The 2015 Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture: John Edwards

The annual Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture was this year delivered by noted Australian TV producer John Edwards

You can read more about the Screen Forever conference here at Mediaweek, including presentations from ABC director of television Richard FinlaysonEndemol Shine Australia’s Mark and Carl Fennessy, and the feature interview with Ten Network chief executive Paul Anderson.

The Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture, delivered at this weeks Screen Forever conference, was delivered by respected TV producer John Edwards. 

Edwards has produced more than 600 hours of television drama, with his credits including: Gallipoli, Puberty Blues, Offspring, Tangle, Dangerous (with Imogen Banks); Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War and Rush (with Mimi Butler); Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, SpiritedBeaconsfield, Love My Way, Marking Time, The Surgeon, The Secret Life of UsOn The Beach, and Police Rescue. His current series, The Beautiful Lie, is airing on ABC TV.

John Edwards – Hector Crawford Memorial Speech – 17/11/15

   “Don’t look back… something might be gaining on you”

Satchell Paige said that more than sixty years ago (so did the Book of Genesis maybe three thousand years before that). It’s been something of a watchword for me for all the years I’ve been in this business. I suspect it is for most of us – doubt and faltering are corrosive, looking back at what we’ve left behind is mostly of little practical value once we’ve chosen our path. Except sometimes you have to…

When I was invited to make this address, quite apart from being very flattered, it of course made me think “why”? Most of the people who’ve done this have been the great and the good, those with a big or special view of the world and of our culture. But I’m a television drama producer, still practicing. Historically, a couple of producers have addressed, but after they’ve stopped being producers. Maybe there’s a message here. I was told though that the perspective of one who’s been doing a lot for a long time, and still keeps turning up, might give a useful perspective of where we are as a business, at least in the one area I ought to know something about, tv drama. So, this might be a much narrower view of the world than usually is preferred in this address. It seems absurdly narrow given the events of the past weekend. But I press on, that’s what we producers do. Given this opportunity, there is one point about the business today, that I really think needs to be made. Here goes.

So at the very outset, I’m being compelled to set aside the Satchel Paige credo. I am going to be looking back, for a moment anyway, because I think something has been gaining on us, and if we’re not careful about how we act, it might just strangle us. I fear many disagree with me, but let me use this glance at my own thirty something years of doing this to make the case.

I started with Satchel Paige. He was a baseball player, a pitcher who made his Major League debut at age forty-two. Most of his career had been in the “Negro Leagues” but he still made it to the Hall of Fame and played into his fifties. He said lots of other famous things… “work like you don’t need the money, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching”; “don’t pray when it rains if you don’t pray when the sun shines”; “avoid running at all times”. And my favourite, “win a few, lose a few, some get rained out, but you’ve got to dress for all of them”. He was a pitcher who was so good he had the trick of having all the fielders sit down, then he’d strike out all the batters. I bring him up not just because of the “don’t look back” thing. It seems to me Satchel Paige is pretty much the opposite of what we producers are. He was somebody born with enormous natural talent and smarts. It seems to me, and has ever since I wrangled my way into being a producer, that we’re different kind of creatures than that. We producers are recognisers, harnessers, sometimes exploiters of the talent of all the others we need to make our shows, rather than being the naturally gifted ones ourselves. By seeing the need, figuring out how to meet it by bringing together others, and selling it, we create success. Often it’s like juggling jellyfish, other times it can be like alchemy. If we do it well enough, we get to do it again. A glance across a few aspects of my experience of doing just this I hope I might help us judge our present and find a basis to look forward again.

At the time I started, there were two main routes to being a tv drama producer – either through the non-commercial way of the ABC or through Crawfords or Grundy’s. There was a fresh offshoot of a few people coming from feature films, but it was not yet a pathway. I was going to stumble onto a different road! Stumble, because becoming a tv drama producer wasn’t any kind of ambition for me growing up. In fact it never entered my head until the possibility was directly in front of me. I was from a family where cultural pursuits weren’t foreground. Being reasonably competent at school, and growing up in the era that I did, had meant that I didn’t have much ambition at all other than dreading and avoiding the course my Depression-era-raised parents would have wanted for me, to become a solicitor – my dad was a car dealer but I don’t really think it was because he felt he needed a lawyer in the family. I drifted through university, then half-graduate degrees, then into teaching for a few years, then facing a personal glitch, in the middle of one Sunday afternoon funk I decided to try something different. Watching a tv documentary it occurred to me that somebody was having fun making that thing. I didn’t know anybody much in film and television except for Cal Gardiner, a guy I sailed against whose family owned a lab, and my childhood football coach and family friend, Rex Mossop. I took leave from the Education department. I called on both of them, and both got me intro meetings, but Cal’s advice to sit in an editing room to see what I’d pick up of storytelling grammar and see if I was really interested, was the telling call. Mike Balson had just won an AFI for Mad Max and was cutting a series of documentaries for SBS that had just started. Streams of film makers were coming through his rooms, conversations were leading to ideas, ideas to contacts, and I swung a six week job at Film Australia doing preliminary research on what eventually became, very unusually for Film Australia, a telemovie co-production for the Nine Network about seeing World War II through the eyes of the Women’s Weekly. I ended up co-writing that show and had a couple of years of short term contracts amounting to a paid apprenticeship at Film Oz developing and writing films, with mostly commercial aspirations like my first gig had, and working side by side with real stars of the vérité documentary world. I’d fallen into a strange but exciting world. And I was surrounded by people who revered film craft. For me, this was an educational hot-house. This was heated up further by having found love of my life Joanne, who’d caused me to think more widely than I’d hitherto thought possible, and a new young family.

It forced me to specify my own story telling ambition. I set out my high goal as trying to do on screen what my literary hero William Faulkner did with his town novels. The most influential movie to me up to that time had been The Last Picture Show, based on Larry McMurtry’s novel, pretty much the same story turf. So the aspiration felt achievable, at least in principle. At Faulkner’s Nobel Prize address he said that the duty of fiction is to “help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding himself of the courage and honour, hope and pride and compassion, and sacrifice which has been the glory of his past”. That’s a pretty lofty duty. But alongside this high goal in my mind, my car dealer dad’s cell-memory still resonated. He’d always made the very low bar practical warning that when people said “to tell the truth…” look closely for fibs, when people talk about how honest they are, check your silverware. Yes, in the new work I was setting out to reach for the stars sure, but very much from the stand point of what I thought was possible, at a time in my industry experience that I didn’t really know the difference between poop and clay.

Very quickly though I knew I wasn’t a good enough writer. I just didn’t have the talent of creatio ex nihilo which seemed to be a pre-requisite. Maybe assembling elements that others initiated was what I was good at, so producing was a possible path. I optioned a couple of books, one along with former Film Australia production head Tim Read, and two of those were made as low budget feature films, one thanks to Matt Carroll and Greg Coote at Ten who had bought one of my Film Oz ideas, the other was Ray Beattie and Seven-owned Atlab as the backers. 10 BA tax concessions enabled it to happen, The Empty Beach was the third or fourth most successful movie of the year, which isn’t saying it worked, apart from adding to John Seale’s impressive show reel, and I Own the Racecourse was a cute little story but just too small in its scale. But I learnt a lot from the process and was now a producer! I won a “Creative Producers Support Scheme” award from the AFC, was mentored through the industry by Brian Rosen, and when an American writer producer had to be shunted off the PBL mini-series Tracy, they needed a bunny to make it. I got that gig and the opportunity to learn about special effects on the run. The scripts had big problems though, and tax years being what they are, meant the show had to go ahead. The learning-curve was a lot steeper. Don Crombie, one of the directors and I had to write ten pages a day while the other director Kathy Mueller workshopped our text with the actors and the genius DOP Andrew Lesnie, who’d up until then had only a couple of hours of drama experience, worked out the blocking of the whole show and how to bring off the old-school sfx and model shoot. Tracy wasn’t as good as we’d hoped, but it had very good bits, was a ratings hit and I was becoming a fixture. Then, on the back of that, an ABC series Stringer whose Kate Cebrano and Wendy Matthews soundtrack that went double platinum was much more successful than the show itself. Other things went wrong and fell over, but opportunities kept popping too and I developed another miniseries for Nine. Then it fell over with a management change but this meant I could take over a pilot back at the ABC when someone ran away to Hollywood. That became Police Rescue which was subsequently picked up by the BBC and I teamed up with Sandra Levy and Kim Williams dragged us into Southern Star. Now I was becoming entrenched.

The point about this stage of the story is that the world of tv drama production was remarkably open. There was great diversity in drama production: the soaps, two hours-a-week shot on multicam, forty parters shot on tape, twenty-two parters and thirteen part series shot on film, short series, miniseries, telemovies. There was even that much diversity within each of the networks! The quality was all three of good, bad and indifferent. Because we producers don’t create out of nothing we need this kind of environment to flourish in. Yes there of course were difficulties, disappointments and exasperations, idiots to yell at and be yelled at by, windmills to tilt at, but the wider world of making drama felt young, and it embraced and welcomed energy and attack and the enthusiasm to try to make something good.

Continued: Part 2 | Part 3

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