The TV crime drama turns 50

BY SIMON SMITH

Fifty years ago, Melbourne television screens tuned in to the first episode of a new locally made production, Australia’s first police drama series.

Homicide celebrates its fifth birthday in 1969

Homicide, first telecast by HSV7 Melbourne on 20 October 1964, profiled murder cases handled by the fictional detectives of Victoria Police Headquarters’ homicide squad.

The series ran 12 years, produced more than 500 episodes and provided employment and training to thousands of Australian actors and production staff. It enjoyed consistently high ratings across the Seven Network and won a multitude of awards including the Logie for Best Drama Series a record seven times. Many successful Australian police dramas followed Homicide but none enjoyed the enduring appeal and cultural impact of Crawford Productions’ landmark series.

Banking on a hit

The program’s immediate ratings success masked significant financial struggles, particularly on the part of company managing director Hector Crawford. Here he discusses Homicide’s uncertain early days, in the 1970 feature-length documentary The Homicide Story:

Longtime Homicide director/writer Ian Jones expands on the financial struggles of Homicide’s first year in this 2001 Oral History interview:

Behind the scenes

Promotional flyer for Homicide episode Stopover (1975).

Fortunately, Crawford Productions understood the legacy they were creating from their earliest days, ensuring Homicide (and indeed the company’s production output from this time on) would survive beyond the series’ cancellation in 1975. Master copies of all Homicide episodes are held in the NFSA collection as is a significant volume of publicity and production documentation relating to the series.

Augmenting the moving image materials are press releases, scripts, still images, negatives, transparencies, contact sheets and prints, synopses, cast lists, publicity scrapbooks and correspondence. These are part of the Crawford Productions Documentation Collection transferred to the NFSA’s care when Crawfords’ Box Hill premises closed in 2005.

A promotional flyer for the feature length, award-winning Homicide episode Stopover (episode 504, 1975), guest starring Jon English, is pictured left.

The Homicide ‘bibles’ are a particular highlight, put together internally by Crawfords’ publicity department. These ring-bound folders, each more than 200 pages in length, detailed in chronological order episode storylines, key cast and crew appearances and interesting productions details, interspersed with relevant publicity and production stills. Three volumes reside in the NFSA collection, covering the first 106 episodes. Below are a selection of images sourced across all three volumes.

Above: Set of three volumes of background information and photos for Homicide episodes 1-106. NFSA title: 672608

The company also compiled publicity scrapbooks, several of which survive:

Above: Homicide scrapbooks of press clippings for 1972, 1973 and 1975. NFSA titles: 673405, 673419 and 674625

At the heart of the show’s ongoing success was the attention paid to its scriptwriting. Crawford Productions was very clear in its aims and requirements for maintaining a high standard of engagement, authenticity and character development in its stories, created within a successful production formula for a 7.30 pm timeslot. These standards were detailed in Crawfords’ senior script editor Jim Stapleton’s six-page episode guidelines:

Above: Homicide scriptwriting guidelines. NFSA title: 690082

Famous faces

Homicide’s popularity turned many of its regular cast into household names. Fifteen featured detectives passed through the series, with those portrayed by Leonard Teale, John Fegan, Alwyn Kurts and George Mallaby being among the best remembered. Teale, the longest serving actor in the series (357 episodes as Detective David ‘Mack’ Mackay), recalls the long hours and early sound production processes in this interview with Radio 7ZR Hobart presenter Ric Paterson from 1985:

Leonard Teale Homicide interview

Episode 383 The Assassin, originally telecast in July 1973, remains one of the most memorable, as the series said goodbye to two of its longest serving cast. In the final scenes, psychopath Carl Warren Lee (Paul Karo) mistakenly shoots dead Inspector Colin Fox (Kurts) with a bullet meant for Detective Mackay (Teale). The latter also departed in this episode, transferring out of Melbourne D-24 to Ballarat.

Here is a gallery of production and rehearsal shots, never intended for publicity purposes, from this fateful sequence. These images were scanned from the 35mm Ektachrome reversal strips. Although hand-cleaned by NFSA technical staff, the images have not been photoshopped and show evidence of dye fade and physical damage of the originals:

Above: Images from Homicide episode 383, The Assassin, of the shooting of Inspector Colin Fox (Alwyn Kurts). NFSA title: 1253471

Alwyn Kurts recalls the reasons for his departure and that of fellow cast member Mike Preston in this 1979 2SER radio interview with presenter Michael Fitzhardinge:

Alwyn Kurts interview

A veritable who’s who of Australian acting talent passed through the series in guest roles, many of whom went on to further significant big (and small) screen success:

Above: Set of Homicide production and publicity images. NFSA title: 1253571

The legacy of Homicide

Detective Peter Barnes (George Mallaby)

Though Crawfords’ final Homicide production contract with Seven expired on 14 December 1975, the series never truly left our screens.

A stockpile of unscreened episodes saw premieres extend on the Seven Network into early 1977, with frequent repeats of the most popular episodes telecast throughout the following decade.

Comedy team the D-Generation made the popular D-Genocide special in 1988, featuring re-dubbing of character voices, sourced from sequences in the earliest colour episodes filmed in 1972.

The 1992 TV Week Logie Awards included a warm tribute to Homicide when the show’s best remembered line-up (Mallaby, Kurts and Teale) affectionately reunited one final time to present the award for the Best Drama Series.

In 1994, Blue Heelers cast members Lisa McCune and John Wood hosted the Homicide – 30 Years On documentary special, featuring select highlights from past episodes and interviews with former cast and crew.

Confirmation of the series’ iconic status was acknowledged in 2007 with Australia Post’s release of a postage stamp bearing the image of the first line-up of detectives. As Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell told the TV Times upon announcement of the series’ cancellation in August 1975:

'It was the pioneer of Australian TV drama and I know how much it means to all the people who learnt their profession working on it. It’s impossible to measure the contribution Homicide made to the industry.'

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Crawford Productions, ABC Radio Archives, Cathie Gillam at the AFI Research Collection – RMIT University Library, Don Samulenok, Don Storey, Damien Lovelock, David Lee, Jan Bladier, Ian Jones, 2SER 107.3FM and Michael Fitzhardinge.

Unless otherwise noted, all Homicide content reproduced here is copyright and courtesy of Crawford Productions.

Buy Homicide on DVD from Crawford Productions.