Vale Jill Robb, pioneering producer and leader

Jill Robb.

Producer and executive Jill Robb has been remembered by friends and colleagues as an inspiration and driving force in shaping the modern Australian screen industry.

Robb, the first marketing and distribution manager of the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) and the inaugural CEO of the Victorian Film Corporation, today’s Film Victoria, died January 16, aged 87.

Among her credits as a producer and executive producer were films Dawn!, the multi-AFI Award-winning Careful, He Might Hear You, The More Things Change… and Eight Ball, and the TV series Phoenix, Secrets, Silent Reach, Stark, and Snowy River: The McGregor Saga.

Over her career, Robb was also an executive producer for the ABC, and a founding member of the board of the Australian Film Commission. She served on the Film Victoria board from 1983-1989.

Born in England, Robb’s film career began in 1958, when she was a stand-in for English actress Jill Adams in Lee Robinson’s Dust in the Sun, starring Chips Rafferty.

There, she landed herself a further gig working in the production office, beginning a lifelong passion for filmmaking.

In her early years, she was production coordinator on Michael Powell’s 1965 classic They’re a Weird Mob, and in 1967, Robinson brought Robb on to work as an associate producer on Skippy.

It was on the seminal show that Robb gave Sue Milliken one of her first jobs, working in continuity. It would prove the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

“Jill had an innate self-confidence. She was a grounded person, very sure of herself and quite a creative thinker,” Milliken tells IF.

“When she got opportunities, she made the most of them.

“She’s almost the only person I can think of who was a really talented, creative producer and a really talented and competent bureaucrat. That just doesn’t happen.”

While Robb could be tough, Milliken recalls that she was also kind and generous, considerate of the people who worked for her and would look to support them in their careers. For Milliken, she was a mentor.

“What I liked about Jill, she was one of those people who had no pretensions. She was completely open,” she says.

“She would find opportunities and help you if she could. I really liked that. Also, she had a wonderful, dry and very sardonic sense of humour. She could see pomposity a mile off and had no time for it. She was entertaining and a very good person.”

Jill Robb.

Another to receive their first break from Robb was Matt Carroll – one of her neighbours in Sydney’s Paddington during the ’60s.

Robb got the then architecture student a job working in Skippy‘s art department during his university holidays, where he initially filled up production vehicles with petrol, and then worked in the kangaroo unit.

“I always blamed Jill for my ending up not an architect, but a film producer,” he tells IF.

The duo would go on to work together at the SAFC, and Carroll considers Robb’s work there pivotal to the international success of films like Sunday Too Far Away, which she got into Cannes’ Directors Fortnight, and Breaker Morant, which was in the official competition in 1980.

He remembers her as a brilliant executive, one that “didn’t take prisoners” in an era where there were few women in leadership positions.

“She was just the most extraordinary person,” Carroll reflects.

“We just adored her because she was so clever, so supportive and made us love the film industry.

“She was a really clever businesswoman, as well as great creatively and a great leader. There’s only ever been one of her.

“The industry was very lucky to have her.”

Greg Ricketson worked as a production manager on Careful, He Might Hear You and associate producer on The More Things Change…, and developed with Robb a series about Australian war hero Nancy Wake that ultimately did not go ahead.

He remembers her as a “one of a kind” and a “magic woman in every sense of the word.”

When Robb interviewed him for Careful He Might Hear You, Ricketson remembers her telling him: “There are lots of things that I am incredibly good at and I’m always going to be in control of. There are some other things which I’m not as good at, and I need somebody like you to run it for me. But I expect you to keep me informed when you make decisions so that I understand them. I’ll keep you informed when I make decisions that are not in your control so that you understand them. And we both must promise that if we disagree, we’ll talk it out.

For Ricketson, the encounter was an early hint to Robb’s way of running a production, where her openness and trust of those in her employ gave room to an egalitarian and collaborative environment. She was also inquisitive, genuinely appreciative of the role of each member of the crew and unafraid to get her hands dirty.

“You just adored her because she took notice of you and took notice of your work. When she made suggestions they weren’t orders, they were more a collaborative suggestion. But because she was such a wonderful, collaborative person, 99 times out of 100 people said, ‘Okay, let’s try that’,” Ricketson tells IF.

“Everybody who worked with Jill just fell in love with her.”

In the early days of her career, Robb also ran a modelling school, and was casting director on Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright in 1970. 

In a statement posted on social media, Film Victoria called Robb a “ground-breaking woman”, noting “she became a role model for many, particularly women working in the screen sector”.

Her career was recognised on numerous occasions, named a Member of the Order of Australia, awarded AFI’s Raymond Longford Award, and honoured by Film Victoria in its annual Jill Robb Award, which recognises the achievements of women in the industry.

Recipients of the Jill Robb Award include Sue Maslin, Jill Bilcock, Nadia Tass, Sonya Pemberton, Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox, Mitu Bhowmick Lange and Claire Dobbin.

Robb is survived by her daughter Louisa and brother David, and their families.