Skippy The Bush Kangaroo Vol. 1 Review

It all began with Michael Powell. By 1966, the Australian film industry had been non-existent for almost a decade, apart from the occasional Hollywood production shot on location (Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, On the Beach, The Sundowners). So They’re a Weird Mob, which Powell directed that year, was big news. Powell’s producing partner was an Australian, John McCallum, also an actor and husband of Googie Withers. The film was a full British/Australian coproduction, and was a considerable success. Also working on the film were production supervisor Lee Robinson and camera operator Dennis Hill, and among the cast were Ed Devereaux and Tony Bonner. McCallum, Robinson and Hill conceived the idea of a family TV series, and so Skippy was born. (Incidentally, it’s just Skippy in the credits – the suffix The Bush Kangaroo was added to the title overseas.)

The series’ premise wasn’t new by any means, being in many ways similar to Flipper: widower father with young son who forms a close bond with an animal. In this case, Matt Hammond (Ed Devereaux) is the head ranger at Waratah National Park in New South Wales. His youngest son is Sonny (eight-year-old Garry Pankhurst). The three men added an older son, Mark (sixteen-year-old Ken James). Tony Bonner played another major character, flight ranger Jerry King (Tony Bonner), there to handle the derring-do and to add hunk interest. Slightly later, they added Clarissa “Clancy” Merrick (played by sixteen-year-old English actress Liza Goddard), presumably as an identification point for the many young girls watching, and possible love interest for Mark. (The latter is hinted at in some of the episodes on this DVD and Volume 2.) More occasional characters included Elke Neidhart as Dr Anna Steiner, living in the caravan next door, and Frank Thring as the villainous Dr Alexander Stark.

In a very far-sighted though at the time expensive move, Skippy was shot on 16mm colour film. This was particularly astute as in 1966, only the USA had a colour television service. (The UK and West Germany were the first European countries to broadcast in colour, both in 1967, while Australia itself didn’t do so until 1975.) This may be a reason why it is still showing somewhere in the world, while its black and white contemporaries (Belle and Sebastian, Robinson Crusoe etc) tend to sell mostly to adults old enough to have seen them in the 1960s and 1970s. Neighbours and Home and Away be damned – this is by a long way Australia’s most successful TV export. It ran for ninety-one half-hour episodes (twenty-four minutes plus commercials). The first two series had thirty-nine episodes each. A third and final series of thirteen episodes in late 1968 was minus Bonner and Goddard, but they were back on board for a cinema feature film, The Intruders, made in 1969. Almost every actor in Australia made a guest appearance in the show at one time or another. A full episode guide can be found here. Garry Pankhurst retired from acting after The Intruders, while Ken James and Liza Goddard continued their careers as adults and, like Tony Bonner, are still working. Ed Devereaux died in 2003.

This Volume 1 is a selection of seven episodes, all from the first series, broadcast in Australia in 1966-1967. (Incidentally, each episode has two copyright dates: 1968 in the opening credits and 1967 at the end.) The episodes aren’t consecutive ones as transmitted, though they are in transmission order. Volume 2 has a further eight episodes. There is a Volume 3 (released in Australia in December 2004 but not yet released in the UK as I write this, in January 2005) with another eight.

It has to be said, compared to contemporary children’s television, Skippy may seem a little naïve and slightly dated, with the scriptwriters usually making sure to deliver a moral lesson via Matt Hammond. The “mild violence” which is the main reason for the BBFC’s PG certificate is nothing more than good old-fashioned fisticuffs. But it’s well made and acted with conviction by the leads. Although it’s been parodied many times, the original is done sincerely, with a nicely-judged blend of adventure and humour, a catchy theme tune, not to mention blatant anthropomorphism, and carefully wide appeal. It’s still entertaining.

The episodes on this DVD are as follows:

The Long Way Home (24:18)
Dr Stark tries to steal Skippy for his zoo. There’s actually no title on this episode which features some hammy villainy from Frank Thring.

No Time for Clancy (24:24)
This was actually the ninth episode as broadcast, and it’s the one which introduces Clancy. She gets to stay with the Hammonds while studying for a music exam, and doesn’t get an entirely warm welcome. Skippy gets to play the piano!

The Honeymooners (24:16)
A woman, on honeymoon with her husband, wants Skippy…for a kangaroo-hide coat. Watch Skippy perform a rescue from an out-of-control speedboat!

Double Trouble (24:22)
This episode is a showcase for Ed Devereaux, as he plays not only Matt Hammond but also his evil double Loder. The reason? A plot by Stark (boo, hiss) to discredit Hammond and to get his hands on Skippy. Devereaux also contributed to the script. There’s no directorial credit – maybe he did that too?

The Last Chance (24:18)
A film unit comes to Waratah Park. The lead role is played by Byron Cresswell (Alexander Archdale), an ageing star looking for one last chance to rescue his career…but none too comfortable to be appearing opposite a kangaroo!

No Trespassers (24:22)
This episode features Chips Rafferty, who was at the time probably the biggest star to have appeared in the series to date. Born in 1909, he had begun his career in the 1940s, when Australia had previously had a film industry. Outside the country, he was best known as the lead in Ealing’s first and best Australian production, The Overlanders (1948), and his last role was in Wake in Fright (aka Outback) in 1971, the year of his death. Here he plays a boxing promoter who pushes his son a little too far in the pursuit of success.

The Bushrangers (24:24)
Some bushrangers (in Ned Kelly tin masks) are seen in the park, but all is not as they seem. This episode features The Executives, a 60s pop band from Sydney. Skippy’s musical talents are further on display, as she plays the drums.

This UK release from Fremantle appears to be a direct port of the Australian release from Umbrella Entertainment, even down to the animated Umbrella logo at the start and the “Oz Classics” banner on the cover. The disc is encoded for all regions.

As you’d expect from a TV production from the 60s, the DVD transfer is 4:3, so anamorphic enhancement is neither necessary nor desirable. However, the picture is rather soft and grainy, with some of the colour rather over-bright. Some of this may be due to a low bitrate (rarely over 5 Mbps, often less). It should be noted that it was designed to be shown on far smaller, far more forgiving TV sets than those available today (and in black and white, for many people first time round). As such, the picture quality could be better but it is acceptable.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and no problems there. Dialogue is always comprehensible. (The makers seem to be careful not to make any Aussie accents too strong for overseas consumption.) Sound and Eric Jupp’s occasionally corny music score are well balanced. It’s an entirely professional job of work.

The number of chapters varies per episode: “The Long Way Home” has seven, “Double Trouble” five, the others six each. A "Play All" facility is available. Regrettably there are no subtitles available on anything.

The extras are headed by an interview with Ken James, which is full-frame and runs 9:52. This is an entertaining run-through, with his anecdote about, and impression of, Frank Thring a highlight.

“Hello there, boys and girls – how would you like to join the Skippy Club?” says Ed Devereaux in a 29-second TV commercial. It’s in somewhat scratchy black and white. You too can be proud to wear your Skippy badge and carry your official membership card. All you need to do is write to a PO Box in Punchbowl, New South Wales. Another item that was clearly for local consumption is “Skippy’s Playground at Waratah Headquarters” (24:16), also in black and white film that’s seen much better days. “Hostess Bobbie” (Roberta Paterson in a very 60s beehive haircut and miniskirt) shows a group of children round Skippy’s home, including lots of wildlife. This is clearly aimed at much younger children, preschoolers no doubt, and twenty-four minutes of this is likely to try the patience of anyone much older. It also seems quite amateurish by today’s standards.

“The Bush Orphan” is an audio adventure that was originally released on a record, “Adventures with Skippy the Bush Kangaroo”. John McCallum tells of Skippy’s birth and how she became orphaned and joined the Hammond family. Audio quality is decent, though there are some scratches and pops to be heard. It runs 18:36. The extras are completed by a 15-image stills gallery, all black and white.

It’s not hard to guess that much of the market for vintage children’s television is made up of nostalgic adults. As such, Skippy is clearly the product of a kinder, gentler age. But it’s well made and sincerely done and still has much to offer anyone in search of simple entertainment.

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Last updated: 08/07/2018 21:40:09

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