Brandum and Nette 222
Type
Essay
Category
Culture
Television

Police fictions

Given the popularity of the we-need-to-support-Australian-voices argument in relation to film and television content, it is curious that the seventieth anniversary of Crawford Productions passed last year with hardly a murmur.

The company, founded by siblings Hector and Dorothy Crawford in Melbourne in November 1945, was a major force in the post-war radio industry. It went on to give Australians some of the first glimpses of themselves on free-to-air television, after transmission began in 1956. The main vehicle was a show that would become a ratings phenomenon and, arguably, one of the most influential Australian television programs: Homicide.

From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Australian television was dominated by cheap-to-purchase overseas productions, mainly from the United States. A similar dynamic had already decimated the local film industry a couple of decades earlier, leading many aspiring local actors to emigrate in search of work. The extent of this cultural cringe is best illustrated by the 1959 film adaptation of Ray Lawler’s iconic play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, which starred US actors Ernest Borgnine and Angela Lansbury. When Homicide debuted on HSV-7 on 20 October 1964, it had to battle the widespread perception that overseas shows were superior.

The first episode, ‘The Stunt’, explored class politics and the growing assertiveness of youth culture via a story about a mock bank robbery staged by university students. It goes horribly wrong when an elderly security guard mistakes the prank for real and shoots a student dead. ‘Unaccustomed to seeing themselves and their city on television in a dramatised crime story, the viewing public initially found it a disquieting experience, both mesmerising and confronting,’ writes Rozzi Bazzani in Hector, a recent biography of Crawford. ‘The characters on screen didn’t look like American or British policemen. They walked and talked differently, yet everything looked strangely familiar.’

Rival commercial stations threw everything they could at Homicide in an effort to break its ratings dominance. When that didn’t work, they commissioned Crawford Productions to make crime dramas of their own. Division 4 debuted on TCN-9 (now known as the Nine Network) in March 1969 and Matlock Police on the 0-10 Network (now known as the 10 Network) in February 1971. Until August 1975, when all three shows were cancelled, Crawford Productions was making a weekly crime drama series for each of the country’s commercial networks, a market reach unthinkable today.

Why was Homicide so successful? One reason was its production values, which was much more advanced than previously made local television dramas. The fact it was shot partly on location was also an Australian first. But the most significant drawcard was the show’s realism. Its settings were Melbourne’s dimly lit streets and alleys, its public bars and cramped workers’ cottages. The show also presented a realistic portrayal of criminals, investigators and the methods used to solve crimes. This authenticity was the chief selling point of Homicide and its successors, Division 4 and Matlock Police. And crucial to this authenticity was the in-depth involvement of the Victorian police.

 

Although it sounds antiquated now, Crawford believed television could play an important role in Australian culture.

In a 1959 campaign pamphlet arguing for an Australian content quota, Crawford wrote that television can ‘make a vital contribution to the development of a specifically Australian consciousness and sense of national identity’. This view appears to have been rare among senior figures in Australia’s post-war entertainment industry. Crawford’s view stemmed from a belief that Australia lacked confidence in its contemporary identity. His conviction was strengthened by his reading of Donald Horne’s influential 1964 book The Lucky Country, in which Horne agues that Australia’s affluence was based more on access to natural resources and luck than on economic and social innovation.

Crime narratives have always been popular in Australia. Bushrangers – escaped convicts who survived the harsh environment to become outlaws – were a popular subject for Australia’s nascent film industry in the early twentieth century. So popular, in fact, that some state governments moved to ban bushranger films over fears they glorified criminal behaviour. Crawford had capitalised on crime narratives in his company’s early radio programs. The best known of these was D24, which ran from 1945 to 1956. Taking its name from the Victorian police headquarters’ radio signal, D24 was based on real cases files. In 1960, HSV-7 commissioned Crawford to do a television version of the popular radio show Consider Your Verdict, a courtroom drama also based on real cases.

Crawford’s relationship with the Victorian police originated sometime in the early 1940s, when he attended a luncheon and, either by design or accident, found himself sitting next to Alexander Duncan, then chief commissioner of police. A former senior member of London’s metropolitan police, Duncan had taken over the chief commissioner job from Thomas Blamey, who had resigned in 1936 amid allegations of widespread corruption and abuse. Duncan was given a mandate by the state government to introduce reforms and to reverse the negative public perception of police.

Duncan understood the power of radio and agreed to help Crawford, who at the time was working on the concept for D24. Duncan committed to supplying Crawford with real police files, and also provided seed funding to get the show on the air. The website of Crawford’s Australia (as the company is known today) states that D24 was designed ‘as an aid to recruiting and better police/public relations by the Victorian Police Force – one of the few times that a semi-government department has sponsored a series of commercial radio programs.’

Bazzani notes that as well as gaining access to ‘actual crime files, Hector’s masterstroke was his arrangement to have a “detective on tap” to offer advice on authenticity’. He also hired moonlighting reporters with experience doing police rounds to help pen D24’s scripts. ‘Not only did hands-on experience of real-life cops add to the scary reality of the program,’ Bazzani writes, ‘but the working relationship it created cemented the company’s relationship with the police force.’

The relationship between Crawford Productions and the Victorian police continued with the radio and television versions of Consider Your Verdict and with Homicide. Having tried and failed for some years to get a Homicide-like television program off the ground, Hector and Dorothy decided to go ahead and develop a pilot episode without a network buyer. A script was written with the assistance of Eric Millar, a serving policeman and long-time liaison officer to Crawford Productions, who would go on to become deputy commissioner. Even with police assistance and the popularity of crime drama, it took Crawford a year to convince HSV-7 to pick up the series – and, when they did, it was for a bargain price per episode. This meant Crawford took a loss on the series, even when Homicide went on to become the first locally made show to reach number one in the ratings; it was not until episode 104 in 1967 that he began to make a profit.

Over its 510 episodes, Homicide established what would become the key conventions of Australian true-crime television: a team of dedicated police detectives solving a crime per episode, the use of voiceovers at the beginning to impart information and, most notably, a strong commitment to realism. The formula borrowed heavily from similar programs overseas, the most influential being British police procedural Z-Cars and LA-based crime drama Dragnet. Both shows featured a dedicated team of police tackling one major crime per episode, were made with police cooperation and prided themselves on their ‘realistic’ depiction of policing.

Crawford Productions adjusted Homicide’s format for its two other police dramas. Division 4 focused on life in a busy suburban police station, but dealt more on the personal lives of the characters. It also differed from Homicide in that it featured a female police character, WPC Margaret Stewart (played by Patricia Smith). Matlock Police further rejigged the formula by setting the stories in a country town.

The police were not the only government agency Crawford worked with over the course of his career. When the company began developing plans for Hunter, a television adventure series about spies, Crawford reached out to the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Agency (ASIO), notorious Cold War warrior Charles Spry. Over lunch the two men came to an agreement for ASIO to assist in making the series, which debuted in 1967. ASIO presumably provided technical advice and was no doubt instrumental in allowing the show to film in such locations as the top-secret Woomera Rocket Range. (The company would come to a similar arrangement with the Australian Federal Police in the 1990s, when it made a series of television movies about the national police force.)

Crawford Productions made no secret of its relationship with the police, but less understood is how this cooperation was structured and how it impacted the on-screen depiction of police and criminals. While the passing of so many years makes this difficult to explore, vital clues are contained in material housed at the Australian Film Institute Research Collection (AFIRC) at RMIT University in Melbourne.

Among these items, many of them rescued when Crawford Productions’ former studio in Box Hill was demolished in 2006, are notes on police procedures written on official police stationery. Examples include how much notice a cop would have to give to take leave and the role of the police wives’ association. ‘Each episode of Homicide should be primarily the story of an authentic investigation, with the detectives as the main characters,’ states an undated document titled ‘Notes for scriptwriters – Homicide’. The document shows that the police not only contributed advice and props such as uniforms, but also supplied officers to appear in the program: ‘We obviously cannot ask these real policemen to do more than walk on briefly in order to add a touch realism, nor can we expect them to speak lines.’

Among the material housed at AFIRC are folders of yellowed news clippings and photocopied magazine articles. These crime reports – often lurid and sensationalist – were mined by scriptwriters for additional story material. There are even copies of US true-crime magazine Master Detective, with neatly typed summations of the cases attached to the inside of each front cover.

The archive contains numerous briefing notes attesting to Crawford Productions’ commitment to realism, including details of uniforms worn by representatives of various statutory bodies and a report from one of the company’s researchers on their time spent with officers deployed on public trains. Another deals with death due to contact with liquid nitrogen: ‘If a gallaon (sic) was thrown in a man’s face, he would die … The Post Mortem would reveal little beyond burns to the skin.’

Another undated document, titled ‘Homicide (In Real Life)’, contains notes on various aspects of police life. It was written by former detective sergeant Gordon Timmins, who claimed to have investigated more than 200 cases for the show. When Leonard Teale joined the cast of Homicide in 1965, Timmins took him on a tour of the toughest criminal hangouts in Melbourne to give him first-hand experience of detective work. Timmins even dabbled in acting, appearing in Consider Your Verdict, Hunter and Homicide. Timmins proved so useful that he left the force in 1966 to work full time for the company.

According to director Andrew Swanson, ‘All the Crawfords’ [crime drama] scripts, when they were drafted, were sent to the police … up to the top of Russell Street, where their headquarters were. There were one or two guys up there, policemen, whose job was to read them, to vet them and to make sure that the image of the police was correct.’

Script vetting was an activity Timmins approached with considerable enthusiasm. ‘I’ve been accused occasionally of being too fussy,’ Timmins told TV Times in August 1968, ‘but it’s the detailed authenticity of Homicide that has preserved its phenomenal ratings.’

At times, Crawford Productions’ commitment authenticity comes across as almost fetishistic. As Teale puts it in ‘The Homicide Story’ (a special making-of episode to celebrate the show’s sixth anniversary in November 1970), ‘a case is re-enacted almost exactly as it happened’ – right down to the same location and time it had occurred. ‘The Homicide Story’ makes much of the fact that stunt men risked injury, and that bystanders and emergency workers sometimes mistook staged car chases and fight scenes for the real thing. Indeed, members of the public are said to have written to the fictional Homicide detectives, care of Russell Street police headquarters.

For Division 4, the producers constructed an exact replica of the St Kilda Criminal Investigation Branch muster room, down to the pictures on the walls. The two people in charge of putting the show together, Ian Jones and writer Terry Stapleton, spent hours accompanying local St Kilda police on their rounds.

While Crawford Productions acknowledged ‘Matlock’ was a fictional town and its representation an idealised one – a city dweller’s take on how a country town and its police operated – the company nonetheless went to great lengths to inject realism into the show. The company even issued the writers with a manual containing details of the geography, social structure and amenities of Matlock, including details of the local Indigenous culture and a history of the fictional bushranger who founded the town.

Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock Police followed the precedent set by D24 and portrayed the police as decent, honest and hardworking. While they used force, it was never unjustified. ‘Almost inevitably our detectives follow the correct procedure,’ states the notes for scriptwriters cited earlier. ‘They [police] are firm but polite to the people they interview, except in the case of an aggressive criminal. They do not try and get confessions by bullying.’ The shows also depict police work as dangerous, with officers being injured, sometimes even killed, in the course of their duties.

The company’s enthusiasm to depict the police in a favourable light at times led them to present as a kind of entertainment auxiliary in the fight against crime. Jones told TV Times in April 1969 that, while it was vital they be entertaining, the shows have a secondary purpose: ‘to show the ugliness of crime’.

‘Our police programs, to some degree, must reflect what is going on in the community,’ Crawford said in a TV Week interview in July 1973. ‘It is important that the public know what is going on in Australian cities and what police are confronted with.’

It is hardly surprisingly, then, that criminals were most often depicted as violent and brutal. The consequences for those involved in criminal activity, even accidentally or tangentially, were harsh, and a voiceover at the end of each episode ensured viewers understood that crime never pays. Only Matlock Police altered this formula somewhat, by depicting the world as less Manichean: criminals were occasionally shown to suffer disadvantage, including mental illness and bigotry. Although still guilty of their crimes, the mitigating factors were considered as part of the episodes and reflected in the ‘sentences’ administered in the closing credits.

‘The Victorian police loved us because most of the time we presented a very benign view of the police,’ remembers David Stevens, who directed episodes of both Homicide and Matlock Police. ‘We had police advisors, retired police, working on the show, who were very protective of the way the cops were presented. But their word was not law. If we wanted to take a slightly harder edge, that was okay. Any pressure from the police department was that the police be seen in a pretty good light. But it wasn’t an intense pressure.’

The police’s position as stakeholder and potential gatekeeper in the production process was not appreciated by everyone involved. One staff writer complained to the Age in the late 1970s that their job was ‘a glorified public relations role for the Victoria police’. There are also indications that the police didn’t shy away from voicing a strong opinion when they thought it was required. In August 1970, amid discussions between Channel 10 and Crawford Productions over the shape of a proposed police drama to compete with Homicide and Division 4, reports surfaced that the company was considering a series based on the vice squad. Crawford was quick to play down the story, although Matlock Police’s Paul Cronin recalled in a 1995 TV Eye interview that he read an early script for a series titled Vice Squad. Press reports speculated that the idea had been dropped due to official reservations about a show focused on one of the police force’s more notorious departments.

Police involvement did not stop the shows from investigating controversial social issues, such as drugs, child abuse and pollution, often for the first time on Australian television. Even ‘poofter bashing’, as it was known, was dealt with in episode 411, ‘A Crime Against Nature’, which aired in February 1974 at the later-than-normal time of nine o’clock due to the sensitive nature of the content. Anti-war sentiment was the subject of a particularly controversial Matlock Police episode, ‘Heroes’ Day’, aired in June 1971, which explored the consequences of a young anti-war protester defacing a local war memorial in the lead-up to Anzac Day. The same series dealt with isolation and mental illness (episode seventeen, ‘The Hunting Ground’), autism (episode eighteen, ‘A Second Opinion’), racism and child neglect (episode twenty-six, ‘A Case of Neglect’), statutory rape (episode thirty-one, ‘Still Life’) and the plight of those with intellectual disabilities (episode forty-three, ‘Kate and Benny’).

One of the most interesting examples of how Crawford Productions balanced the expectations of positive police coverage with the desire to produce hard-hitting drama is episode thirty-nine of Division 4, ‘Hush-A-Bye’. Aired in February 1970, this episode dealt with the issue of backyard abortion. It makes no mention of allegations, well publicised at the time, that elements of the Victorian police were accepting money from illegal backyard abortion clinics. That said, the episode is a remarkably nuanced depiction of a young woman’s efforts to procure an abortion – an illegal act at the time. The fraught process of securing the procedure, the financial and emotion issues facing her and her boyfriend in going ahead with the decision, and the conflicting societal pressures and stigma faced by unwed mothers were all examined. It also mixed in more gruesome plot lines, including a scene, chilling even today, of the backyard abortionist in question dumping a woman whose procedure he had botched in a building site in the middle of the night, where she is left to die.

This focus on social issues often drew heated public reaction, as well as attention from the Broadcasting Control Board, the precursor of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, with some episodes investigated for their violence, adult themes and occasional nudity. Concerns were also expressed by network executives, who wanted the shows to focus on old-fashioned detective work, not social issues. The three shows continued to rate well until their cancellation within a few months of each other in 1975.

Some have claimed that the cancellations were the networks’ payback for Crawford’s high-profile support of the ‘TV: Make It Australian’ campaign, aimed at increasing local television content, but there is little evidence for this. Swinburne University academic Jock Given, who has researched the issue, writes: ‘The three shows, I think, were cancelled by their three networks primarily for reasons that were specific to each – what was happening with key cast members, what the shows were costing and would cost in the future, which program advertisers wanted to be associated with, where fickle audiences where going at a time of great change.’

Along with Crawford’s views on the power of sound and image to inform Australian identity, the shows were part of a genuine desire for a new, more assertive Australian culture that gained momentum in the 1960s. The shows also reflected mainstream anxieties about those very same changes: divisions between rich and poor, and between country and city; alarm over shifting gender relations and the growing assertiveness of young people; and the link, for the most part completely spurious, between these developments and growing crime levels.

These contradictions are, arguably, also what made these shows so popular. By the early 1960s, viewers were ready to see themselves reflected on local television and to listen to ‘authentic’ Australian voices. But the craving for authenticity can also be viewed as voyeurism. Then, as is arguably the case with crime drama today, audiences were keen to get a glimpse into life’s seedy underbelly and the people who live there; enthusiastic viewers could see frenzied tabloid headlines made real, from the safety and comfort of their lounge rooms.

Meanwhile, around the world, police have continued to cooperate with production companies in the name of ensuring ‘authenticity’ and in doing so have used television as a platform for shaping public perceptions of crime and policing.

 

The authors completed much of the research for this article while undertaking an Australian Film Institute Research Centre Fellowship.

 


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