VOX POP: The Babadook

Production still from The Babadook (Source: Icon)

It may be a dying art these days, but anyone of a certain age will likely remember those advertorials where punters were asked what they thought of a film as they left a screening. Well, our semi-regular Vox Pop column is updating that notion for the 21st century by attempting to gauge the mood of the Twitterverse about Australian films in the UK, putting it somewhere between criticism by consensus and an opinionated free-for-all.

Jennifer Kent’s pop-up book scarefest The Babadook landed in British and Irish cinemas on Friday (in what constituted the widest release of an Australian film here for some time). The critics may have lauded it with four and five star reviews, and early indications suggest that it has had a strong opening weekend, but lets see what the punters thought.


IN CINEMAS: Mystery Road

Production still from Mystery Road

To celebrate the UK cinema release of Ivan Sen’s potent, highly-charged slow-burn western Mystery Road, this review (of sorts) meanders in search of the film’s place within forty-odd years of through lines in the Australian film industry.


Vox Pop: 100 Bloody Acres at FrightFest

Morgan's Organics - 100 Bloody Acres

So, I’m not long back from the UK premiere of the Cairnes Brothers’ splatter comedy 100 Bloody Acres, which had an enthusiastic reception from the ever-excellent crowds at Film4 FrightFest, Britain’s biggest (and best) celebration of all things horror and genre.


Friday Flashback: Florrie Forde

Friday Flashback is a semi-regular feature drawing on recent news stories to delve into the archives, looking back on oft-neglected corners of Australian film history.

Earlier this week, the National Film and Sound Archive announced their annual round of additions to the wonderful Sounds of Australia registry, honouring audio achievements of cultural, historical or aesthetic importance to the Australian nation, all nominated by members of the public.

Amongst this year’s additions was a fabulous little ditty by Australian music hall artiste Florrie Floyd, whose Hold Your Hand Out Naughty Boy is a classic of music hall entendre. But despite her Australian roots, Forde actually spent most of her working life in Britain, where she moved at the tender age of 21 for a life spent in the footlights.


Wandering back into The Eye of the Storm

Having made its UK premiere at FilmFest Australia last year, veteran Australian director Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of Patrick White’s much-loved novel, The Eye of the Storm, plays in cinemas across Britain and Ireland throughout May, June and July. To celebrate the release, The Far Paradise takes a look at a novel, and a film filled with homecomings, both on the page and off the screen…

Production still for THE EYE OF THE STORM

A knight and a princess, returning to the foreign shores of their homeland. How could they not disappoint?’


A History of Diggers on the Big Screen

Still from Gallipoli (1981)

As well as a full morning of ceremonies and events, Anzac Day in London this year will be marked by a special screening of Peter Weir’s WWI classic Gallipoli (1981) at the Hackney Picturehouse. Hosted by the London Australian Film Society, the screening begins at 9pm with a special introduction by Dr. Ian Henderson from the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King’s College, London.

Now, just about anyone who’s studied at an Australian high school since the mid-1980s will have seen this classic at some stage, and along with Breaker Morant and The Lighthorsemen, the film also holds a place as an established classic of Australia’s new wave. But, just as films like Breaker Morant attest, there is more to the Anzac spirit than those brave souls who landed on the beaches at Gallipoli and more to films about diggers than Peter Weir’s perennial classic. So, to celebrate the screening and mark the day that Australians and New Zealanders remember their fallen, The Far Paradise takes a look back at soldiers in Australian films before the new wave of the 1970s…


Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell: Australian screen icon

Charles 'Bud' Tingwell

Yesterday (January 3rd) would have been the 90th birthday of Australian screen legend Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell. As a tribute, here is an article I wrote shortly after his death in 2009 (originally published on Suite101):


Ealing Studios in Australia: An Introduction

Ealing Studios is one of those legendary names in film circles. Ealing Studios logoKnown throughout the film world, it grew from a relatively small operation on the south-western outskirts of 1930s London, eventually becoming a byword for high quality, quintessentially English motion picture entertainment.

Building A Brand

From the late 1930s, under the watchful eye of Michael Balcon, the studio had established itself as a mainstay of popular British cinema. Under the spectre of war – and with the backing of its new parent company, the Rank Organisation – Ealing went from strength to strength, providing the opportunity for the British public to fight alongside their heroes on the frontline or escape the wartime realities in fanciful comedy. Indeed, by the end of the 1940s, it was this particular brand of quaint English comedy on which the studio had built a reputation, spurring a whole genre of its own: the Ealing Comedy.

Running parallel to the highly popular Ealing comedies, however, was another kind of filmmaking all together. Borne out of a desire to continue supporting the British Empire in much the same way he had supported the British war effort, studio chief Michael Balcon endeavored to develop a programme of filmmaking that would display all the strength, diversity and stoicism of the Commonwealth and ensure that Ealing Studios remained a vitally important part of the British film industry. To this end, Ealing was going to Australia.

Heading Down Under

The first steps towards Ealing’s Australian venture were taken in late 1943 when, at the request of the Films Division of the British Ministry of Information, Ealing Studios chief Michael Balcon dispatched director (and Greirsonian documentary pioneer) Harry Watt to Australia, with instructions to find a story worth filming that would publicise Australia’s contribution to the war effort and display the virtues of the wider British Empire.

Although Balcon did so at the behest of the British Ministry of Information, much of the momentum for Ealing’s Australian venture had come directly from Michael Balcon himself, who had attempted (and failed) with a similar, short-lived Australian venture as head of production for Gaumont-British in the 1930s.

Ealing In Australia: The Overlanders and Eureka Stockade

Poster for THE OVERLANDERSTwo years after his arrival in Australia, Harry Watt delivered The Overlanders (1946), a relatively successful outing which focussed on the exploits of a team of drovers leading cattle clear across the Australian continent in an effort to thwart any possible Japanese invasion during World War II. Essentially an Australian western, the film starred the quintessential Australian actor of the period, ‘Chips’ Rafferty, who would go on to feature in two further Ealing productions in Australia.

The surprising success of The Overlanders provided solid justification for Ealing to continue their Australian excursion with a further four films over the next fifteen years, the first of which was a re-telling of the classic Australian tale of miner rebellion, Eureka Stockade (Harry Watt, 1949), led by Peter Lalor, with ‘Chips’ Rafferty again taking the lead. After a difficult production period, the film met with mediocre reviews and, despite limited success locally, was deemed something of a failure for Ealing Studios.

Renewed Hope: Bitter Springs

By the time Eureka Stockade was released into cinemas, the wheels were already in motion on the studio’s next Australian production, Bitter Springs (1950). Studio head Michael Balcon drafted in Ralph Smart – who had previously directed another British-produced Australian classic, Bush Christmas (1947) – with plans for a much more economic story, detailing the experiences of a small farming family re-settling on indigenous land, with a cast including ‘Chips’ Rafferty as the family patriarch, with Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell as his son, and English comedian Tommy Trinder as the hired hand.


Although largely forgotten in Australia and the UK (where it has now been released on DVD), the film is vastly important as an early exploration of the complex relationship between the indigenous population of Australia and its earliest European settlers. Foreshadowing the complicated land rights debates by almost thirty years, the film provides an interesting perspective on the issue with a subtlety uncharacteristic of the time, albeit one marred by a clumsy, deeply assimilationist conclusion.

Late Ealing: The Shiralee and The Siege of Pinchgut

Lacking a major success, Ealing’s Australian venture began to falter in the 1950s, a situation worsened by the studio’s own precarious position at home in England. The west London studios were sold to the BBC in 1955, and complex wrangling between Ealing and the flagging Rank Organisation led to a new partnership with the English arm of Hollywood studio MGM.

During this brief Ealing-MGM period, the studio produced the fourth film of their Australian venture, The Shiralee (Leslie Norman, 1957). Adapted from D’Arcy Niland’s bestselling novel, the film was essentially a road movie tracing the life of an itinerant swagman – played by Peter Finch – forced to care for his young daughter after witnessing the callous exploits of his estranged wife.

By the time the film was released, Ealing Studios was on its last legs. The deal with MGM had fallen apart and Michael Balcon was gradually losing control of the renamed Ealing Films. The final outing of Ealing’s Australian venture – The Siege of Pinchgut (Harry Watt, 1959), an uncharacteristically violent tale of escaped convicts in Sydney – would also prove to be the final film produced by Balcon under the now-legendary Ealing banner.

Despite varying fortunes, each of the films produced by Ealing Studios’ Australian venture presented a view of Australia and Australian lives as interpreted by foreign directors working under the supervision of a producer 10,000 miles away. And yet the films also exist as rarefied cinematic representations of Australian scenery, Australian narratives and the Australian nation in the 1940s and ’50s, a period in which the local industry had all but stagnated.


The Overlanders, Bitter Springs and The Siege of Pinchgut are all available on UK DVD via Studio Canal, and in Australia via Umbrella (who also carry the Australian release of Eureka Stockade). In the UK, Eureka Stockade and The Shiralee are both available on different volumes of Network’s Ealing Studios Rarities DVD collections. The Shiralee is not currently available on Australian DVD (although the Network collections are region-free).

For more on Ealing’s Australian adventure, check out my chapter in the BFI/Palgrave book Ealing Revisited, released in late 2012 to coincide with a major Ealing retrospective at BFI Southbank. A version of this article originally appeared on the now-defunct Suite101.

A case for the defence: J. Harkness and Australian cinema

After the dispiriting experience of directing his feature-length debut Shot of Love (2006), Australian director James Harkness swore ‘never again’. Undaunted, however, he returned last year with a second feature, Birthday. Now, in an article entitled ‘So Why Make Films in Australia?’ – published today on the website of Australian movie mag Film Ink – Harkness explores the trials and tribulations of making Australian films and, perhaps more importantly, getting them in front of local audiences.

Now I’ve been known to rant and rave about the short shrift often given to Australian cinema by the local press, but – published in the always supportive Film Ink – Harkness’ article arrives as a mostly erudite case for the defence, a timely assessment of how things stand from a creative (rather than a commercial) perspective. Obviously I would highly recommend reading Harkness’ article in full, but I feel it’s pertinent to highlight (and extrapolate) a few key points that might act as maxims (of a sort) for the ongoing development of a local film industry that seems to constantly find itself in choppy seas.

Commercial vs. Cultural

Assessing the usual, tired arguments about why Australian audiences are supposedly disinterested in local films, Harkness suggests that

to say that Australian films are missing out on commercial success and audience attendance based upon their alleged inferior quality, is a reductive, baseless argument.

Citing the popular assumption that Australian films are the victim of either ‘cultural cringe’ or their own over-serious, morbidly anti-entertaining tone, Harkness’ rightly points out that Australian audiences couldn’t possibly be disenchanted by films they haven’t actually seen. Highlighting the problem of disinterested film critics, he goes on to assert that audiences are more likely disenchanted by ‘the films they have seen; the ‘popular’ ones they ‘must see’, like it or not’ [his italics].

Hinting at the role of critics in fuelling this air of disenchantment, Harkness works toward the logical ends of this argument: if anti-intellectual or simply anti-cultural film critics use the aforementioned tactics to pan an otherwise good film that most audiences will never get the chance to see in the their local cinema, their opinions become those of the public by proxy. Unless audiences deliberately seek out screenings of a locally produced, under-promoted film, their interaction with the film is most often limited to critical reviews in the popular press, thus fuelling a self-perpetuating cycle of disenchantment that Harkness correctly identifies as beginning with critics, not with audiences (or, indeed, with the film itself).

A Problem of Access

At the centre of his argument, however, Harkness identifies a problem of access. In an exhibition landscape that is regrettably skewed towards sure-fire money-spinners, the under-appreciation of Australian cinema is often inextricably linked to problems of underexposure in the realms of marketing, distribution and exhibition – problems to which there is no simple solution (and certainly not one which doesn’t involve tax breaks or tax incentives for all three tiers of the film industry). That said, if Harkness’ argument has a weakness, it is a tendency to underplay the complexity of the issue with a suggestion that distributors and exhibitors are simply unwilling to take on films which they consider too ‘tough’. Like it or not, distributors and exhibitors are – almost without exception – businesses first and foremost.

But before they are forced to grapple with the dilemma of distribution and exhibition, local filmmakers must also navigate the structural problems inherent in film financing, prompting Harkness to assert that

it is never acknowledged that, at the very best of times, the film industry is not a meritocracy.

The history of modern Australian cinema is littered with examples of talented, highly creative first-time directors who made a great debut but never followed it up, either because their first wasn’t considered enough of a ‘success’, or because – like Harkness – they found the experience so thoroughly dispiriting and disenchanting that they are forced to turn their creative impulses elsewhere.

For Harkness, the wrong-headed tendency to link financial success to merit is as clear as day:

Box office figures do not define a good film or a valuable contribution to Australian culture.

And this, in some senses, is the crux of the issue. Those who see no value in the ability of local cinema to make a cultural contribution are unable to see past the perceived ‘failure’ of a film to make a significant box office return, especially when a film is unable to recoup its budget (a criticism further intensified by the fact that many Australian features receive some form of government support, either direct financial backing or in-kind support in the guise of tax incentives). Indeed, the ability of local feature films to make a ‘valuable contribution to Australian culture’ goes way beyond their limited theatrical run, with recent research by Screen Australia suggesting that ‘box office admissions account for less than ten per cent of all viewings’.

Beyond the Box Office

Once again, such issues are far more complex than most commentators are willing to admit, with gross box office figures often quoted without a detailed analysis (or understanding) of marketing, distribution and exhibition patterns and strategies. Furthermore, these surface comparisons of ‘budget vs. box office’ also fail to take into account revenues raised from an oft overlooked ancillary market, where DVD/VOD sales now account for a sizeable portion of total gross. That said, it’s also true that a larger profile during theatrical release (which usually drives, or is driven by, decent box office), typically results in far greater ancillary incomes.

Given that link, and the sense that a key difficulty for Australian cinema is the ability to reach audiences beyond the usual ‘single-week, large capital cities only’ model, a possible salve may be on the horizon. Last week, Screen Australia used an industry discussion forum – broadcast live on the internet – to launch the latest in a series of reports on local viewing habits. One issue arising from the report and subsequent discussions was this question of ‘access’ and the suggestion that a possible solution may lie in the shortening (or even abolition) of theatrical release windows for niche titles (including most Australian features). Although typically opposed by exhibitors, simultaneous theatrical and DVD/VOD releases would allow distributors and other interested parties to further capitalise on the publicity surrounding a film’s cinema release, whilst also giving audiences unable to access theatrical screenings an opportunity to see the film at the earliest possible opportunity. In response to the Screen Australia report, Inside Film editor Brendan Swift wrote an excellent opinion piece on the magazine’s website addressing the possibility of shorter release windows and citing the loss of buzz as a ‘structural issue driven by audiences’.

A Cycle of Mediocrity?

Simultaneous release or not, the current distribution pattern for Australian films needs to evolve in creative ways, with the local industry unable to compete with the ‘spend money to make money’ tactic pursued by Hollywood studios. As it stands, the current situation merely serves to fuel a ‘cycle of mediocrity’, at least according to Harkness, who claims that

Australian culture is being lost with dwindling honest representations of the many diverse aspects of Australian life, especially when we seem ever prepared to make ourselves look stupid, conforming to racist, cultural stereotypes to yield greater international sales.

Sadly, this is where Harkness’ own argument turns reductive. There are, of course, plenty of examples of recent successes which don’t conform to this rather near-sighted assessment, but the danger of ‘dwindling honest representations’ nevertheless exists. Thankfully, Harkness concludes his article on a far more positive note:

There is hope. It begins with a set of aesthetic and cultural values that privileges sincerity, the very keynote to high art, over contrivance and manipulation. There is hope that audiences and filmmakers reunite and demand more Australian films be made, not less… and especially… that more Australian films be seen.

How to achieve all this is, of course, the million dollar question.

Red Dog posts disappointing UK opening

Released onto 56 screens across the UK and Ireland last week, 2011’s Aussie breakout hit Red Dog dragged in a disappointing £20,837 and the combined British and Irish box office.* Relatively meek pre-release previews saw that first week tally rise to  just below £25k, with the film posting a meagre site average of £372. In his indispensable weekly column on the UK box office, Charles Gant reads the numbers as proof that the film is convincing ‘neither as mainstream family fare or as a niche title for fans of Antipodean cinema’.

Production still from 'Red Dog'

Given the scale of the marketing (including television and newspaper advertisements) and a limited release focusing on major cinema chains, G2 Pictures – the film’s UK distributors – were no doubt hoping for a sizeable opening that might have allowed the film to repeat its trajectory at the Australian box office, where a strong opening blossomed into a full-blown hit over a couple of months.

But whilst Australian films are often given short shrift in their own cinemas, the sheer volume of films released onto British screens every week (and the lack of vested interest amongst audiences and exhibitors) meant that this approach was always likely to be a gamble. Indeed, amid such a busy release schedule – particularly in the aftermath of awards season, when successful films like The Artist are being re-introduced to major cinemas – it is inevitable that a small film like Red Dog will struggle for attention unless handled very carefully.

The notion that Red Dog might have become a hit in the UK is not entirely absurd. At home, the film drew comparisons with Crocodile Dundee – mostly in terms of tone and the nature of its success – which was a monumental success in the UK (seen in theatres by an estimated 9.8m Brits according to the BFI’s Ultimate Film List), and was also discussed as ‘the film Baz Luhrmann’s Australia should have been’, a positive comparison with a film that disappointed UK critics and audiences alike a few years back. Plus there are few things that the Brits love more than animals, especially dogs.

But lacking the kind of buzz necessary to drive audiences to previews and first week screenings, the very fact that Red Dog opened predominantly in multiplexes operated by three of the UK’s largest chains (Vue, Cineworld and Empire) placed it at something of a disadvantage. In these multiplexes, audiences scanning through the screening times might pass half a dozen films before seeing Red Dog listed against one of the venue’s smaller screens, and unless they are visiting the cinema specifically see the film, are much more likely to choose an option they’ve heard discussed or seen advertised.  In many senses, Red Dog is perhaps better suited to miniplexes such as those operated by City Screen under the Picturehouses banner (which typically feature 3-4 screens per site), where it would only be competing for audiences with a small cluster of films. Indeed, much of the chatter about the film on Twitter over the last week seems to come from people who saw the film at many of these smaller, niche venues that hosted the film (including the four-screen Broadway in Nottingham or the two-screen DCA in Dundee).

Of course, a slew of rather tepid reviews from UK critics wouldn’t have helped the cause, but G2 might have been hoping that strong word of mouth from those who did catch Red Dog in its first days might sustain the picture in the coming weeks, perhaps giving it enough time to build an audience. But given that the multiplexes involved have scaled the film back to mostly daytime screenings, it’s unlikely the film will cumulate much more at the UK box office. There is hope, however, with the relatively wide opening of the first week giving way to a more appropriate style of ‘platform’ release, which sees the film opening at smaller independent cinemas across the UK and Ireland over the next few weeks, with an opportunity to build local audiences and gain the kind of appreciation that it no doubt deserves.

Check local listings to see if the film is playing near you, or visit the ‘cinema listings” section of the official UK website,

* Opening week box office figures taken from Charles Gant’s weekly box office column for The Guardian.