Five minutes with … Frank Heimans

Frank Heimans is an oral historian, filmmaker and managing director of Cinetel Productions

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I started off in documentary filmmaking as a writer, director and editor. Later I became a producer and have made 53 television documentaries. It’s hard to avoid history when you are making documentaries so it evolved naturally.

My first big research project was the story of a Vienna Boys Choir that arrived in Australia in 1939 and were stranded here, some for the rest of their lives, when the boat taking them back to Vienna did not sail. It was the day Australia declared war on Germany. Those 20 young choristers, aged between eight and 13, were declared enemy aliens and spent the war years in foster homes. Some sang in the St Patrick’s Cathedral Choir; one was sent to Loveday, a harsh prisoner-of-war camp in the remote desert of South Australia. The choirmaster, a member of the Nazi Party in Austria, was interned at Tatura POW camp and was the last prisoner to be released in 1947. The story was part of a three-part documentary series that screened on SBS Television.

During the rest of the 1980s  I made two television documentaries on the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The first featured Australian soldiers who were incarcerated there after having escaped numerous times from regular POW camps. The Australian Army refused to recognise them, saying that the Army had no records of Australian military personnel having been interred in a concentration camp. We took two of the former soldiers back to Czechoslovakia and proved the point. The men, and subsequently others who emerged after the screening of the program, were finally compensated by the Australian Government in 1987.

In the 1990s I was the writer, director, producer and editor of 32 episodes of the series Australian Biography for Film Australia, which also  screened by SBS. In the series each participant told their own story. Interviewees included Donald Horne, Frank Hardy, Albert Tucker, ‘Nugget’ Coombs, Sir Mark Oliphant, Joan Hammond and Faith Bandler. This series gave a fascinating insight into their lives and the period in Australian history that they lived through.

For the past 15 years I have been an oral historian, having interviewed more than 850 people in oral history projects for government departments and industry. A recent project was as a Sydney interviewer for Australian Generations, a collaborative series of interviews by the National Library, Monash and LaTrobe universities and ABC Radio National. The outputs will be an online archive of 300 interviews, a book and 60 radio documentaries to be aired by the ABC in 2015.

Who is the audience for your history?

Television audiences in 33 countries to date. Students at colleges and universities in the US and Australia study Margaret Mead and Samoa,  a one-hour documentary on the Margaret Mead-Derek Freeman controversy, the greatest in anthropology. In Samoa we found evidence that Margaret’s fieldwork was flawed and that her theory of Samoa as an idyllic paradise, free from the stresses and strains of adolescence, had been a fabrication. The program created a lot of controversy among anthropologists and was screened at the Margaret Mead Film Festival and the American Film & Video Festival, where it won the Blue Ribbon Award.

My oral history interviews are all online, put there by the various government agencies.

What’s your favourite historical source, book, website or film?

I’m a great fan of Chronicle of the 20th Century, (Chronicle Publications), a year-by-year history of the world’s events . I use it often in my research.

If you had a time machine, where would you go?

Australia in 1770, the year  Europeans claimed possession of the country under the so-called ‘Terra Nullius’ doctrine.

Why is history important today?

I can’t envisage life without history. History is everything and influences every decision we make.


Back to the Packers

by Professor Bridget Griffen-Foley, Centre for Media History, Macquarie University.

Since Kerry Packer’s death on Boxing Day, 2005, his family, and that of the Murdochs, have been ripe for nostalgic embrace. Three dramatic mini-series focused on the Packer empire: Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo (on the ABC in 2011), Howzat! The Kerry Packer War (Nine, 2012) and Paper Giants: Magazine Wars (ABC, 2013). Then, late last year, came Power Games: The Packer-Murdoch War, with the two dynasties going head-to-head. Power Games aired on Nine, the network Sir Frank Packer himself established, and his grandson James sold. The mini-series focused on 1960 to 1975, based in part on the second half of my Frank Packer biography. Lachy Hulme (who played Kerry Packer in Howzat!) delivered a compelling, uncanny performance as Kerry’s father.

Power Games provided the impetus for a new edition of my biography of Sir Frank Packer. In my foreword, I reflect on what has happened to the Packer family since the biography first appeared in 2000. Not only has Kerry died, but also a key informant for my research – Sir Frank’s sister, Lady (Kathleen) Stening – along with two others, Clyde Packer (Sir Frank’s elder son) and Lady (Florence) Packer (Sir Frank’s second wife).

By 2000, I was aware of a rumour that Sir Frank’s father, Robert Clyde Packer, had sired another son. Ernestine Hemmings, who had been working as a sub-editor at Smith’s Weekly, where R. C. Packer was manager, had given birth to a son, Robert, on 30 October 1924 in Hobart, where Packer had spent his early life. Unmarried, Ernestine had assumed the surname Hill. There were no official records to prove the paternity of Robert Hill, whose birth was unregistered. However, Hill believed that Packer was his father, and there is mounting circumstantial evidence that this was the case. The full story of journalist and travel writer Ernestine Hill and her son Robert, who has recently died, awaits her biographer. As I explain in the foreword, Sir Frank Packer: A Biography must now be read in the context of a likely relationship between R. C. Packer and Ernestine Hill.

Since Kerry’s death, the Packer family has all but vacated its print and free-to-air television assets and transformed itself into a gaming and entertainment business.The Packers and the Murdochs, together with their wives, girlfriends and offspring, have become celebrities – usually (but not invariably) reluctant products of the media their families helped to create and control for most of the twentieth-century. They still have the power to fascinate, as demonstrated by the extraordinary interest in the recent brawl between James Packer and David Gyngell.

The infamous confrontation between Clyde and Kerry Packer and Francis James and Murdoch forces at the Anglican printery in 1960 was depicted in Power Games. I now fantasise about a prequel to Power Games, one that would include the fisticuffs between Frank Packer and Ezra Norton at Randwick Racecourse in 1939.

What would Sir Frank think of all this? Find out on Twitter, for he has made a comeback there, too: @Sir_FrankPacker.

Professional Historian Wins Major Literary Award

Professional historian, Clare Wright, has won the 2014 Stella Prize for women’s writing. Selected from a strong shortlist which included both fiction and non-fiction, Wright won $50,000 for her history of the Ballarat goldfields, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.

In her citation, Kerryn Goldsworthy, chair of the 2014 Stella Prize judging panel, said:

A rare combination of true scholarship with a warmly engaging narrative voice, along with a wealth of detail about individual characters and daily life on the goldfields, makes this book compulsively readable. It has a highly visual, almost cinematic quality, with vivid snapshots and pen-portraits of goldfields life.

Her frank and lively style of storytelling makes her material accessible without sacrificing either the scholarly accuracy of her account, the depth of its detail, or the complexity of its ideas.

The Forgotten Rebels takes a close look at the people on the Ballarat goldfields around the time of the Eureka Stockade rebellion. This history is well known to Australians who learn about it at school. However, Wright challenges the traditional history which focuses on the men of the goldfields by revealing the large numbers of women who were living and working there. Some of these women wielded great influence. Women were owners and operators of significant businesses on the goldfields such as shops and pubs. A woman who owned a theatre in Ballarat was the largest donor of funds to the miners’ cause. Wright finds evidence that a woman was the sole editor of the influential Ballarat Times during a crucial period during the agitation.

In writing the women back into this history Wright does not ignore the men. Wright is able to portray men’s lives in richer detail because she includes their wives and other women in the narrative. The people on the goldfields become alive through her writing and research. The book-buying public has responded well to Wright’s innovative presentation of this iconic episode in Australia’s history. Even before the award the book went into reprint due to strong sales.

Clare Wright, like many professional historians, is passionate about sharing well-researched history with the public. It is wonderful to see her work receiving such accolades.

by Yvonne Perkins

Further Reading

Much has been written about Clare Wright and the Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. The following links may be of particular interest to historians: