CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

WHIPLASH


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WHIPLASH

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During the mid-to-late 1950's, the western was the dominant fixture of American television. Programmes such as The Rifleman, Rawhide, Wagon Train and Gunsmoke had a stranglehold on the ratings, and variations on the basic theme became all the rage. Britain's Independent Television Corporation (ITC) had fared well in the U.S. with series such as William Tell, The Buccaneers and The Adventures Of Robin Hood, and it was thought that a western would be similarly successful.

Due to a singular lack of western scenery, it was decided to film the new series in Australia. This quickly resulted in the decision to make the series, by now given the title Whiplash, an 'Australianised western'.

The concept of the series was loosely based on the famous Cobb & Co. stagecoach lines, which commenced services from Melbourne to the Victorian goldfields in 1853, and soon spread to cover a major part of eastern Australia.1 This was an obvious choice for dramatisation - the rapid turnover of towns and passengers would make a small lead cast possible, with good scope for a variety of plot situations and guest characters. Australia's Artransa Park Studios came into the venture as a partner, as did Britain's ATV.

Scripts were quickly written, mostly by American writers which included Harry Pink and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Australian writers Michael Noonan and Michael Plant also contributed scripts. There was considerable unease amongst Australian writers in London concerning the incongruous American scripts - it was claimed that one script called for a scene to feature a 'herd of stampeding sheep'!

American actor Peter Graves (brother of Gunsmoke actor James Arness) was cast in the lead role of Christopher Cobb, the American owner and operator of the Cobb & Co. coach line (a fictitious character - the real Cobb & Co. was founded by Freeman Cobb). Graves previously had a lead role in the U.S. series Fury. Cobb's sidekick, Dan Ledward, was played by Australian actor Anthony Wickert.

Early location filming began in mid-1959, with full production following three months later. Most filming took place at the Artransa Park Studios complex in French's Forest, a northern suburb of Sydney, and some scenes were filmed on location at Scone in New South Wales. American Maury Geraghty was appointed Producer / Director, and Australian expatriate Ralph Smart was Executive Producer. Post-production was carried out in London.

A snag was struck early on when it was discovered that several pieces of stock footage hadn't been completed. Major problems arose when executives from ATV and ITC visited Australia, due to concerns by the companies over what they felt to be high production costs (due in part to a large crew), which was compounded by the filming taking place so remote from their London headquarters.

Geraghty was recalled to Hollywood soon after shooting was completed on the first episode, with Smart resigning shortly after. Ben Fox took over as Producer, with Leslie Harris assuming the job of Executive Producer. The large crew was considerably reduced, and production resumed in early February 1960. Further disquiet amongst the executives resulted in the planned 39 episode run being cut back to 34 episodes.

The series was produced on film in black and white. Directors included John Meredyth Lucas and Peter Maxwell, and the guest cast was made up of many well-known Australian actors, including Leonard Teale, John Fegan, Chips Rafferty, Chuck Faulkner, Terry McDermott, Stuart Wagstaff, Lionel Long and Aboriginal actor Robert Tudawali, who featured in several episodes.

Peter Graves was effective and likeable as Cobb, and Anthony Wickert performed adequately as his sidekick, although any real character development was limited by the format of the series. Overall, the series was typical of the U.S. and U.K. productions of the period - strong on action and drama, with a resultant lack of reality in the story line.

Whiplash was distributed widely overseas. It began showing in London in September 1960, and had its Australian premiere on February 18, 1961. It was screened on ATN-7 in Sydney, GTV-9 in Melbourne, and QTQ-9 in Brisbane. (In 1961 the the Seven and Nine Networks had not yet emerged, and ATN-7 Sydney had a close affiliation with GTV-9 Melbourne). In Melbourne its average rating was 26. Whiplash had several repeat runs on the 0-Ten network, and was last seen in a mid-afternoon timeslot in the early 1970's.

The completed series was, as originally intended, a western set in Australia. The scripts had minimal relevance to anything that actually happened in the 1850ís (the portrayal of the Cobb & Co. coach lines in particular bore little resemblance to the real thing), and the country towns featured in the episodes were more typical of the American 'wild west' than anything found in Australia. Each episode ran for 30 minutes, and often commenced with text scrolling up the screen setting the background. A theme song was specially written for the series, sung by Frank Ifield, with lyrics such as "the only law a gun" highlighting the American western flavour of the series. Many episodes concerned bushrangers or Aborigines, with the occasional greedy landowner thrown in for good measure. And, like any half-decent western, there were plenty of fights and gun play.

Leonard Teale appeared in two Whiplash episodes, one of which was 'Dutchman's Reef', written by Gene Roddenberry. In the episode he played a white man who went bush and lived with the natives, and for the part he wore 'blackface' makeup to look like an Aboriginal, with a gumleaf 'loincloth'. Leonard commented on the standards of overseas productions compared to local product: "The Australian film industry has always been pretty good. In fact with our experience, the Americans were a joke. The director was no better than any other director - for some Aboriginals in a Whiplash episode he told the costume girl, 'More gum leaves - we're not making French movies here!' Most of the time the people who came out here were second-stringers - they wouldn't leave Hollywood if they weren't. And that was the terrible part - they could do format, they were practiced at format. The scriptwriters had no idea - that's why I played a white man who turned into an Aboriginal! In those days, which was long before Star Trek, they'd just take an idea and throw a script together - they didn't research it."2

The major flaw in Whiplash is the lack of reality due to its American interpretation of our history. Peter Graves concurred: "Whiplash could have been much, much better. It was kept in the mould of the American show because there was no time for proper research and production planning. The writers here should have gone down there and really studied the Cobb & Co era. Not enough was made of Australia itself, we were too often confined to the back-lot."3

Later programmes, including Rush, Cash & Company and Against The Wind, tackled the earlier period of Australia's history in an appropriate and accurate manner. The excellent quality of these programmes has caused Whiplash to be relegated to a position of irrelevance in the legacy of Australian drama.

Technically, Whiplash was as good as anything from overseas, and this was significant at a time when Australian television was still in its infancy, and drama production was sporadic (the ground-breaking series Homicide was still four years away).

Peter Graves went on to appear in another ITC series, Court Martial, and later played Jim Phelps in Mission: Impossible, perhaps the role he is best remembered for. He returned to Australia when Mission: Impossible was resurrected for a new series in 1988, which was filmed both on the Gold Coast and in Melbourne.

The complete series of Whiplash has been released on DVD in Britain by Network and is available from their website.4

 

Whiplash theme song

Whiplash, Whiplash, Whiplash, Whiplash
In 1851 the Great Australian gold rush
The only law a gun, the only shelter wildbush
Whiplash, Whiplash
The Mulga woods and deserts, the stage thunders by
From Sydney to Camden and on to Gundagai
Whiplash, Whiplash

 

WHIPLASH EPISODE DETAILS


1. Cobb & Co. was by far the most successful transport venture in Australia at the time. Established by Freeman Cobb in 1853, the company initially provided transport between Melbourne and the Victorian goldfields. The company was sold in 1856 and again in 1861, and, under the management of John Rutherford, a new headquarters was established in Bathurst, New South Wales, and operations expanded to cover a large part of eastern Australia, which included several coach building factories. In the 1890s the company transferred its operations to Charleville in Queensland, but by this time the coach industry was starting to decline, largely due to the development and expansion of the railways. Routes were gradually cut back to service the more remote areas not covered by the railways, and the advent of the motor car in the early 20th century sealed its fate. The ultimate demise of Cobb & Co. came when their last coach ran in 1924 between the small settlements of Yuleba and Surat in South-West Queensland.
2. TV Eye No. 3, Oct 1994.
3. TV Week, July 13, 1968.
4. Network DVD 7953152. www.networkdvd.co.uk

 

 

 

 



Peter Graves as Christopher Cobb, principal of Cobb & Co. coach lines and the central character of Whiplash.


A scene from ep. 25, ‘Stage Freight’. From left: Peter Graves, Margo Lee, Eric Reiman, Terry McDermott and Fernande Glyn.


Anthony Wickert as Dan Ledward and Peter Graves as Christopher Cobb.


Filming an episode of Whiplash. Peter Graves is on the right.


Whiplash opening titles.


Above and below: Leonard Teale appeared in two Whiplash episodes.  These scenes are from episode 17, 'Stage For Two'.

 
Director Peter Maxwell with Peter Graves.


Peter Graves with Shirley Broadway in a scene from episode 30, 'Flood Tide'.


Terry McDermott and Fernande Glyn appeared in episode 25, 'Stage Freight'. Terry would later play one of the original Homicide detectives, and Fernande went on to a major role in the spy series Hunter.


Location filming for Whiplash. Peter Graves is in the foreground.


The Cobb & Co. stagecoach arrives at a miner's settlement.