Shooting 'Demonstrator', 1970

Behind-the-scenes of a political drama filmed in the nation's Capital
 Bronwyn Barnett

During the Centenary of Canberra year, the NFSA’s TV Unit looks at our holdings of Canberra’s first commercial television station, CTC 7 (now Southern Cross Ten). In working through the news collection we discover some gems that highlight Canberra’s hidden or forgotten history.

Canberra is never thought of as the film capital of Australia, but one film from the 1970s put the city front and centre, and played an important role in highlighting the need for a viable commercial Australian film industry.

Courtesy of Southern Cross Austereo. NFSA: 66064

Note: The audio on the excerpt is location sound only.

The above clip shows the rehearsal and shooting of scenes from Demonstrator (1971). Outside the City Police Station on London Circuit, Steven Slater (played by Gerard Maguire) follows his angry mother Marion (played by Irene Inescort) into her car having been bailed out after his arrest during a demonstration at the Canberra Theatre Centre. The other scene shows Slater arriving at (Old) Parliament House in a vintage car with a couple of the demonstrations’ organisers.

David Brice, CTC 7’s newsreader, optioned a book by Curtin residents Elizabeth and Don Campbell. The Demonstrator is a political drama about an Australian Defence Minister’s plans of forming military alliances at an Asian security conference being disrupted by demonstrations organised by his idealistic son.

Brice thought the subject matter would make a great feature film so he approached television producers Warwick Freeman and James Fishburn. To raise the $300,000 budget, Brice contacted a group of Canberra businessmen. JJ O’Neill, B Jones, Rod Hanstein and Terry Briggs formed management company ACT One, and raised the money through Canberran investors.

Savings in crew and location costs helped keep the budget small. Camera and sound crews agreed to lower pay rates to support the developing Australian film industry. Prime Minister John Gorton even instructed federal government departments to assist the production, providing there was no direct expenditure. Fees were waived for: filming at the National Library of Australia, Academy of Science, Kings Hall and Fairbairn RAAF Base parade ground; the use of RAAF VIP aircraft, and ACT and Commonwealth police vehicles; and the participation of the Duntroon Military Band.

Although the main cast and crew were not from Canberra, off-duty ACT police officers, CTC 7 employees and Australian National University students played extras in the film. When one scene was short of extras, the filmmakers scoured hostels and pubs finding willing participants at Gowrie Hostel.

Courtesy of Southern Cross Austereo. NFSA: 66064

Note: This excerpt has no audio.

In the above clip, producer David Brice (wearing dark skivvy under a light jumper) chats with Eric Oldfield and a woman, the stand-ins for lead actors Gerard Maguire and Irene Inescort, while filming Demonstrator in Canberra, 21 September 1970.

Demonstrator premiered at Cinema Center on 5 April 1971. VIP guests included Noel Ferrier, Mike Walsh, Malcolm Fraser, Ian Sinclair, Ralph Hunt, the High Commissioner of Singapore and ambassadors from the Belgian and Japanese Embassies. A champagne supper on the roof of the new YWCA building in Alinga St, Civic followed the screening. In a fitting example of life imitating art, guests arriving at the premiere were greeted by demonstrators waving placards protesting against the low pay they’d received as extras.

A CTC 7 news cameraman captured rehearsals and location shooting of Demonstrator on 21 September 1970, most likely to be included in that evening’s bulletin. This footage is all that remains of the story. Featuring in both clips are Demonstrator’s director Warwick Freeman and cinematographer John McLean.