Actor and writer Alan Hopgood‘s play And The Big Men Fly was a hit with Melbourne theatre audiences when it debuted in 1963. The comedic tale of the struggling fictional Australian Rules team’s search for a star player ran for an 11-week season before touring around Australia.

On the back of its success, a TV adaptation of the play was produced at GTV9, Melbourne, screening on 5 October 1963 — the night following the VFL Grand Final. The 90-minute production, which also broadcast on relay to GLV10, Gippsland, featured much of the original stage cast including Hopgood, Paul Karo, Dennis Miller, Simon Chilvers, Paul Eddey, Brian Harold, Jane Berthelsen, Leslie Wright and Elspeth Ballantyne.

TV Times critic Frank Doherty credited Hopgood’s ability to capture Melbourne’s winter sports obsession into what he termed a ‘satirical fantasy’. “His powers of observation are razor sharp and his imagination is vivid and boundless,” he wrote of Hopgood. Doherty was also complimentary of the performances by Miller as the farmer-turned-footballer Achilles Jones and Ballantyne as his girlfriend, Lil, though their chemistry on screen was possibly more than mere professionalism as the actors married in real-life some years later.

Despite the play becoming something of a modern Australian classic, with performances around the country and the script selling over 150,000 copies, it would end up being a decade after that TV performance that the story would appear again on television. When ABC wanted to adapt the play to a six-part series, Hopgood was tasked to re-script the play for television, including “stretching” it enough to sustain six episodes. “It was a little like asking someone to add a couple of lines to William Shakespeare’s work, especially as I had lived with the play and acted it over 100 times and knew it off by heart,” Hopgood told TV Times in 1974.

Diane Craig, John Hargreaves, Frank Wilson, Reg Evans

Hopgood was hopeful to be able to reprise his character of team coach JJ Forbes on screen but commitments with his ongoing role on ABC’s Bellbird prevented it, with the part instead being re-cast to Frank Wilson. “It’s a lucky blow, though. Frank Wilson is brilliant,” Hopgood said.

Replacing Dennis Miller as Achilles Jones was John Hargreaves, and Diane Craig took on the role of Lil from Ballantyne.

Production of the series required meticulous planning and editing, as footage of real-life footballer Royce Hart as Hargreaves’ ‘stunt double’ was interspersed with close-up footage of Hargreaves. Some clever editing was also needed to make up for the fact that Hart was a left-footed kicker, and Hargreaves was right-footed, and that Hargreaves didn’t exactly possess Hart’s real-life skill as a player!

The series also included Reg Evans as Forbes’ assistant Wally Sloss, played originally by Karo. Evans was a late casting following actor John Armstrong suffering a heart attack in the early stages of production, forcing early scenes from the series to be re-recorded. Also in the cast were George Mallaby, Terry Gill, Maurie Fields, Rosie Sturgess and Jack Perry with former TV newsreader Barry McQueen and actor Colin McEwan as a couple of football commentators.

Miller, who portrayed the star football player in the original play and TV adaptation, was back in a different role.

The series debuted on ABC in Melbourne on 9 July 1974 and attracted some criticism from none other than the Victorian Football League, from which the fictional team , the Crows, is derived. The VFL lodged a formal complaint with ABC, taking issue with the opening credits of the series being too violent. Actor Wilson defended the series, noting that the footage was taken from real-life VFL footage. “It seems ridiculous that the VFL should get upset about violence. The sport is violent,” Wilson told TV Times. “Furthermore, the opening credits are from a real-life football match. It really happened! The only people that I’ve heard so far complain are the VFL. It’s sad if they are not big enough to take a joke on themselves.”

Someone else who also wasn’t in on the joke was TV Times critic FC Kennedy. Hailing from north of the Victorian-NSW border, he acknowledged that a series even mocking Victorians’ love of Australian Rules was going to be a hard sell to an outsider. Kennedy felt that And The Big Men Fly failed to include enough universally-accepted comic tropes that could even make the gags register with those not familiar with the game. However, when the series went on to win Best TV Comedy at the Australian Writers’ Guild awards, the AWGIES, Kennedy had to concede that they’d made the right call — even if only as a back-handed compliment, noting that there was little else worthy of an award on offer that year.

In 1981, ABC produced a sequel, And Here Comes Bucknuckle. The six-part spin-off, also written by Hopgood, featured Peter Curtin as Achilles Jones, Noni Hazlehurst (pictured) as Lil, John Bluthal as JJ Forbes, and Reg Evans reprising his role of Wally Sloss. In the sequel, the focus moves towards Achilles and Lil and their racehorse Bucknuckle, which is a contender for the Melbourne Cup.

Source: TV Times, 2 October 1963, 16 October 1963, 6 July 1974, 3 August 1974, 10 August 1974, 24 August 1974. Austage, IMDB, IMDB.

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