2007 speaker: Kim Williams
Kim Williams delivered the Australia Day Address at the Conservatorium of Music on 23 January 2007.
Kim Williams has had a long involvement in the arts and entertainment industry in Australia and internationally. Kim was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in June 2006 for service to arts administration through executive roles with a range of cultural organisations, to music education and the formulation of arts related public policy.
In speaking at this place, which is located so very close to the site where 219 years ago the first European settlement was established, it is especially important to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation on whose land this notable building stands. I pay respect to Gadigal Elders both past and present.
This building – now the NSW Conservatorium of Music but originally the stables constructed for Lachlan Macquarie, the fifth and second longest serving Governor of New South Wales – is one in which I grew up attending weekly lessons in my youth and working as a lecturer 35 years ago. It is for me a special place and I am honoured to have been invited to give this Australia Day address here.
The invitation encouraged me to explore in the address the role those areas in which I work
– film and television – have had in developing an understanding of Australian history and identity.
A nation’s personality, its identity and how that manifests itself is a complex issue. Describing it is riven with the danger of persistent recourse to generalisation. However, the concept of a national identity is truly fascinating. What it is to be an Australian and that which defines us is at the heart of our national being. In our young nation - and I refer here to the time since political Federation in 1901 - the role of film, radio and television in the development of that contemporary identity is more prominent than for nations with longer inherited histories which inevitably drive different outcomes. We as the national anthem says are ‘young and free’ - more open to the impact of film and TV than older societies.
I am sure we all agree that our nation has many diverse identities in its people allied with unifying themes that are central to a shared perception as to what it is to be an Australian. Those views have evolved over the last century in substantial measure from the impact of our literature and art; from our numerous and varied sources of political and social leadership; but also from the strong impact of cinema and the print and electronic media. Film, television and radio have had an important role in imbuing Australians with our sense of self-reliance, reinforcing our quirky humour matched with a projection of an uncanny optimism - each of which I would describe as core to the national personality. They also have reflected that sense of egalitarian idealism which is close to the heart of the Australian sense of self.
Narratives matter in nation building, they provide a centre to the ideals that drive us. Story telling is central to the growth and development of all societies and nations. Popular narratives make much of that come together within any developed society and are reflected in the quality of the confidence and content in the strands of national discourse in various cultures.
Clearly Australia is a very different place from the time of Gwen Meredith’s Blue Hills and its amazing 27 year run on the ABC when those four remarkably strong women Bella, Fleur, Mabel and Granny populated the nation’s homes up until 1976. The evocative theme spoke to that idyllic secure country place where Australians metaphorically traveled and shared the joys, trials and tribulations of that practically perfect country community. It was a shared fantasy. One built on certainty. One that was safe and secure. Many of the social values reflected in the series and that sense of a close affinity with the land is reflected time and again in our film, our literature and in numerous television series such as those exceptionally long running programs from the seventies and eighties - Bellbird and A Country Practise.
That sense of closeness with and fantasy about the land speaks to and reflects a heartland of Australian sensibility.
Australians have a long uninterrupted continuity with film and cinematic experience from its foundation. Fittingly for our country, one of the oldest surviving pieces of moving imagery anywhere is that of Maurice Sestier and Walter Burnett of the Melbourne Cup of 3 November 1896.
Needless to say it was an instant national hit. And that reveals one of the central relevant aspects in the development of our national identity. Cinema travelled across Australia very rapidly - what an audience saw in urban Melbourne was also being viewed in remote cinemas from Cairns to Broome or from travelling picture showmen across Australia.
Cinema was a binding agent central to the development of a national spirit from Federation in 1901. Actuality film making has been at the backbone of Australian filmed effort ever since and provides the most consistently important area of original filmed Australian work. Charles Tait’s Story of the Kelly Gang of 1906 is often referred to, probably and regrettably inaccurately, as the first feature film ever created. The importance of it however is extraordinarily high. It ran for almost an hour in continuous narrative at a time when 20 minute films ruled the day. It depicted one of the great national icons who only 25 years after his execution was rapidly becoming a national legend of mythic proportion. It was a spectacular commercial success and saw the Tait family complete a further 9 features in the next six years alone.
In fact in the first decade after Federation, Australia produced over fifty narrative feature films and was easily the most active producing nation of extended narrative film at that time. With nationwide distribution, the centrality of that body of produced work to the growth of a national identity should not be underestimated and I would say has been under valued in Australian history. Australians’ fascination with bushrangers and the challenge of the land and its cultivation is vividly reflected directly from that time. The theme of the outsider travels from The Story of the Kelly Gang onwards.
Through the First World War years and on through the later days of the silent era in the 20’s one sees the emergence of several signposts for characteristics which have informed the view of Australians about themselves ever since - as seen in particular through the work of Raymond Longford and his remarkable companion Lottie Lyell.
In The Sentimental Bloke of 1919 we see C. J. Dennis’s characters realised with Doreen played by Lottie and Arthur Tauchert as the redoubtable “Bloke”.
The film spoke to a new-found national confidence after the vicissitudes of war and its immediate celebration in irreverent, at times quite riotous comedy with all that playfulness with language many know and love so dearly, seen in the flash cards. This comedy was not confined to the genius of Longford (and he was most assuredly a genius) but was also seen in the works of Franklin Barrett and the remarkable Tad Ordell whose Kid Stakes of 1927 celebrating Fatty Finn and his childhood antics is a silent masterpiece. Kid Stakes, The Sentimental Bloke and one of the other great classics of Raymond Longford On Our Selection spoke of the simple celebration of working people in a young nation still finding its way. Whether in Woolloomooloo or on the land the naturalism of the performances and the settings is still intensely endearing and spoke with remarkable effect to audiences across Australia forging a national sensibility.
The remarkable period of original creative activity in the silent era saw the national ethos and personality being effected through the symbiosis that is always at play between the spirit of a nation’s people and the entertainment which they consume.
Australians’ characteristics of an irreverent sense of humour, our scepticism and the obligation to never take oneself too seriously are clearly evident in the work from that time. Similarly the stories are about the resourcefulness of ordinary people - their struggle and survival. There is a simplicity and directness contained within them and the abiding sense of a national code of that which is fair that runs through to the present day. There is also the regular appearance of the bushranger – Robbery Under Arms had already had been made twice by 1920 and was made twice again by 1985. We love our land based pirates!
Other notable contributors in that period were the three McDonagh Sisters - Paulette as writer/ director, Isabel as lead actor and Phyllis as art director, production manager, publicist and all things in between. They triumphed with several urbane productions at a time when their challenge was immense.
There was a free flow of people back then and a variety of international directors worked in Australia including Norman Dawn whose 1927 epic For the Term of His Natural Life stands even allowing for its extravagant melodrama, as a landmark to this day. It was the single most successful film at the Box Office until many years later and indicates the hunger which Australians have always evidenced for the discovery of our history – albeit an assisted and not necessarily accurate one!
There is a real fascination and commitment seen whenever Australian history is well executed in our film and television – witness the record viewing levels achieved by the eight hour mini series ANZACS or the sequence of exceptional Kennedy Miller Mini-Series of the eighties The Dismissal, Bodyline, Vietnam and The Cowra Breakoutor dozens of ABC series from the early Stormy Petrel through to the soon to be seen Curtin and Bastard Boys.
Many of our most important cinematic productions since the mid seventies have also been based on Australian history starting with the readily remembered Breaker
Morant, Gallipoli and Phar Lap each touches a nerve in most Australians with at times quite fervent patriotic overtones.
It is important to realise that films of the silent era provided the base for genuine nationally delivered entertainment. The first radio services only commenced being licensed for limited service areas in 1923 and the ABC was not incorporated until 1932 and took a very long time to deliver its services nationally. National connection was by way of cinema and to a lesser degree print. Cinema was central to the experience of Australians and Australian stories were central to the experience of the medium right through until the arrival of the talking picture in 1928. The going got a lot harder after that.
With the arrival of the talkies another of the key influencers of national opinion and character blossomed – the newsreel. And no nation loved the newsreel more than Australia. We had an intensely competitive newsreel market from the early silent formats right through until the last produced example 30 years ago on 27 November, 1976.
From their inception around 1910 through the golden production era in the thirties, forties and fifties the Australian newsreel was the actuality voice of the nation and is a repository of much of the most valuable material in the National Film and Sound Archive. Who can think of the Second World War without remembering the searing images of Damien Parer’s Kokoda Frontline which won for him the first Academy Award to an Australian"
The newsreel era is paid brilliant tribute in Phillip Noyce’s unforgettable 1978
film Newsfront where the integration of newsreel footage with new material so seamlessly weaves a magic which captivated audiences enthralling them in a period of Australia’s history that was until then largely ignored.
Despite extensive at times ferocious distribution challenges, Australian film continued to advance in the thirties though a variety of intrepid producer entrepreneurs – most particularly seen in the work of two remarkable directors – Ken G Hall and the incomparable Charles Chauvel who is together with the cinematographer/director Frank Hurley one of my personal lifetime Australian creative heroes.
Ken G Hall was a prolific and successful producer and ran the first substantial Australian studio Cinesound. As a director his comedies stand high and saw the renewal of the Steele Rudd characters in On Our Selection in 1932 which held the box office record for an Australian film until the 70’s. Another in the Steele Rudd series - Dad and Dave Come to Town - still stands well with its larrikin fish out of water banter delivered with a sure touch. As with several films starring the great comedian George Wallace made by KG, Dad and Dave Come to Town is a quintessentially Australian piece of comedy with an irreverent wit and innocence matched with an inner confidence which was I am sure very welcome at the turbulent time of its release in Australia in late1938 and subsequent wide release in the UK in 1939.
It was around the time of the late Dad and Dave films and on through World War II that Australians experienced the dramatic impact of radio on the national personality. Jack Davey, George Wallace, and the unsurpassed Roy Rene – the inimitable Mo who was often praised as Chaplin’s equal in his power and originality - ruled the air waves.
Mo was lascivious and magnificently vulgar- the quintessential example of the Australian lair, who was always on the make for a fast ‘quid’ or a ‘Sheila’. Having made only one film, stage was his medium until he found how brilliantly his talent for timing worked on radio and for six years he was a national star. That ribald sense of going a little too far but not
quite over the top permeates Australian comedy to this day right up to the recent examples with the D Generation, The Glass House, Andrew Denton’s brilliant work in the nineties and the current work of theChaser team. It is us.
I do not believe it is possible to do justice as to the quality of the impact of Charles and Elsa Chauvel on the national spirit of Australians and the way we see our country and our society. Chauvel was together with Elsa for many Australians from the mid 20’s through until the mid 50’s, THE Australian Cinema.
He was the writer/ director and she his creative writing and producing partner. The dramatised documentary “In the Wake of the Bounty” is of course famous for revealing a young, raw Errol Flynn who was catapulted to international fame and fortune from it. But it is for their bold and original epics that the Chauvels are justly remembered and revered.
Forty Thousand Horsemen was the first really striking representation of a generation of Australian men in war defending King and country with a striking confidence in its representation of laconic Australian character and independence. Its impact here and overseas was dramatic. Its evocation of the Australian characteristics of mateship and egalitarianism has had resonances ever since as seen in Ken Hannam’s Sunday Too Far Away which had a similar impact on people of my generation. Mateship is an indelible part of the national Australian psyche and in very substantial measure comes from literature and films such as these which, consciously or otherwise, are about legend building. We see it in numerous television series also where it has a very ready and easy resonance with most Australians.
Sons of Matthew charted different territory with an epic family saga set in the outback with rich evocative cinematography and a stirring story about the trials of fire, tempest and drought in the development of the land. It speaks to a sense in pioneering rural Australia which has deep resonances still. The experience of landscape and the strong identification with it - especially the outback - is for most Australians a reflection of the power of their film and television experiences and the outstanding ability of Australian cinematographers.
Charles Chauvel was imbued with a most endearing trait – he was an incurable optimist and that is what kept him going through thirty tough years of film making in a time when making a film in this country was about as easy as planting a crop in the Riverina today. So great was his optimism that between making films – and there were big in betweens - that he wrote and self published courses on screen writing and film making. I know as I own several of them. Can you imagine such commitment – such persistence, such confident optimism? For me it is part of our most enduring national characteristic – a quality of what I would describe as cheerful persistence and I believe it is central to an Australian ethos. It is what has built Australia: - persistence in the face of formidable odds. It is part of our strong-willed
nature and it would seem to be an embedded part of the place as it rapidly implants itself in immigrants no matter what their ethnicity.
Jedda from 1955 stands as the enduring film landmark from the Chauvels. The first sign of almost blind optimism was that it was made in colour when there were no colour laboratories in Australia and they had to ship the material to Britain for processing. They did not see a single foot of film before principal photography was completed. In an even greater act of optimism in a land that was then distinctly racist, it is an Aboriginal story of a stolen woman, isolation and love with a tribal man told with great sensitivity. Both roles were unusually for the time, played by Aboriginals – Ngarala Kunoth as Jedda and Robert Tudawali as her ill fated lover, Marbuck. Jedda evokes a sense of kinship to land and people not seen previously and stands proud and alone in creating an epic about Aboriginal experience, love and loss with a heart rending closure which lives with one always.
In reading the previous ten speakers and their addresses there was an almost consistent theme – the necessity of effective national reconciliation between indigenous Australians a. It stands almost as a mantra from their eloquent presentations and it is one with which I have a ready agreement and conviction.
There is much to do in our national story telling and documentation to liberate a more expansive informed and open view as to the necessity of reconciliation with indigenous Australians. From that reconciliation we need to move forward as one nation, which can look confidently outward to a better society: - one which is enriched from a real understanding of and commitment to each other and our shared histories. It is my most fervent hope as an adult that this will happen in my own lifetime.
There has been a body of work in film and television of some importance which addresses issues of meaning, life and purpose between indigenous and other Australians, much of it needless to say in a span of documentary work too large to detail here, the balance in a limited quantity of drama.
From the Chauvels’ pioneering work there have been other important contributions such as Nicholas Roeg’sWalkabout which still stands, together with Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright as remarkably special outsiders’ views of Australia, her landscape and people.
Bob Weis’ brilliant production Women of the Sun made for the SBS in the early eighties still stands as one of the singular moments in original Australian television.
Henri Safran’s 1976 film Storm Boy played successfully as an allegory on several levels to Australian and international audiences. It is a beautiful film with a balance and lightness that was an important contribution in its own modest way to addressing our most important national roadblock to real social maturity - the realisation of mutual respect, understanding and reconciliation with indigenous citizens.
Fred Schepisi’s 1978 adaptation of Tom Kenneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith is a deeply impressive work capturing as it did the tragic tension of Jimmy caught between European and traditional societies which eventually and inevitably provokes him to violent action from which there is no return. The film clearly springs from a sense of moral outrage and deeply felt passion which deservedly captured wide and enthusiastic critical attention. It is with a sense of real pleasure that one can say that the film which won the Best Film at the Australian Film Institute awards in 2006 was the highly original Ten Canoes by Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr The film invokes distant past, tribal times.
As many of you will know already Dayindi covets one of the wives of his older brother. To teach him the proper way, he is told a story from the mythical past, a story of wrong love, kidnapping, sorcery, bungling mayhem and revenge gone wrong. The English language storytelling by David Gulpilil, and subtitled Ganalbingu language, lets the light hearted humour and the confident portrayal of a proud, connected and successfully functioning world come through fetchingly.
Ten Canoes proved to make a ready and warm connection with audiences across
Australia. In fact over 300,000 of us saw it in the cinema alone which can only be cause for optimism on the pathway to reconciliation.
Reverting to my summary chronology, I would now like to take you back to the post Second World War period. It was an exceptionally hard time for creative life in our nation. The Chauvels were amongst the few who had the grit, persistence and wherewithal to continue making films through the fifties.
Radio continued to provide opportunity through the ABC and networks like that operated by Macquarie until television progressively assumed the mantle and the big advertising revenue. Like many a child of that time in the fifties I grew up wearing the carpet out in front of what we called the radiogram – listening to Wombat, Life with Dexter, Smokey Dawson and The Argonauts.
Outside of the strong continuing efforts in documentary at what is now Film Australia and in other diverse places, it was a barren period creatively. For original drama it was singularly tough in theatre, film and television. Radio progressively ceased to be a mainstream medium for comedy and drama as the take up of television grew exponentially. There was an overpowering repressive social and political atmosphere which eschewed Australian creative endeavour generally as evidenced from the low production level of 37 films in the 20 year period from 1946. That roster included numerous foreign films such as The Overlanders, Kangaroo, On the Beach and Bush Christmas which were made by UK or US studios using Australia as a story base.
However the quite suffocating environment with its hidebound ways was soon to see the liberation of a creative mainspring not seen since the first careless explosive energy of the first decade of Federation.
In 1984 I devised and co-hosted with the then Chairman of the Australian Film Commission Philip Adams, a large celebration of a particularly important moment in the history of Australian Television. It was to celebrate the publication in 1959 of a small manifesto. A manifesto penned and published by Hector Crawford and which posited the most spirited advocacy for Australian content on Australian commercial television as a minimum requirement for the issue of licenses which were by then proving to be permits to print money. The rules at that time confined the number of commercial broadcasters to two in the major markets and a solo one in all the others and reflected the political nature of such allocations and regulatory settings that have bedeviled Australian public policy ever since – a subject which should be reserved for a speech on another day!
Hector had become a good friend whilst I was the Chief Executive at the Film Commission and I treasured my times with him and his reflections on his battle history in television and before that in a very substantial radio career which saw the export of over 20,000 hours of Australian radio drama. Hector Crawford like Chauvel was one of the grand optimists and the creative studio which he ran in Melbourne was responsible for producing a diverse range of dramas which projected a view of our society and its ways which permeated the sense of national self and purpose when Australia was still shedding its almost exclusively UK centric view of the world.
His television career started modestly with a simple commission for Consider your Verdict. Hector’s advocacy for Australian content regulation with others was progressively ever more successful and what had been a rather constrained regulatory body gradually changed in response to a more engaged political view as to national policy priorities from the late sixties which coincided with the establishment of the Australian Film Television and Radio School. The Australian Film Development Corporation was set up which was succeeded by the Australian Film Commission and in the eighties saw the commencement of the Film Finance Corporation of which I was the founder and inaugural Chairman.
The roll call of Crawford productions is a recital of many of the hits of Australian television. There were a string of police shows Homicide, Division 4, Matlock and Cop Shop. A steamy serial The Box and one of the benchmark pieces of Australian television The Sullivans - the story of an ordinary family set in war time Melbourne which ran for six years and was exported to over 70 countries. The company moved into mini series in the 1980’s with the hugely successful All the Rivers Run which was followed by another evergreen that renewed
the association of Australian audiences with the mythology and hankering for the bush on a weekly basis - The Flying Doctors which ran for over 10 years.
Each program in its own way provided a perspective and sense of what it was to be an Australian and what it was to be living now or in the past in our country. Each was a contributor to a sense of confidence in being Australian and seeing and hearing Australians living out their daily lives. And of course the most important thing about them all is that they were hugely popular – central to their programming schedules because they were part of our daily lives, a central part of national social discourse.
That success was mirrored in many other productions in the sixties and seventies probably most memorably inNumber 96 - the saucy Australian serial set in a Sydney apartment building that combined melodrama, extravagant characters including high-camp tonality, lashings of comedy and - most famously – sex in abundant quantity.
From the outset in early 1972 Number 96 was a mega hit – running five nights a week for six years, with a spin off movie to boot. The show was part of Australia’s coming of age with gay, Jewish, Lancashire, black and feminist characters and remarkably adventurous storylines. It spoke to genuinely profound change throughout the nation:- politically and socially.
Number 96, the numerous Crawford Productions and their later audience and creative inheritors in the soap opera genre such as the more recent Home and
Away and Neighbours broke forever the cultural cringe that had affected Australians’ confidence in and about Australian work, Australian accents and Australian story telling. That early work has blossomed since then in a breadth of programming and sophisticated series and mini series well known across the nation. Australians have reveled in story telling about themselves in urban and rural environs and embraced dramas that spoke of a world which was directly relevant to their own experience or connected with national streams of public curiosity and fantasy.
All modern societies are dependent on the common stories that bind and renew them if they are to have vitality, confidence and a secure heart. The story telling campfires of the twentieth century were cinema, radio and television. The Australian cinema and TV campfire has been a mercurial creature which waxed and waned over the decades from the First World War up until the mid seventies but has nevertheless been central to Australians’ views of themselves.
The dramatic change experienced in television content was shortly to witness the renaissance of feature film production in a sequence of works which changed the national
mood, energized national confidence and broke with the cringeing, creatively impoverished and hesitant fifties and sixties forever.
The precious process in the cinema which is described by the Happy Feet director George Miller so eloquently as one of “public dreaming” has been renewed for Australian work over the last thirty years with a force that is if uneven, still overwhelming. The broad product of work from the mid Seventies through until recent times has seen a maturing of our creative spirit and the delivery of a sequence of works where the film makers and their creative teams and actors can clearly speak for themselves as it is such a very long roster of achievement.
That body of work has been extraordinarily influential in reminding us of our history - investing it with relevance and meaning. It has given us fresh compelling stories from fellow Australians. From the gifted work of diverse cinematographers it has delivered us our sense of visual understanding and celebration of this land, its people and stories. It has seen Australians take to the world stage as never before.
The cinema renaissance has driven home our sense of association with the landscapes of Australia in a very visceral way and delivered a sense of kinship with the environment. We have experienced the regular celebration of ordinary folk and in doing so it has reinforced a national sense of humour, resilience, mateship and that we hold values such as fairness and equality high.
As we look out on this Australia Day we can take satisfaction as a successful functioning democracy in a really quite profoundly peaceful and prosperous society. To have as the three leading Australian films of 2006 Ten Canoes, Kenny and Happy Feet says something rather lovely about us and those who produce things for us.
Film and television have had a central role in reinforcing our national personality in its complex evolution as one that is now confidently Australian in its identity. A nation that is aware of its capacity and which hopefully has a well developed sense of the challenges before it.
Personally I believe that we are capable of achieving one of the world’s most dynamic, creatively compelling, fair minded societies but only if we continue to strive for excellence in the quality of our aspiration and the creative expression of its many personalities.
I believe that the task before all of us is to ensure that at the centre of that national aspiration there will be an underpinning of reconciliation, united with understanding about and a care for our environment which is sustained by the persistence, optimism, innovation
and humour evident in our history. Through that process we will see our identity blossom from the best applied tools – thoughtful analysis, conviction and creative energy.
Note: The speech was delivered with 23 separate video and audio segments which utilised 56 separate excerpts from diverse film, radio and television works which were relevant to the speech and illustrated its themes.