Australasian Cinema > films >
Sunstruck (James Gilbert, 1972) aka The Education of Stanley Evans, wr. Stan Mars; Harry Secombe, Maggie Fitzgibbon, John Meillon, Dawn Lake, Peter Whittle, Bobby Limb, Norman Erskine, Jack Allen, Derek Nimmo; Secombe arrives Kookaburra Springs to run the local school; comedy
Sunstruck (James Gilbert, 1972) gave Neddy Seagoon an Australian holiday, playing a primary schoolteacher come to Australia to … conduct a choir, as it turns out. It meant more to me than most people, perhaps, as one of the first things I did when I started teaching was to conduct a choir in a competition, as Secombe’s character does. I also did the reverse trip, to go to the UK to teach in schools there. My experience was less pleasant than his in this fantasy.
Reviews were mixed, but most had some words of praise for John Meillon's performance as the publican at Kookaburra Springs. Pike & Cooper: 267.
It is rather a witless film, but as the first AFCD-financed film to be released theatrically (through BEF Distributors), its position in the history of the Australian film revival is assured. Stratton: 14.
Forgotten village and movie Sunstruck revived and dusted off just shy of 50th anniversary
ABC Central West / By Micaela Hambrett, Ewan Gilbert and Emma Rennie
22 May 2020
An international movie shot on location in a lost village near Parkes, and which sank into critical and commercial oblivion, has been revived by a local historian.
The British-Australian co-production was filmed on location in the lost village of Nelungaloo, outside Parkes, in 1970 and released in 1972
Despite involving many district locals, the film's limited success at the box office meant it wasn't documented locally and was ultimately forgotten
Parkes librarian and historian Dan Fredericks has reignited interest after tracking down former child stars and blogging about the production
If not for Dan Fredericks catching a passing comment from a local, the film may have stayed forgotten.
"The more I delved into it, the more I realised they didn't just film here. They really became involved in the fabric of society," Mr Fredericks said.
Sunstruck the movie
The year was 1972 and the movie was Sunstruck, a British-Australian co-production starring Welsh actor, comedian and singer Harry Secombe. It also starred Australian actor John Meillon.
Sunstruck was the second film ever to receive funding from the then fledgling Australian Film Development Commission.
A movie poster featuring black and white scenes from the movie and red text
The lobby card for Sunstruck, featuring Harry Secombe recreating the NSW Department of Education poster.(Supplied: Dan Fredericks)
But the 70s were not a sunny time for Australian cinema, as society grappled with complex identity issues and Sunstruck suffered badly at the box office.
"The Australian film industry almost died in the '70s because Australian audiences would not go and see Australian films," Mr Fredericks said.
A man stands on a beach wearing swimming trucks, a mortar board and gown.
The actual poster that inspired the British writing team behind Sunstruck. Harry Secombe recreates this image in the Sunstruck movie poster.(Supplied: Dan Fredericks)
The classic fish-out-of-water plot was inspired by a promotional poster from the NSW Department of Education.
Created to try to entice British teachers to New South Wales, it featured a British teacher wearing a mortar board, gown and little else on Bondi Beach.
"That triggered the film's writers to go 'This could be a good idea for a film' — but have him not land on Bondi Beach, but in a one-horse town where nothing happens," Mr Fredericks said.
This became the fictional setting of Kookaburra Springs, where Harry Secombe's wide-eyed character would wash up.
"They needed a location for Kookaburra Springs and fortunately for us Parkes, Nelungaloo and the school building of Wongalea all became part of it."
The lost villages of Wongalea and Nelungaloo
Wongalea and Nulungaloo had faded from the map well before the British film crew stumbled upon their remains.
Both towns lie roughly 30 kilometres west of Parkes and were at their modest heights in the early part of the 20th century.
By the 1960s their schools had closed and by 1970 they were considered localities.
But their charming bush buildings remained and cast a spell over a weary and disillusioned film crew, who had scouted a vast NSW outback for locations with no luck.
"They'd been driving out west and were coming back to Sydney," Mr Fredericks said.
"They've come through Parkes and someone has said, 'Oh, let's just go down this road and see where it heads'."
There they found Nelungaloo's original homestead Braeside — charming, weathered and empty.
It was purchased from the film's budget, of around $400,000, and would become the Kookaburra Springs' pub and teacher accommodation.
Now all they needed was a schoolhouse.
"Someone in town said 'There's a school in Wongalea that's closed. You could probably have that'."
Wongalea's disused school building was moved to sit next to Braeside, creating a mini studio block in the middle of central-west NSW.
They became part of the town
Mr Fredericks said the production uncovered an accidental wealth of talent in the Parkes region, with the production coming to rely on locals for cast, set builders, body doubles, props and even animal trainers.
Cast and crew felt embraced by the town and became a part of village life outside of the production.
"It wasn't just a token effort of just coming out here and filming for five minutes and then disappearing. They were actually here for a decent amount of time," Mr Fredericks said.
Crew made the Coachman Hotel in Parkes their base and lead actors Harry Secombe and Maggie Fitzgibbon performed in a charity night at Parkes Leagues Club.
Mr Secombe especially bonded with the townsfolk.
"You forget that he was a big star," Mr Fredericks explained.
"Everybody said, 'He was so warm and friendly and he made people laugh'. There was no prima donna about him. He was there for the people."
But the greatest adventure was for the local children who featured.
"There were 16 children in the film and 14 were Parkes locals. The producers were amazed at the quality of the acting," Mr Fredericks said.
For the bush kids chosen, the summer of 1972 would be a mind-bending walk on the wild side.
"They had on-set catering, which served steak at one point. These kids had never had steak before. Growing up on a farm it was chicken or lamb or that's it," Mr Fredericks said.
The youngest local featured was seven-year-old Sharryn Cunningham from the tiny farming community of Bindogundra.
"Here I was at seven years old and the first time I'm in a cab is being sent home to Bindogundra after a long day of filming!" she said.
"There were just a lot of firsts; the first time on an aeroplane, first time catching a cab, first time having steak."
In a final homage to the townsfolk, producers elected for the worldwide premiere to be held in Parkes.
A man with a plan
Mr Frederick's meticulous research of the production's time in the region has triggered local and ex-local memories, and momentum is building in the community for a revisit.
"I've been sitting on my DVD copy for probably five years. 2022 is the 50-year anniversary of its filming but I don't think people are going to wait!" Mr Fredericks said.
"I'd like to do something big for the library. I'd like there to be a public showing, with local cast and a Q&A maybe."
He said the real thrill had been uncovering the experience on behalf of those involved and stirring up memories of a truly novel and happy time in the district's history.
"I like the film, I enjoy watching it, but I'd really love to watch other people watching the film. Seeing the twinkle in their eye when they go 'Oh yeah, that bit — I'd forgotten that bit'."
Such as the line: "Good heavens, it's Evans!"
Sir Harry Secombe was a member of The Goon Show from 1951 to 1960, and was knighted in 1981 — jokingly referring to himself as Sir Cumference. He died in 2001.
Garry Gillard | New: 7 October, 2012 | Now: 29 June, 2020