Monday, 4 April 2016


I have to say that, until he died, I hadn't realised Bob Ellis had written Newsfront, one of my favourite movies, and one of the best of the Australian New Wave in the late 70s. It holds a special place for me because it's set among the world of newsreel cameramen in the late Forties and early Fifties, and the great Bill Hunter plays a cameraman committed to his craft, to loyalty, and to fairness. It's set in changing times, as newsreels are being squeezed aside by the growing presence of television, and Hunter's commitment is being challenged by his more upwardly-mobile brother (played by Gerard Kennedy).  The film ends at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, where Hunter happens to be the only camera at the water polo match between the Soviets and Hungary; this literal bloodbath has become legendary in Olympic history.

The movie resonated with me because I was working for UPITN, one of the television news agencies, which was a direct descendant of the Fox Movietone News newsreel agency. Many of our execs, cameramen around the world, and staff had worked for newsreels, and the news gathering ethos was the same. The competition, in our case with the BBC-run Visnews, was almost as cut-throat as that in Newsfront; I can't count the number of exclusives stolen by 'accident' or false claims by our more influential rival over the years.

Hunter's attitude represented a certain kind of Australian egalitarianism which I could even then recognise, and it was overtly Labour, and it's made easy to follow because Hunter's often instructing his assistant, an English emigre played well by Chris Haywood, and the conflicts also play out with his wife, whom he's married because his colleague whom he loves (Wendy Hughes) is more taken with his brother. It mixes the personal with parallels in social commentary, and it does it well.

I didn't know about Bob Ellis. Mostly because I doubt his name was on the credits of the movie when I saw it in London; it had been cut considerably by director Philip Noyce and producer David Elfeck, and he'd had himself removed from the credits (he was later restored). Reading his obits, he was a notorious over-writer, wanting to include lots of detail and what was described as polemic. When he won a Writers Guild award for the script for the mini-series True Believers, he clutched the statue and told the producer '' you turned War and Peace into Peyton Place'.'

He also wrote I can't claim much knowledge about Ellis' career; was a playwright, film director, political writer, and critic, but I recommend reading his obituaries, because he's is exactly the kind of wonderful combination of charm, wit, inappropriateness, and belligerence we often associate with Aussies, and he grew into a gruff but loveable sort of curmudgeonly elder statesman status. He predicted the rise of Tony Abbott, and lost a slander suit brought by Abbott and his treasurer Peter Costello, in a wondering throwaway line about them and their wives. So he couldn't be all bad. He's irresistible in Not Quite Hollywood, a documentary about that boom in Australian cinema, all slash and kill and take no prisoners. That was a great era in Australia, which I appreciated from London; not least because Ellis' contemporaries at Sydney University, like Clive James and Germaine Greer, were over here making waves (Les Murray was another there at that time).

I always think of Aussies in two categories: those who rort and those who use the same energies to attack those who do. Ellis strikes me as one in the latter category. I'll probably delve further into his career, even if he did say 'Americans are scum' but maybe he was talking only about Hollywood.

In the meantime, try to see Newsfront. It's a brilliant picture. RIP Bob Ellis

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