Colin Dean reflects on his early days in TV

Colin Dean was interviewed by Graham Shirley (from the National Film and Sound Archives) in November 2004. This extract from the interview was prepared by Bob Sitsky.


My appointment date to the ABC was the same date as the commissioning of the new television studios in February 1958. Productions could now be organised in a much more orderly and significant way then was possible in the Arcon studio. I started at the most elementary level by producing the news from Studio 23. The 'news hound' sat beside me, virtually cueing every shot and rolling telecine, so it was an excellent training ground. One got used to the idea of sitting in that seat and directing the proceedings. You are 'on air' and you can't go back. It's a very thrilling and rewarding exercise, to direct a live telecast.

I hardly ever met Charles Moses the GM. When I did, it was a whisky after whisky, smoking cigars, and he would not let you leave the office. Moses was a sportsman, enjoyed music, and knew how to run a regiment, and he had absolutely basic common sense and was a great general manger.

Talbot Duckmanton could not be what Moses was. He didn't want those film people coming in, so it was only through Clem Semmler's support I passed through the Duckmanton barrier.

I joined under the auspices of 'Talks' but I wanted to get into drama. In my first year besides news I also did 'Watch and Pray', a Sunday religious program. I did my first drama in 1959. This was my television training as well as doing the regular news broadcasts.

Having got used to cameras, the first translation was into OB's. We did sport, we did church services and studio we did concerts.

Mungo McCallum became Head of Television talks dept. He was exceedingly innovative. He had ideas about getting weekly programs out of unlikely sources (Mosman Council Chambers, Christmas party at Mark Foys, etc). We got on well together.

I kept on asking Director Drama, who at that stage was Neil Hutchinson, could I be given a play. So eventually I was given a play called "Lady in Danger". It was a 'try-out' to see if I can do it - it wasn't a substantial play.

When we were doing 'built' OBs it was an absolute nightmare to get the timing right.
The first 'built' OB that the Drama Dept did was 'The play of Daniel' performed in the crypt of St. Mary's Cathedral. We took over one side of the crypt and had the cameras going up and down. It took me about 10 days to plot that play. I played the track of the 'Play of Daniel' over and over again with a stop watch and trying to visualise each camera shot, each camera movement.

Clem Semmler was on the blower while the end credits were running saying that "this was the most marvellous bit of television that I have ever seen!" So I was very chuffed about this. It was not only me - it was the marvellous cast. They do not do such things nowadays in television.

When doing a studio program you have a floor plan. Every camera is marked, and each camera has its line; with every camera move, you are also watching the script, and you are watching the cables. If you have a camera cable tangle, no way will you get out of it 'on-air' - without causing chaos.

In the large studio at Gore Hill we had 2 cameras on pedestal and 1 camera on a tripod. The tripod was camera 3 and used for particular purposes. You could track in but you couldn't track out because of the wheels. You had to remember this in the plot.

I did Anzac Day with Michael Charlton several times. We were on the canopy at David Jones, and we had an arrangement with the commercial channels so that we had more than 3 cameras. The problem was for the commentator to be in touch and to know who was in the picture. Michael had his own monitor, I had a monitor and my script assistant had a monitor. We developed a cueing system based on the run-down chart given to us by the RSL. It was an awful headache, as sometimes there was a change in the order. The script assistant was able to detect if there was a change, and we could warn Michael. He was a first rate broadcaster.

When I started doing drama I had a team of about 30 people. This went on for 4 years. Dave Tapp, the top TP was my usual technical producer. Tom Jeffrey was an absolute marvel as a floor manager. Detect- foresee- correct - understand. It was like having another pair of hands. He was marvellous. Bill Munro was my other floor manager.
My camera people were Etzio Belli, Sam Chung and Bill Brown. Desmod Downing was a romantic designer; Doug Smith went to incredible trouble to get authenticity.
I was in the hands of first rate people who knew their jobs very well. In most cases they were a party to our joint recognition.

We had endless planning meetings. They were attended by the designer, technical producer and floor manager. We went in for full colour sets even though it was black and white television. It was easier to light a colour set than a monochrome set. Dave Tapp was often muttering about grey scales. It seemed to add to the production. We made or bought props and costumes. We went to an enormous amount of trouble to be accurate. We re-built very accurately in the studio with architectural detail. The search for authenticity in historical series was constant.

It was sheer concentration when you are on air. There was a constant murmur in the control room. You are watching the monitors; you are watching through the control room window into the studio, you are in touch with the floor manager. At the end of the series say 3 months, I was exhausted. But you would not show it. I remember very clearly what it was like. Directing was like being a conductor; it's like having extension to your facilities. It was marvellous. It was fun. It was like flying an aircraft without knowing how to do it.

In all those hours of television we never went to black. We nearly overran a few times. Once I asked my script assistant to 'find a cut' and she found a place, and I communicated with Tom Jeffrey. You would not have picked it. So we did not overrun.

In those early days my main problem was timing, positioning, expression and eyeline.
I wanted the actors eyeline to be somewhere for a cut. From my first day I knew where the cutting point was.

Stormy Petrel was the ABC's first serial. Twelve 30 minute episodes - which was 6 hours of television. I got the results from Audience Research - the average audience for Stormy Petrel was the same as a years run in her Majesty's Theatre including matinees. I thought to myself - that is unbelievable. That is what we have been missing. We never had audiences like that before. What a great thing we done!


Colin Dean was born in Sydney in 1919. From 1939 to 1945 he worked in Canberra in the trade Commission Office. He then moved to England and worked in the British Ministry of Information Crown Film Unit. Back in Australia he joined the Commonwealth Film unit. He joined the ABC in 1958 and soon became a top drama director. He died in 2007.

 

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