An Epic Journey: The Making Of A Town Like Alice Part 3

June 3, 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 and click here for the second installment), Henry Crawford takes us through the production of this masterpiece of Australian television, from its genesis right through to its continuing legacy…

The novel by Nevil Shute

The novel by Nevil Shute

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER: POST PRODUCTION

Tell me about post-production.

“I would’ve had the final cut, and there wasn’t a lot to fix in it, editing-wise. The series had a very good editor, Tim Wellburn.”

The music?

“Bruce Smeeton was a feature film composer. A wonderful composer. Bruce did all the Fred Schepisi movies, like The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith and The Devil’s Playground. You often hear some of the A Town Like Alice themes played on planes. I enjoyed working with Bruce a lot.”

What was the style and the feel of the music that you wanted?

“It had to be romantic without being syrupy. But it also had to cover a range of emotions. As the producer, you have to decide where the music’s going to go, what sort of music you want, whether you want the music to play against the scene or with the scene, or you have to decide if less is more and not have music. I would run through the film with Bruce and tell him where the music starts and where it finishes, and then I’d leave the rest to him. I could trust him. It was great to go into a recording studio and hear the orchestra playing the music for the first time. There were a couple of scenes that were, in my opinion, a bit slow as they were directed. So I could say to Bruce, ‘Give me fast music because we need to get a bit of energy into those two scenes because the images were a bit slow.’ That’s a producer’s decision.”

Tell me about showing a cut to the BBC, as per your deal with them.

“The BBC International department had right of first refusal. In production after a while you don’t have much objectivity. I sent off the first half of it to the BBC, and they said, by telegram, ‘We’ve viewed A Town Like Alice and it’s well below our expectation.’ The bottom fell out of my world. I didn’t hear anything from them for some time, and then I had a call from the BBC business manager. He said, ‘I’m in Sydney, and I’d like to catch up with you.’ I met him for a drink, and said, ‘You don’t like the production and I’m devastated about it, and it destroyed my confidence.’ He said, ‘No, no, we actually quite like it, but we want to re-edit it.’ I replied, ‘Well, that’s okay; if you’re gonna take it, I’ve got no choice. You can do your re-edit.’ They cut their own version of it, basically removing the filmic exterior scenes and making it more of a talky interior show. They cut out the lengthy colorful outback sequences, which was crazy. But that’s what you deal with. Even with a bad edit, sixteen million viewers watched it on the BBC. I had the last laugh on this, because eventually when we went to the Emmys, it was the unedited version which won the International Emmy Award. For the Emmy, we were up against Brideshead Revisited, which I thought was a terrific series. The win was great. It particularly vindicated our position with regard to the editing and the BBC. Our non-edited version also won a British Broadcasting Press Guild Award for that year. We won lots of awards with it. And there was another advantage: after the BBC had their plays, we were able to sell our original version to Channel Four in England. So our complete version played on Channel Four, and they had as many viewers as the BBC.”

Bryan Brown and Helen Morse

Bryan Brown and Helen Morse

GETTING IT OUT: RELEASE & DISTRIBUTION

And the release in Australia and America?

“The Seven Network had the rights in Australia. It was picked up by Paramount Pictures, who had world rights, except in Australia and Great Britain, and they distributed it around the world. It was sold to 70 countries.”

Did you have to give away some of your rights to Paramount?

“Yes, first of all, we had to give away a lot of the rights to an Australian network to get the money to produce it. We also had to give quite a bit away to Paramount. In the states, the unedited version was broadcast on Masterpiece Theater on PBS, which is where all the big mini-series played. It was one of their most successful ever. It had pretty wide dissemination through Masterpiece Theater. Masterpiece has a big audience.”

Did A Town Like Alice win other awards in Australia or America?

“It won five Logie Awards. It was a BANFF Television Festival winner in Canada. The National Board Of Review in America gave it their Best Drama Award.”

What were the ratings in Australia?

“The ratings were high. I produced three of the four most-watched dramas on Australian television in the 20th century. One was Against The Wind, one was A Town Like Alice, and the other was some episodes of The Sullivans. A Town Like Alice got 49 points, which was 70% of the audience watching television at that time. It performed well for the network.”

Did it make a profit?

“Yes, it’s one of the few shows that made a profit. It returned a reasonable amount to the investors, so it cost The Seven Network very little at the end of the day. They got most of the money back that they’d spent on the advance that they gave us. The film commissions got their money back, and my private investor got his money back. None of us earned much out of it. I made about $60,000, but bear in mind that was six years of work, so…”

Were there any firsts in the success of A Town Like Alice?

“It was the first widely successful Australian mini-series, or drama for that matter, overseas. There was nothing that came before it. It was certainly the biggest rated Australian drama. It would’ve also been the biggest budget of its time. When I went to the network and said what it would cost, they nearly fainted in their suits.”

What was the consequence of the success of A Town Like Alice to the Australian TV-film industry? 

“It was the first TV show where people took Australian drama seriously. I’ve already told you about the attitude of the head of television at the BBC, that he’d rue the day that he’d ever see our content on English screens. In the UK, it had 16 million viewers, so it was well-watched there. That would be a much wider audience than a feature film going out.”

What’s your reaction when you watch the series?

“I haven’t seen it for some time, mainly because I don’t have a playable copy. When I see scenes, I remember trying to make that scene: how we made the dust, for example. I tended to only see the problems of making it until enough people saw it to give me confidence in what we’d actually produced. Certainly the initial BBC reaction pulled the rug out from under me.”

I read that your reaction to watching the series was that you cried. What induced that?

“Tears would well up in some of the emotional scenes because I’d be connected to the characters and the performances. I’d be as emotional as an audience. That’s the way it should be. I went on to the tourism business and built a resort in Fiji, which is not as silly as it sounds coming from film, because of the similarity between them: you have an idea, you find the location, you build the sets, and you put a bunch of characters in it. The thing that I always said to my TV staff was, ‘You send the audience away with a smile on their face and a tear in their eye.’ There has to be an emotional connection for the story to be successful. That followed me right through into tourism, and it worked very well in my favour. We became one of the top ten barefoot resorts in the world. I always talked to the staff as I talked to film people about the effect of the emotional connection. There has to be an emotional connection. It goes back to Dorothy Crawford saying, ‘Who do you feel sorry for? Who do you relate to? Who do you have a sympathy with? Who are you cheering for?’ Some people probably even barracked for the old solicitor, Noel. Some people barracked for him ahead of the guy from the outback, Joe Harman.”

You’ve mentioned “confidence” a few times. How important is confidence to a producer?

“You would not spend six years on a project if you had doubts!”

Helen Morse and Bryan Brown

Helen Morse and Bryan Brown

THE LEGACY: A TOWN LIKE ALICE LIVES ON

Why did A Town Like Alice turn out so well?

“Love. Good people working on it. Good film people and a very good director. Very good performances. There are lots of things that go into the recipe for the fruitcake. There are lots of nice plums in there, particularly the three-handed relationship. And the production values were good. We cared about what we were doing. It was made for the right reasons.”

Could any of that happen without the man at the top, the producer?

“Well, unusual. The top guy has got to have passion and the vision for it. Most of it is vision. You’ve got to see it from beginning to end. You’ve got to maintain the vision. It’s harder to do these days. I see American shows, and if you add up the producers and executive producers, it’s about twenty people. In this case, before all this nonsense, I was lucky, because it was me. I had the vision, I did script editing, I did casting, and I employed all the people. I didn’t have to answer to twenty people or twenty opinions. It’s not a committee-made job. It’s one man’s vision.”

Summarise your vision…

“I wanted to capture the essence of what turned me on as a kid about the drama of it. And then having a passion for that. And I think, and I say humbly, I was known as a producer with attention to detail. I like to think that a lot of the details were pretty good. Except for a scene where Noel is getting examined by the doctor. I was criticised because the period stethoscope we used was not invented until five years later. Somebody wrote me a letter about that, about how it had destroyed the whole series for him. There’s an expert on everything. Attention to creative detail is really important. Where the music starts and where it stops, what the music’s like and what the editing’s like, for example.”

Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute

After the success of A Town Like Alice, did you want to produce another Nevil Shute story?

“Obviously, after A Town Like Alice, I looked at all the other Shute projects, and I didn’t think any of them measured up to A Town Like Alice in terms of a real story potential, including On The Beach. They didn’t have the quality of A Town Like Alice. That was the best of his books. After the success of A Town Like Alice, everybody came out of the woodwork trying to acquire Nevil Shute properties. But the others didn’t see the light of day.”

Could such a production of A Town Like Alice be done today?

“It’d be difficult unless you had a big budget. We made A Town Like Alice in three countries. It was six hours of television for $1.25 million, and my production secretary returned as a freelancer to work on a Pepsi Cola commercial shot in Queensland for $1.5 million. They did two thirty-second and one sixty-second commercials for a budget in excess of what we had to spend on A Town Like Alice. I hate to think what A Town Like Alice would cost now; I think it might be $20 million or something like that. I went on to do other productions, but I eventually, reluctantly, got out of the business because it was just too hard to raise money to make things of the quality that I wanted to do. And you couldn’t have production by committee. It’s got to be a person’s vision.”

Would you consider this period – the 1980s and part of the 90s – when the Australian industry was much financed under the 10BA tax concession scheme, the golden period of Australian film and television?

“Yes, because things got made. You can argue that a lot of people got fees that shouldn’t have got fees, and a lot of scripts got made that should never have been made, but on the other hand, there were a lot of fantastic productions that got the industry going and that provided a little bit of insurance and longevity for the industry. 10BA certainly helped the industry get going. It gave people a lot of experience. The 10BA tax concessions created opportunities for all of us to try stuff. It was like someone had opened a door and all this pent-up emotion came flowing out the door. And it exhibited itself in films. The original Mad Max was at that time. There were interesting filmmakers around. There were clever creatives with passion in that era. There are passionate people now, but they don’t seem to be as thick on the ground. It all goes back to story. You’ve got to find a good story to start with, particularly with the budget limitations in Australia with features. Maybe the good stories aren’t there? The upper limit for an Australian budget these days seems to be about ten million dollars. Anyone dealing in something between ten million and fifty million may as well kiss goodbye to their money. One of the recent great success stories of Australian film is The Last Cab To Darwin, which is a terrific film. They made it for about ten million dollars. It’s done well. Australian films have got to compete in the cinemas with American blockbusters that cost $100 million. That’s very hard.”

The vast majority of Australian films today lose money.

“I think that’s often because of, ‘Who do you care for?’ In the productions that lose money, you don’t care for the people. ‘I want to make a film about a mad axe murderer!’ Who cares?”

What are you doing today?

“I’ve just come back to Australia, and I’m keen to get back into film, but there’s not much opportunity when you get older. No matter what your experience or track record, alas. I’m pulling some ideas together. You’ve got to invest a lot in ideas to have one that pays off. There are starting to be a few more outlets for drama in Australia. What’s interesting is that Foxtel seems to be doing here what some of the American networks have been commissioning and doing well at. The real economic problem in television is that the dreaded soap opera and reality television became so cheap to produce by comparison that it’s very hard to get big budget shows going. Film costs have changed a lot in a positive way. We don’t have to process film any more. We have digital technology. That makes the editing easier. Anybody can go out and shoot something on a pretty cheap little camera these days and get a pretty good result out of it. The only reason that we’ve ever survived in Australian drama is that they are popular. People want to watch them. The problem is that we speak the American language, whereas if you’re in France, you have a French-speaking film industry that’s strong; if you’re in Germany, you have a German-speaking film industry that’s strong. Americans provide no direct competition to these foreign language films. We’ve always had to fight the dumping of American product here for not much money. It’s only through popularity with audiences that we’ve managed to stay in business, but it’s always been pretty tenuous.”

What’s the future of A Town Like Alice?

“I understand that the novel was picked up by Sony, who spent about $2 million developing it and now no one wants to know about it or talk about it. It’s just languishing somewhere.”

I presume that because your option on the novel was for only 20 years, this means that you have no rights to reproduce the mini-series?

“I recently received legal advice that we own the copyright of the mini-series, and that we can release it. But I’m waiting to get some paperwork examined forensically to know whether that’s the story or not. I own the masters of the series. They’re in good condition. In fact, I’ve been talking to a distributor, who’s very keen to release it. There’s a lot of people who want to see it. It would be a popular series.”

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

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

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

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Comments

  1. Elizabeth

    I have enjoyed watching this series since I was a 10 year old girl. Thirty years later, I am still enjoying my second copy of VHS tapes. It is the only reason I still maintain a VHS player. I know from visiting other media outlets there is quite a following for this movie, and I believe a release on DVD would be incredibly well received. I’d advance order a copy. Please consider releasing this.

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