An Epic Journey: The Making Of A Town Like Alice Part 2

May 27, 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 (click here for the first installment), Henry Crawford takes us through the production of this masterpiece of Australian television, from its genesis right through to its continuing legacy…

Nevil Shute's novel

Nevil Shute’s novel

KEEPING IT REAL: BUMPING UP THE NOVEL’S GRIT AND HONESTY

A Town Like Alice could easily have been written, shot, and acted like a soap opera, but it wasn’t.

“I always approached it as a six-hour feature film. I used a feature film crew to make it, because I really didn’t want to do soaps. The story itself had enough colour and integrity. There was enough good material to drive the story for six hours. We didn’t have to create soap opera-type scenes and cliffhangers to try and keep it interesting. Most soap opera is rooted in melodrama. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I tried to base A Town Like Alice more on reality. I tried to give it dimension. For instance, in the book, the Japanese character, Sgt. Mifune, who guarded the women, was pretty much a one-dimensional character, so we tried to flesh him out into a well-rounded person with a family and a history. When Mifune knew that he was dying, Jean wanted him to have one last look at the photo of his family. That came from us trying to give the character a bit more breadth than just a black-and-white character. We wanted to give all the characters a proper arc – a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s the main difference between A Town Like Alice and a soap, which I generally refer to as ‘chewing gum for the eyes!’”

Why doesn’t Noel tell Joe that Jean is looking for him and where she is?

“Because he’s being very guarded about wanting to keep her for himself. Even though there’s a big age difference, there’s a part of Noel that wants to live the fantasy that he could be the husband or lover. That’s part of that triumvirate. We wanted the audience to say, ‘You bastard! You haven’t told her?’ How frustrating. It was to develop the right sort of audience reaction.”

But there’s also the other reaction: the audience empathising with Noel’s situation.

“Yes. It’s just about making things real, isn’t it? If it hadn’t been real, or if it had just come out of the blue, or was a fake plot point to drive toward a commercial break, the audience would have recognised that. It was drilled into me from an early age to always make things realistic. Cop shows had to be based on an actual case. Performances have to be realistic. I don’t know if that has an influence or not, but that’s my philosophy.”

There was a conflict in the series that wasn’t in the novel, and that was the conflict between Joe and Jean over the reaction of the people in Willstown, especially the bank manager, to Jean. What was the purpose of that?

“It was really picking up on the fact that she’s a woman, and those country communities are very closed. They’re very insular, and they’re very wary of outsiders. Joe, being a local, was very cognisant of that fact. He’d be wanting Jean to be accepted. I came from the country myself. I know how people can be concerned about what the local mayor or bank manager thinks. The barmaid was also negative towards Jean because she was an outsider. And, of course, it’s not only the writing and the adaptation, but the direction of the actors that’s really important. We got a really good cast of what were film-based actors rather than TV-based actors. I don’t think I cast anybody in A Town Like Alice who was from a soap opera background. I just went for a cast that in those days you’d go for in a feature film. These days, because there’s really good television being made, a lot of feature film people are going back to television in America. But in those days, it was a different story.”

Helen Morse in A Town Like Alice

Helen Morse in A Town Like Alice

GETTING THE RIGHT PEOPLE: CASTING A TOWN LIKE ALICE

Let’s move then to the casting.

“The Seven Network had ideas. The Americans wanted someone that they could bank, like David Soul, who played a cop on television in Starsky And Hutch.”

Tell me about casting Helen Morse as Jean Paget.

“The character had to be English, and Helen fit the bill beautifully. Helen was and is a renowned technical actress. Of course, we didn’t have to worry about Gordon Jackson; he was such a professional. We didn’t have to audition Gordon for it, because he was well-known from Upstairs, Downstairs and the police show, The Professionals. We were lucky to get him. On the face of it, the biggest risk for us was putting Bryan Brown and Helen Morse together, because they had to have a chemistry that worked. Helen was a Melbourne doctor’s daughter, from the opposite end of the tracks from Bryan, who was brought up in Panania in Sydney. We didn’t know how the opposite sides of the track were going to work together and relate to each other. Bryan, as wonderful as he is, has limited acting technique. Helen was full of it. It turned out to be a situation where real opposites attracted. They had a magic relationship, and they became very good friends. They were very close during the series. That was important because that chemistry shows on the screen. The biggest problem was getting the network to approve Bryan. No one argued much about the rest of the casting, but Bryan had done very little at that stage; he’d done a cameo role for me in Against The Wind. So David Stevens, the director, worked with Bryan on that scene under the tree where he describes the outback. It was only a short scene, but David had to work with Bryan for a day to get the performance right to show the network and get their approval. I can understand their caution.”

How did you convince the network to accept Bryan Brown?

“I just kept saying, ‘No, you’re wrong.’ We played the screen test of Bryan under the tree, of course. That finally convinced them. It was very good, but note that this was the beginning of Bryan Brown’s screen career; he didn’t have the experience or profile that he has now.”

And the casting of the actors who played the Japanese soldiers?

“The Japanese actors all came out of Hollywood. I went over there and did screen tests. Yuki Shimoda played Sgt. Mifune. After the filming, he went to Japan. It was the first time that he’d ever been to Japan, and he loved it because he was no longer a minority – he was a majority. He’d been interned in America during the war. Going to Japan was a final pilgrimage for him because he found out when he got there that he had cancer, and he died shortly after. He was a lovely man. The baby in A Town Like Alice is my daughter, Melissa. The series is a great home movie for her. But no other parent would want to put their kids through that. We were lucky that we had her to put in the show, because it was very hot filming in Malaysia, and being in all those scenes was quite difficult. Every time she cried, the director said, ‘Give her a banana.’ To this day, she can’t eat bananas.”

What about the Malay villagers? They seemed so real and natural. Were they professional actors?

“They were local village people with no acting experience. Generally, we re-voiced them.”

GETTING STARTED: PRE-PRODUCTION

Were there any other pre-production challenges that you had to meet?

“Most film crews are freelance, and I assembled a lot of feature film people, like Russell Boyd as the director of photography, and his lighting crew, and everybody else who worked on it. When I had to get permits for them to work in Malaysia, they were spread to the four winds. From the Malaysian embassy in Canberra, I got all the forms that needed to be completed, and sent them all over Australia. I got the crew to complete them with their passports and everything. I then flew to Malaysia and stood in a line for six hours at the immigration office, with a big folder of application forms. The woman took one look at it and said, ‘Ah, but they are on the wrong form.’ So I had to come back to Australia and start the process again, even though these forms had come from the Malaysian embassy. The next problem we had was that you couldn’t have weapons or anything seeming to be a weapon, even if they were inoperative, in Malaysia at that time, so we had to make the 303 rifles out of plywood. The Ministry Of Culture also had to review the scripts. They initially demanded that the [water] well building element be removed because it reflected badly on the Malays, because they couldn’t build their own well. We had to fight tooth and nail to retain this as it was a crucial plot point. Working in Malaysia had its challenges.”

Helen Morse and Bryan Brown in A Town Like Alice

Helen Morse and Bryan Brown in A Town Like Alice

MAKING IT HAPPEN: PRODUCTION

You’re now ready to go into the field to shoot A Town Like Alice

“We tried to make it an A-list film production, but you didn’t get much for $1.25M, even then. We tried for high production values; that’s why I went for a feature film crew, so it would look filmic rather than like a cheap video tape production. We weren’t long out of the era when everyone did their interiors on videotape and their exteriors on film, integrating the two. The series was shot on 16mm film, which gave it a slightly better result. I wish that we had today’s technology to be able to do it.”

Tell me about the shoots, first Malaysia.

“Langkawi now has an international airport and many very fancy hotels, but in those days, there was one government guest house, and there was a grass airstrip, and we had to get our equipment to the island like the boat people. The people who ran the boat people boat refused to unload our equipment unless we paid a ransom to them. I had no choice but to tell them where to go, and the production designer, Larry Eastwood, and I unloaded all the equipment and got it into trucks. It was a very difficult exercise. We had chosen Langkawi because of the beautiful rice paddies that we’d seen during the survey. When we got there, there’d been an unusual drought, which meant that every rice paddy was as dry as you could make it. We had to sit in circles and consult their god gurus to be able to upset the balance of nature. We had to pump water into the rice paddies to do the rice paddy scenes. The irony is that the outback scenes were in Broken Hill and were designed to be central Australian desert, but when we arrived, it was like a bowling green. There had been a great rain. We had to grade the grass off the paddocks to make them look dry, and we had to use dirt from the shearing sheds to create dust storms with fans. To make the rain, we had to use the local fire engine. The irony was that we had to drag the fire engine across this muddy paddock with a bulldozer to get it into the old homestead set. So we had our challenges. It wasn’t an easy production. Nothing was what it seemed, or often what we planned.”

Things often go awry during production.

“Yeah, and you gotta fix it. In order to make the dollars go further, I had to work on the crew in Asia, which was mostly in the catering area, where I could lend a hand, and also in the rigging department. I was a general hand, I suppose.”

What lessons did you learn during the shoot?

“Normally, I don’t spend much time on location. I just look at the footage in the office and make assessments of that. I learned a big lesson from being on the shoot, because being there, sometimes the wonder for me was that we actually got a scene done, and that actually skewed my normal objective perception of the product. There was a scene that we did that was a major one because it involved clearing out a village and putting in a lot of extras. The film had to be flown back to Australia for processing. A week later, we got the report that the film had been fogged, so we had to film the scene again, and a week later, we got the message that the film had been fogged again, so we did it a third time…all at great expense. In the end, we dropped that scene on the cutting room floor. For me, the wonder was that we had this great big village scene with lots of extras and we got it done. That was the achievement for me, but had I been sitting in an office somewhere and not been exposed to that lack of objectivity, I might have decided that we didn’t need to go down that track. We just could have dropped that scene and not reshot it twice. It was a very interesting lesson in production objectivity.”

Where exactly did you shoot Willstown and its Australian pub?

“That’s about 20 km outside of Broken Hill at Silverton. It’s a well-known film location now. We were one of the first to shoot there, because we graded the street, put up some facades, and added verandas on that pub to make it look really vintage. And they pretty much kept that as we made it. The verandas on the pub remain to this day. Inside the pub, there are cuttings from all the series and films that have been made there. Some of the Mad Max stuff was done there.”

How were you able to get the production values so high? The vehicles and the planes, for example.

“Beg, borrow and steal. It was very hard; it involved me working on the crew, doing shortcuts to do certain things. I’m pleased that it still looks okay. The plane was from Melbourne, so they had to fly it from Melbourne up to Broken Hill. One of the reasons that we chose Broken Hill to do those scenes was that it’s pretty equidistant from Melbourne, Sydney, and Adelaide, and it was outback-like enough to get away with it. But mostly with these things, you’re looking at easy access for travel and transport. A whole lot of film trucks have to go out there. You’ve got to get equipment, generators, and period cars out there. The London scenes were shot in Sydney; that London bus was in Sydney. We did have trouble matching cars between Malaysia and some of what we shot in Sydney. We couldn’t get army trucks in Malaysia, so it gets a bit tricky where you see an army vehicle with prisoners pull up, and the truck is filmed near Sydney, and then you see people get out of it and those people would walk into frame in a scene shot in Malaysia. Those two shots have got to match, and the continuity has to be right. You have to make sure that they’re in the same clothes, walking in the same order, and that sort of thing. Continuity issues!”

Gordon Jackson on set

Gordon Jackson on set

Tell me about Gordon Jackson on location.

“Gordon was a great actor, and he was really easy to work with. I’d go and pick him up at the motel in Broken Hill at six in the morning and he would wax lyrical all the way to Silverton about the beautiful country and the sun coming up and how great it was to be alive. He was a wonderful man. We fell on our feet with his casting.”

And working with Helen Morse?

“She too was just wonderful. She got the accent right, and just everything, didn’t she? It personally disappointed me that she didn’t go on to do much film work after that. She retreated into doing stage work. As a result of A Town Like Alice, she was offered a role in Yanks, a movie made by John Schlesinger, but she turned that down for some reason. I don’t know why she didn’t warm to the film experience that much. But she’s a star performer, and a very clever girl.”

As the producer, tell me about the work that you and director, David Stevens, did together.

“David and I had a long history together. I was involved in employing him after recruiting in New Zealand, where he won drama awards. He was an excellent director who we gave all the ‘acting’ episodes to. He went on to be a writer of some note, and ghost wrote Alex Hailey’s novel after Roots.”

The writing, directing and acting were subtle. The audience had to watch carefully, and they had to work…

“You couldn’t get away with anything else in Australia because the audience was a bit more perceptive. Later, I did a 39-hour series called Five Mile Creek for The Disney Channel in America, and because it was a western, there were goodies and baddies. The Americans were always saying, ‘Where’s the baddie?’ and I’d say, ‘It’s implicit in the dialogue.’ If you’re making shows in America, black has to be black, and white has to be white. No in between, no subtlety. That’s one of the things that I loved about doing the stuff that I did. You could put a bit of subtlety into it, and the audiences would get it and understand it. You don’t need the hero to be dressed all in white and the villain to be dressed in black with a twirly moustache.”

Do you have favourite scenes in the series?

“I like the one where Joe sits under the tree and talks to Jean about the outback and the colours of the outback, describing where he comes from and what The Alice is. That’s one of the best scenes. It was used in promos. It was done well. That’s a favourite. The appeal may be because I come from the bush.”

The final part of 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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