Why you should embrace career twists and turns, according to an Australian children’s TV pioneer
As a young girl, La Trobe alumna Dr Patricia Edgar AM never imagined her ambitions as a cinema usherette could lead to a career in children’s television. Discover how taking risks, battling critics and being alert to opportunity led her to produce award-winning TV series loved by kids around the world.
Family ritual: feature films every Friday
"I was born, grew up and went to school in Mildura. My ambition as a young girl was to become an usherette at the Ozone Picture Theatre. My father took me to the pictures every Friday night to see the two features, no matter what. I loved films, so Friday night was the highlight of my week.
"Girls from country towns normally didn’t go to university in the 50s, but with encouragement from my parents and one of my teachers, I did go. I was the first in my family to do so. I became a high school teacher, married, had two children, and when they were two and four years old my husband, La Trobe alumnus Don Edgar, decided he wanted to go to America to study sociology – a subject you couldn’t study in Australia at that time. It was a risk, but I thought it sounded like an adventure."
The only person in Australia with a film degree
"Don got a scholarship and off we went to Stanford University in California, where I discovered I could study film and television. What an opportunity! I enrolled in a Master of Arts. My advantage as a woman and wife in the 60s was that I wasn’t expected to be the breadwinner and therefore I could indulge my interests. I never expected a career would result from studying film.
"When I returned to Australia three years later, I was the only person in Australia with a higher education degree in film. La Trobe University was starting up a new School of Education and, fortunately for me, the new Dean, Ronald Goldman, was willing to take the risk of appointing me to head his new Centre for the Study of Media and Communication. I set up the first courses in film production and theory to be taught in an Australian University. La Trobe was the pioneering institution."
Challenging the status quo
"Despite a progressive Dean, most senior academics were traditional conservatives. I was a woman, and women didn't run things in the 60s. I had an American degree, so I must have bought it, some colleagues said. And you didn't study a subject like film in a University. There was no body of knowledge for such a subject and no refereed journals. I pressed on and in battling critics learned a great deal about strategy and politics.
"I was saved from those wanting film courses abolished, by students. It’s hard to argue against courses that attract students. One thing led to another and in 1975 – International Women's Year – I had another opportunity. The government began to appoint women to statutory boards where they hadn’t before. I was appointed to the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB), which regulated the television and radio networks.
"And so my career led down a path I would never have anticipated – that of children's television. I chaired a committee for the ABCB that set up the quotas for Australian content and children's drama, which are only now being reviewed over 30 years later."
Defining children’s television in Australia
"The networks claimed they did not know what a children's program was. So I started arguing for an Australian Children's Television Foundation to demonstrate what a good children’s program would look like.
"Again, one thing led to another and I found myself as head of this new production Foundation, now challenged to turn the claims I had been making into viable programs that children would watch. It was another opportunity.
"I called on the top people in the industry – the writers, directors, and producers – to work in children's television on two anthology series demonstrating all the different program genres that could be made for kids – like comedy, fantasy, science fiction, historical drama, contemporary drama and adventure.
"These programs – called Winners and Touch the Sun – unexpectedly attracted attention around the world and won all sorts of awards including an International Emmy – only the second Emmy to ever be won by an Australian program. Australia was then seen as a producer of serious, quality programs for children."
Dunny jokes and slapstick: creating Round the Twist
"So, I thought, with our credentials established, we could make a really fresh Australian program that would be commercially successful. A program parents would want to watch with their kids. It had to be a comedy, as kids do love to laugh. I searched, and one day I picked up a book of short stories by a writer called Paul Jennings. I laughed out loud. There were no common characters, no common setting, but there were some very funny, outrageous plots.
"I met Paul Jennings, put him together with a very clever writer and director called Esben Storm, and they invented the Twist family – dad, twins Linda and Pete and young brother Bronson – who lived in a lighthouse on Australia’s most spectacular coastline. We called the series Round The Twist.
"It took a year to get the scripts together. The show was bent, eccentric and often quite lowbrow. Always a bit of yuck and a fair amount of slapstick. There were dunny jokes, excrement, vomiting, embarrassment, where babies come from, peeing competitions – the topics children's television normally shied away from and model parents did not discuss.
"The series turned the assumptions of children's television on their head and tapped into life as kids understood it."
Entertaining children, from Finland to Zimbabwe
"The greatest challenge of all was to find the more than $3 million needed to make the first series. Every buyer I approached said it could not be done. What works on the page can never be shown visually they said; it is too disgusting to watch. But they were wrong. I did talk the BBC into buying it eventually.
"Round The Twist broke records in the UK, going to number one as the top children's show, unheard of for a foreign-produced children's program. The series went on to sell in more than 100 countries around the world. In Japan, Finland, Brazil or Zimbabwe – children loved it.
"We made four series and changed the rules of children's programming, as other producers tried to emulate the success of Round the Twist. Twenty-two years since it was first devised, it’s repeated round the world on a regular basis."
Career advice for young alumni
"You probably didn’t know that Round The Twist came about because someone aspired to be an usherette and would not take no for an answer. That’s my advice to you as you enter your careers. You never know what may lie in store for a girl or a boy from the bush.
"Take every opportunity that comes your way. And expect your future to have surprising twists and turns. There is no single track in life.
"Opportunities come unexpectedly from directions you can’t imagine right now. Be alert. Take risks. Seize the day. It will lead to an interesting life."
This is an edited version of a speech given by Dr Patricia Edgar at the La Trobe University Mildura Graduation event in 2012.
Last updated: 7th May 2019