Vale Bill Hughes, veteran producer and director

Bill Hughes. (Image: Facebook)

Bill Hughes passed away in the early hours of Sunday morning, 7 April. He was a few weeks away from celebrating his eightieth birthday.

I worked with Bill in the 1990s. We lost touch after that and I don’t feel entirely qualified to write the kind of tribute he deserves. There were people who worked with him more closely and knew him so much better than I did: Alison Nisselle, Jill Robb, Michael Carson, and Robert Casswell to name a few. Sadly, they are no longer with us. I think it’s important to honour the lives of those who were significant in the work they chose to do, and Bill was. He came to television in its infancy and was one of the pioneers who laid the groundwork for the industry we all work in now. His career was long and extensive and he should not be forgotten. For those reasons, I will try to give you a snapshot of the man I knew, even if it encompasses only a few short years.

From what I do know of his early childhood, Bill was a Tivoli child. The Hughes were theatre people and Bill performed in the puppet shows from an early age. His first job as a teenager was working the ‘flies’, moving the backdrops up and down to change the scenery. When he heard about a job on The Graham Kennedy Show at Channel Nine, he applied and was soon working the ‘flies’ there too, before moving to sound engineering. Not long after, Crawfords began building its new production house and needed crew for a new police series, Homicide. Bill wrote to them and they asked him in for an interview for the position of music editor.

“Yep, I can do that,” Bill said to them. “My mother’s a composer, I know everything about music.”

After he was hired he admitted to the sound engineer that he’d never edited music in his life.

“It’s all right, I can teach you,” the engineer told Bill. And so Bill edited music for Homicide.

“I learnt one of the biggest lessons of my life – to surround myself with people who know a lot more than I do,” Bill said at a later time.

These quotes are taken from an article written in 2020 in the paper Noosa Today. Bill, in his mid-seventies, was producing a feature to be shot in Noosa. He was in meetings with Miriam Margolyes. Jessica Marais and director Samantha Lang were already on board. Bill had clearly not lost any of his intense desire to create. Although he thought he might one day, Bill never retired.

Crawfords was still quite a small company in the Sixties. Everyone was encouraged – at times it was absolutely necessary – to work on all the different aspects of making a series. Hector and Dorothy Crawford provided the training ground for many who went on the make their name in the Film and Television industry. Bill grew his craft, honed his technical expertise and quickly moved from music to camera, to writing and script editing, finally arriving at directing. With a hands-on background like that, he certainly knew what he was doing when it came to producing!

In the coming years, he directed all of the Crawfords shows: Homicide, The Sullivans, Division Four, Cop Shop, The Flying Doctors. I crossed paths with him then but had no direct contact. Trainee script editors, editors, even writers were not encouraged to converse with directors. That was the sole domain of the story editors, at that time Marie Trevor, Gwenda Marsh, and Graham Moore. The term story producer didn’t arrive until much later.

In 1980, a friend was doing props on Cop Shop. It was a big ep story, one of the main characters was getting married and Bill was director. The wedding was shot on location on the last day before Christmas. After the Christmas break, the wedding reception had to be restaged for pick-ups – the happy couple glowingly radiant around an elaborate wedding cake. The cake had been left in the props department and when taken out it was discovered rats had eaten most of it. It wasn’t even real, just plywood and icing! Props tells the production manager to tell Bill he’ll have to rethink. The production manager pales and says you tell him. So props finds Bill and says it’s back to the drawing board, he can’t do the pick-ups (in a few hours time) because the rats ate the cake. Bill, now suddenly under extra pressure, just looks at her and bursts out laughing. That was typical Bill, who very rarely lost his cool. He opted for a wide shot – and a disguised cake – instead.

Out of the Crawfords stable, for the next fifty or sixty years, Bill directed just about every TV miniseries and serial going, from A Country Practice to Home and Away, Winners and Losers, All Saints, Guinevere Jones, McLeod’s Daughters, and Packed to the Rafters. He won numerous AFI, AACTA and Logie Awards. Silver and Bronze New York Television Festival awards. He produced Fable, Changi, A Fortunate Life, High Country, The Farm, Jackaroo, The Interview, and The Killing Field. Phoenix and Janus were the shows I worked on with him. I think I was lucky enough to witness the peak of his creativity.

The ABC Melbourne Drama Department, established in the early 90s, was an empty room with a desk in it, when Jill Robb, the newly minted Head of Drama, arrived. Phoenix was its first major production. The creative drivers were Alison Nisselle, Tony McDonald, and Bill Hughes. The show was big on authenticity. It took a year to research before scripts were even plotted and the gestation time of each script was a minimum of three months. Alison and Tony oversaw the writers and the scripts – the series arc, structure, story and idiosyncratic dialogue. Bill, with his directorial eye and visual flair, created the look and feel of both Phoenix 1 & 2.

Phoenix would never have been the show it was without Bill. He threw away the camera pedestals and introduced the hand-held camera: close-ups, tight on faces, the camera followed the action, was inside it. It did not simply record it. His was the colour design of blues and greens – definitely no reds to be seen. He put a ceiling on the set, which had not been done before. The filmic style, how it was shot was completely novel as well. Recorded on video, edited on video – all production was completed on video – it was then screened on a monitor, then the monitor was filmed. This peculiar method was to enhance the sombre, almost doco-like, in-your-face, grainy, gritty look the show was renowned for.

The addition of Gordon Davie to the team was also thanks to Bill. Gordon, a copper with a story (many stories) to tell, had asked Tony McDonald did they need anyone to assist with police advice. Initially, it was thought Gordon was a wanna-be hopeful with stars in his eyes, but after meeting with him Bill, Alison and Tony realised Gordon would be a great asset. However, this was the ABC, there wasn’t a budget for an advisor and the answer was no. Bill, who was never scared of a fight, fought hard to have Gordon on board, and he obviously won. Gordon was invaluable in terms of contacts and research, nuance and police speak, and vetted every script. Bill and Gordon worked together again on the feature film The Interview which won Best Film in the AFI awards – it won six major awards in total.

Bill hired women directors for a show largely about men. Kate Woods and Mandy Smith directed multiple episodes. Many of the writers, too, were women. Joanna Murray-Smith, Deb Cox, Annie Beach, Sue Hore, Deborah Parsons. I wrote and script-edited both series.

Bill set up and produced the first thirteen episodes of Janus and was then instrumental in allowing Alison and Tony to produce the second thirteen – he generously gave them the role of showrunners, unheard of in Australia at the time. He trusted in and saw the value of creator writers.

Phoenix 1 & 2 won multiple AFI and Logie Awards for Best Television Series, Most Outstanding Series, Most Outstanding Drama, Best Episode of a Television Series, and Janus won a Logie Award for Most Outstanding Achievement in Drama Production.

Highly regarded throughout the industry with a ‘maverick’ reputation for very high standards and exacting work, Bill was innovative, accessible and never afraid to bend the rules. He was a creative producer in the true sense of the word. Easy going, open to debate, alert, astute. Very direct. Very private. But if he wasn’t given to emoting to work colleagues – a lot of what he said was tongue in cheek. He always had a twinkle in his eye. Who can forget those clear, extraordinarily blue eyes?

I’ve named just a few of the people Bill worked with. Judging from his Facebook page the list of friends and colleagues who mourn him is huge. He is survived by his son Justin and grandson Max, first wife Ellen, brother John and loving partner Tonia. Also his stepchildren Kia and Chris. Sadly Susie Howarth, their mother and Bill’s second wife, passed away in 2017.

I bid you farewell, Bill. You were one of the most striking, memorable, and approachable men I have worked with. I won’t forget you. I’m grateful my life touched yours.

Thank you to Annie Beach and Tony McDonald for your Phoenix and Janus recollections.

If anyone else has a story to tell about Bill, it would be lovely to hear them, and perhaps they could be published through the (Australian Writers’) Guild.

This article was originally published on the Australian Writers’ Guild website.