Pulp Friday: Contrabandits – Shark Bait


This week’s Pulp Friday offering is the 1968 paperback tie in to the then popular Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV series, Contrabandits.

While Crawford Productions understandably gets most of the credit for kick starting Australia’s modern television industry in the mid-sixties with the long running police drama show, Homicide, it was not the only local organisation producing gritty crime TV.

Around the same time changes were also afoot at the ABC. New staff were bought on board and a department of television drama was created that produced a number of one-off and on-gong TV series. Among these was Contrabandits, the first episode of which screened on September 22 1967.

Contrabandits focused on the activities of Customs Special Branch, an elite law enforcement squad tasked with intercepting contraband in Sydney. The four mainstays of the squad were Chief Inspector Ted Hallan (played by British actor Denis Quilley), office girl Mardi Shiel (Janet Kingsbury) a university graduate, determined to succeed in a male dominated area, Bob Piper (John Bonney), a young wise cracking spiv, and tough guy, Jim Shurley (Ben Grabiel).

CBTwenty-nine episodes of Contradbandits were made. All of them are listed on the on-line archive of the former magazine, TV Eye. Themes included tackling drug runners and smugglers of various kinds, raiding opium dens in Kings Cross and dealing with illegal immigrants.

Episode 9, ‘Films Are Just For Kids’, gets my vote as the most interesting sounding storyline: ‘When the Vice Squad stumble across an allegedly obscene psychedelic movie, Chief Insp. Hallam and his team are called in to check whether it is of local origin or has been smuggled in from abroad. Pipe and Keally find themselves experiencing the ‘love generation’ first hand at a wild hippy party, while Shurley is sent out to investigation smuggled amphetamine pills.’

Channel 7’s Border Security eat your heart out.

Paralleling Victorian police cooperation in the making of Crawford’s crime dramas, Contradbandits was made with the approval of the Department of Customs and Excise, who vetted scripts and supplied a liaison officer for the series. Plot lines were based around the actual activities of the Department’s Prevention and Detection Branch.

Unfortunately, the show has not aired again since it ended in late 1968 and, to my knowledge, is not available on DVD.

The paperback tie-in, Shark Bait, sees the Contrabandits given one week to locate “a huge shipment of narcotics”. It is the only paperback tie in to the show published that I am aware of.

In a previous post, I mistakenly wrote that the author, James Workman, was a Horwitz house pseudonym. In fact, he was a former naval cadet who worked as an announcer, scriptwriter and producer for the South African Broadcasting Corporation. He moved to Sydney, where he worked for the ABC (according to the Austlit database, this included doing a stint on Contrabandits) and wrote 23 novels for Horwitz, including crime, Nazisploitation, historical, war and spy tales.

Contrabandits back

Micro & niche cinema and the future of movie going in Melbourne


The news that Melbourne’s Astor Cinema will cease operations in its current form in early 2015 has, understandably, prompted a lot of discussion about the future of cinema and the cinema going experience in Melbourne.

A similar wave of concern took place following the closure of the Greater Union Cinema on Russell Street in Melbourne’s CBD, something I wrote about here. In addition to the Astor and the death of the Greater Union, in late 2013, the owner of St Kilda’s George Revival Cinema announced it would close its doors.

I don’t feel sufficiently informed to comment about the machinations of the dispute which has led to the current situation or claims by the landlord Ralph Taranto that the iconic art deco cinema will continue to operate as a single screen cinema.

The only observations I would make is that whatever the Astor’s future, it is important to note the establishment is obviously more than just a place where movies are shown. The cinema itself is an important heritage site. It is the only single screen cinema in Australia to screen 70mm prints of classic and cult films. It also has a much broader link to cinematic culture in Melbourne, including hosting the St Kilda Film Festival. The Astor may continue as a cinema, but will it do so in its current form and with the deep and varied connection it has to Melbourne’s broader screen culture?

Melbourne film-goers increasingly appear to have two choices when it comes to going to the movies (apart from watching films at home): the city and suburban multiplexes, where you can get the big screen experience but the choice of movies you have will be limited to mainstream fare and blockbusters, or patronising so-called art house cinemas such as Nova and the Palace Cinemas (the experience of going to which is also not without problems).

There does appear to be another alternative – the growing number of niche and micro cinema events that now take place across the city on a regular basis. Some utilise the facilities of mainstream cinemas. Others occur in private screening venues and bars. The trend is a result of dissatisfaction with mainstream cinematic fare, combined with opportunities presented by new technology. Major studios are digitalising their back catalogues, freeing up previously difficult-to-access material, now available relatively cheaply.

I wrote an article on Melbourne’s micro cinema scene for the latest issue of Time Out Melbourne, which is available on line here. I should stress, I filed the article before news of the changes at the Astor became public. That said, the question of what is the future of cinema going for people, such as myself, who love cult, genre and art house films, was on my mind when I was researching and writing the piece.

photo (32)Obviously, showing a film at a bar or a warehouse is no substitute to seeing it on a large screen in a beautiful old cinema. But given the economics of maintaining large cinemas in the year 2014, micro or niche cinemas present interesting possibilities.

Despite asking around as much as possible, there is so much going on in terms of small (and not so small) scale cinema events in Melbourne, I was sure I would miss something.

And of course I did.

In addition to the various events I listed in my Time Out piece, there’s a regular event in a furniture storage warehouse in Collingwood called Deja-View Cinema. Screenings of cult and genre films are also held every fortnight by an outfit called Valhalla (a homage to the old Valhalla Cinema).

Last Saturday, I was fortunate enough to attend part of Valhalla’s science fiction marathon, a screening of the terrific 1975 dystopian film, Rollerball. Valhalla screenings take place on weekends in a small business co-working space called Electron Workshop. The screen is 4.5 by 4.5 metres and the space has capacity to seat forty people, although one of the organisers, Jose Maturana, tells me changes are afoot that could open up the screenings to more people.

You can check out Valhalla’s upcoming offerings at their website here.

I’d love to know if there are any other small-scale and niche cinema going experiences I don’t know about.

The Astor Theatre in 1936, photo courtesy of Astor Theatre Website

Jodorowsky’s Dune: the greatest film ever not made?

Original-Dune-posterThere are so many ways to read Jodorowsky’s Dune, the documentary of cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s doomed effort make the film version of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction epic, Dune.

It is, by turns, a love letter to seventies science fiction; a study of the clash between Hollywood filmmaking culture and the mores of the European avant garde; and a celebration of unrestrained creativity and artistic determination. I don’t mean to sound trite, but it is a film every creative, whatever they do, should see. The overall effect, for this reviewer at least, was akin to artistic vitamin shot. I walked out thinking, ‘if Jodorowsky was prepared to go to such lengths to realise his vision, hell, I can, too’.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is also wonderful glimpse into one of the greatest films never made, a list that includes Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of the Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, Sergio Leonie’s M, the Rolling Stones’ short-lived attempt to make the little known but excellent 1964 dystopian novel Only Lovers Left Alive, and Terry Gilliam’s take on Don Quixote. But more on this particular aspect of the film later.

You can read the rest of this review here at the Overland Magazine site.

Melbourne Writers Festival: Adrian McKinty & Australia’s pulp history

GoneThe Melbourne Writers Festival is upon us and I’ve got a a few slots in the program I wanted to pull on your coats about.

This coming Wednesday, August 27, I’ll be in conversation with crime writer, Adrian McKinty at St Kilda Library. I have written a bit about McKinty on this site, including reviews of his books Falling Glass, and his Shane Duffy trilogy, The Cold, Cold Ground, I Hear the Sirens in the Streets, and In the Morning I’ll Be Gone,  and his latest stand alone, The Sun Is God, and I’m looking forward to talking with him in person.

It’ll be a pretty relaxed affair and it is free. Proceedings will kick off at 6.30pm.

Also, join me on August 30 at the Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia, Federation Square, for a walk down the dimly lit back alleys of the lost world of Australian pulp paperback publishing.

For a few decades in the second half of last century, Australia’s pulp scene burned brightly with tales of jaded gumshoes, valiant servicemen and women, sexually bored housewives, jazzed up beatniks, daring spies, and violent youth gangs.

It was disposable fiction, designed for a coat pocket or bag, to be read quickly, and discarded. But it also offers a fascinating keyhole glimpse into Australian society’s subconscious and not so subconscious desires, obsessions and fears in the fifties, sixties and seventies.

I’ll be talking about some of the authors, how they worked, what they wrote and why the era of pulp ended. Accompanying the talk will be a selection of covers from my personal collection. The lurid, the profane, the weird, I’ll be showcasing them all in glorious colour.

Tickets are $22/$19 and can be purchased from the MWF website here.

Thanks to the small but enthusiastic crowd that joined joined myself and fellow Melbourne author, Laura Jean McKay, at the Fairhaven Surf Lifesaving Club for a seminar on writing about place. Cambodia was the main place discussed as both of us have book set there (my crime novel, Ghost Money, and her book of short fiction, Holiday in Cambodia).

Pulp Friday: Outback Heiress

Outback Heiress Horwitz 1963

“Her past was a secret but she couldn’t hide her feelings for this daredevil cropduster!”

It wasn’t just men who wrote for Australia’s burgeoning pulp publishing industry in the fifties, sixties and seventies, many women did, too.

One of these was Irena Dickman AKA Rena Cross, the author of today’s Pulp Friday contribution, Outback Heiress, published by Sydney company Horwitz in 1963.

Biographical details for Dickman, like many local pulp authors, are thin on the ground. She was born in England and arrived in Australia in 1950. She appears to have been one of the stable of local writers put together by Horwitz in the early sixties.

The Austlit site credits her with twenty books. Her subjects included nurse and doctor yarns and torrid tales set in Sydney’s Kings Cross. The latter include Model School (publishing in 1963 under the pseudonym Christine James) and Flat 4 Kings Cross (three editions of which were published, in 1963, 1965 and 1966, under the name Geoffrey Tolhurst).

The Keys of Corruption another of her books (written as Rena Crane), was an Australian take on one of pulp’s favourite obsessions in the sixties – wife swapping.

If this post has piqued your interest about Australian pulp, join me on August 30 at the Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia, Federation Square, for an illustrated talk about the hidden history of Australian pulp publishing in the fifties, sixties and seventies, part of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

I’ll be talking about some of the authors, how they worked, what they wrote and why the era of pulp ended. Accompanying the talk will be a selection of covers from my personal collection. The lurid, the profane, the weird, I’ll be showcasing them all in glorious colour.

Tickets are $22/$19 and can be purchased from the MWF website here.

I look forward to seeing you there.