Skippy (1966 - 1969)
91 episodes x 30 minutes
An Australian drama series made in the 1960s featuring nine-year-old Sonny Hammond (Garry Pankhurst) and crime-fighting ‘bush Kangaroo’ Skippy. Sonny, constant companion and best friend to Skippy, lives with older brother Mark (Ken James) and widower Matt Hammond (Ed Devereaux), Head Ranger of Waratah National Park. They’re joined by a handsome helicopter pilot and ranger, Jerry King (Tony Bonner), and a blond teenage boarder Clarissa ‘Clancy’ Merrick (Liza Goddard). The wonders of the Australian bush and the amazing abilities of a very talented kangaroo are revealed as a series of disasters, both of the natural and man-made variety, are faced and overcome.
There is some ambiguity around the creative genius behind Skippy, although general agreement that actor and producer John McCallum (1918–2010), film director Lee Robinson (1923–2003) and lawyer Bob Austin, who together formed Fauna Productions, all played a key role along with producer on the first series, Dennis Hill.
In response to a London agent’s suggestion, and inspired by the overseas successes Flipper (1964–67) and Lassie (1954–74), the team searched for a unique Australian subject with the potential to sell well overseas. Apparently the breakthrough came over a few beers in the local pub and 'Skippy the bush kangaroo’ was born. In his book Life with Googie (1979, referring to wife Googie Withers), John McCallum, often credited as the driving force behind the series, in turn credits Lee Robinson as the brains behind the program: ‘It was really his idea. And we worked on that – I wanted to call it Hoppy. He said, “No, Skippy”.’
A self-financed pilot episode in 1966 was aimed squarely at an overseas market. Although Australian television at this time was still in black-and-white, Skippy was filmed in colour on 16mm film to increase its international appeal. However, John McCallum first offered the show to Australian Frank Packer, head of a media empire that included the Nine Network. According to McCallum, despite the fact that the sound and then the picture packed up during the screening, Packer agreed to back the series.
On the strength of this Australian sale and the optimism of covering the remaining costs from overseas, production started in earnest in 1967. With a few more episodes in the can, John McCallum and Bob Austin secured sales in Europe and the UK (but not America) and in April 1968 a second series commenced production. In 1970, a breakthrough in the United States came via breakfast cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s, who entered into a syndication deal which meant that the program screened on more than 160 American television stations. In total, 91 episodes over three series as well as a feature film, The Intruders (1969), were produced between 1966 and September 1969.
Recurring characters in the first series include archenemy private zoo owner Dr Alexander Stark (Frank Thring), German research scientist and potential love interest Dr Anna Steiner (Elke Neidhardt) and Head of the NSW National Parks Board, Sir Adrian Gillespie (John Warwick). A variety of other visitors to the park are played by a cast of legendary Australian actors including Chips Rafferty, John Meillon, Harold Hopkins, Tom Oliver and Gerry Duggan. Sydney talkback radio host John Laws performs a rendition of ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’, and Barry Crocker is a travelling showman who tries to kidnap Skippy.
The star of the show, Skippy (played by at least nine different kangaroos), is an orphaned kangaroo rescued from the bush by Sonny and brought up as part of the family. She is a kangaroo of amazing ability and intelligence, able to understand and communicate with humans, open doors, untie and tie complicated knots, operate a radio, play piano and drums, rescue bushwalkers and foil villains. Free to roam the park, Skippy is not a pet (as this would be illegal) however she has formed a strong bond with Sonny and his family and eats and sleeps at Ranger Headquarters.
The Skippy theme song, composed by English-born composer, musician and band leader Eric Jupp, is one of the most recognisable Australian tunes. A familiar presence throughout the 1960s and early 1970s in Australia, thanks to popular and long-running ABC-TV variety series The Magic of Music (1961–74), Jupp was also a leading composer for film and TV. The richness of the score he composed for Skippy is an example of the strength of his work and recognition from the producers of the importance of music in drama. Among his later film and TV credits, Jupp was the music director for the adventure series Barrier Reef (1971), also produced by Fauna Productions, and he wrote the score for feature film Tim (1979), starring a then-unknown Mel Gibson. His last major TV credit was the score for the early ’90s remake of Skippy, The New Adventures of Skippy, 1992.
Sold to 128 countries, in its heyday the series was watched by a global audience of over 300 million viewers a week. Perhaps the biggest international success story of Australian TV, the series was dubbed into 25 languages and known as Skippy el canguro in Mexico and Skippy, das Känguruh in West Germany, as well as being popular in Japan. According to Wikipedia Skippy is still broadcast in Iran. Sweden was one of the few European countries not to buy Skippy, following advice from psychologists who deemed it damaging for children to grow up thinking animals could talk.
Skippy was also the first Australian series to be heavily merchandised with a fan club and a wide range of branded product from pyjamas to ice-creams to Skippy moneyboxes and of course Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. When Skippy and Sonny went on promotional tour around Australia they supposedly drew more people than the Queen Mother and US President Lyndon B Johnson combined.
The executive producers of Skippy were John McCallum and Bob Austin. Producers of the first series were Lee Robinson and Dennis Hill. Producers of the second series were Robinson and Joy Cavill, and Cavill was the producer for the third series. Most episodes were directed by Max Varnel or Eric Fullilove, both of whom were British. The scripts however were written by Australian writers. In the documentary Skippy: The First Superstar (2009), Lee Robinson describes in an archive interview the three key concepts of Skippy philosophy included in a ‘script bible’ for series one: first, ‘Skippy is not a pet – she can come and go as she pleases’; second, ‘a policeman would always be a friend’; and finally, ‘mateship must always predominate against authority’.
Contrary to popular belief, Skippy is a female kangaroo (she has a pouch). And it took many kangaroos to perform the role. In Skippy: Australia’s First Superstar (2009), Scotty Denham, the animal handler on the series, points out that kangaroos are ‘dumber than sheep’ and impossible to train. Denham confesses that the various Skippys were kept in a hessian sack between takes and the fact that they were a bit dazed when they were let loose meant that they were less likely to run off. Commercially made kangaroo-paw bottle-openers were used for close-ups which, combined with skillful editing and clever camera work, accounted for Skippy’s unusual dexterity.
Of course kangaroos don’t say ‘tchk tchk tchk’. Sound editor Phil Judd remembers getting producer Dennis Hill up to the microphone to demonstrate Skippy’s trademark sound. Visually Skippy ‘talking’ was achieved by giving the kangaroo something to chew. Many alternatives were tried including chewing gum, rubber bands, chocolate and, most successfully, grass. When filming ended Skippy continued to live in the film set in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, which was opened to the public in January 1970 as a theme park and animal sanctuary.
There is no doubt that Skippy struck a chord with audiences worldwide in a way that few shows have managed to do before or since. The series’s popularity according to Fauna’s marketing manager was because 'Skippy is clean, non-violent fun with no sex. It’s wholesome, family-type entertainment.’ Tony Bonner agreed, noting that it was 'such a simple format: dad, son, flight ranger, kangaroo. No politics, no violence as such … You could sit down with your family, watch Skippy and know it was going to be a pleasant journey.’ Others have credited for its appeal a combination of the isolation of the Australian bush, the Bell 47 helicopter, Ranger HQ, the white XT Falcon Wagon, the music, Liza Goddard, and the ranger uniforms.
A short-lived revival of the show in the early ’90s, The Adventures of Skippy (1992), sported an entirely new cast featuring Andrew Clarke as an adult Sonny Hammond operating a wildlife park. An animated series, Skippy Adventures in Bushtown (Yoram Gross, 1997), featured Skippy as the park ranger in the cartoon world of Bushtown. In 2009, the documentary Skippy: Australia’s First Superstar was broadcast on the ABC in Australia and the BBC in the UK.
Skippy’s awards included an AWGie, Penguin and Logie Special Award for Best Export Production in 1968, and in 1969 the Charlie Award for Best Promotion and Contribution to the Australian entertainment industry.
Titles in this series
Clancy (Liza Goddard) unwisely decides to go riding in the bush on the day her mother Mrs Merrick (Jessica Noad) is scheduled to visit. Thrown from her horse, dazed and lost, she is discovered by a group of Aboriginal men. ...
When head ranger Matt Hammond (Ed Devereaux) refuses to make a deal with Dr Alexander Stark (Frank Thring) – who is determined to have Skippy caged in his private zoo far away from the freedom of Waratah National Park – ...