WOOBINDA (ANIMAL DOCTOR)
In 1968, the
combination of a number of factors led to the genesis of Woobinda (Animal Doctor).
Fauna Productions' Skippy, with its uniquely Australian ingredient (a kangaroo) was
enjoying phenomenal success, both locally and on the international market. Roger Mirams,
who had produced several children's series including The Terrible Ten, The Magic
Boomerang and Adventures Of The Seaspray, was freelancing after winding up his
company Pacific Films. And NLT Productions1, who had
moved from variety with Here's Dawn into low-budget drama with the sit-com The
Private World Of Miss Prim and two daytime courtroom series, Divorce Court and
The Unloved, were looking to again expand their operations.
When Malcolm Hulke devised the concept of an
adventure series about an outback vet, NLT must have thought it was an obvious subject for
a television series. Everything fell into place: they had the right series to expand their
drama production capabilities; they secured the services of an experienced producer, Roger
Mirams; and they had the same successful formula as Skippy.
39 episodes were made of Woobinda (Animal Doctor),
each a half-hour in length and filmed in colour. It was originally planned
to be only a 26 episode series, all of which were filmed in 1968. It was
then decided to increase the tally to 39 episodes (partly because more
overseas sales could be made with 39 episodes than 26) and
another 13 were made commencing in March 1969. A pilot episode was filmed in February 1968
with the working title Animal Doctor. By April the series had been retitled Woobinda
(Animal Doctor) - Woobinda is an Aboriginal word meaning tender of animals. In common
parlance, the series was variously referred to by its full title, or as Animal Doctor,
or as simply Woobinda.
NLT was joined in the venture by Ajax Films and
Fremantle International, and German television also had a financial interest in the project.
Locally, the series was sold to the Australian Broadcasting Commission and, in an unusual move, also to the Nine Network.
Contemporary reports stated that the ABC had first screening rights for the
of 26 episodes, then it would be repeated by the Nine Network. Nine would then have first
screening rights to the second series, followed by a repeat on the ABC. What actually
happened was the ABC screened all 39 episodes commencing in 1969, and then repeated the
series in 1970. All subsequent repeats were on the Nine Network, commencing from 1971.
As mentioned earlier, Producer of the series was
Roger Mirams. Directors included Ron Way and David Baker, with Howard Rubie
as Assistant Director; and Scriptwriters
included Ron McLean, Michael Wright and John Warwick.
The central character in Woobinda is John
Stevens, a veterinarian with a practice in the fictitious New South Wales country town of
Gattens Creek. A widower, he has a teenage daughter, Tiggie, and an adopted Aboriginal
son, Kevin. Stevens is assisted in his practice by Peter Fischer, a German vet, and his
friend Jack Johnson, a local bushman.
John Stevens, who is called 'Woobinda' by local
Aboriginals, has strong compassion for animals, and is constantly striving to preserve
fauna from what he calls 'senseless slaughter'. Stevens was played by veteran actor Don
Pascoe, who had appeared in many stage productions and guest roles in various television
series, and also worked in British film and theatre in the early 1950s.
At the time Pascoe
rated his Woobinda role as one of the most challenging he has played.2 He described Stevens as "a man of quiet authority who seldom does his
block. At times he is insufferably soft and in his dealings with humans and animals he has
high moral scruples. He is very much the father figure and, as such, tends to dominate the
series. His approach is less adventurous than his assistant."3
provides the glamour in the series as Stevens' 18-year-old daughter Tiggie, who
acts as a receptionist, bookkeeper and nurse for her father. Sonia, a successful model,
previously had guest roles in various series but was best known to viewers as
the girl in a Commonwealth Bank commercial. A proficient horse rider, water skier and skin
diver, Sonia said the role of Tiggie was "just tailored" for her.4
Kevin is the 14-year-old Aboriginal son of Stevens,
who was adopted when he was five after both his parents were killed in a cattle stampede.
Kevin was played by Bindi Williams, who previously had a support role in The Magic
Boomerang. Woobinda was the first television series to cast an Aboriginal actor
in a lead role - in fact, so prominent was the role that Williams was the only cast member
who had a separate credit in the opening titles. (This enlightened
attitude towards indigenous Australians was not common at the time - the
same year ATN-7 Sydney produced a mini-series, The Battlers, which
featured a white actor in black make-up playing an Aboriginal).
Stevens assistant is
a German vet, Peter Fischer, who passed all his exams in Germany and is working with
Stevens to gain experience before eventually setting up a veterinary practice of his own. The
character was a concession to the German financial interest in the series,
and the role was played by
accomplished German actor Lutz Hochstraate, who was brought to Australia especially for
the part. "The producers were looking for a German actor to play the part of Peter
Fischer and my agent got an inquiry about me," said Hochstraate. "I was already
well-known on German TV, but this didn't make me any less thrilled at getting the Woobinda
part and the chance to work in Australia."5
It took Lutz Hochstraate a while to get used to the easy-going Aussie
style of doing things. "It is so different," he said. "Things work here
without organisation. A film planned like this in Europe would be a
disaster. But here - you get your scripts the day before shooting and you
see the results and they are all right. I think it is because everyone is
more relaxed. In Germany there is much more tension."6
The support role of Jack Johnson was, in effect, that of a
'Man Friday' to Stevens. Jack is a local bushman, Stevens friend, and a 'second father' to
Kevin. The part was played by Slim DeGrey, whose extensive credits include a regular role
in the serial You Can't See Round Corners. A minor recurring role was played by Shirley Smith as a
nurse at the Gattens Creek hospital.
In addition to the human cast, Woobinda
featured a plethora of animal 'stars' of all shapes and sizes. There were the obligatory
dogs, cats, horses, sheep and cattle, and of course many native animals -
koalas, lizards, goannas, wombats, emus, cockatoos and a platypus. And there was even
more exotic fauna: a chimpanzee, a python and a Bengal tiger.
blowing hot air when I say I love working with all the animals," said Don Pascoe.
"I'd have to really for this part. You need some dedication when you have a great
slithering python draped around your neck."7
Mirams said Woobinda was in an excellent position to tackle serious animal welfare
issues. "It is more than just a series telling of the adventures of a country
veterinary," said Mirams. "We are not just making it specifically Australian
either. We are selling it to a world market so we are making it as international as
possible, using all types of animals, not just Australian ones."8
Much patience was required for working with the
unpredictable performances of the animals, few of which were specially trained. Most came
from zoos and wildlife sanctuaries. It is testament to the ability and ingenuity of
the production crew that despite the hold-ups caused by petulant animals, filming
remained on schedule.
An example was episode 5, 'The Exterminators', filmed
on location in the Warrumbungle Ranges, over 300km north-west of Sydney. A scene called
for kangaroos to be scared off the property of a grazier (played by Chips Rafferty) by
rifle fire. A herd of wild kangaroos was marshalled into a paddock for the scene, which
was no easy task. A shot into the air certainly scared them off, no worries; the problem
was that they would have to be rounded up again if the Director wasn't happy with the
Episode 20, 'Sleeping Dogs Don't Lie', was filmed at
Fernleigh, a private zoo near Sydney. In addition to problems managing the
guest cast menagerie of eight wallabies, five rabbits, three monkeys, two
foxes, two Shetland ponies, an emu, a sheep and a goat, filming was
complicated by a Great Dane named Leo who kept walking in front of the
There were some
mishaps. "I was doing an episode with Chips Rafferty," said guest actor
Mike Dorsey, "and I had to leap on to a horse and gallop away. I had
hardly ridden at all before and the horse I had for the shot was pretty
spirited. I leapt for the stirrup, missed, hit the ground and watched the
horse gallop away without me."9
"We had a koala on the set for one episode," said Don Pascoe,
"you know - those lovable, cuddly creatures. Then it scratched me on the
face and mauled Lutz on the chest. Koalas must be allowed frequent rests
to keep them friendly. I'm learning fast."10
Apart from those inevitable bites and scratches, Lutz Hochstraate was clawed by a
tame tiger featured in episode 38, 'Chocolate, Cherry Or Pistachio'. It was purely
accidental, the tiger was playing with Lutz's gloved hand when one of its paws missed the
glove and connected with Hochstraate's bare arm. "I did not feel it at the
time," said Lutz, "he is such a gentle fellow and was only playing."11
A guest actor in the
same episode, Rod Hull, got a harmless fright: "I was sitting in a caravan reading a paper
when I heard a sniffing sound at the back of my head," he said. "Then I felt a
hot breath on my cheek. I looked around and it was the tiger!"12 Another scene was filmed in the Sydney flat of Production Manager Mike
Bellinger. "There were about 35 people in my flat and this ferocious looking
tiger," said Bellinger. "And it's one thing to talk about a tiger, and another
to have one walking through your living room. The funniest part was when the Director was
peering through a camera, and the tiger wandered right up to the lens and licked the
A crocodile used in episode
3, 'Crocodlie Hunters', posed no problems at all - he had been deep-frozen
Don Pascoe was very
much aware of the following the series had among the younger set, and the position it
placed him in. He hoped a kid would not approach him and ask him to heal its sick
tortoise: "I wouldn't have the faintest idea what to tell the poor
child! Lutz Hochstraate and I were planning to do a crash course in
veterinary science at Sydney University, but the tight film schedule
Although the production base for the series was the
Ajax Film Studios in Sydney, extensive location filming took place in various parts of New
South Wales. Some episodes were filmed just outside Sydney, others would be shot several
hundred kilometres away, including Dubbo, Gilgandra, Lithgow, Nyngan and
even as far afield as Broken Hill. The location filming added considerably to the expense of the
McLean briefly outlined his Woobinda involvement in Making a TV Series: The Bellamy
Project: "I sent a storyline to Woobinda Animal Doctor which Roger Mirams
was producing. It was topical because of the Aboriginal revolt at Wave Hill station - a
nick from a newspaper, the Wave Hill story. They made that. The German partners picked up
another thirteen (episodes). I wrote most of those."15
Mirams and McLean would later team up to produce Spyforce and Silent Number.
Woobinda was originally scheduled to premiere
on the ABC in March 1969, but it did not go to air until May 27 in Sydney,
and a week later in Melbourne. It was shown in an awkward 6:15 PM
weekday timeslot, putting it out of synch with all three commercial network schedules.
Unless viewers went out of their way to watch the series, only those watching the ABC
already would have come across it. Consequently, it scored a disappointingly low 4 in the
ratings. It did much better in repeat screenings on the Nine Network, where it usually
went to air in a 5:00 or 5:30 PM weekend timeslot (often back to back with repeats of Skippy).
was a different story. Woobinda was sold to many different countries,
including England, Ireland, Hong Kong, Germany, Thailand, Singapore,
Japan, Canada and even Rumania, which was the first sale of an Australian
series behind the Iron Curtain. It quickly
became a favourite programme, particularly with the kids. Its popularity was sufficient
for a number of books to be published aimed at the children's market: Woobinda Annual (by
the same publishers responsible for the Skippy and Barrier Reef annuals),16 and for the even younger viewers, Adventure In The Night (A Big Picture Book).17
and Woobinda Animal Doctor (A Little Golden Book).18
have been others; certainly there were foreign language books released in
Germany and some of the many other countries that purchased Woobinda.
a great hit with children, it had as much appeal to adults as it did to the kids. The
scripts had depth, not too deep for kids but not too shallow for adults. Although
primarily an adventure series, the show subtly preached against Aboriginal racism and in favour
of animal welfare. "What is so gratifying to me about the scripts is that Stevens is
made out to be a man of peace," said Don Pascoe. "He detests violence as much as
I do. If faced with a violent situation, Stevens will talk himself out of it."19
Woobinda was an enjoyable, if
somewhat predictable series. Technically, the series was of a high standard, and acting,
direction and editing was consistently good. The script from episode 31, 'Talk To My
Agent', was included in a textbook for students, In Focus.20
When production ceased in July 1969, Lutz
Hochstraate returned to Germany, where he initially spent three months dubbing Woobinda
into German. Sonia Hofmann went to Europe to pursue a more lucrative modelling career,
returning to Australia in the mid-1970's. Don Pascoe and Bindi Williams later made many
guest appearances in various series, as did Slim DeGrey, who also scored a major role in The
Spoiler. NLT's next series was The Rovers, which was devised by Roger Mirams,
although he only worked on the pilot episode. Directors David Baker and Howard Rubie,
Scriptwriter Ron McLean and Producer Roger Mirams would team up again in 1971 to make the
classic wartime espionage series Spyforce. A veterinarian as the subject of a
television drama did not crop up again until 1977, when Crawford
Productions made the excellent Young
WOOBINDA (ANIMAL DOCTOR)
1. The name NLT is taken from the surnames of the three principals of the company
- Jack Neary, Bobby
Limb and Les Tinker.
2. TV Week, May 17, 1969.
3. TV Times, July 23, 1969.
4. TV Week, May 17, 1969.
5. TV Times, Oct 1, 1969.
6. TV Times, Dec 18, 1968.
7. TV Times, July 23, 1969.
8. TV Times, July 31, 1968.
9. TV Week, May 18. 1974.
10. TV Times, July 23, 1969.
11. TV Week, June 28, 1969.
14. TV Times, July 23, 1969.
15. Albert Moran, Making a TV Series: The Bellamy Project,
(Currency Press, Sydney, 1982),
16. Woobinda (Animal Doctor) Annual, (World Distributors, Britain, 1970)
17. Woobinda (Animal Doctor) Adventure In The Night, (World Distributors,
18. Victor Barnes, Walter Stackpool, Woobinda Animal Doctor,
(Golden Press, Sydney, 1973,
A Little Golden Book No. 396)
19. TV Times, July 23, 1969.
20. Don Reid, Frank Bladwell, In Focus - Scripts From Commercial Television's Second
Decade, (Macmillan Australia, 1972)
Don Pascoe as veterinarian John Stevens, called
'Woobinda' by Aboriginals.
Sonia Hofmann as Tiggie Stevens, daughter of
veterinarian John Stevens.
Bindi Williams as Kevin Stevens, adopted Aboriginal
son of John Stevens.
Lutz Hochstraate as Peter Fischer, a German vet
working with John Stevens.
in a support role as Jack Johnson, a local bushman and good
friend of the Stevens household.
Part of the
row: Sonia Hofmann and a lamb; a bloke with a crocodile; Bindi Williams and a dingo;
and a bloke with a wombat. Second row: Slim deGrey with a horse and a kookaburra;
Don Pascoe with a koala; Lutz Hochstraate with a cockatoo and another horse; and Pat
Sullivan (who made a guest appearance in one episode) with a Persian cat.
Blokes with a kangaroo, diamond snake, possum, cow, albino kangaroo, wallaby, chimpanzee
Woobinda opening titles, which featured a
rapidly changing montage of assorted fauna, not all of which can be shown here for space
reasons. Bindi Williams was the only actor given an individual credit.
magazines perpetuate the myth that television production is glamorous -
the reality is often far different. Here filming is taking place in
swampland for episode 3, 'Crocodile Hunters'. At the far left are actors
Pat Sullivan and Lutz Hochstraate; all other personnel are part of the
Director Ron Way with Sonia Hofmann at Sydney's
Taronga Park Zoo.
During a break in filming of episode 38, 'Chocolate,
Cherry Or Pistachio'. Left to right: Kerry Maguire, Lutz Hochstraate, the son of
the tiger's trainer, and Zeta the Bengal tiger.
Sonia Hofmann as Tiggie Stevens, with a
appeared in various television magazines.
Woobinda cast: Don Pascoe, Sonia
Hofmann, Lutz Hochstraate and Bindi Williams.
Many publicity photos were taken of the cast cuddling
various animals, and this shot of Katy Wild, who made a guest appearance in an episode,
was included with them.
Kevin tangles with
a mean, nasty bloke.
Sonia Hofmann went to Europe to pursue her modelling
Woobinda. She returned to Australia in the mid-1970's, had a role in
the short-lived soapie
The Unisexers, and directed a number of film shorts.