CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

WOOBINDA (ANIMAL DOCTOR)


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WOOBINDA (ANIMAL DOCTOR)
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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 initial series 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

Sonia Hofmann 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 - including kangaroos, koalas, lizards, goannas, wombats, emus, cockatoos and a platypus. And there was even more exotic fauna: a chimpanzee, a python and a Bengal tiger.

"I'm not 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

Producer Roger 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 take.

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 camera.

There were some minor 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 camera!"13

A crocodile used in episode 3, 'Crocodlie Hunters', posed no problems at all - he had been deep-frozen for two years!

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 prevented us."14

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 series.

Scriptwriter Ron 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).

Overseas, however, 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 There may have been others; certainly there were foreign language books released in Germany and some of the many other countries that purchased Woobinda.

Although Woobinda was 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 Ramsay series.

 

WOOBINDA (ANIMAL DOCTOR)
EPISODE DETAILS

 


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.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. TV Times, July 23, 1969.
15. Albert Moran, Making a TV Series: The Bellamy Project, (Currency Press, Sydney, 1982), p. 44.
16. Woobinda (Animal Doctor) Annual, (World Distributors, Britain, 1970)
17. Woobinda (Animal Doctor) Adventure In The Night, (World Distributors, Britain, 1970)
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.


Slim deGrey in a support role as Jack Johnson, a local bushman and good friend of the Stevens household.


Part of the Woobinda menagerie. Front 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. Back row: Blokes with a kangaroo, diamond snake, possum, cow, albino kangaroo, wallaby, chimpanzee and camel.


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.


Glossy 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 crew.


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 sulphur-crested cockatoo.


Advertisements for Woobinda that appeared in various television magazines.


The 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 career after 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.