role in Homicide, as previously he was well-known as host of the game show Raising A Husband; and many more were surprised after Homicide when he appeared as a totally different character in The Last Of The Australians. Together with his subsequent roles, it is readily apparent that Kurts had a natural instinct for comedy, and a perfect sense of timing.

Kurts was a staunch supporter of the Labor Party, but he was determined not to let his personal views influence the character. "I think the (Whitlam) Government has done a great job since it came to power but that won't affect my character's views. He'll be having a go at the Labor mob every chance he gets."3

Asked to describe the character of Ted Cook, Kurts replied: "Well, he's a noisy bloke and definitely bigoted. He shouts at everybody, including his wife and son. He likes to think he runs the home and everyone in it, but when his wife turns on him, boy, does he know about it! I reckon underneath he has a bit of a soft heart. He's not all bad, despite his cunning. And he can be very cunning!"4

Terry Stapleton would spend about a week writing each episode, fine tuning the dialogue during rehearsals. As the success of the series depended largely on Alwyn Kurts' portrayal of Ted Cook, Stapleton said Kurts' performance influenced his writing: "Alwyn has brought depths and heights to the part that neither of us imagined the character had. We’ve managed to develop an important and, I think, successful chemistry between us. I’ve been writing to his acting strengths, and he’s been performing to my writing strengths."5

Alwyn Kurts was not the first choice for the role of Ted Cook. Executive Producer and Director Ian Crawford explained in a TV Eye interview: "We tried everybody in the lead role, and couldn't find anyone suitable. We ended up with Alwyn largely because Hector said, 'Let's try Alwyn'. Everybody else was saying 'Let's not try Alwyn - he's only a compere from Raising A Husband or Inspector Fox (from Homicide)!' But it was extraordinary, he was terrific."6

At first, Alwyn was not very keen on the part. "I'd been out of Homicide for some time," he said, "and Crawfords and I weren't 'playing speakies'. Then Dorothy Crawford wrote me a letter with part of the script enclosed, asking whether I'd be interested in playing Ted Cook. I read it, but didn't like it, and put it aside. They sent me another part of the script, and I still couldn't find much interest in it. Then they telephoned, and my wife Eileen, who answered the phone and who likes peace at all costs, said she'd convince me to re-read it. Finally, I went into Crawfords one day and said 'Okay, let's put something on film'."7

Ted’s son is Gary, 19, a university student whose trendy and progressive views are the cause of frequent conflicts in the household. He is the direct opposite of his father in every way, but nonetheless Gary loves his parents, although he has long since rejected their values and lifestyle. He can be a con-man par excellence, and sometimes pays impressive lip service to his father’s beliefs. He often gets his way but without malice and with lots of affection.

Adelaide actor Richard Hibbard played Gary in the first series of 13 episodes. Before the second series commenced he resigned to join the 'Hare Krishna' sect. Although he was contracted for another 13 episodes, and Crawfords could have legally held him to that contract, they let him go. Hector Crawford explained: "To become a member of the 'Hare Krishna' sect was of great importance to Hibbard. It was something he felt he really had to do. I could not stand in his way."8

The role of Gary was taken over by Stephen Thomas in the second series. Thomas first appeared in episode 15, the transition being smoothed over by not having Gary appear in the previous episode, and it was accomplished very convincingly and without fanfare. "We decided not to make a big thing of the changeover," said Terry Stapleton. "In fact, the idea was to cause as little ripple as possible. Thomas was chosen because he had similar attributes and mannerisms to Hibbard."9 That the transition went so well was quite an achievement, as often when another actor steps into a major role there is a resultant lack of credibility.

Ted’s long-suffering wife is Dot, who acts as a restraining force on both Ted and Gary. She is more in tune with contemporary attitudes than her husband suspects, and, like Gary, supports the Whitlam Labor Government, a source of irritation to Ted. Dot has learned to live with Ted - her only alternatives are divorce or murder, and neither is possible because she loves him. She is the perfect foil for Ted, and although Ted rules the household, when Dot gets to breaking point and says, "Now listen here!", Ted backs right away.

Rosie Sturgess played the part of Dot, a role in effect tailor-made for her due to her extensive stage and television comedy background. She played a similar role opposite Graham Kennedy in ‘The Wilsons’, a regular sketch comedy segment on the variety show In Melbourne Tonight.

Other regular support characters were ‘Blue’ Dawson, a wet-blanket pessimist played by Terry Norris; Fred, one of Ted’s drinking mates played by John Ewart; and Mr. King, the Cook’s prim and proper next door neighbour, played in three episodes by Keith Eden. Another major supporting character was Barney, a drinking mate played by Maurie Fields. Barney appeared in the first episode, but because Fields had a major role in the ABC soapie Bellbird, Barney was not seen again until episode 11, from which point he appeared regularly. "I was asked if I would come into the series," said Fields, "and, after a lot of discussions with Crawfords, the ABC and myself, I found myself back in the show. My schedules in Bellbird allow me to do the job, so everything has been nicely slotted." 10

The press were quick to condemn Ted Cook as an imitation of Britain’s Alf Garnett (Till Death Us Do Part) or America’s Archie Bunker (All In The Family). Given that the characters from 'The One Day Of The Year' were around long before Garnett and Bunker were even thought of, the claim was groundless, and both Alwyn Kurts and Terry Stapleton emphatically denied that Ted Cook was a copy. "Ted is Australian through and through," said Kurts. "The humour of the show is purely Australian, which is what I like about it."11 Stapleton said, "Our characters are quite different and distinctly Australian, so their attitudes and concerns are completely different."12

In fact, Stapleton would get quite touchy about comparisons between LOTA and Till Death Us Do Part: "I'm weary of the press not taking my views seriously. There may well be some similarities between the two shows, but that's inevitable in a domestic situation series. The Cook family is quite different from the Garnett family. There's affection between the Cooks. In spite of different viewpoints in the family circle, there's love there. And we haven't traded heavily on Ted's bigotry. There's not the abrasive quality you find in Till Death Us Do Part."13 The press soon changed their tune when they saw a completed episode, and reviewers unanimously agreed that The Last Of The Australians was the funniest comedy series to ever come out of Australia.

The Last Of The Australians was very much Terry Stapleton’s baby. Since acting in the original production of ‘The One Day Of The Year’ in Adelaide, he had nurtured the idea of expanding it into a comedy series. "I was with those characters on stage for several months," said Stapleton, "and knew then that one day I would use them in a series such as this, and two years ago I knew the time was right to start. Everybody knows someone like Ted Cook, and the situations from which the comedy derives are based on everyday family life."14 Stapleton also said: "It seemed like the ideal basis for an Australian situation comedy. Audiences will be able to identify with the Cook family".15 And they did - many a wife was heard to remark "My husband exactly!" when referring to Ted Cook.

Stapleton spent some time the previous year looking at production techniques overseas, particularly on comedy shows filmed before a live audience. One of America’s top comedy writer-producers, Hal Kanter, was brought out by Crawfords as a consultant for the pilot episode. Stapleton also made a firm decision - there would be no lavatory humour: "I hate that sort of stuff - it’s just a cheap and nasty way to get a laugh."16 He added: "The humour is certainly very earthy, but never crude."17

Stapleton was producer of the series, a task he embraced to ensure the finished product ended up the way he thought it should. "I'd hate anyone else to be in charge of it," he said.18 Unable to find anyone else to successfully take over the writing of some episodes, Stapleton wrote all of the scripts himself, the only exception being one which he co-wrote with his brother Jim.

Most episodes were directed by Ian Crawford and Marie Trevor, and Ian Crawford was also the Executive Producer for all 26 episodes. "The production team is small and close," said Stapleton. "There's an exchange of views between me, the director and the cast. We make small adjustments to the script right up to taping day."19

The series was updated to contemporary 1974, and the Anzac Day controversy played down, as it wasn’t as big an issue as it was in 1960 when the original play appeared. The series successfully avoided the stereotype characters that plague so many other family type sit-coms. There is no dysfunctional element, no precocious cute kid saying witty things, no glamour girl teenager - even Ted himself is not a cliche, but rather a caricature. Terry Stapleton said that The Last Of The Australians stood apart from other sit-coms because it dealt with identifiable situations and people: "The major faults with other series have been that the characters were unrealistic, the situations unbelievable and the comedy sometimes too ridiculous."20

Although contracted for 26 episodes, a decision was made to produce two short series of 13 episodes each, in contrast to the Crawford police shows which usually ran to 48 episodes a year. Stapleton said this was done to allow the cast and crew to "recharge their batteries and maintain a high standard of enthusiasm and performance".21

The second series of 13 episodes was commenced before the first series had gone to air. Initially, Stapleton was concerned that the material could 'thin out' after 13 eps, but as the characters developed so did the ideas, and the second series featured a few more 'serious' scenes. Plans for a third series did not reach fruition, nor did ideas for a movie and a stage play. Hector Crawford said, "We have these ideas in the melting pot, but we must consider them with regard to our other commitments. The Nine Network is very interested in signing for another 13 episodes of the programme and this too is under consideration. The Last Of The Australians is a very difficult programme to write among other things, and we must first look at its chance of long-running success."22

The Last Of The Australians first went to air in Sydney in April 1975 in the 7:30 PM Sunday timeslot, and was shortly afterwards screened in Adelaide and Brisbane. Melbourne was one of the last cities to see the show, even though it was made there - it finally turned up on June 17, following a press preview held in the public bar of an inner suburban hotel. Unfortunately, it was slotted on Tuesday nights at 7:30 PM in direct competition with another Crawford production, Homicide (hardly surprising considering it was at the time all three commercial networks ‘coincidentally’ cancelled their Crawford police shows), yet it still managed to attract quite a following. Episode 7 was chosen for the Melbourne premiere, and the rest of the first series was shown out of sequence. The second series was shown the following year at 8:00 PM on Sunday (no longer competing with Homicide), and in correct running order.

In every city LOTA was well-received and rated in the mid to high 20’s - except Sydney, where it only received an average reception. The mediocre ratings in the harbour city eventually caused it to be dropped from the schedule.

Guest artists on the programme included Johnny Farnham, who popped up in episode 17, ‘Ashes To Ashes’, as a vacuum cleaner salesman. Jacki Weaver, Terence Donovan, Elli Maclure, Noni Hazelhurst and Robert Bruning, among others, all featured in various episodes.

Bob Hawke, then leader of the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) and Federal president of the ALP (Australian Labor Party), made a guest appearance as himself in episode 16, ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Get Done Like A Dinner?’. Hawke received an enthusiastic response from the live audience, and a prophetic line is uttered when Gary says that Hawke "could be the future Prime Minister of Australia" (Hawke was PM from 1983 to 1991). Needless to say, Hawke joined Actors Equity before appearing on the show.

Each episode was rehearsed for a week before being recorded live in front of an audience of approximately 300 people. Terry Stapleton said he was initially terrified that the audience would not laugh because they were coming in 'cold' to a new series that had no established image - but the laughter came, and continued to come.23

Actors had the problem of tempering their performances to suit two audiences - the one in the studio, and the larger one at home watching on television. Alwyn Kurts stated that it was like being on a razor’s edge: "On the one hand each episode is like performing the first night of a new stage play to a live audience, while on the other you must remember the real purpose is to make a half-hour of TV comedy."24 Stapleton said Kurts' performances tended to be "a blend of stage and TV acting. The audience reaction excuses what might seem to be a little too big for the small screen."25

Filming in front of a live audience was an unusual step for an Australian production. "The audience made the whole show change from the rehearsal to recording because of the effect of the audience on the actors," said Ian Crawford. "It was very exciting. You were flying by the seat of your pants because you had no idea what the timing was going to be. It was all done in one hit, non-stop, rather than doing this scene and then a bit of that scene."26

Most cameramen enjoyed working on the show. Even though it was pre-blocked like other drama series, being in front of a live audience and recording in one session required improvisation and provided more scope for their own creativity.

Alwyn Kurts, determined for the series to succeed and constantly pushing for perfection, acknowledged at the time that the show was the most difficult thing he had done. "It's hard work, damn hard work, but I'm enjoying playing the part. It is a very funny show, and one of its best qualities is that it does not contain any sort of blue humour. It’s a show any kid could watch and the nearest thing to profanity of any sort is Ted’s occasional ‘bloody’."27

The Last Of The Australians is cleverly written, very funny, and, being made during the tenure of the Whitlam Labor Government, contains many interesting political references. The acting and direction is superb, and there is no irritating canned laughter. A similar concept surfaced in 1980 with the very successful Reilley-Sattler (RS) Production Kingswood Country, featuring Ross Higgins as Ted Bullpitt, although a direct comparison between the two shows, in spite of the many similarities, would be unfair. The Last Of The Australians was repeated many times, last being seen in the late 1980’s.

 

THE LAST OF THE AUSTRALIANS
EPISODE DETAILS



The Cook family at the breakfast table: Alwyn Kurts (centre) as Ted Cook, Rosie Sturgess as Dot and Richard Hibbard as their son Gary.

 
The Last Of The Australians opening titles. The Australian flag backdrop was accompanied by a banjo rendition of ‘Waltzing Matilda’.

 
Alwyn Kurts in a typical Ted Cook pose.


Ted Cook (Alwyn Kurts, centre) with two of his mates - Fred (John Ewart, left) and Blue (Terry Norris).

 
Another scene of the Cook family in the kitchen. Left to right: Alwyn Kurts, Rosie Sturgess and Richard Hibbard.


Rosie Sturgess as Dot.


Stephen Thomas played Gary in the second series, replacing Richard Hibbard.

  
Alwyn Kurts as Ted Cook.

 
Ted Cook (Alwyn Kurts) in his kitchen with his mates Blue (Terry Norris) and Fred (John Ewart).

 
Another scene from the first series. Left to right: Richard Hibbard as Gary, Alwyn Kurts as Ted and Rosie Sturgess as Dot.


An advertisement for The Last Of The Australians that appeared in TV programme guides.


A scene from ep. 16, 'Guess Who's Coming To Get Done Like A Dinner?', with Alwyn Kurts as Ted Cook, Roy Lyons as the barman and Bob Hawke (later Prime Minister of Australia) as himself.

 

 

 

Character profile - Ted Cook:
(from a publicity release)

AGE:
55.
LIKES:
Liberal Party, beer, Collingwood footy club, my shoes shined and my slippers in their place.
DISLIKES:
Labor Party, communists, Catholics, Italians, Essendon footy club.
FAVOURITE FOOD:
Sausages or steak and eggs, Sunday roast.
FAVOURITE DRINK:
Beer.
HOBBIES:
Footy, races, and having a pot or two at the pub.
CLOTHES:
Whatever Dot has ironed and put out on the bed for me.
SPORT:
Love the cricket, following the footy (Magpies) and races.
MUSIC:
I hate all that screeching lot of noise that the young ones play on their transistors.
ART:
Well, when you say that I think of all those statues without arms. They should never have been put on display until the bloody things had been finished.
BOOKS:
Racing guides and footy magazines.
TV SHOWS:
Footy Replay, World Of Sport and those old musicals.
ENTERTAINERS:
Mario Lanza, Ron Barassi.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE WORLD?
Everything. And provided Malcolm Fraser listened to my point of view and advice we could fix it all up.
WHAT ARE THERE TOO MANY OF IN THE WORLD?
Communists, Catholics and Essendon football players.
WHAT ARE THERE TOO FEW OF IN THE WORLD?
People that agree with me.
AMBITION:
To pick the quadrella and have RSL reunions every weekend.

 

 

 

1. Melbourne Age, Feb 22, 1974.
2. TV Times, May 24, 1975.
3. TV Times, March 2, 1974.
4. TV Week, April 26, 1975.
5. TV Times, May 24, 1975.
6. TV Eye No. 12, July 1997.
7. South Australia TV Guide, June 7, 1975.
8. Australian Women’s Weekly, April 30, 1975.
9. South Australia TV Guide, July 26, 1975.
10. TV Week, Jan 4, 1975.
11. TV Week, April 26, 1975.
12. TV Times, May 24, 1975.
13. South Australia TV Guide, July 26, 1975.
14. TV Times, May 24, 1975.
15. Melbourne Listener In-TV, July 6, 1974.
16. Melbourne Listener In-TV, July 6, 1974.
17. TV Times, March 1, 1975.
18. South Australia TV Guide, July 26, 1975.
19. Ibid.
20. TV Times, March 24, 1975.
21. TV Times, March 2, 1974.
22. TV Week, Aug 30, 1975.
23. South Australia TV Guide, July 26, 1975.
24. TV Times, May 24, 1975.
25. South Australia TV Guide, July 26, 1975.
26. TV Eye No. 12, July 1997.
27. TV Week, April 26, 1975.