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Chequerboard (1969 - 1975)

Reality series
Weekly x 60 minutes

Series synopsis:

A half hour documentary series that pioneers the 'fly on the wall’ approach that began observational documentary filmmaking in Australia. Each week the program would be about people in situations that shape their lives, such as living with unemployment or surviving on the basic wage or getting married. There are no on-camera experts, just people telling their own story to the interviewer, whose questions we hear although the interviewer is not on camera. The interviews are overlaid with remarkable 'colour’ footage of people’s everyday lives.

Curator’s Notes:

When Chequerboard began in 1969, Australia was at the cusp of an era of radical social change. The pill was becoming readily available to Australian women, the sexual revolution was gaining momentum and feminism would change our lives forever. All of this was documented in the series through the lives of ordinary Australians telling their own stories in their own words. The title comes from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: 'tis all a chequerboard of nights and days’.

Robin Hughes had recently returned to Sydney from a stint as producer at the BBC. As one of the founders of Chequerboard, she says that the concept came out of a group of broadcasters discussing their favourite BBC program, Man Alive, at a local pub. They wanted to make documentaries in the same style 'without on-camera experts, simply people in situations that shape their lives’ as Hughes recalls. Thus the basis of each Chequerboard program was an interview interspersed with 'colour’ footage of that person going about their life. This was very firmly in the tradition of the American filmmaker Fred Wiseman, later to be so brilliantly mastered by the Australian filmmaking duo Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly in their great stories from the PNG Highlands, Joe Leahy’s Neighbours and Black Harvest.

Only later did the Chequerboard team realise that this 'fly on the wall’ filming was the very beginning of observational documentary filmmaking in Australia. As Chequerboard matured, more and more of this illustrative filming was used, requiring less and less of the experts – through either interviews, or ‘voice of god’ narration – to explain what the audience could see for themselves. This technique requires very acute research out in the field and one of the strengths of the series was the development of a team of well-trained researchers who would find the right individual or family out in the community. Many of those young researchers have since gone on to become some of the most renowned names in the film industry today. They include Tristram Miall, Aviva Ziegler, Stephen Ramsey, David Roberts, Bill Stellar and Robin Hughes. The camera operators for the series, including Tony Wilson and Geoff Burton, learnt their observational craft through years of honing their skills on Chequerboard. This coincided with cameras becoming lighter and more flexible, therefore easier to take off the tripod to follow the action.

In 2000, one of the original researchers on Chequerboard, Aviva Ziegler, since then having become one of Australia’s best documentary filmmakers, produced and directed a series of six programs called Chequerboard Revisited in which she brought us up-to-date with some of the original Chequerboard subjects. They were fascinating stories, rather like finely-crafted short stories, presented with all the dramatic reveals of what had happened in their lives over the intervening thirty years.

Titles in this series

Chequerboard – It’s A Big Day In Any Girl’s Life 1973

Two very different weddings are contrasted. One of them cements the ties between a landed family and a family of high standing in the district. The other is a wedding between two people living in the city who met on ...

Chequerboard – It’s Amazing What You Can Do With a Pound of Mince 1969

Three Australian families who are living on the basic wage are interviewed about what they earn, how that money is allocated and how they view their lives.

Chequerboard – My Brown Skin Baby, They Take ‘im Away 1970

My Brown Skin Baby, They Take 'im Away introduces Bob Randall, a lay preacher and folksinger living and working in Darwin. This documentary presents a first-hand account of a member of the stolen generations. It shows Randall at his home, ...

Chequerboard – Too Much For Molony 1969

Love conquers all in this moving story about a Catholic priest who leaves his order to live outside 'the cloisters’ with one of his young parishioners.