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OUR MAN IN CANBERRA
OUR MAN IN THE COMPANY


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OUR MAN IN CANBERRA
OUR MAN IN THE COMPANY
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Many years before the BBC launched their successful political satire Yes Minister, there was a similar series produced here in the antipodes by the Australian Broadcasting Commission – which, by political decree, was never allowed to be screened.

Titled Our Man In Canberra, the series had its origins as one episode of the anthology series The Comedy Game. The ABC produced The Comedy Game in the hope that some of the episodes could act as pilots and spin-off into a series. Several did – including A Nice Day At The Office, Scattergood - Friend of All and Aunty Jack.

The script for Our Man In Canberra was written by John O’Grady Jr. (son of John O’Grady Snr, a.k.a. Nino Colutta, author of ‘They’re A Weird Mob’).1 O’Grady explained the history of the pilot: "I met a young backbencher. He was idealistic; he cared; he burnt with all the right sorts of zeal. But very quickly I noticed a change in him: he had come up against the machine. I was looking for a Comedy Game idea, somebody suggested a documentary on a backbencher and the two things jelled. I sat down for half an hour one afternoon and typed a three-page synopsis for the ABC."2

The pilot went to air on December 9, 1971, as part of The Comedy Game. The ABC authorised a series, and production commenced in May 1972 on 13 half-hour episodes of Our Man In Canberra.

O’Grady wrote all the episodes. Producer and Director of the series was Bill Munro; Executive Producer was Alan Morris.

The title referred to the newly elected MP for Danforth, Humphrey Sullivan, who won his seat by a majority of 15. Humphrey is 35 years old, naive, idealistic and, according to O’Grady, a "true believer in the myth of democratic government."3 Humphrey was played by Jeff Ashby.

Humphrey is married to Kate, who was played by Robyn Nevin in the pilot and Katy Wild in the series. (Katy previously had lead roles in Good Morning Mr. Doubleday and Spyforce). Kate realises her husband’s shortcomings and is cynical about politics, but is nonetheless supportive of him.

The Sullivan’s garrulous housekeeper is Mrs. Wheeler, portrayed in an over-the-top fashion by Dolore Whiteman. She is a stereotype conservative reactionary, living in fear of Communism, Trade Unions, Asian invasion, Roman Catholicism, etc.

Another major character is The Minister - an unfeeling, amoral bureaucrat motivated by a keen sense of self-preservation who steals credit and delegates blame. He was played by Walter Sullivan, who adopted mannerisms of well-known contemporary politicians for the role.

Turner is the Minister’s secretary, who has a much better grasp on what is actually happening in the world than The Minister does, and therefore acts as his adviser. She is played by Benita Collings.

Lex Mitchell and Graham Rouse round out the cast as barman and patron at the local pub - ‘philosophers’ who discuss and analyse the issues of the electorate over a few beers. (Graham Rouse did not appear in the pilot episode - he replaced Fred 'Cul' Cullen, who was originally cast as a 'pub philosopher', because Cullen's part in the ABC war-time serial Over There forced him to withdraw).

The opening titles show Humphrey Sullivan arriving at Parliament House in Canberra. A voice-over states: The Federal Government of Australia depicted in this story is wholly imaginary. Naturally, it bears no relationship to any other institution of the same name – living or dead.

Our Man In Canberra centred on the well-intentioned Humphrey as he bumbled through his new position, being manoeuvred by The Minister, and, usually with help from his wife, also out-manoeuvring him. Parallels can be drawn with the later British series Yes Minister. Although the BBC series focused on the relationship between Minister Jim Hacker and the Civil Service, rather than a backbencher, there are many similarities in subject, dialogue and the interaction between characters.

The political manoeuvring of Our Man In Canberra is also featured strongly in Yes Minister between Hacker and Civil Servant Sir Humphrey Appleby; Humphrey Sullivan is naive as is Jim Hacker; Kate Sullivan has a healthy cynicism towards politics as does Mrs. Hacker; Turner is the efficient secretary/aide as is Bernard to Jim Hacker; and the interplay between Humphrey Sullivan and The Minister is similar to that of Hacker and Humphrey Appleby. Indeed, the phrase ‘Yes, Minister’ is used often in Our Man In Canberra.

This is not to accuse the writers of Yes Minister, Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay, of plagiarism. Rather, it is to point out that similarities are inevitable and unavoidable in any treatment of this subject matter. It just so happens that the ABC did it first, pre-dating Yes Minister by eight years.

Produced as video / film integration in black and white (interiors on video, exteriors on film), the first episode of Our Man In Canberra was scheduled for screening in early June 1972. On May 22, the ABC launched a promotion for the series based on Humphrey’s fictional election campaign. Posters, bumper stickers and badges all bore the slogan 'Vote for the Extreme Centre', and a pop group, The Triad, recorded an election campaign jingle.

Three episodes had been completed at a cost of $30,000, and another $10,000 had been spent on publicity when the brakes were applied. During rehearsal for episode four, and less than two weeks before the scheduled screening date, the Deputy General Manager of the ABC, Dr. Clement Semmler, announced that the programme would not go to air. In late May the Commission resolved to defer the series.4

The ABC had received legal advice from the Federal Attorney-General’s Department that Our Man In Canberra was in breach of Section 116 (2) of the Broadcasting And Television Act. The Act stated that ‘the Commission or a licensee shall not broadcast or televise a dramatisation of any political matter which is then current or was current at any time during the last five preceding years’.

Panic. The ABC publicity department immediately contacted all media outlets asking them to dump the Humphrey Sullivan election campaign press kits they had sent out.

Pandemonium. The matter was discussed in Parliament. It was the last days of the McMahon Liberal Government, and the Federal election was only six months away. Labor Senator Doug McClelland (later Minister for the Media in the Whitlam Government) asked who ordered the cancellation of the series, and Labor MP Bill Hayden accused the Liberal Government of using the Act as "a political cudgel."5

Speculation was rife that the series was covertly scuttled by the Government because it satirised politicians generally, and Liberal politicians in particular. Prime Minister William McMahon was asked by Actors Equity, the trade union of actors, if his Government had ordered the cancellation - he denied it. ABC Chairman Robert Madgwick and General Manager Talbot Duckmanton stood before the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts, and both denied charges of political pressure.

Open letters circulated amongst ABC staff, some based on fact, some on suspicion, but all deploring the circumstances in which the show was cancelled. Writer John O’Grady was amazed: "Being talked about in Parliament, as if I were trying to bring down the Government, was quite extraordinary."6

A second, independent legal opinion was sought: M. H. Byers QC advised that Our Man In Canberra was not in breach of the Act, and therefore it would not be illegal to screen it. Senator McClelland told ABC staff that he hoped to see the series under a Labor Government.

The Nine Network was interested in buying the series, but no definite approach was made to the ABC. "We would like to buy it," said TCN-9 manager Ray Newell, "but first of all we have to see what happens at the ABC. We can't do a thing until the ABC decides what it is going to do."7

The December 1972 election saw the Whitlam Labor Government swept into power, and the fate of Our Man In Canberra was reconsidered. The new Attorney-General, Senator Lionel Murphy, saw a special screening, and it appears he was not too keen to have the programme aired. It was apparently thought that there could be too many repercussions from any volatile backbencher or from the DLP (Democratic Labor Party) in the Senate. Murphy shoved the whole problem back in the lap of the ABC, saying that the Government refused to give any opinion on the showing of the series.

Meanwhile, the ABC board gained a new Commissioner: Hal Lashwood, the first ‘worker-director’ to be appointed by the new Labor Government. Lashwood came from the ‘shop floor’, having worked in ABC radio and television, and was also an office-bearer in Actors Equity.8 The other eight Commissioners had all been appointed by the previous Liberal Government.

Lashwood pushed to have the ABC proceed with Our Man In Canberra as is, but, not surprisingly, was out-voted eight to one. Lashwood took a stand on the series because he felt that political pressure had caused its cancellation - a view held by many ABC employees.

Lead actor Jeff Ashby was outspoken on the issue: "I am disappointed at the cowardice of the Commission in not proceeding with the programme. I’m puzzled at its decision because the Attorney-General has refused to give a legal opinion, and the only other legal opinion given on the matter, from a Sydney QC, says there are no grounds under Section 116 for the ABC to be in breach of the Act. I’m puzzled and disappointed at the ABC trying to slide out under a section of the Act where it doesn’t apply."9

The Commissioners, however, were concerned about Parliamentary privilege and defamation of character. ABC Chairman Robert Madgwick said, "The Commission considers it is possible that Our Man In Canberra, if transmitted, might leave the Commission and members of the cast open to a charge of contempt of Parliament."10

By March 1973 a compromise was needed to resolve the deadlock. The ABC Commissioners agreed to re-write the series in another setting, with working titles of The Company and Our Man At The Top. Lashwood successfully lobbied to have the revamped programme called Our Man In The Company, and also insisted that the original cast should be offered roles in the new series.

John O’Grady agreed to re-write the series. He said, "The same broad, general theme, relationships and characterisations will be retained, but the action will be switched from the Canberra political scene to a big business organisation."11

Somebody pasted a piece of paper saying ‘The Company’ over ‘Canberra’ on the Producer’s door, and the new series commenced production on May 23, 1973. It went to air in Sydney on July 7, 1973, and followed in Melbourne on August 1. Seven episodes were made initially, again as video/film integration in black and white. The show was quite successful, and a second series was produced in 1974, making a total of 15 episodes.

The cast from Our Man In Canberra was retained for Our Man In The Company, playing the same characters. Only the setting changed, and not very much - the political scene was thinly disguised as the world of big business. The Government became the Company; politicians became businessmen; voters became shareholders; seats in Parliament became seats on the Board; the unseen Prime Minister became the unseen Chairman.

Newly elected backbencher Humphrey Sullivan MHR became newly appointed junior executive Humphrey Sullivan BA. An idealist with a firm belief in ethics, his dilemma was to succeed in business and yet still maintain these qualities.

The Minister became The Director, a shrewd, strong and devious character given to uttering lofty observations on ethics and justice. He is always under the watchful eye of the Chairman, and his only concern is retaining his job and position on the Board.

Kate Sullivan went from witty and politically cynical to witty and aware of company machinations, but still supportive of her husband. Mrs. Wheeler remained the Sullivan’s housekeeper, and Turner changed from competent Minister’s secretary to competent Director’s secretary.

Even the two pub ‘philosophers’ went from discussing matters of the electorate to commenting on company affairs. The only minor difference was that one was a barman, now they were both customers.

James Condon made occasional appearances as the Chairman of the Board. "I was the Leader of the Opposition in the scuttled Our Man In Canberra series, which would have been a regular part," said Condon. "But with the change of venue from politics to big business, there wasn't the scope for carrying two directors as main characters in the show at the one time."12

It was not very difficult for the viewer to imagine Our Man In The Company as Our Man In Canberra. There was little alteration to the scripts – only the references to political subjects were subtly shifted to their business equivalent. A glance through the episode synopses of Our Man In The Company will show the obvious political origins of the scripts.

To emphasise the true target of the satire, the opening titles show the Director’s car driving past several Canberra landmarks, with the Director conspicuously reading a newspaper opened at a section headed ‘Local Government’. The narrative now states: The organisation depicted in this story is wholly imaginary. Naturally, any resemblance to any similar or related organisation is quite unintentional. This is simply a story about a company – and about the way it gives us all the business.

John O’Grady spilled the beans: "Very odd company, this one. It has repatriation schemes for its old soldier employees, problems with censorship, an old-age pension scheme which nobody thinks is enough, and battles with women who believe the company constitution infringes their rights. What other strange things does this company have on its plate? Oh yes, it’s been experiencing a rural crisis lately!

"We had difficulty adapting three of the original scripts on Aboriginal land rights, the Russian presence in the Indian Ocean and the U.S. takeover of our resources. But we have made the programme legal now."13

The metamorphosis worked as well as could be expected. Taken at face value, Our Man In The Company is an enjoyable series. Taken as a disguised Our Man In Canberra, it becomes a very funny and clever programme.

A TV Week editorial stated: "So at last we get a good idea of what our politicians didn’t want us to see: A bit of harmless fun being poked at them for their frequent ineptitude. But there’s still some joy left in letting your imagination reign free and projecting Our Man In The Company into Our Man In Canberra; and in pondering over what ultra-sensitive asses we often elect to govern us."14

Walter Sullivan summed the situation up well: "Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty."15

 

OUR MAN IN CANBERRA
OUR MAN IN THE COMPANY
EPISODE DETAILS

 

1. ‘They’re A Weird Mob’ was made into a successful feature film by John McCallum and Lee Robinson. They later formed Fauna Productions, makers of the Skippy, Barrier Reef, Boney and Shannons Mob series.
2. The Australian, July 7, 1973.
3. Ibid.
4. Commission Minutes, 25-26 May, 1972.
5. The Australian, July 7, 1973.
6. Ibid.
7. TV Week, July 8, 1972.
8. In 1955 Lashwood stood for Parliament as an independent on a single issue - Australian content for the new medium of television.
9. The Australian, March 13, 1973
10. TV Times, March 31, 1973.
11. Ibid.
12. TV Week, Aug 18, 1973.
13. The Australian, July 7, 1973.
14. Jerry Fetherston, TV Week, Aug 4, 1973.
15. The Australian, July 7, 1973.



Jeff Ashby as Humphrey Sullivan.


In the pilot episode, Kate Sullivan was played by Robyn Nevin, pictured here with Jeff Ashby.


Katy Wild played Humphrey's wife Kate Sullivan in the series.


Walter Sullivan as The Minister has just been out-manouvered by Humphrey in this scene from Our Man In Canberra ep. 2, ‘Censorhip’.


Our Man In Canberra opening titles.


Humphrey Sullivan's campaign poster, part of the ABC publicity for Our Man In Canberra which was hastily withdrawn when the series was suspended.


Benita Collings as Turner.


Lex Mitchell and Graham Rouse as the pub 'philosophers'.


Katy Wild as Kate Sullivan.


Katy Wild, Jeff Ashby and Dolore Whiteman.


Our Man In The Company opening titles.


The Company was the target of the same pressure groups that assailed the Government in Our Man In Canberra. One such group are the ‘MAD’ ladies, played by Jacquelene Kott (centre), Rilla Scott and Sue Hollywood.


Dolore Whiteman as the Sullivan’s housekeeper Mrs. Wheeler, seen here with Katy Wild.


Walter Sullivan as The Director attending a board meeting.


Walter Sullivan as The Director with Benita Collings as Turner and Jeff Ashby as Humphrey Sullivan.


Humphrey Sullivan and his housekeeper Mrs. Wheeler.


Katy Wild.