Alan Burke talks about the early days of Television

Alan Burke was interviewed by Graham Shirley (from the National Film and Sound Archives) in March and May 2004. This extract from the interview was prepared by Bob Sitsky.


While I was in England in the early 1950s I got an opportunity to attend a 2 month BBC television Training Course - this was in 1954. The Course was conducted by Royston Morely. At the end of the course we all had to produce a 5 minute program. When the ABC embarked on television, they brought out Royston Morely to run production training; so it was great fun to see him again when I joined the ABC. I think Royston was an important figure, a very good teacher of television.

Neil Hutchison was on Board of the Australian Theatre Trust - he was also Director of Drama at the ABC. (He later became ABC Controller of Programs) He approached me in London to come back to Australia to work with the Elizabethan Theatre Trust. When I came back to Sydney, I found that the Trust would 'not stand in the way of television opportunities', and I subsequently did a stint for 3 months in the ABC in 1957. This was to direct a play called A Fourth For Bridge.

In those days there were really no people there to provide support and guidance. All one could do was talk to other producers afterwards. What I was not confident was 'calling the shots'. But as we had only 2 cameras in those days it was not a big problem.

I formally joined ABC TV on 30 June 1958 as a producer. In those days we were all called producers - this was to differentiate us from people called Directors - these were people in Management. A lot of TV producers came from radio - I was one of the few that came from theatre. My first job in 1958 was to direct a 1 hour play called A Rose without a Thorn.

When we moved to the new studio in 1958 we were given some basic television training - studio facilities, studio procedures, nature of lenses - the 2, 3, 5, and 7 inch lens. Later in my career I was delighted to work for the ABC Training School. I believe you need the top directors to do instruction. In the ABC they often used directors who were free at the time - this is wrong.

In 1959 I was allowed to do my first opera, The Prima Donna by Arthur Benjamin This was a live opera, with the orchestra conducted by Joe Post, who was Head of ABC Music. The rehearsal schedule was made out for me. It allowed 3 calls of 3 hours each. I went to see Joe Post to check this relatively short time allocation and he said "Isn't it enough time to tell them where to stand?" Joe Post was a radio person - he hated television.

This opera was done in the days when we had the Symphony Orchestra in the studio. One day Joe Post stopped the orchestra and called out "Mr. Burke, those boys are taking close-ups again". I thought 'What can we do?' I said "Forgive me Mr. Post, the reason they are taking close ups is because I have plotted close ups for them". Then I gave him a five minute course on television. So he seemed to accept this.

I also did three plays in 1959, news a couple of nights a week, and a children's session once a week. We were all pool producers. In the same year I produced two other operas - Cavalleria Rusticano by Mascagni and Rita by Donezeti. The plays I did in 1959 were Skin of Our Teeth, Misery Me and Withering Heights. We had tiny ratings for the plays. Withering Heights was a too large for our television conditions, and things went wrong. Skin of Our Teeth represented the big break-through in the production of television plays.

Most of the time I could choose a play to produce. The ABC secured the rights to the plays.

Almost always our plays were telerecorded. We produced 6 plays a year in Sydney and 6 in Melbourne. By recording them we could share them between the two cities.

Des Downing was a wonderful designer to work with. She came from the theatre, but she had visual imagination that she brought to television. She was splendid. She could execute things to the last nail.

Alan Burke was one of ABC Television's earliest directors of Drama and Opera. He first directed for the ABC in 1957. Until his retirement in 1986 he directed, frequently wrote and ultimately was executive producer on a vast array of television dramas, series and telemovies. He died in 2007.

 

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