“A prodigious creator”: Vale Michael Jenkins, writer, director and producer

Michael Jenkins.

Writer, director and producer Michael Jenkins, known for TV series such as ‘Blue Murder’, ‘Wildside’ and ‘Scales of Justice’, as well as feature film ‘The Heartbreak Kid’, which spawned ‘Heartbreak High’, died on Monday, aged 77.

Ian Barry penned this tribute to his friend and colleague for the Australian Directors’ Guild, republished with permission for IF.

I was honoured when Mike’s long-time partner Amanda Robson asked me to write something about Mike, as I’d only interfaced with him sporadically throughout our lives: When he first appeared, maybe just aged 20, at the ABC as a PA in late ‘66 or early ‘67, when I cut for him five years or so later on Certain Women, then editing his episodes of the 1976 series Rush and then when I directed episodes onYoung Lions, one of the many series that he created. Then sadly, the other day on the Northern Beaches.

Launched into this world in 1946, Mike grew up in beachside Collaroy, Sydney. His grandfather introduced Mike to sailing on Narrabeen Lake and subsequently triggered a life-long love of all things nautical. This culminated in a 10-year boat-building project, resulting in ‘Echo’ – a 42’ trawler-style boat. Horticulture was Mike’s other passion; he’d garden and landscape wherever he resided.

Mike left Shore School in North Sydney at 17. After uni, where he majored in philosophy – doing his honours thesis on Plato, Mike worked for a couple of years as a cadet journalist with the ABC, living in Canberra and working in the press gallery. In ’66 Mike transferred to the ABC studios at Gore Hill and worked on Allan Searle’s gardening program before becoming production assistant in the drama division. ‘The Cottage’ at the ABC housed drama pre-production and post and was where I worked as a sound editor. That was where I first sighted Mike – both he and Mike Carson, fresh faced, bursting with a zeal that portended careers of significance.

Melbourne-based Bellbird, the legendary ABC soap, was where Mike cut his directorial drama teeth. I again worked with Mike as his film editor back in Sydney on Certain Women and Rush. He met the actress Jenny Lee on the set of Certain Women and they later had two boys: Daniel Jack Jenkins in 1976 and Jack Raymond Jenkins in 1980 and now granddaughters, Sydney (12) and Vera (nine).

Mike began his writer/director phase around ’73 with Serpent in the Rainbow. In 1980 as writer/director, he made Spring and Fall and reunited with Michael Carson who worked as his producer. Later that year, Mike won a writers’ guild award and the prize was a scholarship to UCLA. There, Mike completed a gruelling course in screenplay writing and structuring in the American idiom. One course demand was to turn out a production-ready feature film script, usually based on a front-page story from a newspaper, every six weeks. On his return he’d admit it was absolutely punishing, but he learnt skills that led to a huge slate of written/director projects.

In ’83 he wrote the highly acclaimed feature, Careful, He Might Hear You, directed by Carl Schultz, winning the then AFI Award’s Best Adapted Screenplay category. Robbery Under Arms and Rebel followed. On the set of the latter, Mike met assistant editor Amanda Robson and they began their 40-year love affair. Amanda and Mike subsequently had a son and daughter, Tom and Matilda.

Concurrently, Mike began the highly productive, auteur phase of his career. In 1983 the landmark series Scales of Justice hit home screens. As one critic put it: “One of the most controversial mini-series ever produced”, “Scales examined corruption in all levels of law enforcement…”.

Then, as testament to Mike’s versatility, he directed The Leaving of Liverpool, the moving story of children being shipped post WWII from the Star of the Sea orphanage in the UK to far flung Commonwealth destinations.

The auteur feature The Heartbreak Kid followed, later spawning the internationally successful multi season series Heartbreak High. The hard-hitting Blue Murder pulled no punches, likewise the gritty Wildside and Young Lions – it was a momentous decade for Mike. Another review at the time paid high praise: “Jenkins is one of the most highly regarded Australian directors of the 1990s, known for his distinctive, gritty style, particularly his use of multiple hand held cameras, and semi-improvised dialogue.”

Themes of justice and humanity underlie pretty much every project Mike has been drawn to. Whether it traces back to influences from his QC father, or his Plato-based studies in philosophy, the notions of fairness and empathy remain consistent. In an interview he gave in regards to Blue Murder, he talked about not judging characters, “no matter how corrupt or evil they outwardly appear.”

When he set about making The Wrong Girl, a tough, based-on-fact project about a pack rape in the early 2000s, he collided with power figures and narrower minds. Speaking with the press, Michael said of the victim, “The journey of this young girl is a heroic journey. It’s an enduring and determined fight for personal justice.” He said The Wrong Girl would treat victims with sensitivity while looking at why such horrific crimes were committed. The film’s writer, Nicholas Hammond, had spoken extensively with one gang rape victim. “She was the first one to say, ‘This movie is the only good thing I’ve had in my life in the last four years when I’ve been going through these trials.”

The planned film had been inspired by Mike seeing one girl give evidence. The title came from her answer when asked how she had coped with the court case. She replied: “They picked the wrong girl to rape”, alluding to her determination and tenacity to speak out. The then state Premier found the subject matter too hot to handle and sadly, on this occasion, Mike’s mission to speak justice and dignity for a young victim was shut down.

Misfortune also struck his Bali Bombing project shortly after it went into production for the ABC. In 2005, writer Peter Schreck conceived a two-parter about the terrorist attack in Kuta in October 2002 in which 202 people, including 88 Australians, were killed. The first part Mike wanted to make from the point of view of the Australian victims and covering the police operation.

The second part, though, took the position of the bombers. It was to be filmed entirely in Indonesian, and screened with subtitles. The show was about four days into production when it fell apart – two more terrorist bombs were detonated in Kuta, killing 20. “They blew up a restaurant, and we heard the explosion, it was so close to us,” Mike recounted. “And then the whole country went into panic mode. We had about 30-odd permissions [to film] and they were progressively withdrawn.”

The Balinese feared that the production would foster further extremism and so the Indonesian military finally shut the show down. “So we just had to abandon that project,” Mike said on his return. “It was a fantastic idea but we had very bad luck.”

Mike and Amanda left Sydney around 2006 to take up retirement in Tasmania. They bonded with the people and extensively toured the state. It was a bucolic existence just outside Hobart where they gardened, landscaped and Mike sailed, ultimately leading to several years creating his own 42’ vessel – “Echo.”

But his highly awarded Blue Murder of the mid nineties hadn’t finished with Mike. When Roger Rogerson was arrested for the murder of Jamie Gow in May 2014, the Seven Network contacted Mike. It seemed an obvious opportunity for a follow-up series given the notoriety of Rogerson and the success of the original show. Killer Cop was shot in 2016, and aired the following year with audiences, ratings and press all white hot for “Jenkins’ knife edge directing.”

Early signs of movement problems started the same year. By 2020 they were significant and Mike received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. During 2021 and 2022 Mike had some dreadful falls resulting in multiple breaks and hospital stays. It became obvious Mike and Amanda couldn’t easily manage the property, and the distance from family in Sydney necessitated their move back.

Mike passed away in the late afternoon of the March 4, with his long time partner Amanda and close family by his side. The industry will always remember him as a master filmmaker, but beyond the passionate and driven personality, Mike will always be remembered as a warm, fair and empathetic friend and of course a tender and loving husband and father.

Unequivocally, Mike has been a prodigious creator of excellent and groundbreaking film and television spanning five decades. “Creator, writer, director” is a tag that appears over and over in Mike’s lengthy filmography: Scales, Heartbreak High, Blue Murder, Wildside, Young Lions, and more. Time and time again, the industry recognised Mike’s work in awards… little wonder he’s been written of as one of “the most important and innovative filmmakers of the ’80s and ’90s.”

I’d long marvelled at Mike’s talent as a filmmaker and his ability for capturing truth in performance and to achieve startlingly realistic visual styles. I clearly remember one day in pre-production when we were having a coffee rave about movies we admired and the process of maintaining a truthful and distinctive style. Mike said: “When I first arrive on a location, I decide upon the hardest place to shoot the scene from and that’s where I put the camera.” And though I got the wisdom of it and was maybe drawn to applying it to my own shooting, conventions of symmetry and the perfect frame would always be there to seduce me. But that was the innovative tenacity and the magic of director Mike.