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Producing ‘A Town Like Alice’

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Henry Crawford is an eminent Australian TV producer with more than 600 hours of drama production credits. He produced three of the four most watched dramas broadcast on Australian television in the 20th Century and was one of the first producers of the mini-series format. His mini-series A Town Like Alice won an International Emmy for best mini-series and many other awards.

Scott McConnell is a producer and writer in L.A. and Melbourne. This is an edited version of his September 2015 interview with producer Henry Crawford.

Bryan Brown as Joe Harman and Helen Morse as Jean Paget with their arms around each other's waists

A Town Like Alice. Bryan Brown as Joe Harman and Helen Morse as Jean Paget. Photo Credit: David Parker. Source: ACMI Collections

How did you conceive the idea for the ATLA series based on the Nevil Shute novel? 

I remembered it really well from when I was a kid. I used to listen to Alice on the radio – actually it was a crystal set I made incorporating ex-army earphones. I also read the serialised version in Women’s Weekly. I always loved the story. 

What was another big decision during the early stage of the project? 

Probably the first big creative decision is how you do the adaptation of the book. The old solicitor, Noel Strachan, had only a modest role in the book, and I made an early decision that the story would work better if it was more of a triumvirate relationship between Noel Strachan, Joe Harman and Jean Paget. So now, Noel, in his way, was vying for Jean’s romantic attentions, which really supported effectively the fact that when Joe turned up in his office, Noel didn’t then tell Jean that Joe had come to England looking for her. Nor did Noel tell Joe that Jean was pining after him, because Noel had his own degree of interest in Jean. It was now a three-handed love story. That was creative license to make the story stronger. These are the sort of creative decisions you make about making the story more effective. 

Why did you emphasize this love triangle over the theme of Jean “creating a city” in the outback? 

We ran with the emotional thread. You must always do this.

What message were you aiming for in the script and the production? 

Jean Paget was the fulcrum. Her character arc (her change and growth) was that she was nothing more than a typist in Kuala Lumpur, and she became the leader of the people on the trek and their spokesperson. The story was about her growth and what happened to her after the war. Jean emerges a very different person at the end of the story. When she goes to the Outback town, she thinks there should be something for the women there and starts the shoe factory and ice cream parlor. Jean emerged from nothing and went through this great character arc, and in the course of that, she encountered one love interest and one aspiring love interest, creating a triangle. But the message was really about her character journey. 

Helen Morse as Jean Paget carries a young baby in her arms in the searing heat

A Town Like Alice. Photo Credit: David Parker. Source: ACMI Collections

What is a producer’s influence on a script? 

Crawford Productions was started by Hector Crawford and Dorothy Crawford, his sister. Dorothy Crawford was a great creative and a very good script editor. She was my mentor, and I did my training under her. She taught me two key things: One is to insist that the writer explain the story in one sentence. Once you establish what the simple line of the story is, then you’re able to question the relevance of a scene or the relevance of some discursion in the story. 

The other thing Dorothy Crawford used to ask writers was: “Who do you feel sorry for? Who do you have a sympathy with?” I see a lot of CSI type shows, and a lot of it is plot driven stuff, where the plot’s probably interesting, with twists and turns, but at the end of the day, often the drama is not very satisfying because you don’t feel sorry for anyone. Those are the two great things that Dorothy Crawford taught me. 

Can you apply Dorothy Crawford’s two principles to Alice? First, how would you summarize Alice in one sentence?  

A young girl’s story of heroism, love, and ability to make a great difference in people’s lives. 

What about her second principle?

Who do you feel sorry for? As I said before, it’s a three-handed love story. It’s got the backdrop of war, and that gives it the texture and drives the story along, but you care about the protagonists. You care about Noel Strachan, the old solicitor; you care about his position. You care about Joe Harman, who meets this girl while a prisoner of war. You feel sorry for Jean Paget. You care about her trying to find Joe again. So there’s a basket of great stuff to grab you emotionally.

In character, women and children tired and disheveled walking on a dirt road in the heat with their Japanese captors.

A Town Like Alice. Photo Credit: David Parker. Source: ACMI Collections

Tell me about casting Helen Morse and why you chose her to play Jean Paget.

The character had to be English and Helen fitted 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 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, became very good friends, 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 where under the tree 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.

Helen Morse as Jean Paget gazes into the distance with palm trees behind her.

A Town Like Alice. Photo Credit: David Parker. Source: ACMI Collections

How did you convince the network to accept Bryan Brown?

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 bear in mind that this was the beginning of Bryan Brown’s screen career; he didn’t have the experience or profile that he has now. 

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 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 and had to pump water into the rice paddies to be able to do the rice paddy scenes. 

The irony is that the Outback scenes were in Broken Hill and 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, 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.

Brown Brown as Joe Harman and Gordon Jackson as Noel Strachan in the outback with old weatherboard house behind them.

A Town Like Alice. Photo Credit: David Parker. Source: ACMI Collections

The music? 

Bruce Smeeton was a feature film composer. A wonderful composer. Bruce did all the Fred Schepisi movies: Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Devil’s Playground. You often hear some of the Alice themes played on aeroplanes. I enjoyed working with Bruce a lot.

What was the style, 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. 

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 some 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. 

Do you remember for which scenes you wanted the music faster? 

Cross country riding in the floods did not have a sense of urgency that I wanted.

Were there any firsts in the success of ATLA? 

I’d have to say that 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. 

Why did ATLA 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 at the time were good. We basically 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. 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, 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.

What’s the future of ATLA? 

I recently received some legal advice that we own the copyright of the mini-series and 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. 

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Henry Crawford’s production of A Town Like Alice is one of thousands of Australian films and mini-series that can be viewed free at ACMI, at the Australian Mediatheque.

Scott McConnell is a producer/writer/interviewer in Los Angeles and Melbourne. See linkedin.com/in/scottamcconnell  
                                                            
Producing A Town Like Alice: An Interview with Henry Crawford. Interviewer: Scott McConnell © SMc 2015