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Workshops for Writing, Producing and Acting Radio Drama, Documentaries and Comedy

Documentaries Part 2:  Australia ~ Lucky Country?

The States of Australia

This was the last episode of a BBC Radio 4 13 part celebration of Australia's white settlement bi-centenary in 1988.

The irony of the question mark in Episode 13: Lucky Country? was intended.

Handling 'Vox-Pop' in Features

Axe fall echo and silence by Alex Murray

Mike Walker, the writer / compiler and I, the producer, wanted to contrast the poet's view of the quiet, timeless life of the bush with the business of the urban, twentieth century; so we started with Noonday Axeman by Les Murray, Australia's leading contemporary poet:

ACTOR: Axe-fall, echo and silence.  Noonday silence.
Two miles from here, it is the twentieth century:
cars on the bitumen, power lines vaulting the farms.
Here, with my axe, I am chopping into the stillness.
Axe-fall, echo and silence.  I pause, roll tobacco, twist a cigarette, lick it.
All is still.
I lean on my axe.  A crowd of fragrant leaves hangs over me, moveless, pierced everywhere by sky.

The poem continues and the peaceful music segues into the title music.

We talked long and hard about whether we should have the sound of the axe chopping into the wood.  We finally decided against it. It is there in the poem.  Radio is about providing an outline, that the listener can fill in.  As well as pictures the listener can imagine sounds, smells and the feeling of things.  Things can be all the more perfect, all the more powerful and evocative for being imagined.  Let us not interrupt the listener doing her work.

Gough Whitlam's boom years

The bespoke music, however, composed by Elizabeth Parker, is introduced at the precise moment that it can most effectively intensify and prolong the pictures already forming in our mind.

May I suggest that as an exercise you attempt to analyse the different elements - scripted readings, interviews, actuality etc - that we had to record and assemble in this opening and in the following abridged excerpt.  See if it tallies with the list I shall give at the end of the passage.

The Boom Years of Gough Whitlam

WHITLAM: Men and women of Australia, there are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia this is such a time.

MAN 4: I was a fan of Whitlam. Whitlam embodied many of things that Menzies had, funnily enough, this tall, leonine, silver-haired figure with fluent tongue and persuasive arguments. I suppose, people wanted to revere him in a similar fashion.

WHITLAM: We will abolish conscription forthwith.

NARRATOR: During their first few days in office labour made sweeping changes.
WHITLAM: Not just because a volunteer army is a better army, but because it's intolerable that a free nation at peace and not under threat should cull by lottery the best of its youth to provide defence on the cheap.

HUMPHREY MACQUEEN (Marxist Historian) These were people who believed that there was enough wealth in the country to do something for the poor and for Aborigines and that it was no longer necessary to despoil the environment in order to have enough dirt to sell to the Japanese.
WHITLAM: We will legislate to give the Aborigines land rights.

MACQUEEN: Questions like Urban planning and the environment and the Arts entered into the political agenda.
WHITLAM: Australians are diminished while the Aborigines are denied their rightful place in this nation.

WOMAN 2: The two most important things that happened early in the Whitlam period were freedom of education and withdrawal of troops from Vietnam.
WHITLAM: It's time for a new team, a new programme, a new drive for equality of opportunities. Time for a new vision of what we achieve in this generation for our nation.

MAN 5: The Labour Government spent like drunken sailors. Government spending increased by seventy five percent. Wages exploded by over fifty percent.
MAN 6: Prices went through the roof. When you think ten dollars and somebody comes along and says 'think a hundred', the whole spectrum of the community changes.
MAN 5: Businesses went to the wall.
MACQUEEN: The people who attacked him were saying, 'there's too much governmental activity of every kind in every way.'
WHITLAM: We ought to be angry with a deep determined anger that a country as rich and skilled as ours should be producing so much inequality, so much poverty so much that is shoddy and sub-standard. We ought to be angry with an unrelenting anger that our Aborigines have the world's highest infant mortality rate.


We ought to be angry on our children's behalf, at the mindless destruction of our national and historical heritage.

MACQUEEN: Australian intellectual life really came of age since the seventies with Patrick White's winning of the Nobel Prize, with Australians winning the Booker Prize, with the Australian film industry.
NARRATOR: McDonald's opened their first take-away, wine boxes appeared, the Sydney Opera House was opened.

GIRL: The Queen came to open it. It was really exciting. Everyone loved it. It was exciting for us and she came and did a tour. And all the schools were out in force and waved and she waved back - at me!
NARRATOR: It was a boom time, enhanced by the richness of the nations mineral reserves. Nothing seemed impossible.
MACQUEEN: We could buy champagne and caviar till the cows came home and this kept to push up the value of the dollar until by 1974 the Australian dollar was worth 1.44 American dollars. We were on the crest of the wave. We could travel around the world, everything was cheap. It was the bonanza years of selling off Australia.

MAN 9: Well if it's good enough for Whitlam it's good enough for me, because it's the first decent, bloody government we've ever had for twenty three years.


I have quoted at length, because I should like to invite you to think not only about how this first twenty minutes of Lucky Country?' works for the listener, but to examine how it was put together.

Examining the Building Blocks of a Feature

Assembling the foregoing was a complex and time-consuming process. Let's look at the different elements - or building blocks - that go to make up the whole.

  1. There was the scripted reading of the poem by an actor recorded in a BBC studio in Bristol, England.
  2. Interviews with two leading historians were recorded in a studio in Canberra. Mike Walker prepared a series of questions for them, which we asked them to respond to as spontaneously, coherently and concisely as they could. One of the problems of putting together a feature of this nature is the amount of repetition and meandering, that one has to edit out. If you can brief the interviewee effectively and train him to contain your question within his answer, you can save hours of editing.
  3. Vox-pop interviews edited to advance the story, to represent both sides of the political equation and to convey the excitement and hope at the election of Gough Whitlam in 1975. Probably the most strenuous part of the exercise were the days and days of gathering and then editing down to identifiable, meaningful and attractive sound-bites: literally hundreds of hours of interviews with ordinary Australians.
  4. Other interviews were kindly provided from the archives of the Australian Broadcasting Company, as was the recording of Gough Whitlam's speech and as were the recordings of crowds and ships sirens from the opening of the Sidney Opera House.
  5. Under the BBC's agreement with the Performing Rights Society we were able to use the songs 'It's Time' and 'Mr. Sunshine'.
  6. Wild track recordings (for dramatic license and technical interweaving) of crowds cheering and responding. As much as possible we used the authentic and actual responses to Whitlam's speech. Dramatically it was important, that these sounded spontaneous and heartfelt and that they conveyed the appropriate celebration and exuberance. Also there were background recordings of birdsong, etc, from the BBC's and the ABC' recorded sound effects libraries.
  7. Rather late in this episode we introduce the narrator to link speakers and to convey some necessary information. Some listeners may recognise him as our guide from previous episodes. Others may think he is just another vox pop interviewee. It does not matter. The same may be true of Humphrey MacQueen, the second historian.

For space in the foregoing transcript and recording, there are two other elements I have left out:

  1. Epic title music to give us the sense of scale of such a large island nation and of the sweep of history. The listener, hopefully, will have come to identify with this music over the past twelve episodes.
  2. There was the woman announcer, recorded in an ABC Studio in Sidney, who gives us the title and the theme of the episode.

So this was the raw material as it were. How did we plan the operation? Then how did we assemble and put together the material?

In the first place, Mike Walker produced a draft outline of our intentions and objectives and of the proposed structure of the programme. In this final episode, we knew that we wanted to convey as broad a spectrum of every aspect of Australian life and attitudes as possible from the accession of Whitlam in 1972 to the bicentenary in 1988.

We planned to use Les Murray's poem, Noonday Axeman to open and close the programme and to link one part to another. We planned to convey the rise of Whitlam and the story of Cyclone Tracey in the first part; the sacking of Whitlam by Her Majesty's Governor General and a canter through descriptions of Australia's mineral resources, multiculturalism, religion, sport and crime in the second part; and to have the bicentennial celebrations and reflections on the possible future of Australia in the final part.

That was the blueprint or foundation. The building might be very different. Much of the creative work was done in post-production at our Bristol studio, where as producer I consulted Mike Walker and Andrew Lawrence, the chief BBC technician over the final mix.

Cyclone Tracy Darwin Christmas 1974

We have spent a long time on this particular programme, but I should like to take you through a few more edited highlights, to demonstrate some more possible elements and ways of assembling them. With less and less costly and more efficient digital editing software, we are entering the age of a person director/author/editor and this may be the way you, the reader/writer/director, may like to work in the future. A little later in the programme:

Cyclone Tracey

MAN: We were all brainwashed. The Messiah had offered us the world, but three years down the track we realised he was just a politician.
MANNING-CLARKE: He was a charismatic personality, but he was in the great river of life...


Things went wrong - Partly because Gough was not a very good judge of other men and he made some tragic mistakes in the choice of people to work with.
WOMAN: His fatal flaw was to try to do too much too soon.
MAN: The fear of change began to seep darkly into the bottoms of the bellies of all of us.
NARRATOR: Nature so often a force in Australian life chose to exhibit its power in 1974 when the city of Darwin was struck by Cyclone Tracey.

WOMAN 2: We had two small earth tremors and the mangoes ripened very early and all the ants were in frenetic activity. Well, the Aborigines know their signs and in the two weeks before Cyclone Tracey some of the old Aborigines just rolled up their swags and left.

NEWSCASTER: And here's the latest cyclone warning. At three Cyclone Tracey was centred 80 kilometres north west of Darwin and moving south easterly at seven kilometres per hour.

WOMAN 2: And then the frogs started. And Illiwara the old Aborigine said, 'If the frogs sing out very loud, well then look out'. They started off in a slow chorus and then by the time dusk fell it was a screaming frenzy.

WOMAN 3: (SHOUTING ABOVE THE DIN) We came home about six o'clock. We had to fill everything we had with water, lock the windows, seal the doors.

WOMAN 2: Cyclone Tracey You heard a distant moaning and then it got louder and louder. I was going to put my daughter in the land rover and make a run for it, but my husband said just look out there and clumps of trees were rushing past the house and some people did try to make a run for it and were killed.

WOMAN 4: Ours was a tropical house with louvres. The wind could get out. In houses where it couldn't get out, they just exploded with the pressure.
WOMAN 5: There was a great tree at the back of our house and in that tree there was a refrigerator.
INTERVIEWER: You were under the bed with your Mummy?
SMALL GIRL: Yeah, it was terrible.

WOMAN 2: When the daylight came we looked out on a scene of utter desolation. Where trees and houses had been there were just stumps and rubble.
MAN: I saw a boat half way up a hill.
The Aftermath of Cyclone Tracy

After a few more speeches describing the aftermath:

WOMAN 4: The looting was indescribable. To me it was like something out of a movie. My daughter was bending over looking at this wedding photograph and well a man made an obvious movement...

I won't go into that, it's too awful and I saw that they were rapists, so I raced and got the gun and I said, 'I'll kill you' and they knew I meant it and they took off.
EMERGENCY BROADCAST: "We must stop rumours. There are rumours about the police shooting people, when in fact it was Tiger Brennan probably shooting the dogs."
WOMAN 3: And nature reasserted itself. (Giggles) There were people making love all over the place. I passed a house of which there was nothing left except the floorboards and one double bed. It was like Salvador Dali. And there were two people in bed making love, quite oblivious to who might be going past and it didn't matter. (LAUGHS)

Thus we told the story of Cyclone Tracey, through carefully selected and edited vox pop interviews and through radio broadcasts from the time.  We orchestrated or counterpointed
the atmosphere with sound effects and with radiophonic music.

Naturalization Ceremony

I should like to share one final element, that we used in this episode:
a swearing in ceremony, in which new citizens are taking the oath of allegiance.  Recording it was a moving experience.

Becoming Australian

SWEARING IN OFFICER: In a few minutes you will be all equal Australian citizens. At the ceremony we have people here from Yugoslavia, Libya, South Africa, Afghanistan, New Zealand, Turkey, United Kingdom, Vietnam, Chile, Hong Kong, France, Argentina, Portugal, Ireland, Canada, Finland, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, Korea, Malaysia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Greece, Lebanon and Taiwan.  (FOLDS PAPER) And that spells multi-culturalism to me.  I am sure it does to you too.

Notes to actors:

It is a challenges for the actors -  
in a feature such as this where interviewees and actors are mixed -
to sound real and not performed.

Listen carefully to the actuality interviews and think how you can achieve such a 'truthful performance' from the inside.  You might do this by making notes of what you have to say, memorizing them and then improvising.  In that way you may succeed in making the words an authentic expression of your thoughts and feelings.

Click here for Bargain Voice CD

Introduction to Audio Workshops

Home Page

Please click below for information on making radio documentaries and on Australia.  As with all the execises the above is taken from Shaun MacLoughlin's book, while you can also obtain at a very reasonable price Mike Walker's book of the Radio 4 series.  There are also some books about Gough Whitlam and Cyclone Tracy