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 OGrady Jr. (son of John OGrady Snr, a.k.a. Nino Colutta, author of
Theyre A Weird Mob).1
OGrady 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
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.
OGrady 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 OGrady, a "true believer
in the myth of democratic government."3
Humphrey was played by Jeff
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 husbands
shortcomings and is cynical about politics, but is nonetheless supportive of him.
The Sullivans 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 Ministers 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
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 Humphreys 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-Generals 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
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 OGrady was amazed: "Being talked about in
Parliament, as if I were trying to bring down the Government, was quite
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. Im 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.
Im puzzled and disappointed at the ABC trying to slide out under a section of the
Act where it doesnt 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 OGrady 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
Somebody pasted a piece of paper saying The
Company over Canberra on the Producers 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
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 Directors car driving past several Canberra landmarks, with
the Director conspicuously reading a newspaper opened at a section headed Local
Government. The narrative now states:
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 OGrady 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, its been experiencing a rural
"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 didnt want us to see: A bit of harmless
fun being poked at them for their frequent ineptitude. But theres 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
1. Theyre 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
2. The Australian, July 7, 1973.
4. Commission Minutes, 25-26 May, 1972.
5. The Australian, July 7, 1973.
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.
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.