Film writer, producer, director

Born: 20 April 1929, Stockton-on Tees, England
Died: 19 April 2004, Melbourne
Trailblazing writer-director-producer Tim Burstall was a key figure in Australian postwar cinema and was instrumental in helping to rebuild the Australian film industry at a time when it had been effectively dead for years. He created groundbreaking Australian films including Stork, Alvin Purple, End Play, Eliza Fraser, The Last of the Knucklemen and the 1986 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Kangaroo. Burstall also launched the film careers of many well-known actors including Bruce Spence, Jacki Weaver, Graeme Blundell, Jack Thompson, John Waters and Judy Davis. His wife Betty, an important figure in her own right, founded the pioneering La Mama Theatre in Melbourne in the late '60s, where many leading 'new wave' playwrights including David Williamson had their first successes, and Tim was an integral part of the fertile creative scene that centred on the theatre.

Alan Finney, general manager of Australian-based film distributor Buena Vista International, worked with Burstall in his production company, Hexagon Productions, and helped produce Alvin Purple, Peterson and other films.

"We didn't have a film industry in Australia then. What Stork, along with the likes of The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and The Naked Bunyip did was lead us to believe that there was a possibility that we could continuously make films in Australia, that we could establish an industry where the stories came out of here and the actors, directors and other technicians came out of here. Tim was always the combination of a fantastic creative filmmaker. At the same time he had a very good sense of business strategies."

Burstall was born in Stockton-on-Tees, England in 1929. His family came to Australia in 1937. He and Patrick Ryan established Eltham Films, in 1959. Burstall's first film was a black-and-white short, The Prize, which won an award at the Venice Film Festival in 1960. It is the story of a boy who wins a goat in a fairground competition, then has it stolen from him, and it featured Burstall's two young sons in acting roles.

Working with other leading Melbourne film identities including David Bilcock, Dusan Marek, Giorgio Mangiamele, Gerard Vanceburg, Allan Harness and composer Geroge Dreyfus, Eltham Films made many short subjects, including aclaimed documentaries on modern Australian art and the pioneering children's TV puppet show Sebastian The Fox, which first screened on the ABC in 1962-63 .

Eltham's art films encompassed the contemporary internationally recognised artists, the artists of the Melbourne set -- Sydney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, John Perceval, John Brack, Albert Tucker and Clifton Pugh -- and these proved influential in the formation of his views on Australian cultural identity. The Eltham documentaries also covered Australian historical figures, aboriginal bark paintings and the treasures of the National Gallery of Victoria. Together, Eltham Films and Collings Productions were the main contributors of a filmed record of Australian art in the 1960s.

In 1965 he made two films for the Commonwealth Film Unit -- the documentary Painting People, an overview of the work of some of the artists he had surveyed in his earlier documentaries, and the children's film Nullarbor Hideout. He also collaborated on the Eltham Films production The Magic Trumpet, an animated feature co-directed with Dusan Marek.

On the 30 July 1967 the La Mama theatre opened in Carlton, Melbourne. The theatre was the brainchild of Tim's then wife Betty Burstall and was modelled on the "off off Broadway" theatre of the same name in New York. Betty and Tim had just returned from a trip to the U.S. and wanted to re-create "the vibrancy and immediacy of the small theatres there". It became a hub of cultural activity -- within the first two years of its life 25 new Australian plays had premiered there, and La Mama also fostered new works from composers, poets, and filmmakers. The theatre gained considerable notoreity in 1969 when Alex Buzo's controversial play Norm and Ahmed premiered there, leading to the arrest and charging of several of the actors by the Victorian ViceSquad for the use of 'obscene' language.

Tim earned a place in Australian cinema history as the writer and director of 2000 Weeks. Released in 1969, it was Australia's first locally-made feature film since Charles Chauvel's Jedda in 1955. Although it was a commercial failure and was savaged by the critics, it was an important influence on Bruce Beresford and Philip Adams when they came to make The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. The poor critical reception of 2000 Weeks affected Burstall strongly. It's clear that the hostility to the film and its serious tone, combined with his close contact with APG, were instrumental in changing his views on film-making, and led to the making of the more populist Stork and Alvin Purple.

Burstall briefly returned to documentary for the making of the cult surfing film Getting Back To Nothing (1970). It was followed by Stork in 1971, which was a moderate commercial success. Burstall raised the money for the film by selling several of his Arthur Boyd paintings. It also marked the first screen credit for acclaimed playwright David Williamson, being an adaptation of one of his first plays, The Coming Of Stork, which had premiered at La Mama in 1970. The film featured most of the La Mama/APG ensemble including Bruce Spence, for whom the title role had been written.

Williamson went on to work with Burstall on three more films, Petersen, Eliza Fraser and Duet for Four. Speaking of Burstall, Williamson said that he "couldn't stomach" Australia's lack of a film industry. "He was determined to do something about it and he had the energy and spirit to do it. (He) was a very important cultural figure: highly intelligent, widely read, with a succinct and often highly controversial opinion on everything."

After forming a new production company, Hexagon Films, he produced, directed and co-wrote (with Alan Hopgood) his next feature, Alvin Purple, which was a huge hit with audiences, held the record as Australia's most successful film release between 1971 and 1977, and is one of the key works in the revival of Australian cinema in the '70s. Alvin was a defining work in the genre of so-called "ocker" films that were deliberately pitched at the mainstream popular market. It was a huge commercial success and was also very significant in the revival of the local industry, being the first major feature to include significant backing from a local theatrical chain.

A portrait of Burstall won the 1975 Archibald Prize, but the artist John Bloomfield was controversially stripped of the honour after it was revealed he had painted it from a magazine photograph, since the prize conditions stipulate that portraits must be painted from life.

Burstall won a number of Australian Film Institute awards for his work and was awarded an Order of Australia in the Australia Day honours list in 1996. He also worked extensively in television, directing episodes of Special Squad, Return to Eden II, The Man from Snowy River and Water Rats.

Tim Burstall died suddenly and unexpectedly on the evening of Sunday 18 April. He suffered a massive stroke while attending a screening of his short films, organised by Eltham Council, the Melbourne suburb where he made his first feature, The Prize. He was taken to hospital, but died soon after, in the early hours of 19 April.

"It's a tragic loss and most unexpected," said Bruce Spence, whose acting career was launched by his starring role in Stork. "I was talking to him about two weeks ago and his creative flame was still burning incandescent."

Burstall is survived by his wife Betty and his sons Dan, a cinematographer, and Tom, a film producer and husband of actor Sigrid Thornton.

Filmography (to 1975)

The Prize (1960)

Ned Kelly: Australian Paintings By Sidney Nolan (1960)

The Dance Of The Angels: Ceramic Sculptures By John Perceval (1961)

The Gold Diggers Ballad: The Water Colours Of S.T. Gill (1961)

On Three Moon Creek: Australian Paintings By Gil Jamieson (1963)

The Pioneers: Australian Paintings By Frederick Mccubbin (1963)

The Crucifixion: Bas Reliefs In Silver By Matcham Skipper (1963)

Sydney Blues (Paintings By Robert Dickerson) (1969)

Sculpture Australia '69 (1969)

2000 Weeks (1969)

Getting Back To Nothing (1970)

Stork (1971)

Alvin Purple (1973)

Alvin Rides Again (1974)

Petersen (1974)

References / Links

The Age

Sydney Morning Herald