Our founding father

Cliff Green is known as a local legend in Warrandyte and started up the Diary as an 11-page newsletter, smaller than an A4 sheet of paper, in 1970.

Cherie Moselen looks back with the screenwriter and recently retired Diary editor on his lustrous career…

Forty years after starting the Warrandyte Diary his contribution to the local community as editor, and to the wider community as an Australian screenwriter, has been anything but small.

Already creating little sketches from the age of 10, Cliff Green knew he wanted to be a writer. However, he originally trained as a compositor, earning a Diploma of Printing at RMIT.

He didn’t enter the publishing trade after all – “too many highly qualified graphic designers about” – but went instead into primary teaching.

A bush romantic, Cliff longed for a rural posting. He soon got one, moving to a small town in the Mallee with wife Judy. He recalls those 10 years in the country as some of the happiest of their lives. The change also set the stage for his headway into writing.

“It was the 1950s and I was teaching at a tiny school in Rainbow – less than 10 kids. I wrote an end of year play, Christmas at Boggy Creek,” Cliff said, “and showed it to a writer friend, David Martin, who suggested it was good enough for the ABC.

“I thought he meant radio – we didn’t have TV out there. So I adapted it and sent it off.”

A letter came back that it was unsuitable for radio, too visual, and would he like to adapt it for television instead.

With the help of the BBC’s How to Write for Television, (or “how NOT to write for television” as Cliff fondly remembers it) he adapted his script and the ABC produced it as a secular Christmas story.

The fact that it was at least 40 minutes long also qualified him to join the newly minted (six-month old) Australian Writers Guild.

Many years later, the soon to be ‘ex’ primary school teacher would become a vice- president and life member of the organisation, receiving the Richard Lane Award for ‘service and dedication to the Guild’ in 1990.

In 1969, the Greens (now a young family) transferred to Warrandyte, ostensibly for Cliff to take up a teaching position.

However, he had been flushed out earlier by the Education Department and ABC collaboration “Schools Broadcasting” as a teacher with writing experience. Cliff created 13 20-minute dramas and social studies documentaries for their production team. It would bring him a step closer to becoming a full-time writer.

“One of the producers, Jonathon Dawson, had gone across to Crawford Productions in Melbourne. He called me one day and said they were looking for writers. He wanted to send me out an audition kit,” Cliff said.
“I had to write a few scenes and an episode of Homicide. It must have gone alright because soon after Hector Crawford hired me as a staff writer.”

Cliff began contributing episodes to police dramas Homicide and Matlock. He describes his three years with Crawford as “the best way to learn the trade” and respectfully refers to the influential radio and TV producer as the “father of Australian television drama”.

“You worked with everyone there, the camera crew, the production team. If needed, you rewrote on the spot. We were doing three cop shows a week, 48 weeks of the year, and every six weeks one of your episodes went to air,” he said.

Given the six-week turnaround, Cliff began working a lot from home.

It gave him the flexibility to respond to an appeal by the Warrandyte Community Youth Club for a newsletter. He decided to expand the format and in 1970 Warrandyte Diary was born.

“I don’t know how I managed both jobs, but teaching helped provide me with the necessary discipline. I edited the first four Diary issues on my own and then experienced journalist Peter Lovett helped out,” he said.

(Age columnist Bob Millington would also step in to help, managing the paper for seven years.) However, in 1974 when Cliff and Herald journalist Lee Tindale joined forces, the little paper struck gold.

“We were great colleagues. Lee was managing editor and co-editor at times, and sports editor right up until 2006 when he sadly passed away,” Cliff said.

“He was our Page 2 columnist and a marvellous sports writer. He would work and re-work each story until it shone like a polished gem.”

The Diary is financed solely through advertising. Paid only as recently as the last few years, Cliff managed the paper alongside his scriptwriting work.

Some might be surprised to learn the extent of his reputation within the Australian film and television industry.

After going freelance at the end of 1971, Cliff wrote for such distinguished TV series as Rush, Power Without Glory and I Can Jump Puddles.

In 1975, he agreed to help out overcommitted playwright David Williamson who had been signed to write the screenplay of Picnic at Hanging Rock but couldn’t do it.

His haunting adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel went on to make cinematic history, anchoring the drama in the harbour of popularity as one of Australia’s top 10 movies of all time.

The landmark Australian film earned Cliff Green an Australian Writers’ Guild Award for Best Screenplay and a Best Writer nomination, US Science Fiction Film Awards, bringing him international recognition.

In the film and television world where only one in 10 projects ever get made, Cliff’s screenwriting star blazed like a supernova.

His credits include TV drama series such as Homicide, Matlock, Rush, Against The Wind, A Country Practice, The Flying Doctors, Mission: Impossible, Embassy, Stingers, Something In The Air, Blue Heelers and Marshall Law, among others.

He created two well-known TV mini-series: Marion and The Petrov Affair.

And adapted for television the work of Australian authors such as Henry Lawson, Alan Marshall, Frank Hardy and Norman Lindsay.

Later work includes the original screenplay for the prize-winning children’s TV film Boy Soldiers, and award-winning episodes of the highly successful ABC-TV series Phoenix and Janus.

In 1995 he created the critically acclaimed ABC-TV series Mercury.

A literary all rounder, his stage play Cop Out! was first presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company, and was the Western Australian Theatre Company’s contribution to the Festival of Perth. He also published three children’s books in his Riverboat Bill series, a novel Break Of Day, and a collection of short stories.

During his recollections, Cliff salutes others who shared his writer’s journey.

“I left Crawfords after a blue I had with Hector. He wanted me to take up a training role, but I’d left teaching to write, so I said ‘no’, and essentially sacked myself.”

“Still, Hector remained a great supporter over the years. He’d ring me up whenever I had something on the ABC. ‘Good stuff fellow! Keep it up’ he would say.”

He warmly recalls a meeting with media personality David Frost (licensee of the English network, London Weekend) to discuss the making of Power Without Glory.

“I had suggested the book to the ABC, who started negotiations with Frank Hardy for the rights. David Frost was coming here to make Frost Over Australia. He didn’t know anything about Australia. So he bought a paperback at the airport because it had a map of Australia on it! That book was Power Without Glory. By the time he’d finished it, he was asking for the rights,” Cliff said.

“So now two outfits wanted it. But Frank was clever, rather than creating a conflict he suggested a co-production.

“ABC writer Howard Griffiths and I met David Frost at a pub somewhere in Melbourne. He was terrific. ‘Just send me the drafts, otherwise it’s your project’.

“Howard and I brought on more writers and it ended up with the best rating the ABC had ever had for drama, possibly for anything up to that point.”

Not once in our three-hour interview does Cliff mention the awards he has received. I cite some of them here, not least because they reflect the tremendous variety within his work.

His TV quartet Marion and the plays End of Summer and Burn the Butterflies won a total of 17 industry awards.

He received the Australian Writers Guild major AWGIE for Marion in 1974 (eight AWGIE’s throughout his career). A Best Writer nomination followed at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards in Hollywood, and AFI nominations in 1992 and 1995.

Boy Soldiers won the Liv Ullman Peace Prize at the 1990 Chicago International Festival of Children’s Films and was a finalist in the International Emmy Awards in 1991 (the first Australian drama to receive an Emmy nomination.)

And his Janus episode ‘Fit To Plead’ won a 1995 Australian Human Rights Award.

Clearly, Cliff Green is a fine writer. However, donning the cap of a newspaper editor requires something more.

Meeting his editorial responsibilities sincerely (but not always submissively!) Cliff has mapped the Diary into a landscape that reflects Warrandyte’s strong community character.

Of course, he didn’t do it alone. Numerous volunteer editors, writers, photographers, artists and advertising managers helped him.

He also had a North Star. Cliff credits wife Judy as being the Diary’s moral compass.

“Judy does more than manage ‘out of the inbox’. Sometimes I’d get a bit excited about a story and she would caution me against publishing it!” he said.

Consequently, Diary readers have witnessed the celebration of their town through an editorship underpinned by solid community principles. It has enabled the independent paper to embrace a leadership role.

“Protector of Warrandyte’s Village Identity?”

Cliff is far too modest to assume this tag on the paper’s behalf. But as someone who appreciates Warrandyte’s unique flavour and the solidarity of its community in trying to preserve it, I believe the Diary wears it well.

He does acknowledge the paper is “a part of Warrandyte”. The attachment is stronger than that. In fact, many locals think of the Diary a bit like the next-door neighbour who you can invite over for a cuppa. One of Cliff’s subtle strengths as managing editor has been to foster this sense of accessibility, binding the paper to the community.

For a small-town, largely voluntary effort, the Diary is peerless in its sophistication. Typically, Cliff plays down its many accolades, but says he is particularly proud of a Fire Awareness award bestowed by Radio ABC Gippsland during a bad bushfire year.

He is also proud of the Diary’s role in nurturing journalist cadets: Clinton Grybas, Georgi Stickels and Sam Davies, among others.

In 2001, shortly before retiring from screenwriting, Cliff Green received a Centenary Medal ‘for service to the community’.

He accepted an OAM in 2009 for “service to the Australian film and television industry as a screenwriter and educator”. (The ‘educator’ component refers to teaching screenwriting for institutions like the Victorian College of the Arts and RMIT University.)

And did I mention he was a founding member of the board of Film Victoria and founding vice-president of the Melbourne Writers Theatre?

He must have spent 50 years fuelled up on coffee.

Today, aged 79, the talented (and remarkably still baby faced!) writer says he is not busy. Although with four children, 11 grandchildren, and his incredible work ethic, I’m not sure I believe him.

He may have signed off but that doesn’t mean he won’t be having the last word in a Diary column now and again. With 467 editions in his rear view mirror Cliff knows a lot of good stuff about Warrandyte.

Meanwhile, he says he looks forward to spending time in the town’s new library. It would be fitting after 40 years of lobbying for the facility, if he has his own comfortable chair there!

In last month’s edition Cliff thanked the community, particularly those people who have worked for and supported the Diary over many years. He also acknowledged the Diary’s generations of loyal readers.

As a Diary contributor, I offer thanks to Cliff Green for giving local writers a voice in their community. Not to mention the occasion to practice their craft in a newspaper of the highest standard.

And on a personal note, I thank him for teaching me the economy of “not using seven words when three will do”.

We’ll miss you.

The night the star was thrown

The Wurundjeri dreamtime story told how Bunjil, the great eagle, the all-powerful, ever-watchful creator of the world, had once gazed down upon his people from the star Altair and seen their wrongdoing. Awaiting their return, he, with a mighty crash of thunder, hurled down a star to destroy them. Where the star struck it created the gorge we see today. Bunjil’s Warrandyte, the place where Bunjil had hurled down the star to punish his people.