Historian Dan Fredericks on the Making of Sunstruck

Dan Fredericks is a local historian and library officer for the Parkes Shire Council in country New South Wales. He has lived in the area for over a decade and knows much of the history of Parkes and its surrounding areas. He is a devotee of the film Sunstruck and has taken an interest in documenting all that he knows and has discovered about the movie which was shot around the Parkes area. His work can be viewed on the website History Parkes. There is a link at the end of this interview.

How did you first become aware of Sunstruck and when did you first see the movie?

Historian Dan Fredericks

I became aware of it from a volunteer of the Parkes Historical Society, Rose Jones. She wrote a book about Wongalea School (the school was used in the film) and I decided to find out more. I first saw the film when I bought the DVD.

When did it become an obsession?

When I discovered that the DVD was only released Region 2 (UK) and not Region 4 (Australia) I thought that owning a copy would be important. As my job involves family & local history, it was essential that a copy of the film be ready for me to access in case I needed it for research. When I decided to focus an entry on Parkes Library’s history blog, it was great having my own copy at hand. Parkes Library has since purchased their own copy too. Once I started researching for the blog, I was amazed at the incredible stories that came out during and after filming. I’ve only been in Parkes eleven years and wasn’t even born when Sunstruck was filmed here. It’s been wonderful meeting all the different people who were involved from actors, extras, set carpenters and horse trainers!

The soundtrack to Sunstruck

Do you know the film’s budget and shooting schedule? Winter or spring of 72 I’m guessing…

The British film crew were in the Parkes area filming in January and February on 1972 – right in the middle of an Aussie summer! It was a bad summer for flies too, which Harry Secombe couldn’t get over. The film’s budget was $400,000, with $100,000 coming from the recently established Australian Film Development Corporation – the precursor to Screen Australia. The remaining funds came from British and American sources. Sunstruck is mentioned in both Australian and British film history books. Sunstruck was the first film financed by the AFDC to be widely theatrically released.

That poster which inspired the movie Sunstruck

Do you know anything about the genesis of the script and writer Stan Mars? I see he worked with Harry Secombe on his tv show, so it might have been cooked up between them…

It’s possible. The producers wanted a vehicle for Harry Secombe where he would be the star. When asked about Sunstruck, Harry was quoted as saying, “It’s nice to play the love interest. Normally I’m the love interest’s funny brother”. It was only when the producers saw the poster from NSW Department of Education trying to lure British teachers here that they thought there was a movie for Harry. This poster also appears in the film.

Apparently, Secombe really just liked a shandy

The writers seem to know Australia well as it captures the lingo and that certain unique Australianess or what we believed to be… I understand Secombe had possibly holidayed in Australia before making Sunstruck… that may have something to do with it…

Harry had been to Australia at least three times before coming to film for Sunstruck. He seemed to enjoy the place because when he filmed Sunstruck, he brought his wife and their four children with them. The two youngest children were around the ages of the school children in the film, and they all swam in the swimming pool at The Coach House Motor Inn in Parkes, which is where cast and crew stayed while filming.

He was a singer and Welsh, so I guess the storyline of Sunstruck isn’t surprising…

It’s great that this film sees Secombe playing a serious role which also incorporates his great comedic timing and his wonderful singing voice. Sunstruck is the last feature film Secombe was in, so it’s a collector’s piece for Harry Secombe fans.

An early photo of The Two Ronnies

Director James Gilbert was a tv director mainly too, working with Cook and Moore and The Two Ronnies. Did you learn anything about him?

While researching for the blog I learnt that Gilbert was heavily involved in British comedy as producer and director of many great comedies such as The Two Ronnies, Last of the Summer Wine and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? Apparently, he is quoted as telling John Cleese that his idea for a show would be a disaster. The script Gilbert had just read was Fawlty Towers! When talking to the locals involved with the film, all had positive things to say about Gilbert and how he approached work.

Make-up artist Jose Luis Perez

And since there was no real film industry in Australia at the time, the Aussie cast seems to have been conjured from Sydney based television too… it has depth… And the production is technically fantastic. An Australian crew?

I was gobsmacked when I saw the cast. While Sir Harry is a huge star, having Fitzgibbon, John Meillon, plus husband and wife Bobby Limb and Dawn Lake are all Australian acting royalty! The majority of the crew were British, but the makeup department head was Spanish-born but Australian-based José Luis Pérez. Elsie Evans (Costume & Wardrobe Department) is Australian and Head of Sound, Ken Hammond is Australian.  

One horse town? Secombe tries to escape in this lobby card for Sunstruck.

I understand the film was shot at a place outside Parkes called Brolgan, near Nelungaloo which people call lost villages…. Are they complete ghost towns today?

Both Brolgan and Nelungaloo have their heyday in the past. I’ve covered both villages on www.historyparkes.org. Nelungaloo is the site for the shooting of Ben Hall (ed. He was an Australian bushranger 1837-65), and where Will Ogilvie – the Scottish-Australian poet – met and worked alongside Harry “Breaker” Morant. Brolgan’s history is different, being an area of rich agricultural bounty and an active Farmers’ and Settlers’ Association who successfully petitioned the colonial government of New South Wales to release more Crown Land for settlement. They had one-teacher schools (Brolgan had two, Brolgan Public School and Brolgan Siding Public School), hotels, tennis clubs, cricket clubs and quite a lot of farm families. The combination of increased technology and workable farms being much larger in size has drastically reduced the populations of both villages. Only a handful of people reside in both villages. While Nelungaloo might resemble a ghost town, Brolgan’s location will be the site for the Parkes National Logistics Hub – a huge development where it will be an inland port and the crossroads of the nation.

The latter days of Breaker Morant (1980) trailer

Can you tell me why Nelungaloo and Brolgan thrived in the early 20th Century?

Both Nelungaloo and Brolgan were fantastic for farming livestock and crops. The people who lived there were proactive and people who got things done. I’ve already mentioned the farmers from Brolgan, but the people of Nelungaloo formed the Nelungaloo & District Co-op which provided quality tools and equipment to farmers in and around the district. While the people were passionate and proud of their villages, the march of progress saw farms becoming larger but less people working them through increased technology. This meant families had to leave their farms and find alternative work in Parkes.

Parkes is central to central New South Wales

How was the Parkes area chosen as the centre of Sunstruck being filmed?

That’s one of the mysteries I’m still trying to solve! I know it involves the late Bill Robinson who was an architect – he designed the drive-in theatre in Parkes amongst other buildings. Bill contacted the production company and told them he had the ideal locations to shoot the film. He assisted the arrangements to purchase the Wongalea school building and to use Joe Venables’ house – “Braeside” in Brolgan – to be the Mayfair Hotel. How he heard they were out here scoping locations and managed to contact them is the mystery I would love to solve. Sadly, Bill passed away on April 16th this year, so we may never know.

The famous satellite dish or CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope several kilometres outside Parkes

I hear the old schoolhouse from Wongalea was moved to be near the Brolgan homestead… A difficult task?  Does it still stand today and does anyone now live in the old ‘hotel’ or homestead?

Wongalea school was closed by the NSW Department of Education in May 1970. Immigrant Films (the production company) purchased the school building and had it moved to Joe Venables’ property in December 1971. The school building was just across the dirt road from Mayfair Hotel (the pub in fictional Kookaburra Springs). Parkes Historical Society then purchased Wongalea School and had it moved to its current location next to the Parkes Visitor Information Centre on the Newell Highway. Inside are Sunstruck movie posters from the period and everything else that was used inside the school building for Sunstruck. It’s worth a look for Aussie film buffs. Sadly, the house that was Mayfair Hotel burnt down in the late seventies.

The schoolhouse which was especially relocated for the making of Sunstruck

Were the interiors of the pub and the school shot on location?

The film crew did a lot of work on Joe Venables’ house to turn it into a pub. The stairs leading up to Harry Secombe’s bedroom fascinated the locals of the time – they led to nowhere! I’ve had locals tell me that they wanted to run upstairs only to have parents stop them because they would have fallen through. It highlighted to the locals of the day the magic of movie-making because they wouldn’t have believed it if they hadn’t seen it for themselves. The bedroom shots were done in Artransa Studios in Sydney. The Opera House performance was filmed in Sydney Conservatorium of Music. All other interior shots of the pub and the school were shot on location – the film crew built a landing strip on Joe Venables’ property in Brolgan for the plane that Bobby Limb pilots.

Secombe inside the schoolhouse

You wouldn’t know that most of the kids are locals as they seem so professional or perhaps natural. Are their memories of making the film still strong today?

Of the sixteen children who were students at Kookaburra Spring school, fourteen were Parkes locals. They are immensely proud of the film and I’ve had a ball hearing their memories of their time with Sunstruck. They had to attend auditions and sing – most of them sang “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. One of the older boys, Robert Wenban wasn’t meant to be in it – the English master didn’t like him so didn’t select him to audition. But he went anyway and when the Art Director (David Copping) asked if there was anyone else left to audition Robert’s arm shot up. After a quick chat with the Director and a few verses of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” Robert was in and one other lad went home quite sad.

This photo is from Sharryn’s scrapbook. The kids have fond memories of making Sunstruck.

One of the youngest children in the film, Sharryn, has an awesome scrapbook of newspaper cuttings, photos – even the air ticket to Sydney and back (the old East West airline) She loved it and said it was full of firsts for her – first time in a film, first time catching a taxi (after a long day shooting no one in the crew wanted to drive her to her family farm so sent her in a taxi), first time on a plane, first time in Sydney! Sharryn said it was also the first time she had steak – the catering (which was done by locals) did great food for the film including steak. Most of the local children lived on farms and always had lamb or chicken, never steak!

Parkes on a map of New South Wales and Australia

One thing that has been consistent with everyone I’ve spoken to has been the positive impact of Harry Secombe. He has been described as warm and friendly, great with the kids and always willing to stop and chat to the locals. The only thing he didn’t like were the flies! The former editor of the local newspaper, Parkes Champion Post, told me that Harry was mad on cricket. He convinced some local business owners to form a mid-week cricket competition, known as the Business Houses Cricket Competition. Officially, Harry Secombe didn’t play, but Bob Aitken, then editor of the local paper, emailed me and said that Harry did indeed play and loved that daylight savings allowed games to be played in the evenings. The manager of the Coach House Motor Inn, David Elvin, asked and received permission to rename the trophy the “Harry Secombe Coach House Cricket Trophy”.

Newspaper clip about the trophy

Do you know what became of young actor Dennis Jordan who played Stevie?

Another mystery. This was the only film Dennis Jordan was in, perhaps he didn’t enjoy the filming process. The other children from Parkes said he was friendly, and they all got along. If he’s reading this, please get in touch with me! His acting was great – he reminds me of some of the young lads that appeared in the Ginger Meggs movie (1982).

Secombe won the hearts of the locals around the countryside

Harry Secombe apparently bonded with the townspeople… and he even performed a charity night at the Parkes Leagues Club… did he throw back a beer or two? Or was it the steak and eggs which kept his fine figure do you think?

Harry seemed to get on with everyone he ran into. A local handyman, Carl Christopherson, had a similar build to Harry so he was asked to be his stand-in. Carl was thrilled seeing as he was only at the film site to help build the sets. His family have great memories of Harry Secombe, he wanted to get to know the families of those in the film whether cast or crew. There was a fundraising concert held which just happened to be in the middle of shooting in Parkes. Harry Secombe, Maggie Fitzgibbon, Dawn Lake and Bobby Limb all offered their services to sing one or two songs. So, the town took the stars in as if they were their own. From what the locals who were there told me, the big drinker wasn’t Harry but John Meillon. Harry’s drink of choice was a shandy. But Meillon would be drunk before filming started in the morning. As soon as the cameras started rolling, he just snapped into action – which mesmerised the locals seeing this sudden transformation.

I see Maggie Fitzgibbon died recently. Last I heard she was living in the Australian countryside. Do you know whereabouts she ended up?

When the blog post on Sunstruck went live, she was still with us living in Melbourne. Parkes Library is trying to contact all those involved in the film and get them together for a reunion (some of the child actors still live in Parkes). They all wanted to catch up with Maggie too, but I was saddened when I heard of her passing. She was another hardworking but underappreciated Australian actor.

Late actress and former Wahgunyah resident Maggie Fitzgibbon had resettled in Australia

I love this movie despite the horrid reviews some people have given it. It’s good clean fun and a family movie with an uplifting ending… Why do you think the critics attacked it? Cultural cringe?

I think it was a victim of the time period it was made. When The Dish was filmed in Parkes and Forbes in 1999, it was just before the Sydney Olympics and there was widespread patriotic fever sweeping the nation. But 1972, the Aussie film industry was almost dead. Australians didn’t go and see Australian films – so why would international distributors buy them? By the end of the seventies people seemed to realise that if we don’t support Aussie films there would be no Australian film industry. We ended the decade well with Storm Boy, Newsfront, My Brilliant Career and Mad Max. Then the eighties saw numerous hit films that Aussies were proud to own – Breaker Morant (who also has links to the Parkes Shire), Gallipoli, The Man from Snowy River and Crocodile Dundee and the momentum had started! But sadly, the early 70s was probably the height of our cultural cringe in regards to film. Sunstruck is a fun film with some genuine laugh out-loud moments and deserves greater respect. Thankfully the IMdB fan reviews of the film 20 years later are more positive than the media of the day.

The Dish (2000) trailer

And why do you think it has endured today? It doesn’t appear to have dated too much… If it has, it’s a perfect time capsule…

It’s a classic fish out of water comedy – similar in theme, at least, to Crocodile Dundee. It pokes fun, gently, at both British and Aussie mentalities – Harry Secombe’s teacher coming down dressed in a suit to meet the parents who are in typical Aussie outback clobber! The locals are proud of it because it was filmed here, and the stars mingled with the community – you cannot imagine that happening today if an Aussie film was made in a country town. The movie and the stories associated with the making of it are positive, and I think people want – and need – positive stories at this time.

The stars turn out for the world premiere of Sunstruck

I hear the world premiere was held in Parkes. It must have been a big occasion for the town… With a then population of? Compared to today’s population count of…?

Yes, another positive story that created great memories. The producers were so taken with the locals who had assisted in making the film in many ways, so they decided to have the world premiere in Parkes. Parkes population in the 1971 Census was 8,849 and the photographs of the premiere looked like half the population had come along! Parkes Historical Society used eleven vintage cars to ferry the cast and crew from the Coach House Motor Inn to the Parkes Century Theatre where a red carpet was laid out for them.

According to the 2016 Census, Parkes had a population of 10,977. When Parkes Library’s renovation is completed (October 2020) we hope to have a public screening of Sunstruck and we’re trying to contact all the fourteen children who appeared in it, as well as others who were involved in the making of Sunstruck.

The premiere of Sunstruck was a big night for the town of Parkes

Are there any other interesting facts about the movie you would like to add?

It should be an Aussie film that everyone is able to see. I would love to see a Region 4 version available for people to purchase or borrow. We’re very excited that people are talking about this feel-good movie and where it was filmed. For those interested in more information please see Parkes Library’s history blog www.historyparkes.org

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