I have just heard the sad news that, Godfrey Philipp, co-creator of the award-winning and beloved children’s TV series Adventure Island (1967-1972) and the Magic Circle Club (1965-7), and one of Australia’s most brilliant and pioneering television producers from the 60s and 70s, died last month in a nursing home in Melbourne.
Philipp and writer John Michael Howson combined elements of fairytale, pantomime, vaudeville, song-and-dance, soap opera and social commentary, together with a glittering set and a host of video-camera tricks to create a magical world for little children, first in The Magic Circle Club on ATV-10, and then on Adventure Island, which aired every weekday afternoon across Australia for ten years (original episodes from 1967-1972, and then repeats until July 1976 when it was made redundant by colour tv).
The high camp elements of the show (I always did think there was something a bit suspicious about Mrs Flowerpots, for instance), and double entendres, meant that grown-ups could enjoy it too. It was something completely special on the Australian television landscape.
However when ABC producer Claudia Taranto and I made a 2-part radio documentary about the series in 1991, Adventure Island was a black hole in the official cultural memory.
This was before the Internet, and at that time most of those writing about television history and overseeing production of content were Baby Boomers and not interested. The attitude was (expressed succinctly to me by one of the ABC staff) ‘their audience’ wouldn’t be interested because ‘they were too old to be watching children’s tv in the 60s, and too young to have children watching it’.
It was considered unimportant and a little bit daggy, like much that was of special interest to those who were children in the 60s and adolescents in the 70s — the original ‘Generation X’, before the marketers co-opted the term and used it for a more visible generation.
But we persevered, pointing out some of the amazing characteristics of the program — produced by the director of the pop show, Go (another seminal ABC-TV program); written by John Michael Howson (whose credits at the time also included The Mavis Bramston Show) and who also starred as Clown; music by Bruce Rowlands of the rock band The Strangers; starring Liz Harris (now Liz Teale, wife of Leonard) as Liza; and guest-starring at one time or another almost all the big names in Sixties show biz, such as Toni Lamonde and Mary Hardy.
We talked about the use of effects to create a stage-set that people remember as full of glitter and colour, even though it was only ever shot in black and white..
-The way it used this new technology of television to simultaneously create an intimate private world for us in our living-rooms, while also emotionally connecting us with other children right across Australia.
-How the mesmerising opening sequence drew us in to this magical space, leading us through an enchanted gate, down a path through a glittery forest, into a house, then into the pages of a story book; and the way the characters often walked right up to the camera, looked into the lens and talked to us directly, as if we were their special friend.
All of this was new in the 1960s. All of this had to be invented as a form.
I can remember that we wanted some Vox Pops of audience memories for the radio program, so we went on Triple J to talk about what we were doing. We asked listeners to phone in if they remembered the show and had any stories. As soon as we played the music from the opening-sequence, the switchboard lit up.
‘I thought I must have dreamed that program’ was a common response. Every caller spoke as if in a trance, hearing this theme song for the first time since childhood. (As far as I know it had never been played on any program anywhere since 1975).
This was the magic created by Godfrey Philipp.
In 1991, we had to beg to be able to view a week’s worth of Adventure Island episodes at the ABC Archives at Gore Hill. It took a few false starts because most of the footage, shot on video and stored in canisters, was rotting.
I think these days the Australian Film Archive has some footage. I don’t know what happened to the ABC archive of the show when their storage moved to a new location. [I’ve just been told there are 800 episodes in a vault in the Film Archive in Sydney, presumably from the old ABC storage. I don’t know what condition they are in.]
Fortunately there are some dedicated fans out there who have salvaged film from various sources over the years and transferred it to videos and dvds. Such as Peter Blight who has posted a few snippets on Youtube; and Gold Coast singer and writer David Chittick, who has been diligently collecting and preserving videos and dvds of episodes from cast members, crew and fans.
David Chittick is writing a book about Australian television of the 60s and 70s, based on his own memories, research and extensive interviews with Australian actors (without any funding or institutional help or backing). We’ve been corresponding about Adventure Island for some years.
It was a friend of his who spotted the brief notice in the Sun-Herald last week:
Godfrey Pettersson Philipp PHILIPP.- A Memorial Service for Mr Godfrey Pettersson Philipp will be held at Sumner House, 128 Fitzroy St, Fitzroy on THURSDAY (June 23, 2011) at 2.30 p.m. Private Burial.
Sumner House is the Brotherhood of St Laurence Residential Care home where he has lived for many years. His estate is being handled by the State Trustees.
Philipp left the television/entertainment industry in the 1980s. This was after the axing of Adventure Island by ABC management in 1972 — at the height of its popularity, and despite bags of mail from traumatised children. And after his children’s program Rainbow (produced for Northern Rivers Television) won a Logie award in 1979, but was never picked up or aired by any network.
Philip did receive a special Logie for Outstanding Acheivement in 1973, and in the early 80s was executive producer and director for some episodes of the cult classic, Prisoner (or Cell-Block H when it screened in the US). But he became increasingly disillusioned, and eventually turned his back on the industry completely.
For many years he worked for the Salvation Army in Melbourne, which is where I tracked him down to ask for an interview in 1991.
Philip was a gentle and artistically brilliant man, and the 1972 axing of Adventure Island was a bitter blow. I had been warned by John Michael Howson that he would most probably not be interested in talking with us. He was certainly reticent and reluctant in our pre-interview chat, seeming incredulous (and suspicious) that the ABC would want to do something that might celebrate a show that they had treated so disdainfully 20 years earlier.
But I managed to coax him around to agreeing to a recorded interview. Perhaps the fact that I was a freelancer and not an ABC staffer helped. Perhaps he just needed to hear from one of the children whose world he had helped to shape and make special, who owed so much to him for so many hours of magic and emotional richness in an otherwise culturally bare childhood.
When the day came for the interview I wasn’t sure how it would go as he’d answered most of my questions in our chat with disconcerting brevity. But the interview was a dream — he was expansive, charming, wonderful. He talked with enormous intelligence about the technical aspects of tv production, about filming and writing with children in mind, about dealing with ABC bureaucracy (including a great story about being called into the programme-manager’s office after an episode in which they ‘d created an effect of a witch flying upside down, and being told they was certainly not allowed to do this with ABC equipment), about the politics of the day, and much more.
It was during this interview, when I decided to throw in a question about politics — trusting my gut instinct that the man who produced the turbulent social world of Diddley-Dum-Diddley was also interested in the wider world of Australian society — that I discovered that Philipp was responsible for staging the famous St Kilda Town Hall launch of the ‘It’s Time’ campaign for the ALP in 1972. How fitting that he was involved in creating the magic for that wonderful moment when Gough Whitlam and Lionel Murphy entered from the back of the hall and walked through the cheering crowd to make history.
With the election of the reformist ALP Federal Government in December 1972 — after 23 consecutive years of conservative rule in Australia — it was the start of a news social era. The cast and crew of Adventure Island hoped that this new government would respond to the thousands of letters from children, and the questions in parliament, and save Adventure Island from the bureaucrats.
They didn’t. There is some speculation that Philipp was being punished by the ABC management for his involvement with Labor politics. Others suggest that Adventure Island was considered not psychologically-hip enough, with its talking Bears, child-like Clown, frou-frou costumes and goodies and baddies — not the right thing for modern children who should be given a diet of more realistic shows. Or perhaps it was simply penny-pinching, as it became cheaper to import shows like Sesame Street from the US (complete with US accents and slang), than to continue to fund a local product.
Whatever the reason, it was scheduled to finish, and it did. ‘And then,’ as Liz Harris tartly pointed out in our interview with her, ‘they repeated it until 1976!’
Adventure Island was produced by the ABC as a collaboration with Godfrey Philipp Productions, the first such venture with an outside production company. It was a trail-blazing production in so many ways.
How is it that this wonderful genius of a man has only two lines in the Sun-Herald to mark his passing?
David and I have set up a Facebook page for ‘Adventure Island and the Magic Circle Club’ – please do come and visit and click ‘like’ so that we can let publishers and media know how dear this program is to so many of us.
I’ve also set up a Facebook page for ‘Godfrey Philipp -Memorial’ — where you can leave your tributes and memories, and swap information about the memorial service at Sumner House on Thursday. (I have no information as yet, but I hope someone out there does. I also don’t have any photographs of Godfrey, so please do upload some if you do, or contact me and I’ll give you an address to email them).
Please do share these pages with your Facebook networks and beyond, especially if you know anyone in the industry who may not have heard the news.
And take a moment to watch this video of the Friday farewell song from Adventure Island (which I so hope they play at the memorial service, with everyone singing along), and send a blessing to this beautiful soul who gave us so much.
Go well, Godfrey Philipp:
“Think of us a little bit cause we’ll be thinking of you”
[update: you can also download and listen to an interview with Liz Harris and me on ABC-Radio National’s Life Matters about Adventure Island here: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/godfrey-philipp-and-adventure-island/2933988 ]