Stringing words together
At the age of sixteen, I decided to leave school and become a writer. My father thought I was mad. So did most of my relatives. I applied to the Herald, but in those days you needed a university degree to even be a copy boy. So I became a messenger boy at Radio 2GB.
I went there because they produced more radio drama than other networks, and a year later I was writing some of it. My dad still thought I should take a sensible job in a bank. People in those days believed banks provided lifetime security So, my dad asked, would I have lifetime security at 2GB. “Good God,” I said, “I hope not!”
Writing was a hard way to make a living when I started. There was no Australia Council, no Film Commission, no government funding of any kind (in fact I’ve never had a grant or any handout in my life.) I began this career of stringing words together with short stories, then radio scripts until we went to England where I wrote television series and plays, feature films, and after that a brand new direction and one that I loved— writing plays for the theatre.
Later, coming home to Australia I wrote a lot of television for the ABC and commercial stations. Both adaptations and original TV mini-series, these included “Captain James Cook”, “The Timeless Land and “1915”, all having world-wide sales. Most importantly, in 1992 I also began to write novels, one of which is A Distant Shore a book dealing with asylum seekers, a topic that polarised this country a few years ago, and still divides us today.
But to start at the beginning, being a writer was regarded as an odd kind of job when I was growing up in Australia, and those who practiced it were classed as very odd people. When asked what you did for a living, if you said a writer, most people looked blank or sympathetic. Others thought the actors in radio made up the words.
In this very different world, I left school aged 16 because I wanted to be a jackeroo. Don’t ask me why, but I headed off to adventure in south west Queensland hoping to be Clancy of the Overflow. Somewhere along the way, I began to think I don’t want to do this at all— I want to be a writer. The owner of the sheep station who’d paid my fare wasn’t impressed, so I had to work for a few months to pay him back, then hitchhiked home to Sydney and told the family I’d sorted my life out at last. Never mind that I’d scraped through the intermediate certificate at school and failed English grammar: I would become a writer. I can still remember there was a really long silence. My father declared I was raving mad, and sent me to see a psychiatrist.
My dad was a suburban GP and the shrink was a colleague. I answered lots of his questions, after which he scratched his head, rang my dad and said: ‘He’s a determined young bugger. I think I’d let him get on with it.’ They both had a bit of a chortle and convinced themselves I’d fail at this strange ambition. So I became a messenger boy at 2GB. I did aim higher, applying for a job at the Sydney Morning Herald, but was told they didn’t employ copy boys without a university degree. Whereas radio stations would take anyone, so they took me.
2GB was the key station of the Macquarie network, and produced a huge amount of radio drama. The war years had stopped overseas shows being imported, and proved Australia could make its own programs. I used to arrive in the office at seven in the morning, then write scripts until everyone arrived at nine o’clock and work began. My day was spent in running messages, then I’d go home and write some more. Most of my attempts at this time were exotic plots concerning eastern princesses or famous jewels that went missing—things I knew absolutely nothing about. I inundated the Macquarie script editor with these, until at last— in self defence I think, he said ‘Ok, we’ll give you a chance. But no turgid melodrama.’
They had a long running show called ‘Doctor Mac’. The editor said I could write one of these, and if they liked it they’d produce it. They couldn’t pay me as I was already being paid, running messages for thirty shillings a week. Anyway, I wrote it and he said it was rubbish. Stubbornly I wrote another— this time he said I showed promise.
Promise is an exciting word to a seventeen year old, so I wrote yet another—and this time, probably from exhaustion by now, he accepted it. I went home in the train so excited I forgot to get off at the right station. A few weeks later to everyone’s amazement I had a short story published, and that was more-or-less the start of it.
My career at 2GB ended when I reached eighteen and was called up for the army. A few months later the war was over and I decided to work as a freelance writer. Radio, at that time, was the main way for a writer to earn a living. In the early nineteen fifties it was a thriving industry. Actors were flat out rushing from one studio to another, playing three or four different roles each day, and for a writer by then there was as much work as we could handle.
But lots of work didn’t mean a full rich life. The rates of pay were abysmal. $6 for a quarter hour script, $20 for a half hour drama! Later I reached the giddy heights of $50 for a script, and was told I was pricing myself out of the market. Also, though we tried to ignore it, there was an elephant in the room. Television was coming. We kept hearing how many American shows we’d be able to watch, and how Australia could never afford to make its own TV programs. Worse still, we were told we didn’t have any decent actors or writers, and nobody would want to watch local drama. The people who owned newspapers and had been given the television licenses were promulgating these views!
By now I was in my mid-twenties, happily married. One day I said to my wife, ‘Let’s go to England’. ‘Right’, she said, not one to ever mess about. ‘When?’
We had two children and couldn’t afford it, but by selling the car and both working flat out on scripts for a few months, we set sail in an Italian ship. Two small kids, aged five and two with us in a cramped four berth cabin. No return fare. What if there was no work? How would we live? Friends said we were crazy. At times in the next two years we agreed with them.
But we knew the risks. We were young enough not to care, and too excited to listen to warnings. I have this belief that spur of the moment impulses shape our lives, and nothing we’ve done was more spur of the moment than this. It felt good to be going somewhere. I’d had some busy years writing and occasionally directing radio shows. I’d done a few prestige Sunday night Theatre scripts, as well as starting shows called “Address Unknown” and “Famous Trials”, and thriller serials. But the sheer number of scripts we had to write to make a reasonable living had begun to feel like working on an assembly line. Quantity was somehow more important than quality. The benchmark of real success was the writer who could turn out the most scripts, and thus collect the biggest pay cheque. So it was time to leave, to have a go overseas and see what happened.
And what did happen? Not much at all the first year. We couldn’t turn tail and come home, because we couldn’t afford to. It was cheaper to live in Spain, where a house on the beach cost one pound a week. We were surviving—just—by me sending radio scripts back to Australia, but it was not long term survival. Spain and radio scripts for home was not the answer.
We went back to London. A cheap flat which was still possible in 1959. On a lucky day we met Spike Milligan. My wife typed Goon Show scripts for him, while I settled down to write television plays in the hope I could sell one. Through Spike I found an agent and wrote more plays. Still nothing happened. It was the middle of our second year by this time. The kids, aged six and three, amused themselves by making a cubby house beneath the table I worked on. By now I had a briefcase full of rejects, and we were really broke and wondering how to get home.
Then one astonishing day my agent rang and said: ‘You know that script that’s been rejected by just about everyone—well, I’ve just sold it to Granada television and they want to meet you.’ That afternoon she rang again in a state of high excitement to say that the BBC liked another of my plays and wanted to buy it. I can remember every moment of this fabulous day that changed our lives; I even remember the hangover after the celebration that followed.
And how lucky it was that Westpac, (then the Bank of New South Wales) had refused to lend us money to get home. Or that AMP would not advance me a cent on my life insurance policy. Just imagine, if these august bodies had been helpful we’d have scuttled home and I’d have been bashing out radio scripts again. But they cut us adrift, told us we had no collateral, and I’m forever grateful that they were such bastards.
It was the start of the sixties and a wonderful time to be in London. If I made a reputation it was in those exciting years of British television, with series for the BBC and ITV, then writing plays for Armchair Theatre and Play of the Week. That era of single TV dramas was the best period of television. Success in TV led me to feature films. In 1963 I met the actor Kenneth More, who asked me to write the screenplay of a film for him called The Comedy Man. It led to a lot of work in the next few years on films for MGM, Columbia, Paramount and Rank.
I wrote twelve screenplays for feature films. Some were good, some better forgotten.
We stayed almost twenty years in England. Our two children grew up and were educated there. We bought a lovely house with acreage in Surrey, and later I switched to writing stage plays. The most successful one was the very first, called Birds on the Wing, which in addition to its London production has played all over Europe, Canada and America. In 1972 it was the top grossing play in Western Europe, and is still in production in various parts of the world. I also adapted it into a BBC comedy series starring Richard Briers. I grew to love the theatre. For the next five years I wrote a stage play every year. I liked being at rehearsals and going on tour with the cast to get the play right, so it would reach London’s West End. Because the rewards for that were considerable. Foreign rights, productions in Europe, a chance of Broadway, amateur rights, possible film rights: there is hardly anything to compare with the return to a writer of a successful stage play.
In the early nineteen-seventies, we started to become homesick. Our children were growing up; our daughter married, and she and her English husband moved to Vancouver; our son, being aged two when we left Australia, organised himself a trip home, rang us and said: ‘I love this place. I can’t imagine why you ever left it.’
It was a time of decision. We’d been away a large part of our lives. We’d begun to miss the beaches and the friends. In the end the tug of wanting to live here again prevailed. I have often been asked why did I come home after all that success? Well, there were stories and plays I wanted to write that could not be rewritten anywhere else. But it was deeper than that.
Our generation felt this urge to go overseas, because there was so little regard for us here. We were not esteemed in our own country. After I achieved a measure of success in England, I could not believe the respect it accorded me. It was so different to here, where we had been ignored, been told that overseas artists and writers were better— and some of us had set out to prove this was a myth, and felt we had managed to do so. There was nothing left to prove.
So we came home. Although I was only in my forties, I thought I might sink into quiet retirement, but the reverse happened. Since we returned to Australia, I’ve written twenty television mini-series, six television films, three feature films, and eleven published novels. It has given me some honours: four Awgie awards, a Logie, a Penguin, a Sammy, and a nomination for an International Emmy. In 1991, to my amazement, I also received an Order of Australia Medal, for ‘services to the Arts as a screenwriter.’ My old Dad, who wanted me to be sensible and become a bank teller, would have been surprised.
Besides, the bank would’ve fired me long ago. But I will always remain a writer.