Ray Argall interviewed Patricia Edgar on 9 June 2009:
At her home in Melbourne, Patricia displayed the tenacity and energy that rallied politicians, business people and filmmakers to create the enduring legacy that is the ACTF. Also on show was the sense of humour that made her such a passionate defender of programs peppered with Australian humour involving bodily functions.
Tell us about one of your titles on the website
Noah and Saskia is a very special production to me. And this was the series where I was trying to bring together the conventional narrative structure and the world of the internet. These are really his alter egos. That was a comic he produced called Max about – he’d represent his life through this comic online and this was his character as she saw him. She saw this fantasy of this guy she was communicating with and this was her in the comic strip that he created and this was the way he saw her until they gradually got a more and more realistic understanding of one another.
Where are we?
We’re now where I work. I work off two computers, a laptop and a desktop. I’m not particularly technically competent. But I get my emails on one and write on the other. And I quite like the interruptions of the emails to give me a break. But, um, I’m not very tidy. I’m not very good with my files but I know where everything is.
How did you get started?
I was a girl from the bush, I grew up in Mildura. Being a girl, being in Mildura in the ‘50s, I mean you didn’t really aspire to anything much except that I knew I didn’t want to do what I saw all the women around me doing – having tea parties and such. And it was really my father who conspired to keep me at school so I went to university and what girls did was teaching, did teaching, nursing, or you’re a secretary.
I had always absolutely been addicted to films and I would go to films every chance I got, never any career idea involved it was just something I wanted to do. So while Don was doing his PhD, I did a masters degree in film and television. Eventually we came back to Australia after three years. And I looked around and thought, 'What am I going to do?’ And I had a degree in film which would have been the only degree in film in Australia at that time. And I set up the Centre for the Study of Media and Communication at La Trobe, introduced the first film courses. They were very basic but students loved them. I was never short of students which was my main defence because there was a lot of opposition to the idea of film studies being introduced at a university.
I got involved – I did a PhD because you could never go anywhere in the university structure being called 'Mrs’ anything. So it was better to be called Doctor. But it was about kids’ perceptions of violence in film and their understanding of what they saw and what they felt when they watched violence. That led me into the children’s program committee, that led me into getting to know Bruce Gyngell and being appointed there. So I started writing about the need for a children’s television foundation, about the sort of programs that could be produced for kids. But I took half-time leave [from LaTrobe University] and worked for the Minister [for the Arts] to work out a strategy, the way we set up the [Australian Children’s Television] Foundation.
Lisa Berryman who was working at the foundation put a Paul Jennings collection of short stories on my desk, and I remember I was travelling to New Zealand. And I took it with me and I starting reading these stories on the plane, and I was laughing out loud, you know laughing and laughing. And I thought, 'This is it’. However, Paul Jennings stories, they did not have a common set of characters, they did not have a common location, they were just short, plot-driven clever ideas. But they were the sort of ideas that were fresh and different and that really appealed to kids.
Then I thought, now who can work with Paul Jennings? And I’d worked with Esben Storm on, he’d done a Touch the Sun, he’d done a Winners. And I liked the way he worked, I liked his relationship with kids, I thought he was very funny and very attuned to kids humour and so we put the two of them together. And they would write and write multiple drafts and inject so many jokes, and it was just laden with jokes. And they came up with this idea that they lived in a lighthouse and the elements of the Twist family and so on.
An interesting working relationship
Disney, who had the most money, wanted to buy Round the Twist for all its Disney channels in Europe. But they wanted to water down the scripts and I would only have them in as a partner on the condition that they couldn’t do that. 'Little Squirt’ was one of the really popular ones which was the boy’s peeing competition. They did not want to see any streams of urine in the series. And one – in the opening series, third series – there’s an episode where Pete becomes pregnant to a tree sprite, and he becomes pregnant because he pees on the tree. And the day that they were doing that, they hadn’t brought the right equipment and they used a hose, so it was quite a big stream. And Disney were intensely upset about that.
What do you do when you're not making films?
We’re in the television room, which doubles as many things, but this is where we watch a lot of television. And I keep a copy of all of the things that I made. Most of them are on VHS so, some of them are now digital. I hope that they will all be one day. But I keep them all and the kids, the grandchildren will watch them. They’ve certainly seen everything that I’ve made over the years. And one day that might just be a work of art on its own, a museum piece!
How do you relate to the digital era?
I chaired the program advisory committee on program standards which came up with the idea of 'C’. That was 1975. The 'C’ classification was an extraordinary thing in its time. The envy of producers around the world, it served its purpose, it is long overdue for reform. Now there are several reasons for that. But the internet and the changing nature of childhood is the major reason.
What you’ve got working with increased commercialisation of childhood is children at a very, very much younger age being aware of the ways of the world and what goes on in the world. And they very quickly tire of the sanitised politically correct boundaries that children’s television have now fallen into. Now kids are watching television still, but if they’re watching, they’re watching what adults are watching. They do not want what kids are watching, and it’s only the little kids who are confined to that. They are out and about now, and they love the interactivity. The game market in that time-frame has just gone 'boom!’. We should be creating spaces where the content that they produce can be put up and they can exchange it, they can look at what everybody else is doing.
What is your strongest personality trait?
Well I’m very determined. I don’t take 'no’ easily, or I don’t take 'no’, I’ll find another way. I’m quite a lateral thinker, so that if there’s an issue and the obvious way to do it is closed off or not clear, I’ll find another way to do it, or I’ll reshape it or I’ll think about it.
Advice for young players?
Don’t aspire to be working with the same kind of budgets that were producing the big series because if you want to do anything original, you have to have control. And to keep control you’ve got to work within a reasonable budget, so you’ve got to be innovative and experimental. And that’s where the new ideas will come from, they won’t come out of conventional formats at all.
Drawing kids out
I came from a teaching background and a research background. So I’ve worked with kids most of my career. And I knew what was there, and I also knew that it wasn’t being drawn on in most of the programs that were being made. Most of the programs made for kids were jolly little adventures that, sort of, people thought, 'Well, you know, kids will like this’. But it was not about drawing kids out and getting the experience from them.
The thing I always found with kids, um, you have to cast them to play themselves. A kid cannot play something they are not. So the – you get the best performance out of a child when they are being natural and just doing what they would normally do. And they, they’re quite unnerving to many adult actors because they are so – they memorise not only their lines but everybody’s lines. So they can prompt and come up with the line people have forgotten. They’re right on their mark, they can do it over and over and over. They’re quite astonishing when you get the right ones, they’re quite amazing.
First Round the Twist drawing
That’s the first, original drawing that Ron Brooks came up with when we were beginning to think about the marketing for Round the Twist, with the lighthouse and the seagull. But we never, ever used that in the end. But it’s a great drawing and it was a great idea.
Round the Twist - sold and evolved
I had a really, really difficult time getting a partner to buy it because everyone who looked at the ideas on paper said, 'It’s disgusting. Yes, alright on the page, but you can’t do that on the screen, cannot have people vomiting spaghetti, you know, you cannot have all this kind of poo joke stuff’. The BBC buying Round the Twist gave it a certain cache that you wouldn’t have got any other way. And when the BBC showed it, it just went through the roof in England.
So we fairly quickly did another series, but then we had to face for the first time the issue that the kids had grown in two years beyond their character, so we had to replace the kids. And we developed all the scripts which then became, we did two back-to-back, two more series back-to-back, so we could use the same kids.
The first scene in Round the Twist, they’re actually paper – putting posters up on the lighthouse, and they say, 'Oh, Mr Twist is gonna chuck a wobbly’, but they use language that is Australian. And it’s not kind of understood in the international world. Now Round the Twist was full of that, totally full of it. Plus the style of humour. I mean you couldn’t do that sort of thing with American television. And even the English were a little bit twee about it all. A bit concerned about how far we were going.
There was another episode [of Round the Twist] where Bronson’s conducting a science experiment and Linda and Pete take part and their brains get sucked out through straws and they independently go kind of bopping around the countryside. He’s left with this zombie brother and sister without their brains and he’s got to try and recapture their brains to get them back in. And the brains go hopping onto a hotplate on a barbeque and they’re bouncing around and Mr Snapper, who is Esben Storm, comes up with a big knife and is going to chop up the brains. Well the ABC went ballistic, absolutely ballistic about this. And so it was modified.
We came up with the idea that each episode would have an abstract theme. So the title of episode one of [s[Lift Off] was, 'A Load of Old Rubbish’ (1992). And it became very philosophical which was the intent. And then Peter would edit the voice track to a three-minute track and we chose separate animations for every episode to visually represent the ideas that were in that discussion. And these became the Munch Kids, they were introduced with the notion that kids sat around having their sandwiches and just chatting about things in life. And there are some truly remarkable discussions and remarkable images, remarkable concepts and ideas that these young kids come up with.
Then my favourite character of all time, EC – the doll. It’s called EC, meaning 'Every Child’, and it’s the rag doll that’s been much loved and discarded, but repaired and passed on through the family. And this – EC – came to life when he was with the children. And they would talk to him and relate to him – or her – as it was meant to be gender free. And certainly anti-commercial. So it was a scruffy old doll. And it was a character that was very much loved by the kids.
Every single one of those series was really important for a particular reason. Lift Off was the early childhood program that looked at the eight to – the three-to-eight age range. And we looked at what it was that kids in that age needed to learn and understand, and created characters and themes and ideas around that. A really enriching, engaging program that would develop the sort of interpersonal emotional skills of children.
You show any children in that nought-to-eight group images and if they’re animated they are immediately attracted. With animation, and there are all sorts of styles of animation, you can convey just a whole range of ideas in a way you can’t do with live material, with live action.
Yolngu Boy (2000) is about three young boys within the Aboriginal community who are faced with choices about which direction they’re taking in life. The boys were found in the community, they’d never acted. And the only white actor was Jack Thompson. Jack was quite a mentor with this. He got along very, very well with Galarrwuy [Yunupingu, associate producer], related to him extremely well. But he stayed around for quite a bit of the filming up there. But one thing I was told is that every single day that film is taken out by some kids and they look at it. So that indeed it is saying something to those kids in those communities.
Noah and Saskia
I went to the marketing at Cannes with Paul Nichola who worked on many of the Foundation’s projects. And I said, 'I want you to walk all around this exhibition and I want you to tell me what isn’t here’. And at the end of it he said, 'You know, they’re all trying to fill up the internet with all this stuff, but really what we should be doing is drawing on the kids to create the material to put up there’.
So that was just a simple premise for- okay, go on the internet and who are you? You meet somebody, who are you then, and how does a relationship develop? Noah and Saskia came out of that. And the idea that there was somebody in the UK, the boy in London, the girl in Australia. They met online, there was the web world they met in, but there was also these virtual worlds they projected – of where they related to one another independently. So it was really about searching a whole range of different notions of who you are.
Feedback from kids
The feedback with that age group and with most kids I’ve always found is really direct, honest, spontaneous – sort of right off the top, and they bounce ideas. They’re very forthright, they’re very giving, they’re uninhibited about the process of, 'Am I saying the right thing?’ or 'Am I not saying the right thing?’. It’s like, 'Here’s an idea, let’s throw it on the table’. Certainly you couldn’t script these things, no way. Like you can’t imitate kids’ drawings. They are spontaneous representations that only kids are capable of doing.
A kid made that for me, um, with the covers of three annual reports that he cut out and pasted together. And he’d watched all the programs and loved the programs, and he used to come into the Foundation occasionally, and he decided he wanted to make that which I’m really very fond of. It’s very clever, I think he was about 10, 11.
With everything we did for 20 years I was at the [Australian Childrens’ Television] Foundation, no idea was developed without a curriculum basis to it. Now kids watching a program wouldn’t see that, or wouldn’t have any feel of it. It was not – never overtly didactic or educational. However, there was a really strong educational intent with all those programs.
I’ve got four grandchildren who are 14, 12, 10, 8, who have shown me some very, very, very funny things on YouTube that I would never have found. But they are out there, and this, this is just territory they love. They love anything that’s funny, they love humour, they love the outrageous, they love the ridiculous, the slapstick and so they’re right into that kind of thing. And television isn’t doing it for them. At all.
I look at some games and I think there could be a lot more narrative structure to it, that could be a lot more interesting, but then I talk with the kids about it and there’s a lot more going on in those games than I understand when I look at them. And there’s a lot more subtlety and a lot more character play than is obvious immediately. I think that kids are getting a lot out of games and games would be a terrific vehicle for a lot of what they are learning, or trying to learn or should be learning, in school.
Malcolm Fraser loses his seat
That was a very significant moment. Malcolm Fraser was giving us the first cheque. And the importance of getting media coverage of an important event and to give half a million dollars to start up an organisation may not be deemed worthy of much media coverage but we decided to do it in the Treasury Gardens, make a big cake of the logo which Alex Stitt and Phillip Adams had donated. And to have Malcolm Fraser with a group of kids. Well unfortunately as he sat down, the bench gave way and he fell. That’s me right behind him with my head in my hands and I can still remember the moment, thinking 'Oh my god’. But we were front page of the paper with 'Fraser loses his seat’ because at the time he was being pursued by Andrew Peacock for the leadership. And so everybody knew one way or another about the launch of the Australian Childrens’ Television Foundation.
And below that is [a photo of] another famous launch because we were indeed launching Round the Twist and two other programs that the Seven Network had agreed to buy. That’s Christopher Skase in the middle with Janet Holmes a Court and myself, which went out something along the lines of, you know, 'How would Christopher Skase, Janet and Patricia be in bed together?’.
And then below that is [a photo of] my favourite Prime Minister, Paul Keating, at the Foundation’s tenth anniversary and that was at Parliament House. That immediately followed the screening of Lift Off, which he attended. And then he came and cut a cake with those kids who were with him there who were characters from the Lift Off series.