My Brother Jack: articles

Mini-series true to Johnston's Jack

In writing the Australian classic novel My Brother Jack, George Johnston captured the hearts of Australians. It is, at once, a passionate love story and a window into Melbourne as our grandparents knew it.

The subject of a mini-series that starts on Sunday, it is the tale of two brothers: Jack Meredith is an ocker, gregarious archetypical Aussie male, who wants nothing more than to fight for his country; and the sensitive David, the hero, who struggles against conformity to find his true calling as a writer.

It is now 31 years since the death of writer George Johnston, and mini-series co-producer, Sue Milliken believes the time is just right for a new TV dramatisation of Johnston's novel My Brother Jack.

Milliken is best known for her films such as Black Robe and Paradise Road.

She says the story is set in one of the most crucial periods in our history the years between the two World Wars.

"At Anzac services, every year the crowds grow. As the old soldiers die, the pool of people who go along to pay their respects gets bigger," she says. "I think there's a desire amongst a lot of Australians to know about their past."

Hundreds of thousands of Australians have read My Brother Jack. For years it was in the English syllabus of Victoria's high schools. Milliken says the miniseries sticks faithfully to the book. "Wherever we could, we have used dialogue straight from the book," Milliken says. "We could never improve on George's words." Milliken refers to Johnston informally because she knew him and his second wife, Charmian Clift, in the 1960s.

Milliken's "first real job" was in 1965 as a production assistant for an ABC documentary on the artist Sidney Nolan. As a close friend of Nolan, Johnston was the documentary's writer and narrator.

Asked her impressions of the couple, Milliken says, "I just thought they were terrific. He was this charming, intelligent man. He treated everybody equally. He was a great storyteller and raconteur. He liked a good time, loved to sit around with a glass of wine and talk.

"And Charmian was immensely charismatic. She was very vibrant and lively. I guess I admired her. She was writing her column in the Sydney Morning Herald, so she was well known. George was very ill at the time. He had TB and he couldn't walk more than 15 feet without stopping to catch his breath.

"But he always had a cigarette in his hand. He never made any concession to anything."

Milliken says actors in the miniseries of My Brother Jack were cast according to "who we felt were true to the spirit of the characters". They include Matt Day as David Meredith, Simon Lyndon (who played Mark Read's sidekick in Chopper) as Jack, Claudia Karvan as Cressida Morley, and William McInnes as David's father. Jack Thompson guest stars as newspaper editor Bernard Brewster.

The shoot took 10 weeks in Melbourne and five days on the Greek island of Paros. Production design was made easier by Johnston's intricate descriptions of Melbourne in his youth.

But Elsternwick has changed so much since Johnston lived there that scenes involving David Meredith's childhood home were shot in Ballarat. Victoria's Parliament House dining room posed as the interior of Mario's restaurant, the Heidelberg Repatriation hospital stood in for Caulfield Military Hospital. Ballarat's main street was used for one of the major scenes, an Anzac Day parade.

Johnston died in 1970 (Clift had committed suicide in 1969) but were he still alive, Milliken is confident he would approve of the miniseries, "because it is so faithful to the book. Very often you'll go to a novel to adapt it, take the kind of essential story, and then change everything for a movie. We didn't do that. The book is intrinsically in the film, in the dialogue, the narration, the sequencing and in the recreation of the locations."

Milliken says a great tragedy about Johnston and Clift is that they were 10 or 15 years ahead of their time. She says that in their day, Australians were "just not interested in Australian culture".

"If they had started writing, say, in the mid '60s, as opposed to the late '40s, there would have been literary grants; there were publishing houses starting to publish Australian literature. They'd have been respected in their own country, their books would have sold really well.

"They'd have made a good living, and going overseas would have been a choice rather than a necessity. (For a decade from 1954, the couple lived and worked on the Greek islands of Kalymnos and Hydra.)

"There was so much talent between them, it was just dynamite, really, and when you go back to their written work, George's two best books, My Brother Jack and Clean Straw for Nothing, and Charmian's essays and books A Mermaid Singing and Peel Me A Lotus, you're blown away by the amount of talent they had.

"It's ultimately a tragic story, but it was a very powerful and passionate one, before it got to that rather sad end. There's been nobody like them, I suppose you could say, in Australian creative life."

My Brother Jack screens in two parts: Sunday, June 3, and Monday, June 4, at 8.30pm on Channel 10.

By Carolyn Webb
June 01, 2001
The Age

McInnes and Ramsey

William McInnes and the young Davy (Alexander Ramsey)

Writing the wrongs

Producer Richard Keddie calls it "a classic Australian story of a search for identity". Actor Simon Lyndon, who stars as the title character in the $7.5 million miniseries adaptation of My Brother Jack, describes it as "an epic journey which spans a generation and explores our psyche through the Depression and times of great change".

Angie Milliken, who plays Min Meredith, mother of Jack and his brother, David, says, "It's about the effects on a family of the First World War", noting that when George Johnston's novel, on which the mini-series is based, was published in 1964, "it was radical in that it showed a very raw and unsentimental view of Australia".

"It's quite a suburban tale," she adds. "It's also a story of community and growing up on the street, of innocence and innocence that is destroyed. And it's the story of an extraordinary young man who had an artistic soul and did something unusual in Australia, which was to follow his instinct in an artistic sense."

Johnston's semi-autobiographical novel, the first instalment of a trilogy that grew to include Clean Straw for Nothing and A Cartload of Clay, means different things to different people. The richly textured, bittersweet exploration of the life of the Meredith family, narrated by the adult David Meredith, is a familiar and cherished work for many Australians, some of whom studied it at high school. A probing family saga, a powerful rites-of-passage story and a sharp-eyed depiction of a country between wars, it also represents the kind of big-budget period production that has been missing from our screens for years.

All this creates an aura of anticipation around its first television treatment in a new millennium. Although Jack escaped adaptation during the mini-series boom of the '80s, the ABC produced a 10-part series in the '60s, starring Ed Deveraux and Nick Tate and written by Johnston's wife, Charmian Clift. But while that production picked up the story of the Meredith family deep into the book, with the brothers as young men, the current version, written by John Alsop and Sue Smith (Brides of Christ, The Leaving of Liverpool), starts at the same point as David Meredith's story starts in the book, in the family home of Avalon, deep in Melbourne's working-class heartland. And it begins with a little boy looking up at the sky: from the outset, young David Meredith is wishing for wider horizons and dreaming of escape.

For him, if not for his brother, Jack, there's much to flee from. Their merciful mother, a nurse at the local military hospital, has brought home and into her care some of the broken casualties of war, and resting uneasily beside the children's toys are crutches and gas masks. Their father (William McInnes) has returned from the front lines in Europe physically wracked by the effects of mustard gas, psychologically scarred by his experiences and emotionally stunted as a result of them. He's a violent and malevolent presence, his unarticulated rage poisoning the atmosphere in the house at the same time as his anguish inspires sympathy.

Spanning 30 years, the story follows the brothers' lives, Davy growing from a quiet boy shaped by fear of his father to a young man who finds his suburban world stifling and escapes it through his success as a journalist. All the while, the introspective and self-critical Davy looks to his older brother with awe. The exuberant Jack is game for anything. Fearless and sure of himself and his place in the scheme of things, Davy's older brother is willing to walk the world to find work, or die trying. But he's always happy to come home.

For Lyndon, playing Jack was a pleasant change after his roles in Chopper and Blackrock. "Jack's the kind of character that you want to be," he says. "I've played quite a few mixed-up, aggro people and it was a breath of fresh air to read a character like that. You could call him a classic image of the Aussie battler. He's got a lot of qualities: he's a man of his word; he's very loyal. Although he's a womaniser, as soon as he meets the right woman, there's no way he'd betray her. He holds true to great, traditional qualities and it's rare to find characters that have that kind of integrity, as well as being mischievous and out there. He's heroic in many ways, even though his journey turns out to be quite tragic."

If Jack is a character comfortable in his own skin, his brother, says Lyndon, is "a guy who is always running away from something and is uncomfortable with his own spirit. You can tell from pretty early on that Davy's journey is going to have a big arc to it and he's going to go as far away from his roots as he can. He doesn't take to his surroundings in the same way that Jack does. But Jack doesn't have much luck in the long run."

For Matt Day, who started in TV on A Country Practice in the early '80s and has since appeared in Muriel's Wedding, Love and Other Catastrophes, Kiss or Kill and Dating the Enemy, "David is the richest character that I've ever played and this is definitely the richest job that I've ever worked on. Nothing else I've worked on has had this depth to it or this amount of resources."

Davy's remorseful and ruthlessly self-critical eye frames the view in My Brother Jack. If Jack is a doer, Davy is an observer, a man who mistrusts his own motives and ability at the same time as he admires his brother's "uncomplicated nobility" and respects his—often ill-fated—efforts to overcome life's adversities.

"This story was a kind of purging for George Johnston," says Day, who is now based in London. "He sets up the rise and rise of David Meredith, as he says, the rise and rise of Golden Boy, but it's about the price you have to pay, the Faustian deal that you have to make, in order to get what you want. You can know what you want, but there's a price to pay and that's the story of David Meredith.

"I've been very conscious of making that a part of this story because I certainly didn't want to be playing a wide-eyed poor boy comes good. Some of the most interesting stuff we've done is where Davy's really turned on his family and Jack accuses him of forgetting where he comes from, which is an accusation that I think a lot of Australians understand as well. There's always a feeling that it's not really polite to display your ambitions or to display a need for more, that you should always be happy with what you've got, and, for a character like David Meredith, that's not enough. It isn't good enough."

The miniseries works hard to evoke the world that Davy is keen to leave behind and to delineate the differences between the brothers. "Hopefully it will draw people in because it's a chance to see two really well-drawn characters," says producer Andrew Wiseman. "David and Jack are very different types of people who take very different life paths which intersect in all sorts of ironic ways. And that gives David Meredith, the writer, a chance to reflect on all sorts of Australian characteristics."

While the producers were keen to do justice to the perceptions and the power of Johnston's novel, others who worked on the miniseries share a pride in bringing it to the screen in the style that it merits.

"I feel really privileged to take on the role of Jack," says Lyndon. "It's great that they're willing to put a decent budget together and get good people, like (director) Ken Cameron, who really try to do a decent job of telling a story like this. It's rare that people put this much commitment into telling an Australian story, especially for television. I'm a bit cynical when it comes to all that stuff and I reckon the producers and everybody else did everything that they could to give the story what it deserved, to make it the best they could, which is really gratifying because often it's not the case. Everyone loved doing that job, everyone felt really good about being a part of the production."

In addition to their enthusiasm for the story, the actors are unanimous in their praise for Cameron, whose extensive TV credits include Brides of Christ, Bangkok Hilton, Bordertown and Joh's Jury. Claudia Karvan, who plays the small but pivotal role of Cressida Morley, is full of admiration for her feisty character, who she happily describes as an "authentic savage", and for the director: "I love working with Matt and I've always admired Ken Cameron who's lived up to every expectation and more. He's a really considered, warm, calm director who throws in the most terrific ideas and I feel kind of ashamed that I didn't come up with them myself."

Angie Milliken, who says she was bowled over when Cameron rang to offer her the role of Min, echoes the sentiments: "I absolutely loved working on it. There was a lovely feeling on set, it felt like a family. The crew was aware that there were some very difficult emotional scenes to get through and Ken facilitated that in the most remarkable and admirable way. He's very perceptive and intuitive and he knows what he wants, at the same time letting your instincts lead the way."

The results of Cameron's work with his cast, accompanied by Jo Ford's loving production design and director of photography Russell Bacon's evocative camerawork, will come to the small screen on Sunday night with high hopes riding on its back. "Everyone has great expectations of it," says Keddie, who co-produced the miniseries with Wiseman and Sue Milliken for Network Ten and Optus. "People keep saying, 'Don't mess with it, don't stuff it up.' I don't think I've ever seen a project that's been approached with more passion or heart. I know that projects are, but the group of people making this have come together because they love the project—they didn't come because they needed a job."

Network Ten is hoping to see its ratings and its image rise with the miniseries. Though Ten was once a bastion of local drama, especially through the '80s with classy Kennedy Miller mini-series such as Vietnam, Cowra Breakout, The Dismissal and Bangkok Hilton, its recent record hasn't been illustrious. As Ten's chief executive officer, John McAlpine, succinctly noted at the launch of the soon-to-be-screened series, The Secret Life of Us, "Our track record in Aussie drama has not been flash."

The network is now working to repair that record, last year announcing a $30-million commitment to local drama production and poaching respected ABC drama chief Sue Masters to nurture the new slate. Both Jack and Secret Life were green-lighted before the initiative was announced, but the productions represent the start of a new cycle for Ten.

There's an all-too-rare mood of optimism surrounding this mini-series and the era it might usher in. "It's great to get into recent Australian history: you don't often have little keyhole opportunities like this," says Karvan. Day likens My Brother Jack to the works of Charles Dickens, saying, "Johnston owes a great debt to Dickens. In one sense, he's disguised this as a coming-of-age story, but it also covers the whole spectrum of Australian society and the duality that exists here."

That comparison seems entirely appropriate for a mini-series that arrives amid great expectations.

My Brother Jack screens on Sunday and Monday at 8.30pm on Ten

By Debi Enker
May 31, 2001
The Age

History in the making

BEING trapped on set with the same people day in, day out and an emotionally draining script leaves different impressions on everyone involved.

But William McInnes and Angie Milliken, who play Mr Meredith and wife Min in My Brother Jack, sound like they were on different planets while filming the Australian drama.

Milliken gushes about her experience with the former Blue Heelers and Sea Change star.

"I think because of where we allowed ourselves to go in each other… we really worked off each other," Milliken says. "I was hoping that was going to happen—that the chemistry between us would make the characters."

But McInnes approached the characters on a different wavelength.

"I don't know about chemistry," McInnes says.

"If it's there it's there. Some people talk about chemistry but it's like a fart in a bath tub sometimes."

For McInnes, it is not the intangible acting techniques that perfume the two-part mini-series.

Rather the scent of good old-fashioned Australian history is the film's most pungent aroma.

My Brother Jack was written in 1964 by Melbourne author George Johnston.

It was part of a trilogy which included Clean Straw for Nothing and A Cartload of Clay. (Johnston died before the latter was finished but had written enough for it to be published.)

Unlike many students at the time, executive producer Andrew Knight said he did not read My Brother Jack at high school. Even though it had won a prestigious Miles Franklin award it was "not on the recommended reading list".

Knight first picked up a copy of the wartime novel at university and immediately sought the television rights.

"(It is) the world I knew in my childhood," Knight says of the story. "It is the Australia I remember. It is everyone's grandparents."

In 1981 Knight met John Alsop who agreed it would make a great script.

Almost 20 years later Knight received the television rights and Alsop and Sue Smith wrote the screenplay.

My Brother Jack will screen on the Ten network as part of its $30 million investment in local drama. This year the network has also produced the Australian telemovie My Husband, My Killer and the youth drama The Secret Life of Us.

According to Milliken the aspects of Johnston's novel that were lost in editing the four-hour mini-series are compensated for by new highlights.

In particular her character, Min, takes a much greater role in the film than she was given in the book.

Director Ken Cameron called Milliken "out of the blue" and asked her to inject life into Min, a devoted mother, tormented wife and skilled nurse.

Recalling that she had seen the novel on her parents' bookshelf, but never read it, she was on the phone to her mum and dad in a flash asking if she could borrow it.

Milliken says reading the novel was the extent of her research.

"I felt like I had everything in me," Milliken says. "I made a point of not doing anything. I'm really big on research but for me this experience was all about experience."

Having no children or any experience of war, Milliken looked to her family for inspiration.

"I called on my own knowledge of the women in my family, who are all great nurturers," Milliken says.

"My mother is a great woman. My sister, who has three children, is a nurse and my grandmother was an incredibly strong woman. I felt so strongly about the women in my family, I related very much to Min even though I haven't had the same experiences."

Milliken also developed a strong bond between the three actors (Alexander Ramsey, Nick Russell and Matt Day) who play the central character David Meredith in different stages of his life.

For Day, the role was a chance to break away from that "that puppy-dog number"—the gangly, goofy but lovable guy who has been his calling card since his days as a teenager on A Country Practice.

"As an actor I've been permanently seen as the little brother, so tackling that whole journey about growing up and away from that was a rare opportunity for me," he says. "I had to do this part."

Day, 29, returned from his new home in London to do the mini-series.

"I actually couldn't believe it when I heard how serious they were about doing it properly," he recalls. "It is really quite heartening to see people backing something like this with big money, in an environment where the line between commerce and art is so blurred."

A voracious reader, Day is also pleased that local television is beginning to pay attention again to the task of adapting classic, complex novels for the screen.

"We have this great tradition in literature that we just don't draw enough on for our stories—especially the ones that explore things that we don't find particularly comfortable," he says.

David and his older, tougher brother Jack (Simon Lyndon) are forced to endure their father's post-war violence, rage and illness.

In one scene Mr Meredith belts his sons' lower backs and bottoms until they are bruised and bleeding.

McInnes says while he believes school children should watch the program for its historical value, his own kids, aged three and seven, are too young to be exposed to the full horror of war.

"I saw all these kids standing around on Anzac Day (at the parade) and this idiot reporter says 'These young kids, not yet tempted by war' and I thought, 'you idiot, do they have to be tempted by war to prove their worth?'," McInnes says.

"I just think it's terrible. It's very important not to glamorise war."

McInnes's father was a paratrooper in World War II.

McInnes believes his dad "saw some terrible stuff" although he never spoke of it and was not visibly scarred by it.

But his father's experience seems to have whet McInnes's appetite for Australian history.

As a 14-year-old he read My Brother Jack at high school.

"It has a hold on people's memories," he says.

More specifically, he feels it should become part of the national memory.

"It is a terribly important piece of Australian history. I think it's important that a story that is basically Australian is told for Australians by Australians."

Additional reporting by Eleanor Sprawson

My Brother Jack, Ten, Sunday and Monday, 8.30pm.

By Allison White
May 31, 2001
The Courier Mail

Bill's Brotherly Love

Oh brother, can that William McInnes spin a lively tale. People feel extremely privileged to talk to William McInnes. He's been dead for more than 20 years. Well, that's what Queensland's Redcliffe Herald told its readers after the 15-year-old McInnes placed his own death notice in the paper. He said he'd been "hit by a Zurich zoo truck while serving in the Swiss navy". Next to acting, leg-pulling is his greatest passion. Just ask his former Blue Heelers and SeaChange colleagues. Many a scene has collapsed in uproarious laughter thanks to a dead-pan-delivered McInnes aside. But over the past seven years, between the endless leg-pulling, McInnes has carved out an impressive career, notable as much for the diversity of its characters as the quality of his performance.

To McInnes, it's his preparedness to diversify that will help him most to achieve longevity in the business. "Actors all have different ideas of what success means. To me, it's about working long-term," he says. "But if you're like me and tend to get bored with the one thing, then in order to work long-term you have to show people you're willing to have a go at doing something that's a bit different."

After four years playing Blue Heelers cop Nick Schultz and then the role of Sigrid Thornton's love interest, Max Connors, in SeaChange, the part of Jack Meredith Sr in Channel 10's two-part mini-series, My Brother Jack, provided that something a bit different. For starters, the story spans 40 years, demanding McInnes age convincingly from a man in his 30s to his 70s. Then there was the challenge of capturing the complexities of the character.

Meredith Sr returns from World War I, his health ruined through exposure to mustard gas, to find his job as a tram driver gone. His wife Min (Angie Milliken) and their three children struggle to come to terms with this 'stranger' who has returned from the war. The bitterness builds within Meredith who, unable to cope, resorts to violence as a way of dealing with life and family. "This was a great thing to do after all that chest-baring in SeaChange," McInnes says. "It was a role that provided the opportunity for me to put my hand up and show I was prepared to tackle something other than what I'd been doing—a chance to show that, even if it doesn't come off, you're prepared to have a go."

McInnes pulls it off superbly. Dominating the first two hours of My Brother Jack, Meredith Sr shapes the motivation and character traits of his two sons, David (Matt Day) and Jack Jr (Simon Lyndon). "The director just said to me, 'Go for your life and see what you can do with Jack', so I did," McInnes says. "Often with characters, either through the way they are written or played, you don't always get a rounded picture—the cause and effect of a person. What I tried to bring to Meredith was the cause and effect of the character. To do that, you couldn't rely on tricks. You had to try things. That was the challenge and appeal of the role." The explanation over, he sighs, lapsing into an almost uneasy silence. It's as if he's just gone through the most gruelling 10 minutes of his life. For McInnes, the 10 minutes have indeed been tough. While acting's not easy, it's what he enjoys. It's the extra baggage that goes with it he finds hard. Like interviews. While happy to discuss the project, it's McInnes that McInnes finds difficult to talk about.

His summation of his 37 years is staggeringly brief: Raised in Redcliffe, Queensland, now based in Melbourne, married with a couple of kids, serious about his craft and uneasy wearing the 'TV star' label. End of story. But then, when you've got the sort of skeletons McInnes has got tucked away in the closet, it's probably better to say little. Skeletons such as that death notice in the Redcliffe Herald. Others, such as writing to Princess Caroline of Monaco, at 13, asking for her hand in marriage. He even sent a photo. How could a princess fail to fall for a Prince Charming teenager all decked out in rugby gear, mouthguard and pimples, with electrical tape wound around his ears? Alas, he didn't win the heart of his princess.

Despite the end of SeaChange, McInnes has been kept busy with stage and TV work. Early this year he had the starring role of Serge in the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of the comedy, Art. Along with My Brother Jack, he has also starred as a manic cop, alongside Martin Sacks and SeaChange colleague Tom Long, in the Seven mini-series thriller Do or Die, which will screen next month. It's been a great seven years, thanks to a willingness to play diverse characters such as Heelers' Nick Schultz, SeaChange's Max Connors, Art's Serge, Jack's Meredith, and Do or Die's cop Quint. Hopefully, there will be plenty more. "The downside of this business is it's pretty cold out in the market place," he says, somewhat ruefully. "I've just got keep doing as many different things as I can."

My Brother Jack premieres Channel 10, Sunday, 8.30pm; part two screens Monday, 8.30pm.

By Robert Fidgeon
May 30, 2001
The Herald Sun

Brothers in arms

A $7.5 million Melbourne production leads the charge in Network Ten's new drama initiative. By Debi Enker

The front of Avalon, the home of the Meredith family in George Johnston's semi-autobiographical novel, My Brother Jack, is in Ballarat. The back is in Northcote and the interiors have been constructed in a cavernous studio in Box Hill. Although the original house is still standing in Elsternwick, it has been renovated over the years, so, for the purposes of the four-hour mini-series adaptation of the novel, bits of the Meredith's suburban weatherboard have been culled from all over.

It's fitting that Avalon should be recreated from around the state. The $7.5 million drama, produced by Andrew Wiseman, Richard Keddie and Sue Milliken, represents a significant step for drama production in Victoria, a state that has, over recent years, been lamenting its dip in film and television industry activity and witnessed with increasing dismay the number of projects that have made their bases in Sydney and Queensland.

Beyond its much-needed fillip for the industry, My Brother Jack marks the one of the first steps in Network Ten's recently announced $30-million push to revitalise its local drama content. For years, the streamlined Ten has focused on carving a niche with the youth market, and relied on the appeal of imports such as The Simpsons, Seinfeld and Dawson's Creek. Its rare, unspectacular stabs at local drama—State Coroner, Above the Law and Big Sky—have foundered. While, in the 1980s, Ten was a bastion for the mini-series, with landmark Kennedy Miller productions including Vietnam, The Dismissal, Cowra Breakout and Bangkok Hilton, over the past decade, its profile as developer of drama has faded.

With the appointment of former ABC head of drama Sue Masters and the commitment of big bucks, Ten is hoping to revive its reputation as a network that nurtures quality production and has begun to turn its attention to a broader audience. Along with The Secret Life of Us, a 22-part series that will start shooting in Melbourne later this month, My Brother Jack is leading the charge.

The interiors of Avalon, its kitchen, bedrooms, bathroom, dining room and parlor, have been lovingly recreated by production designer Jo Ford in Studio 4, which sits beyond a scrubby paddock at Crawford Productions in Box Hill. The modest Meredith abode also plays home to a handful of wounded soldiers who have returned from World War I and are recuperating under the care of Sister Minnie (Angie Milliken). A wartime nurse, Min is the mother of four children, including the story's narrator, David (Matt Day), and his much-admired brother, Jack (Simon Lyndon). As Min offers a refuge for the broken casualties of war, her troubled husband (William McInnes) battles his own post-war demons.

Ford's palette of muted browns and greens juxtaposed with dark wood paneling creates a gloomy and slightly shabby atmosphere. It could be the Sullivans' place in suburban Melbourne between wars, but the feel is more forlorn than cosy.

Half a block loaf of white bread sits on the cutting board on the kitchen table, beside bowls of vegetables, bottles of milk and Victoria Brewery Bitter Ale. Crutches lean against the wall, skeins of wool await knitting in the parlor, and jars of jam covered with brown paper lids line the shelves on the wooden sideboard (though producer Andrew Wiseman, wise to the artifice of television-making, cautions that eating them might be life-threatening as there's no guarantee that what was poured into those jars to look like jam bears any relation to anything safely edible).

Beyond the kitchen sits the sitting room that becomes an informal funeral parlor when necessary, David's modest bedroom, and the bathroom, with dad's feared leather strap hanging innocently from the towel rail.

On a relentlessly rainy Monday afternoon in October, with radios all over the country tuned to the Olympics beach volleyball finals in Bondi, a seminal scene involving Milliken and McInnes is under way in the master bedroom.

Seven-year-old Davy (played by Alexander Ramsey) and 10-year-old Jack (Damien Arena) are hovering in the hallway and peering into their parents' bedroom, where their father is wracked by gut-wrenching coughs, the after-effects of mustard gas, and their mother lies beside him quietly weeping. It's an agonising scene, requiring McInnes to make the anguished choking noises for a couple of hours as various angles are covered. But it speaks volumes about the drama, which in part examines the aftermath of war.

"One of the most important things about My Brother Jack is that it is a story about a man who went to war and brought the horror of it into his family life," says Richard Keddie. "It's really saying, as a metaphor for Australian life, that the seeds of the horror of the war were planted in our culture, and that's something we've never quite dealt with."

Published in 1964 and narrated by the adult David, My Brother Jack is the first part of a trilogy that includes Clean Straw for Nothing and Cartload of Clay. A regular high-school text, it's regarded by many as an Australian classic: a richly layered family saga, a powerful rites-of-passage story and a sharp-eyed depiction of the country between wars.

"It's constructed well, it moves along well, it has a great sense of time and place," says Matt Day, who plays David from his late teens to early 40s. "The genre will be familiar and it's about a lot of things that people understand. Johnston owes a great debt to Dickens and My Brother Jack fits into the genre of David Copperfield or Great Expectations. In a sense, he's disguised this as a coming-of-age novel, but it covers the whole spectrum of Australian society, and the duality that exists here.

"People nowadays are very into the Australian myth and Australian identity. There's been a resurgence of interest in Gallipoli, in the idea of the battler and the laconic, laid-back, almost anti-intellectual culture that we celebrate. I like the anti-authoritarianism and the ironic humor, which is embodied in the character of Jack. But then there's the other type, the aspiring, inward-looking, reflective David who dreams of a bigger picture and a bigger world and bigger challenges. He dreams of escape."

The responsibility of steering the first adaptation of the novel in 30 years—the ABC produced a 10-part series, written by Johnston's wife, Charmian Clift in the '60s—is not lost on Keddie and Wiseman, experienced documentary producers who are committed to telling Australian stories and recently made the telemovie Waiting at the Royal for Nine.

"Everyone has great expectations of it," says Keddie. "People keep saying 'Don't mess with it, don't spoil it, don't stuff it up'. I don't think I've ever seen a project that's been approached with more passion or heart. I know that projects are, but the group of people making this have come together because they love the project—they haven't come because they needed a job."

The impressive roll call of contributors attests to the producers' belief that some of the foremost practitioners in the industry have gathered to bring Jack back. Executive producer Andrew Knight optioned the rights to the novel years ago and, tied up with commitments to SeaChange and other Artist Services productions, commissioned Sue Smith and John Alsop (Brides of Christ, The Leaving of Liverpool) to adapt it.

Reuniting the team that created one of the most successful mini-series ever in Australia, the production also features Brides of Christ director Ken Cameron. With director of photography Russell Bacon, Jo Ford's production design, Terry Ryan doing costumes and Kirsten Veysey heading the make-up team, it's a top-drawer roster. "Everyone's playing the same tune," says Keddie. "And that's the hardest thing to do, to have everyone in tune."

The passion for the project is echoed by the actors. "David is the richest character that I've ever played and this is definitely the richest job that I've ever worked on," says Day, who started in TV on A Country Practice in the early '80s and his since appeared in Muriel's Wedding, Love and Other Catastrophes, Kiss or Kill and Dating the Enemy.

For Claudia Karvan, who has the small but pivotal role of Cressida, the love of David's life, the job has involved seven days' work over three months, and will include a short trip to Greece. It's easy to understand why the producers would want Karvan. With her vitality and shining green eyes, she embodies the life force and creative energy that David finds himself drawn to in Cressida.

"She's a wonderful character," Karvan enthuses. "She's described as having a pagan vitality, as being an authentic savage, and she reminds David of his brother." While a Hollywood-style pecking order might cast Karvan in the leading lady sphere, she had no compunction about accepting a supporting role. "I love working with Matt and I've always admired Ken Cameron, and he's lived up to every expectation. He's a considered, warm, calm director who throws in the most terrific ideas. I feel kind of ashamed that I didn't come up with them myself. You do a couple of takes and he says 'Why don't you just do that line a bit cooler', and the whole scene falls into a tapestry.

"I loved Cressida and I loved the book. Doing roles that aren't leads doesn't mean it's an inferior job. It's less time and less work but there's something about creating a character for a short period of time: when you don't have the whole telemovie to establish the character and show the arc, you've really go to utilise every second."

Producing a period piece that spans three decades requires substantial organisation and significant investment. Optus Television, Film Victoria, the Australian Film Finance Corporation and Granada are all investors. The casting process took four months and the 12-week shoot has nine weeks of location work.

On one day at Gem Pier in Williamstown, a World War II minesweeper has been redressed as a World War I troop ship for a 1919 homecoming scene. There are 170 extras, dressed as soldiers and nurses and making up the crowd that greets them as they disembark. There's a brass band, police on horseback and a couple of military advisors to ensure authenticity.

But the really big production number takes place in Ballarat, with 400 extras and a block of Lydiard Street closed off for a day. Lined with gracious Victorian buildings, dressed with appropriate awnings (Silvalux Gasfilled Lamps, R.F. Scott, Gunmaker) and dotted with vintage cars, the street is the setting for an Anzac Day parade, led by a bagpipe band, which will open the second episode. Min is marching with the nurses, Dad towers over the other veterans, and David, in his new job as a journalist, is covering the parade for his paper.

It's a massive logistical exercise and the full day of shooting will translate to one minute and 30 seconds of screen time. The cheering, flag-waving crowd is a sea of floral frocks, cloche hats, double-breasted suits and homburgs. The extras are reminded, by first assistant director Brendan Campbell via a public address system, to remove their sunglasses and watches. They were chosen from 650 locals who answered a casting call that Keddie made on the local radio station, 3BA.

In the production base, set up in the Mining Exchange, 40 tables await the 490 people who are due for lunch. The central hall is ringed with smaller rooms, housing the make-up department and costumes: one is full of hats, another has racks of coats. Male extras line up for quick haircuts and there are mustering points marked A,B,C, and D for various groups: Infantry Vets, Young Nurses, Female Spectators, Injured Vets, Lighthorse and Pipe Band, Boys and Girls.

In his caravan dressing room behind the Exchange, Matt Day awaits his call for the wide shot and considers the story of David: "Johnston sets up the rise and rise of David Meredith, the rise and rise of Golden Boy. But it's about the price you have to pay, the Faustian deal that you have to make, in order to get what you want. That's the story of David Meredith.

"I've been very conscious of that because I certainly didn't want to be playing a wide-eyed poor boy comes good. There's a feeling that it's not really polite to display your ambitions or to display a need for more, that you should be happy with what you've got. For David Meredith, that's not enough."

For Wiseman and Keddie, telling the tale of the Meredith family has been a labor of love. "It's really important to continue seeing our own stories," says Wiseman. "Every generation needs some of our major stories retold, so it's entirely appropriate that there was a version of this in the '60s and a version 35 years later. There should be another version of it a quarter of a century down the track."

For now, though, they're hoping that this version will make its mark: "It's a classic Australian story of a search for identity, and I think that Australians love great drama," says Keddie. "There is this marketing view that mini-series won't work, or telemovies don't work now. I think it's a load of drivel: people love good stories."

My Brother Jack is due to screen on Ten next year.

By Debi Enker
November 23, 2000
The Age

photos of parade

MARCHING BACK: The clock was turned back more than 60 years in Ballarat yesterday as 490 extras took over one of its main streets for the filming of a new $7.5 million television mini-series based on the classic Australian novel My Brother Jack.

Ballarat marches back in time for My Brother Jack

They stand in pinstriped suits, tweed dresses, long overcoats and hats, lining Ballarat's historic Lydiard Street, waiting anxiously for the Anzac Day parade, 1937.

Girls appear slightly uncomfortable in heavy cardigans, while young boys try to wriggle their long shorts and braces back into place.

Suddenly the director yells: "Action," and the crowd starts cheering as the Scottish marching band strides past.

Next come a cast of World WarI veterans who shuffle past the 1930s roadsters and re-created period shops.

Then the director yells: "Cut," and the crowd of 490-extras takes a break before filming the next scene of a new period television mini-series based on the classic Australian novel My Brother Jack, by George Johnston.

The $7.5 million production, which follows the story of brothers David and Jack Meredith, began its first day of filming in Ballarat's spring heat yesterday.

Producers closed Lydiard Street for the day to film a scene recreating the Anzac Day parade of 1937, complete with returned servicemen in wheelchairs and with amputated limbs.

The four-hour mini-series, starring Matt Day, Angie Milliken, Claudia Karvan and SeaChange's William McInnes, will take 12 weeks to film and will be shown on Channel Ten in 2001.

Producer Richard Keddie said most of the 490 extras used yesterday were locals.

Plans for the shooting had been in place for four months after a successful radio appeal for extras to make up the crowd to cheer the soldiers, he said.

"The next morning we had 650 arrive to audition and it was just a matter of picking out a cross-section of that number to make up our crowd. They have just been fantastic," he said.

It was a long day for the extras, with costume and make-up calls as early as 6am and filming of the one scene continuing until 6o'clock last night.

Mr Keddie said this was the largest production day of the film shoot. Each of the 490extras would be paid for their costume and make-up calls as well as for a day's work.

A variety of locations around Melbourne—including Gem Pier at Williamstown and a backyard in Northcote—had been used for the film shoot, Mr Keddie said. The crew would also spend four days filming in Ballarat.

Several scenes would be shot at a historic house in Johnston Street, which will become Avalon, the Meredith family home, in the series.

Mr Keddie said Melbourne had not been an option for the filming of the Anzac Day parade because the historical integrity of the buildings had changed.

Instead, the producers looked to the regional goldrush towns of Bendigo and Ballarat.

They decided on Lydiard Street because it offered more than 400 metres of historical Victorian architecture easily converted to a streetscape of 1937.

"'Because it was so intact historically we only had to make minor changes to the street, such as changing a few signs and covering some store windows, but it's not hard to believe you are right in the middle of a scene from the 1930s," Mr Keddie said.

The mini-series tells the story of David and Jack Meredith, who grow up in a working class family in Melbourne between the First and Second World Wars, and the problems their family encounters after their father returns from World War I.

"This is one of the most rich and layered novels in Australian literature and it was crying out to be made," said producer Andrew Wiseman.

"Our goal was to bring the strength of the characters and the narrative to the screen."

By Brett Foley
October 18, 2000
The Age
Picture: Heath Missen