An Epic Journey: The Making Of A Town Like Alice Part 1

May 17, 2016
In this special three-part series, veteran Australian producer, Henry Crawford, takes us through the making of one of this country’s most important and groundbreaking television mini-series, A Town Like Alice, starring Bryan Brown and Helen Morse.

“I had worked for Crawford Productions, who were the pioneers of Australian television,” says Henry Crawford. “I was there ten years, and – because I was distant family – they put me through every part of the company: from assistant director to editing, all sorts of things, you name it. That’s where I learned the business. I ended up producing over 500 hours for them.” One of the most vital figures in Australian television, Henry Crawford has over 600 hours of local TV on his bulging resume, including seminal series such as Homicide, Matlock Police, and The Sullivans. His first major, truly groundbreaking achievement, however, came with the 1978 historical mini-series, Against The Wind, starring the late John English. “This was one of the first mini-series in the world,” Crawford says. “It was 13 hours made on a princely budget of about $75,000 per hour, so we had to scrimp and save and do all sorts of clever things to make it work. It was one of the highest-rated Australian programs of the 20th century. And on that basis, The Seven Network put up their hand when I wanted to produce A Town Like Alice.”

Even more impressive than Against The Wind, 1981’s A Town Like Alice was based on British-born, Australian-based author, Nevil Shute’s 1950 novel (previously adapted for the big screen in 1956 with Peter Finch and Virginia McKenna), which follows wealthy young Englishwoman, Jean Paget, who suffers as a prisoner-of-war at the hands of the Japanese in Malaya during WW2, and then, many years later, attempts, by investing her substantial financial inheritance, to generate economic prosperity in a small outback community in Australia. The novel is also a deeply romantic one, essaying Jean’s relationship with Australian soldier, Joe Harman, whose acts of friendship towards Jean and her fellow prisoners during WW2 results in cruel and unusual retaliation from the Japanese soldiers. Starring the great Helen Morse (who had become a star thanks to 1976’s masterful Caddie), the equally great Bryan Brown (hot off Breaker Morant and Winter Of Our Dreams), and superb British import, Gordon Jackson (in the beefed up role of Jean’s lawyer, Noel Strachan), A Town Like Alice was a local hit of massive proportions, and won an International Emmy for best mini-series, along with many other awards.

In this very special, three-part series, Henry Crawford takes us through the production of this masterpiece of Australian television, from its genesis right through to its continuing legacy…

THE BEGINNING: THE JOURNEY BEGINS

How did you conceive the idea for the mini-series of A Town Like Alice?

“I remembered it really well from when I was a kid. I used to listen to A Town Like Alice on the radio…actually, it was a crystal set that I’d made incorporating ex-army earphones. I also read the serialised version in Women’s Weekly. I always loved the story. But I had never seen the 1956 feature film with Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch because we lived in the bush and didn’t have movies. I had a quick look at the film before I made the TV series, just to see what they covered and didn’t cover. In fact, they only covered about one-third of the story in the novel. The old lawyer, Noel, hardly existed in the feature film. It was a great yarn, and Nevil Shute was a master of the story.”

Nevil Shute's novel

Nevil Shute’s novel

You could have done a thousand different projects. Why A Town Like Alice?

“Well, you have an idea in the dead of night and your toes curl up, and you try and get a lot of things going. I probably had half a dozen ideas around that time but only one got off the ground. This one. As a producer, you invest a lot of money and frankly waste a lot of time working on projects that never see the light of day, even though you think they’re pretty good at the time. A Town Like Alice was one of those that got traction. My impetus to do it was from my business partner, David Stevens. David, over drinks one night, said, ‘What about A Town Like Alice?’ I said, ‘I’ve always loved that story, but I’m sure that the rights aren’t available.’ Then I said, ‘Well, wait a minute. Why don’t we just inquire about the rights and see if they are?’ I approached the A.P. Watt literary agency, and they said that no, the rights were not available. That was on the basis of a film having been made in 1956. Not deterred, I went back to them, and I said, ‘Let’s be specific. I’m interested only in the television rights, not in feature film rights.’ And they came back and said, ‘Oh, television rights would be available.’ So we purchased the rights, and it went from there. So it was really the fact that David triggered something that was in my mind that pushed it onwards.”

Did you work with the Nevil Shute estate? Did they have any control? 

“None whatsoever. Only insofar as purchasing the rights. They had no input whatsoever on the creative side. Shute was one of the ultimate storytellers in Australia. He seemed to have the knack, in his period, of his stories capturing the imagination of people. Hollywood did his book, On The Beach, as a movie.”

Tell me more about David Stevens.

“We had worked together for many years at Crawfords. He was a director at Crawfords, and I actually started his writing career there, when I was a story editor. He was a very, very creative director that actors loved working with. He was one of the few in Australia who had come out of British theatre, so he was able to relate very well to performance. So that was a lovely relationship that we had. He was also very committed, and was an important part of A Town Like Alice.”

Let’s step back a bit before we get to the actual producing work that you did on A Town Like Alice. What is a producer, and what were the many jobs that you had to do as a producer?

“Basically, everyone works for the producer. The producer employs everybody from the director to the actors to post-production, and they make all the decisions. In my case, I’m what’s described as a ‘creative producer.’ There are other producers who are deal-making producers, and I’m not very good at that. But I’m very good at the creative side, so that’s the track that I go down. As the producer, I’m the common denominator, from the original idea to getting the thing on screen. A Town Like Alice, from the original idea to getting it on the air, was about six years of work. It was quite a painful exercise. The role of the producer is rather comparable with being the conductor of an orchestra. You have to know the playing limitations of each of the instruments, but you don’t have to actually play the instrument. What you have to understand is how the conductor can make that piece of music pleasing to the ear and to the eyes. So in the dramas that I’ve produced, I’ve always lived by the notion that the audience should leave with a smile on their face and a tear in their eye. That’s what we aim for.”

A one-sheet for the 1956 film adaptation of A Town Like Alice

A one-sheet for the 1956 film adaptation of A Town Like Alice

What was the next step after you purchased the rights?

“I had made Against The Wind, a big historical drama series set during Australia’s colonial period, for $75,000 per hour. And then we did A Town Like Alice for $200,000 an hour, which was a huge jump. What really helped was that the executives at The Seven Network in Melbourne were very on-side and very committed to doing Australian drama. The Melbourne station was run by Ron Casey, and the programme manager was Gary Fenton. Gary, to my way of thinking, is the great unsung hero as far as Australian television drama is concerned, because he was a tremendous supporter of it. This has never been recognised, and it gives me the shits a bit.”

A MATTER OF MONEY: RAISING THE FINANCE

What was the next challenge?

“Our next major hurdle was the funding. Because funding was hard to find in those days, I travelled the world seeking money in addition to what The Seven Network had given us. In America they said, ‘Well, we’ll give you money for it on the condition that you have David Soul play the Australian outback character.’ At the BBC, the head of television series was quite rude to me: ‘I’d rue the day that I ever see Australian television on the BBC.’ Eventually, it was the overseas division of the BBC, run by Gunnar Rugheimer, who said, ‘Yes, we’d be interested in acquiring the rights in advance for British television.’ This gave them the right to look at the cut first; it was nothing more than that at this stage. The BBC said that they would give substantial money if their directorial choice was appointed. Now, David Stevens [who was attached as director] was my business partner on A Town Like Alice. That was part of the reason that we pulled away from the BBC. So Channel Seven ended up owning about 40% of the series. And we had money from Film Victoria and The Australian Film Commission, as it was then called. And we had that small pre-sale money from the BBC. That left us with about three weeks before filming in Malaysia, and we were about $150,000 short. My then father-in-law, Gordon Darling, said, ‘I’ll give you the money.’ It was his generosity that saved the production. Gordon, incidentally, was founder and patron of The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. He died recently, aged in his 90s. They were difficult and uncertain times.”

What was the final budget?

“We actually made it for $1.25 million, which then was quite remarkable, since it was a 16 week shoot in three countries. We filmed Scotland in New Zealand. We filmed Alice Springs in Broken Hill, and we filmed the Asian scenes and The Great Barrier Reef scenes in Malaysia on an island called Langkawi.”

What was the state of TV mini-series in Australia at this time?

“I like to think that I opened doors. Against The Wind was really one of the first mini-series in the world, and it pretty much launched the format. In my experience with The Sullivans and Against The Wind, Australians were interested in new aspects of their history that they hadn’t seen before. If you can provide an emotionally involving story as the core of one of those history periods, it puts you in good commercial shape.”

What was the landscape of the Australian TV and film industry like in the early eighties? I believe that A Town Like Alice was a risky project.

“Yes, it was. Australian productions had never really broken through overseas. My story about the head of drama at BBC was probably typical of the reaction to Australian drama. A Town Like Alice hit around the same time as movies like Picnic At Hanging Rock and Breaker Morant, while the original Mad Max was being filmed around the same time that we shot. There was a happy confluence of Australian drama around that time. I believe that A Town Like Alice was the first Australian TV drama to have a major impact overseas.”

What would have been the consequence to you if A Town Like Alice flopped?

“I was on the crest of a wave from the big success of Against The Wind, so this had to work, otherwise there would be no mini-series after that.”

FROM PAGE TO SCREEN: ADAPTING THE NOVEL

What other big decisions were there during the early stage of the project?

“Probably the first big creative decision is how you do the adaptation of the book. The character of the old solicitor, Noel Strachan, had only a modest role in the book, and I made an early decision that the story would work better if it was more of a triumvirate relationship between Noel Strachan, Joe Harman, and Jean Paget. So now, Noel, in his way, was vying for Jean’s romantic attentions, which really supported effectively the fact that when Joe turned up in his office, Noel didn’t then tell Jean that Joe had come to England looking for her. Nor did Noel tell Joe that Jean was pining after him, because Noel had his own degree of interest in Jean. It was now a three-handed love story. That was creative license to make the story stronger. These are the sort of creative decisions that you make about making the story more effective. We ran with the emotional thread. You must always do this.”

Gordon Jackson as Noel Strachan in A Town Like Alice

Gordon Jackson as Noel Strachan in A Town Like Alice

What message were you aiming for in the script and the production?

“Jean Paget was the fulcrum. Her character arc was that she was nothing more than a typist in Kuala Lumpur, and she became the leader of the people on the trek and their spokesperson. The story was about her growth and what happened to her after the war. Jean emerges a very different person at the end of the story. When she goes to the outback town, she thinks that there should be something for the women there, so she starts the shoe factory and the ice cream parlour. Jean emerged from nothing and went through this great character arc, and in the course of that, she encountered one love interest and one aspiring love interest, creating a triangle. But the message was really about her character journey.”

What is a producer’s influence on a script?

“Crawford Productions was started by Hector Crawford and Dorothy Crawford, his sister. Dorothy Crawford was a great creative and a very good script editor. She was my mentor, and I did my training under her. She taught me two key things: one is to insist that the writer explain the story in one sentence. For instance, ‘Old woman lives in bus, she has five sons, four are in gaol, and this is about her fight to keep her last son out of gaol.’ Once you establish what the simple line of the story is, then you’re able to question the relevance of a scene or the relevance of some discursion in the story. The other thing that Dorothy Crawford used to ask writers was, ‘Who do you feel sorry for? Who do you have sympathy with?’ I see a lot of CSI-type shows, and a lot of it is plot driven stuff, where the plot’s probably interesting, with twists and turns, but at the end of the day, often the drama is not very satisfying because you don’t feel sorry for anyone. Those are the two great things that Dorothy Crawford taught me.”

Can you apply Dorothy Crawford’s two principles to A Town Like Alice? First, how would you summarise A Town Like Alice in one sentence? 

“A young girl’s story of heroism, love, and her ability to make a great difference in people’s lives.”

What about her second principle?

“Who do you feel sorry for? As I said before, it’s a three-handed love story. It’s got the backdrop of war, and that gives it the texture and drives the story along, but you care about the protagonists. You care about Noel Strachan, the old solicitor; you care about his position. You care about Joe Harman, who meets this girl while a prisoner of war. You feel sorry for Jean Paget. You care about her trying to find Joe again. So there’s a basket of great stuff to grab you emotionally.”

What other work did you do regarding the script development and script writing?

“After acquiring the book, it was to decide who was going to write the adaptation. And then we had to decide how many episodes the series was going to be. It could’ve been four, but we thought six was appropriate to do the story justice, and to play out the love triangle. And then to work with the individual writers to make sure that their approach was seamless between episodes. Rosemary Ann Sisson, who’s a British writer, wrote a couple of the episodes, but the real driver was an Australian writer called Tom Hegarty. He did four episodes, and to be frank, he did rewrites of the English writer, but she was there for us to try to raise money in the UK, and she had a very good reputation. I would work with the writer to establish, first of all, that there were six episodes, then what is in each episode, and what is its beginning, middle, and end. And if we divide each episode into three acts, what happens at the end of act one, what happens at the end of act two, and so on. And then typically we would develop that to a scene breakdown, and I would work with the writer for maybe a half-day, going through the scene breakdown and making sure that the scenes were as we wanted them. And then they’d go away and write the dialogue. And then typically I would spend two days at the desk with the writer, going through every line of dialogue: ‘This line is not quite in character’ or ‘This line could be improved.’ I liken a script editor to a tennis coach. He’s a reasonable player himself, but he guides his tennis players, and works with them. They send a shot down, and he’ll send it back. It’s about lobbing ideas to each other and working as a tennis match. Being a writer is a lonely job, and it helps if you’ve got an editor who can shoot ideas back at you. I’ve actually script-edited most of the dramas that I’ve made. That got me into the thick of it, but it certainly makes you understand all the elements of the story and makes sure that the writer’s intention is followed through when you get to the director.”

What was the biggest difficulty in adapting the novel?

“It was a big story. We were always cognisant of how we were going to raise the money to make it, so we had to script it so that it was affordable. That’s why we did Scotland in New Zealand, Alice Springs in Broken Hill, London in Sydney, and The Great Barrier Reef in Malaysia.”

What was the opportunity in adapting A Town Like Alice for the screen?

“You have a loyal readership. People who have read the novel and want to see the film.”

People not in the industry don’t understand how much a producer can be involved with the story, and not just the content of the story, but also its sensibility…

“Yes, that’s right. There aren’t many producers with the creative experience that I have, and that can bring that sort of attention to it. The only rider to that is that there are producers who perform an important ‘deal’ function but don’t have much creative idea at all. They’re very simply deal makers. Often they don’t care much about the story as long as they get the deal across the line. ‘Put David Soul in it, people!’”

A Town Like Alice is available now on DVD

The second installment in our three-part series on the making of A Town Like Alice can be found here

Scott McConnell is a producer/writer/interviewer based in Los Angeles and Melbourne.

 

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Comments

  1. Mrs. Beni Wilson

    I am a fan of the writer, Nevil Shute. I’ve read nearly all his books. I first saw Mr. Crawford’s version of ‘A Town Like Alice’ on PBS television in St. Louis, Missouri. I was so enthralled with the telecast I wrote Mr. Crawford a praiseful letter, along with Helen Morse, Bryan Brown and Bruce Smeaton. Lo and behold, they all responded! This was the first and last fan letter I ever wrote, but so happy I did! I still have a hard copy of the book, a tape of the telecast and even a copy of the book on my iPhone!! I have kept the responses from these people in the first copy of the book I bought.

    Again, thanks to all of you for a wonderful treat!!!

  2. Eloise Watt

    So interesting. Thanks to Mr McConnell for this interview. A Town Like Alice was on my late Father’s bookshelf and I read that copy from time to time and it absorbs me afresh each time. The 1956 film was wonderful, and it’s a bit of a thrill to watch the principal actors not least because as a baby, Peter Finch was passenger on an Australian flight that my mother, brother and me joined en route to London. He willingly accommodated me in his lap while my mother settled us. I have also had the pleasure of meeting Virginia McKenna. Mr Crawford’s production importantly included that part of the story which perhaps grabs Modern Woman : the tale of a brave and mentally strong woman taking a risk for the happiness and good of all. The casting of Helen Morse, Gordon Jackson and Bryan Brown will always be one of the most superlative in film history. It’s a pity copies of the series are not readily available.

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