Monday 23 September 2019

Vale John Richardson - Kevin Anderson pays tribute to a pioneer of the modern Australian film industry

Vale John Richardson.
Sunday September 22nd marked the passing of Melbourne producer/writer/director John Richardson, head of Kestrel Media Company. He was 89. 
Kestrel Films team
Back Row: Shane Watson, Evelyn Cronk, David Greig, Stephanie Wherret, Eddie Moses, Kevin Anderson
Front Row: Colin Tregenza, John Richardson, Julie Guthrie
John had been a producer at the ABC before setting up his own production company Kestrel Film Productions with his wife Valerie, David Morgan as director/editor, and secretary, Jan Tourrier. John’s stock-in-trade was the so-called ‘sponsored documentary,’ before it later diminished to become known as the ‘corporate video.’ During the less litigious late sixties and early seventies major companies like BHP could venture into quality film productions, which were mainly produced through their PR departments. While most of these films disappeared into various company vaults or skips, some made it to the commercial screen as supporting shorts.
One of Kestrel’s biggest clients was BHP and John had made the documentary Digger Rig for them in the late sixties, recording life on the ‘Ocean Digger’ oil rig in Bass Strait. The film established a single rigger named ‘Andy’ and through him we learned about the operation of the rig as well as his role on it, a model John would pursue in many other films. The success of this film led to John being given the budget to make a wildlife documentary in Bass Strait. The film he produced was a poetic short called Solstice, a paean to the large variety of wildlife that called Bass Strait home. John brought his many skills and sense of excellence to bear on this beautiful film which was shot by Tom Cowan and had a wonderful score written by Bruce Smeaton. Instead of a conventional narration, John created a poem which was performed by Barry Hill, one of the great voices of the time. The only reference to the sponsor was their logo at the end of the film. 
I first met John at a job interview. I was working at the ABC in January 1972 and was languishing in the news and current affairs editing department, when I heard of a job as a Production Assistant at Kestrel Film Productions. I hopped on my motorcycle and rode from Elsternwick to Richmond and got the job. I had already seen Solstice at the Union Theatre at Melbourne University, where it played as a short supporting a feature film, common practice in those days. 
Two weeks later I was in Rabaul in Papua New Guinea as a Production Assistant working with Cinematographer Ron Bollman and Sound Recordist Cliff Curll. The film was called My Brother Wartovo and was sponsored by Shell. The film focused on three brothers, one a university student, another as bus driver on Bougainville and ‘Wartovo,’ a villager based near Rabaul in New Britain. The contrasting lives of the brothers, as well as their physical dislocation, served as a metaphor for the country. Independence elections were held in PNG while we were there, resulting in the formation of a government headed by Chief Minister Michael Somare who then lead the country to independence the following year. 
Since leaving Swinburne School of Film and Television I had been working on several film ideas and one night over dinner I pitched one to John and asked him if he would support me by letting me use his camera and editing equipment. To my great surprise he agreed and the finished film was The King of the Two Day Wonder (1978). Some time after our return to Australia I became Kestrel’s House Cinematographer and spent most of my time immersed in making films, professionally and in my own time.
Kestrel’s offices were located at 575 Church Street in Richmond, the ground floor of a two-storey building, the upper floor being the premises of a cheap garment importer. While on a tram-line the building was somewhat isolated from other industry practitioners, although John Bowring was soon to move into a few rooms about a mile away in Church Street in his first tentative iteration of his company Lemac. 
With each production John would invest some of the profits into filmmaking equipment, the prize piece being a second-hand 16mm Moviola. While this ran at sync speed it was noisy and cantankerous, often devouring film and audio tape as well. More reliable was the Formica editing bench John and David had fashioned into a crude double-system editing system, consisting of a HKS 16mm viewer connected loosely to a 6-gang synchroniser with sound reader via small screws that were dropped through holes drilled into the table top. You could run up to five soundtracks at once on this hand cranked Heath Robinson contraption. With some experience you could wind at an approximation of sync speed - 24 frames per second in those days - to be able to edit dialogue. David Morgan became very proficient at this and edited much of ‘My Brother Wartovo’ this way and would then check his edits on the Moviola. 
Tony Stevens was also an early staff member and edited my first film The King of the Two Day Wonder, before going on to become one of Melbourne’s pre-eminent and most highly respected documentary editors. Fellow Swinburne Alumni David Greig also joined Kestrel as film editor, writer and director and remained there until John called it stumps.
Confining himself to the sponsored film John and Kestrel itself remained somewhat under the radar. Such was John’s relationship with his clients however he also had a great deal of freedom, both in his subject matter and in the way in which he treated the resulting films. When BHP’s Oil and Gas Division Hematite wanted to make a film set in Bass Strait, John produced The Birders (1975), an ethnographic record of the Mutton Bird industry as carried out on the Furneaux Group of Islands. Many of the people involved in this cottage industry were descendants of Tasmanian Aboriginals and the film remains a touching historical record of their involvement.
Unlike other production houses Kestrel's films had a human quality, even if the subject matter was a truck making a journey to a mining town. John Richardson understood the nature of 'story', telling me to always get close ups of the people so that the audience could become involved in the people first, and then in what they were doing.
John’s first encounter with the filmmaking funding bureaucracy was in 1983 when he produced and directed the film of Frank Dalby Davidson’s Dusty starring Bill Kerr. This was John’s first feature film and was followed by the television series of the same name.
Across the years Kestrel provided a great training ground for generations of industry professionals, many of whom are still working in the industry. John was once asked how he wanted to be remembered and he replied ‘As a good businessman,’ and he managed to keep Kestrel going through often tumultuous times by modernising and streamlining as needed. 
One of John’s lessons as you approached the end of the editing process was to always go back to the rushes before you signed off on the cut, something that I still do. In this way you check if there are any moments of gold that you may have resigned to the ‘outs’ reel, or just simply forgotten about. 
While Kestrel wasn’t necessarily regarded as ‘mainstream,’ many industry professionals passed through its doors and were impressed by what John had achieved and by the sheer spirit of the place, as well as the professional example he set. John was a great mentor to me personally, and also to many others. 
My condolences to John’s wife Valerie and their children Sophie, Alex, Digby, Tom and their families.

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