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A writer’s lot
Ray Harding was one of the last evacuated by helicopter from the US embassy roof as Saigon fell to communist North Vietnam forces in 1975. His has been a circuitous route from Christchurch, New Zealand, where he was born and raised, to Charles Sturt University’s (CSU) School of Communication.
Along the way, Ray wrote more than 682 television scripts over 25 years for some of Australia’s most famous television shows including Neighbours, Home and Away, A Country Practice, MDA, Water Rats and Blue Heelers.
“I decided I was going to be a writer when I was about 11 years old,” Ray says. ”I wrote my first novel then, a rip-off of The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier.”
After completing a degree in English literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, Ray travelled to the UK where he spent seven years in the British Army. He also studied acting and performed in London, then sojourned in Israel, and later taught English and United States history at the University of Saigon in South Vietnam until 1975.
Escaping to Australia, Ray met his wife Carol and started writing his first film script. This was eventually made as a telemovie called – aptly for a writer – I Can’t Get Started. They spent six months back in Britain, then returned to Sydney where Ray taught English to Vietnamese boat people. When they discovered that Carol was pregnant, they decided that Australia was a better place to stay and they now have four adult children here.
Ray showed the I Can’t Get Started script to “a friend who had a friend who knew someone”, which led to a job with Crawford Productions in 1979 writing Holiday Island, which was set Queensland’s tropics but was filmed in Melbourne in winter. “These were the days of excess in Australian TV,” he grins, “and the $10 million set became the set for Neighbours.”
While working as a teacher Ray wrote part-time for a number of shows for Crawford Productions and the Reg Grundy Organisation. In 1984 Ray was offered a job as Script Editor on A Country Practice that paid about three times that of teaching. He stayed a few years then wrote freelance on shows including Neighbours, A Country Practice and the start of Home and Away. “There were enough shows around,” he says. “We were making about three times as much TV as we do now.”
By 1994, Home and Away was in trouble and Ray was given the opportunity to script edit it in-house for three years. Then, after nine months in Britain, he was lured back when Home and Away again became troubled and stayed with the show for another four years, until late 2001.
Ray has experienced the highs and lows of script writing around the world. He worked as a screen writer in Sweden, and in Britain he created and was paid for two shows for ITV which never proceeded; “That’s the lot of the writer,” he shrugs. He wrote three plays in the 1980s, one of which was produced on London’s West End. One of his telemovies, Sisterly Love, was nominated for a swag of Australian Film Institute (AFI) awards. The US film conglomerate TriStar bought another of his films scripts, but it was ”buried” and never made.
He worked as a script consultant on the first series of MDA (Medical Defence Association) broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for which the writing team was nominated for an International Emmy award. He also won an Australian Writers Guild award (an AWGIE) for an episode of A Country Practice and was nominated a further three times.
“I was nominated for an International Emmy for The New Adventures of Skippy in 1990,” Ray says with a chuckle. “I’ll write anything that anyone asks me to.”
His sense of humour – and irony – is further suggested by his eclectic nominations for his favourite play, film, TV show, book and author; Waiting for Godot, Casablanca, Frasier, Tristram Shandy (A Cock and Bull Story) and its author Laurence Sterne (1713 – 1768).
“By 2001 my blood pressure was about 180 over 120,” Ray says with a sly smile. “People don’t generally ‘script produce’ a show for more than nine months because the pressure of producing a story – a complete script outline – every day is quite stressful, and I’d been doing it for seven years.”
It was about then that he reached a crisis of conscience because of the direction Home and Away was being pushed by network executives. After the advent of reality shows such as Big Brother which shook up all the TV networks, he quit the show.
“I had been hiring young people coming out of various universities for ten years and consistently the best were from CSU, particularly from the theatre media course. So I wrote to CSU and was offered the teaching job here. I haven’t regretted it for a second. I thought the significant part of my career was over when I left television, but the best part has been since I came to Charles Sturt University.
“What I love about teaching at CSU is that we are creating alternative theatre that can be put on cheaply in small venues, that doesn’t try to compete with cinema. I was seduced by the lifestyle and the need for the money for about 25 years, because there isn’t a living in play writing while there is in television. I regret spending as long as I did in television.
“The School of Communication has a terrific blend of theoreticians and people who have ‘been there and done it’ in the real world. It has a lovely balance; it’s given me a new lease on life being here.
“Other good things about this School are the one-to-one teaching and the pastoral care. It goes beyond the simply academic, especially when so many students are far from home. We know when people are having difficulties and we try to cut them a bit of slack.
“I’ve come across so many immensely talented young writers here at CSU who are so far ahead of where I was at their age. But because it’s a very competitive industry, anyone with the requisite talent needs to commit themselves and persevere. They have to know that they are only beginning their apprenticeship. You have to write a million bad words before you start writing good words, but it gives me great hope for the future.”
Ray does much of his writing semi-recumbent, with a fountain pen or with a 2B pencil. “I cannot write at a computer; I’ve always written long-hand then typed it up.” He says he’s not writing anything at the moment, but he has four projects evolving in his mind. “So much of the writing process is subliminal. I write like JB Priestly who used to say he’d think about a play for six months and then write it in a week.” Write on, Ray!
Author: Bruce Andrews
Editor's Note: Ray Harding lectures in screen writing at Charles Sturt University’s School of Communication on its Bathurst Campus.
Media Note: Contact CSU Media for print quality pictures and interviews.