Source: The Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday, 20 February 1999
Page 5, Spectrum section
© John Fairfax Holdings Ltd 1999

by Bob Ellis

Countless hours of TV footage have been burnt, erased or ruined by neglect, writes BOB ELLIS, and urgent action is needed to halt the continuing destruction of history.

GOUGH WHITLAM was sacked at about 12.25pm on November 11, 1975. ABC cameras filmed the astonishing scenes that followed. The swarm of crowds round Parliament House. The booing by an angry mob of Malcolm Fraser as he strode through Kings Hall. The shouting up at Liberal senators “Jump! Jump! Jump!” - on the balcony above the crowd. The senators' reply: “You can't take it, can you? You're sore losers!” The repeated Mark Antony-like appearances of Whitlam on the steps - Kerr's cur, maintain the rage - with Fred Daly, light relief, saying, “Mr Fraser rather reminds me of the artificially inseminated cow. He suspects that something wonderful has happened to him, but he can't work out quite what.” The singing in twilight on Parliament steps of Solidarity Forever. The dark coming down. I was there that day, and it was pretty exciting.

The film was processed, and put in an ABC editing room, and the door locked The editor came the next morning to deal with it, and it was all gone. ASIO? CIA? It was never found.

This, alas, is not the only example of the loss or destruction of irreplaceable ABC footage. If anything, the story gets worse. Of the classic series Certain Women, only five episodes are left. Of the classic series Dynasty (about a Packer-like newspapering family), some episodes appear to be missing, along with a section of Over There (the World War II series starring, as two brothers and a sister in army uniform, John Meillon, John Hargreaves and Judy Morris). Of Six O'Clock Rock. . . but that's another story.

Six O'Clock Rock, compered by Johnny O'Keefe, was among telecine footage (l6mm recordings of live broadcast) condemned to be sold off and the silver nitrate - then thought to be its only valuable component - extracted for industrial use.

A young ABC production assistant, Bruce Beresford, was appalled at this. So he arranged for a friend, who cannot be named, to pose as a silver nitrate dealer, and to buy all the condemned classic shows from the ABC and to secretly keep them in plastic containers, some buried under his backyard fowlhouse, He did this, and made a little money by hiring out some of the saved film to schools and film buffs for private screenings. So schoolteachers unaware they were breaking the law hired, for instance, the ABC Merchant of Venice, starring Owen Weingott and Tanya Halesworth, and showed it to their pupils. One of these pupils was Owen Weingott's daughter. She recognised her father's Shylock, told him excitedly about it and Owen, believing the ABC still had the print and was making extra money out of his performance, lodged an official complaint. Commonwealth police descended on the illegal collector. He heard they were coming, panicked and himself destroyed all but an hour or two of Six O'Clock Rock, heretofore preserved in plastic cartons under his fowlhouse. And so a great chunk of history was lost - footage that Foxtel would love to be showing on TV1; and paying for it, a few hundred dollars per half hour, cash the ABC now sorely needs.

The first general manager of the ABC, the late Sir Charles Moses, was asked by the film scholar Neil McDonald why he allowed this wholesale destruction. "We didn't think," the great man said. In the ABC there are many stories of bureaucrats erasing programs. One such officer, it is alleged, erased Leave It To Jesus, a cheerful blasphemous biblical comedy made years before Life of Brian by Norman Gunston's creator, Maurice Murphy.

Another - it is alleged - came into an editing room asking, "Why do we need to keep last week's football match?" That match, and others, were then erased.

Shelf space was why film was destroyed. Then tape was erased because it was reusable. Every day even now history is erased from tape that is used again. The McClelland funeral, all but a minute or so, by the commercial channels. The Dunstan funeral, all but a minute or so, by the commercial channels. Reduced to 90 seconds, the rest erased, and the tape used again for tomorrow's sporting coverage, or road accident coverage, itself then erased. Similar bureaucratic tendencies in the BBC destroyed the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore show Not Only... But Also and many of the one-off plays by David Mercer.

The silent era of world cinema is almost completely gone (of the 200 films made in Britain in 1918, for instance, only one, a dramatisation of the life of Lloyd George, is left), in part because of the fear of the nitrate film then used. This was (is) so flammable, the film collector Barrie Pafferson says, that a cigarette ashed on it "will generate a 14-foot pillar of flame that can burn through a sheet of concrete". This nitrate stock becomes more unstable with time, so decisions had to be made - oft times by untutored men in shirtsleeves and braces - as to which films were to be copied before destruction, and which not. The Ken Hall nitrate films were saved, I am told, the early Dad and Dave among them, because the young Tony Buckley (who later made Caddie and Poor Man's Orange), risking his job, decided to gather them up and send them secretly to the National Film Archive in Canberra.

There are many such hair's-breadth escape stories of classic footage from immolation: copies removed from ABC shelves the night before destruction, directors' private copies repurchased by determined ABC archivists such as Wendy Borchers who work, sometimes, just within the law. Borchers retrieved, for instance, the classic series The Patriots from an illegal collector, paying him a few dollars a spool, and has been working valiantly since, while ABC budgets come down, and shelves and buildings are sold out from under her, to keep and retrieve what she can. The filmed inserts of This Day Tonight, she says, are nearly all there, but not the surrounding videotape introductions and live interviews. Shirley Abicair in Australia survives. A superb program, Changing Race, in which Therese Denny talked, in the 1960s, to Aborigines about their past and future. Many of the Chequerboards because they were on film.

Borchers confesses to some disappointments though. Much of the 1969 to 1971 Monday Conferences are gone, those extraordinary documents of public debate on Vietnam, marijuana, abortion, uranium, confrontations with Henry Kissinger, Don Chipp, Eugene McCarthy. Of Certain Women she will not speak, or comment on the story that an overseas company sought to buy it, and asked that the first 10 episodes be sent to England, and only then was it found that most did not exist any more, though some of it, apparently, has since been retrieved. (My wife, Anne Brooksbank, who wrote perhaps a tenth of it, was likewise not pleased to hear that so much of her good work was ashes in the wind.)

Similarly annoyed was Storry Walton, now at NIDA, who as a director on The Lively Arts in the 1960s had spent a year persuading Jon Molvig and the reclusive Ian Fairweather to allow documentaries on their work. These documentaries were destroyed. So, according to Walton, was most of the television drama made in Melbourne and much of Australian Playhouse. Walton had thought that episodes of his My Brother Jack had gone, too, but Borchers found them all, in mislabelled cans, as she had many other lost treasures. Borchers was a marvel, he said, in her ongoing battle with loss and chaos.

But some stories can still knock the wind out of you. Fred Daly took perhaps an hour of home movies of Ben Chifley and life round Parliament House when sheep still grazed outside it. He lent them to the ABC, and they vanished. Similar footage taken by Mike Rann and Don Dunstan -which Rann gave for safekeeping to the Constitutional Museum, abolished by Don's opponents when they gained office - is missing, too. Irreplaceable footage of Aboriginal tribal ceremonies taken in the 1890s went up in flames, along with much else, at the Commonwealth Film Unit in the 1940s. It is said the fire was set, veteran film-maker and director of Back of Beyond John Heyer told me, by a dodgy bureaucrat wishing to burn evidence of his malpractices in its filing system. Don't even think about it.

If any of the films I mourn are still in existence, I would be glad to hear of it, and be proved wrong. The even worse news, Barrie Patterson tells me, with what I can only call dark relish, is that the magnetic sound on film shot in the '60s is going "vinegary" - blurred and gloopy - and will soon be no more. The videotape of the '70s, Neil McDonald solemnly adds, is rusting, decomposing. A cleaning process can slow this down at the cost of some image clarity but, in the long run, on that medium, the record is doomed. "What will my films be in 200 years?" Jean-Luc Godard once asked, then answered simply, '1Dust."

Or it is doomed unless it can be transferred, as some of the nitrate stock was, onto something else, onto what might be compared with a paperback reprint - worse in quality, but a record. The best medium of record is 35mmblack-and-white film. It is also, at $207 a minute, the most expensive. How many copies do you print? How many times do you show it, knowing each screening through a normal projector causes damage and after a time (as in Cinema Paradiso) it is only a scarred and warted, hiccupping version of the immaculate, glowing original? At what point is it no longer worth preserving, and is that point for some things ever reached?

The morality of all this fascinates me. That any bureaucrat can order the destruction of the work (in some British cases the life work) of any artist contravenes, I am sure, all those notions of auteurship that govern much French law. The idea that the destroyer can go unpunished - be paid, in fact, good money for his destruction - and the thieving preserver put in jail I find amazing; annoying anyway. It's like rewarding Laszlo Toth, the deranged Australian who attacked Michelangelo's Pieta' with a hammer and shattered its face, and jailing Michelangelo for putting it back together again.

In Cinema Paradiso, the old projectionist preserves for his wide-eyed young assistant all the priest- censored love scenes in a can that after death he leaves to him. If he did this here, he could be imprisoned for it, and the censoring priest paid extra for his mutilation. The unavoidable question of what should go and what should stay is pretty hard to answer. A shot of, say, a football crowd cheering and chiacking and waving flags may be of no immediate interest. If, however, in that football crowd, clearly and lengthily exposed, is the young Robert Menzies, or the young John Lennon, or the young Michael Hutchence, or the young Ivan Milat, it suddenly becomes worth having. So do old episodes of The Naked City with the young Robert Redford in them. Or old episodes of The Sullivans with Sam Neill in them.

And so it is with material we destroy every day. A paragraph of a speech by David Oldfield that did not make the news and was quickly erased may prove in time a crucial cause of his eventual political destruction. It is good to have these things. It is foolish to throw them away. A reasonable and inexpensive solution would be to transfer all news film onto VHS and store it, labelled, in sealed plastic bags in a warehouse; before the original tape is erased and used again. The VHS would cost about a dollar an hour; the ABC news of the day thus preserved for about $5 a day - an infinitesimal cost to the taxpayer. The decaying film and videotape of the recent past could be transferred to VHS, too. And when the VHS begins to decay, to whatever computer disk is the cheapest and most reliable.

McDonald, Patterson and Borchers will probably think this an appalling suggestion, when the alternative is a high-definition version on 35mmor videodisc. But the money will not be found for that kind of exercise; and the result will be what happens now - a choice of what to destroy and what to keep. Something is better than nothing, discuss. Better is better than worse, discuss.

And we have to move fast on this. For there is on many shelves much unlabelled material on negative, unrecognisable to all but a few who are still alive who know its context and its worth. And the incinerators of history are waiting, as always, to burn up the good and the bad, the mighty and the trivial, to kill the brain cells of national memory, to pour it all out mercilessly into the void.

© Bob Ellis / John Fairfax Holdings Ltd 1999.

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