The Godfather: Peter Corris on the bushrangers project
In 1987 author, journalist and scriptwriter Robert Macklin had an idea for a television docu-drama on Australian bushrangers. He recruited six writers and, after consultation, each was assigned a bushranger. The writers and their subjects were: Jean Bedford (Captain Moonlight), Gabrielle Lord (Mad Dog Morgan), Nicholas Hasluck (the Clarke brothers), Blanche d’Alpuget (Ben Hall), Ian Moffitt (Johnny Gilbert), and me (Frank Gardiner).
We signed contracts guaranteeing us generous fees, were given lists of references and sent off to mug up on our subjects. The notion was that we would, in separate parties, tour the locations where the bushrangers had operated. A people-mover and a driver were assigned to each party; motels were booked and pre-paid and we set off with cameras and notebooks – no internet, smart phones or iPads back then. On our return we were to write treatments (fairly detailed outlines) on our subjects’ careers, paying particular attention to sites of action, notable buildings if still extant, and employing contemporary quotations, newspaper reports, still photographs, et cetera.
The treatments were to form the basis for filmed reconstructions of hold-ups, chases, shoot-outs and other events with voice-over narrations. It was an ambitious project and we were all enthusiastic. I was dispatched with Blanche and Gabrielle to travel to the spots where our three had operated – including where Dan Morgan had shot police troopers, where Frank ‘Darkie’ Gardiner had robbed the Lachlan gold escort, and the paddock where Ben Hall, the squatter turned bushranger, had been shot by police. Legend has it that Hall was shot in his sleep but the police claimed he’d run for his horses. The legend is preserved as the favoured version in a number of bush ballads.
We travelled quite long distances over, from memory, four or five days and sometimes walked fair stretches over rough ground. Tiring. The nights in the motels were welcome and I remember one place in the heart of bushranger country where all the rooms had the names of our blokes, and others like Martin Cash and Captain Starlight, on the doors. Whether we got our own men’s rooms I don’t recall.
Writing the treatment was a pleasure for me and payment was duly made on submission.
Robert Macklin approached all the TV channels and got a positive reaction from Channel 10, where Frank Lowy was powerful at the time. Macklin engaged a management team to carry the project forward, meetings were held, but Channel 10 passed. Macklin was then contacted by someone he describes as ‘a conman’ who claimed to be able to raise the funding, but faded away when it came to the point. Macklin says he was ‘devastated’ but put the project aside and moved on. I was disappointed, as were the others, but many of us, like Macklin, had or were to have several experiences of film and TV projects falling through.
I was prompted to remember this episode by a series on bushrangers now showing on the History Channel. I watched the first on the Kellys (presumably Robert Macklin decided that this was ground too often raked over). It was passable. I’ll continue to watch, hoping the programs will improve, but I can’t help thinking that the Macklin project might have produced something better.