Skippy - Be Our Guest: 'I wish I could understand you'

Skippy - Be Our Guest: 'I wish I could understand you'
Nine Network Australia and Fauna Productions.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
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When two Aboriginal men take her by the arms to lead her away from a contaminated waterhole, Clancy is initially scared. However when they offer her fresh water and something to eat at their camp she realises their good intent and relaxes. Finding a means of communication without a shared language, a tribe member draws a snake to show what she is eating. Politely putting the food aside, Clancy then draws a map to express the land features of the home to which she needs to return.

Summary by Tammy Burnstock

This episode was written in 1967, the same year as Australian voters recorded the largest ever ‘Yes’ vote (over ninety per cent) in a referendum to grant Aboriginal Australians the right to vote and the same citizen rights as other Australians.

Film historian Graham Shirley commented on producer Lee Robinson’s ‘absolute respect’ for Aboriginal people. Robinson, who had been a Second World War correspondent, started work as a director at the Commonwealth Film Unit (later to become Film Australia) in 1946 when 22 years of age. In an interview with Albert Moran, Robinson described his first assignment researching and writing a script on the Aboriginal painter, Albert Namatjira. ‘I went off to the Northern Territory with Axel Poignant in April or May and we spent quite a lot of time up there. We went out and lived with Namatjira as he toured the country painting … I was fascinated by the Northern Territory. And from then on I worked almost exclusively there.’

He goes on to describe the high adventure of being ‘two-man teams that were able to go in the bark canoes with the Aboriginal people catching crocodiles with their bare feet’. Apart from the subject matter, Robinson also believed that ‘the outback presented us with something that Hollywood couldn’t challenge’.

After the best part of four years spent making films in the Northern Territory, Robinson formed a production company, Southern International, with actors Chips Rafferty and John McCallum, going on to direct documentaries and feature films including They’re a Weird Mob (1966), Barrier Reef (1971–72), Boney (1972–73) and Attack Force Z (1982). Lee Robinson died in 2003 at the age of 80.

Skippy - Be Our Guest Synopsis

Clancy (Liza Goddard) unwisely decides to go riding in the bush on the day her mother Mrs Merrick (Jessica Noad) is scheduled to visit. Thrown from her horse, dazed and lost, she is discovered by a group of Aboriginal men. Head ranger Matt Hammond (Ed Devereaux), pilot James King (Tony Bonner) and brothers Mark (Ken James) and Sonny Hammond (Garry Pankhurst) try and find Clancy without letting on to her worried mother that she is missing.

Clancy soon finds a way to communicate with the men and, despite not being not at all sure where they are going and with little faith that they will not end up in Queensland instead, follows them to arrive home just in the nick of time!

Curator's Notes

Skippy and Sonny make a very limited appearance in this episode, which is one of three episodes that feature members of the Aboriginal Theatre, from Yirrkala in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, while they were visiting Sydney. In fact, the only bit of Skippy magic featured in this episode is in the penultimate scene when a bedraggled and filthy trouser-wearing Clancy tells Skippy to listen very carefully and then elicits her help in finding and bringing her a dress so that she can hide her tracks and make a good impression on her visiting mother.

Skippy – Be Our Guest is episode 37 of series one. It was broadcast on the Nine Network in Melbourne on 25 March 1968 and Adelaide on 1 April 1968.

Notes by Tammy Burnstock

Additional Notes

This episode of Skippy was made at a time when views of Aboriginal people in Australia were slowly transforming. As Tammy mentions in her clip notes it was the same year as the 1967 referendum which meant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples could be counted on the census as people and not as fauna. These changing views influenced the subsequent representation of Aboriginal people in film and television in Australia.

In the 1960s – years before opportunities for self-representation developed – Indigenous people were subject to portrayal by non-Indigenous filmmakers and producers. Fortunately Lee Robinson, the series producer, depicted the ‘tribe’ favourably: as knowledgeable of the landscape and means of survival, seen in their guidance of Clancy back to the headquarters and provision of food and clean water; and as skilful and artistic, evident in their elaborate feather body adornments and the men seen painting at the campsite.

However well meaning his representation, it is still limited to stereotypes. It certainly seems strange that in the mid 1960s a group of half-naked ‘natives’ would be living off the land within a short walking distance of a New South Wales national park headquarters.

The tribe, from Yirrkala in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, were members of an Aboriginal theatre troupe who were visiting Sydney. They appear in this and two other 1968 Skippy stories: Tara and They’re Singing Me Back. In all three stories Aboriginal people are represented as primitive, and anywhere between mystical and menacing, with no real place in the modern world unless they assimilate to white values and beliefs. In this episode the men turn out to be kind and helpful but for almost half the episode their intentions towards Clancy are unknown and even appear sinister or threatening.

Clancy’s relationship with the tribe could be interpreted as representative of Australia’s relationship with its Indigenous peoples. She is initially frightened by their presence but, even after she finds a way to communicate with them and their intentions are clear, she remains untrusting of their abilities due to the perceived insurmountable differences between her and the men.

Interestingly, Clancy finds it easier to communicate with Skippy, one of Australia’s most famous native fauna, than with the Aboriginal men she encounters in the bush, and who were once only considered as fauna by law.

Additional Notes by Sophia Sambono

Production company:
Fauna Productions
Dennis Hill
Executive Producers:
Bob Austin, John McCallum
Series Producer:
Lee Robinson
Max Varnel
Ross Napier
Eric Jupp
Tony Bonner, Ed Devereaux, Liza Goddard, Ken James, Jessica Noad, Garry Pankhurst
The cast for this episode also features members of the Aboriginal Theatre from Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.
Produced with the guidance and cooperation of the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Ku-ring-gai Chase Trust.