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Esben Storm: a tribute from Patricia Edgar
by: Patricia Edgar
Screen Hub
Friday 1 April, 2011

Patricia Edgar, the founding director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation, and a major shaper of children's media in Australia, brings a sense of history to the story of Esben Storm.

I still can't believe he is gone, not Esben. For 15 years he was a life force for me and for the Australian Children's Television Foundation - the person I could turn to, to help solve diverse creative problems. He was an inspiration, and such incredible fun to work with. He could turn an impossible challenge into a possibility and make it a pleasure to take on.

My introduction to Esben Storm was at the AFI Awards in the mid 70's when 27A, the film Esben directed with his friend Hayden Keenan as producer, won the best film of the year. In his speech accepting the award Esben put up his finger and lambasted those who said it couldn't be done. In the audience I thought, 'I like this guy'.

It would be some years before I could ask him to come and direct one of the Winners series, the first anthology series the Australian Children's Television Foundation would produce. Esben opted to direct The Other Facts of Life written by comedy writer Maurice Gleitzman. He translated the pathos and humour in the script on to the screen and embellished it as all good directors do. But Esben had particular panache.

A book of that script launched Maurice Gleitzman's career as a children's book author and the book is still in print 25 years later. It won a special jury prize for cinematic impact at the Chicago International Festival of Children's Film held in October 1986, where the Winners series scooped the pool.

The Foundation's next series Touch the Sun set films in every Australian State and Territory. Esben directed Devil's Hill in Tasmania. At the first screening in Tasmania to the people who mattered, the 16mm equipment broke down so Esben stood up to address the crowd while repairs took place. I was anxious but Esben entertained the audience with stories and made them all laugh while they waited. The screening was a big success.

Devil's Hill collected first prize for live action in the feature length section of the Chicago International Film Festival. The Foundation, then reaching out to the international film communities, entered the film in the First International Film Festival for children and young people in Sofia, Bulgaria (along with Captain Johnno, directed by Mario Andreacchio). Esben and Mario travelled to Bulgaria, taking with them the children who had played the lead roles. Devil's Hill was a hit. The audience applauded at length and Mario described Esben's face as he listened to the applause as 'a picture of joy'.

Esben was never happier than when he was working developing film projects, work-shopping ideas, script editing, writing, conducting casting sessions with hundreds of kids, directing, acting and producing. His energy, creativity, intelligence, humour, wit, care for others, endeared him to those he worked with. He always pushed for excellence, for something better, for more.

The early international success of the Australian Children's Television Foundation with its anthology series was significant. The programs were picked up in many countries around the world. Our credentials were established so I thought we could afford to take some big risks. I was looking for an idea for a series that was quintessentially Australian, that would appeal to and entertain children across the board, but would also have the depth to attract the family audience.

I was introduced to a book of very funny, very short stories by Paul Jennings. There were no consistent characters and no context for a series. The other catch was that the writer, who had no script experience, wanted to have a go at writing himself. I thought of Esben. If anyone could make this work it would be Esben Storm. If I could persuade him to take on the role of script editor and director, I could see a potential series.

Esben was willing to have a go. Together, Esben and Paul began months of arduous work necessary for the creation of 13 episodes of original television. Together they gave birth to Round the Twist.

They were exactly right together for the challenge they faced. Esben was a hard task master. He taught Paul what a script looked like, how to write one; he would not accept a draft if there was something more to be gained or wrung out of an idea or a funny scene. Esben understood character and structure and what would work on screen. Paul understood children and Esben was a boy at heart. They spent hours, days, weeks together, tossing around ideas, creating characters, developing idiosyncrasies for them and coming up with a context for their lives.

They hit upon the idea that the family lived in a light house. The plots were bizarre but at its core Round the Twist deals with the universal themes of family and home. The combination of talent and ideas made for a brilliant concept.

But it was hard to sell. Every distributor and television executive I showed it to said that it was very funny but would never work on the screen. Esben helped me pitch. I knew if we got the BBC to commit we were home and hosed. Together we took Anna Home to lunch. Anna was the head of BBC Children's Television, the most prestigious television producer in the world with the biggest budget. She was charmed and she committed to buy the series.

Esben set to work as director to make the words on the page come to life. This was not just a job for Esben; not just a silly over-the?top kid's show. This would be a sophisticated, insightful, human drama that was very funny indeed. It would be the best show he could deliver. He had lived with these characters for more than a year and he knew exactly what he wanted to achieve.

Round the Twist, the series, was Esben's vision. He chose the cast carefully and well, he got them to understand their characters. The characters were people we knew. The timing of the gags was spot on. The dialogue worked for five year olds and twenty five year olds because it was layered. Kids could grow up with Round the Twist and find more in the series as they got older. Bronson was there for the under tens, but we all knew him - we remembered how it was to be ten. Linda and Pete were there for the older kids and their stories were planned as experiences for girls and for boys. With dad, they were a family going through all human drama that families go through. The gang, Matron, Mr Gribble, Miss James and Mr Snapper all had a very clear purpose in the stories.

Esben worked brilliantly with the children; he pushed them hard but it was so much fun for them. He understood his responsibilities to them did not cease when the series wrapped so he kept in touch with them after filming ceased.

The cast and crew loved him. Often a crew member would say to me how satisfying to them it was to work on a series that had such quality and was for children. Those with families felt this strongly. There was a sense that Round the Twist was something special and those involved at every level accepted the demands Esben made of them.

The result was an iconic Australian series that will live on longer than many of us. There are few children who grew up in Australia in the last 20 years who do not know and love Round the Twist. As well as being a commercial and critical success, structurally it broke new ground. It was the first children's mini-series to go into production under the new FFC guidelines and has been the model for the industry since. It was the first television series to go into profit for the FFC. It sold all round the world and brought to the attention of the Australian production industry to international industry.

It was uncompromisingly Australian but was loved from Brazil, Japan, Zimbabwe to the USSR. It screened in the top 10 children's programs in the UK four times. It won its time slot in Sweden. On the strength of the success of Round the Twist the BBC invested half the budget for The Genie From Down Under, knowing Esben was the Script Editor and Director. This was unheard of and became the precedent for the BBC's future interest in Australian children's productions.

Ten years after we had completed the first two series of Round the Twist we decided to go again. The demand for the program came from around the world, but Paul and Esben had fallen out and working together was not an option. Esben was the one we could not do without. So we assembled a team of writers along with Mark Mitchell and Jeremy Swan from the BBC. Esben led the workshops and the team came up with 26 episodes equally as yukky, funny, spooky, subversive and clever as the first two. The new series, under Esben's direction, continued Round the Twist's phenomenal success around the world.

It continued to break new ground: it was brave, original, inventive, as well as highly commercial. Audiences kept coming. There have been producers and writers who have attempted to emulate its style. They all failed. One successful adult series, Sea Change owed a great deal to Round the Twist I believe. Just three months ago I received a letter from a 10 year old whose ambition was to be cast as Linda in the next series of Round the Twist. She wanted to write for the series and had sent me a script on spec. It was remarkable: she understood all the characters and they were there in her well developed story. I had to disappoint her and say there would be no new Round the Twist series.

Esben desperately wanted to make a feature film based on Round the Twist. I tried valiantly to finance a feature written by Esben and Ray Boseley. But an Australian children's feature, based on a television series, does not have a high priority with distributors especially up against American family movies. Esben never gave up and after I left the Foundation he continued to plug away attempting to finance this and other features.

Feature films were his main love and his experiences on that journey others know more about.

There was more work with the Foundation and I would always ask him to get involved with new ideas but he wanted to move back to Sydney and put his efforts into features.

Still, with Chris Anastassiades, Esben led the workshops to develop stories about a 10-year-old boy with the weight of the world upon his shoulders ? Peter Viska's character L'il Elvis Jones, which became the animated series L'il Elvis Jones and the Truckstoppers, developed with a French production Company. This is another popular children's series that will live on. He also directed The Big Wish for More Winners.

When Disney decided to set up cable channels throughout Europe they were looking for ideas that would appeal to the European market. The resounding success of Round the Twist throughout Europe brought the ACTF to the attention of Elaine Sperber - the new head of Disney Productions. The Foundation had developed a concept called Crash Zone - a teen drama. Esben was to be the first Director and Disney were confident with him in place. They decided to fully fund an Australian production. This was another first which has led to on-going production partnerships with Australian independent producers, both with Disney and Elaine Sperber who moved to the BBC.

There is so much more that could be said about Esben and his achievements and much that is not well known ? so much of what he did slipped under the radar of this tough industry. But those who worked with him knew the brilliance of the man and the lengths he would go to, to improve the quality of what he did at every level. He was indefatigable.

Esben is an unsung hero of the development of the children's television production industry in Australia. So many achievements may not have been possible without him: they would certainly have been more difficult.

In 1997 he was presented with a special Award for the exceptional contribution he made to the Foundation's programs over a 15 year period. By then we had won 62 national and international awards and sold programs into 94 countries and Esben had been involved in most of them either writing, editing, work-shopping, acting and mentoring writers or directing.

He was an exceptional talent. He may not have made the feature films he wished to make but he made an impact on the lives of millions of children around the world through the programs he worked on for Australia. He was a pioneer in children's programming. When we started there was no children's drama being produced in Australia. The children's production industry has thrived with the reputation he helped put in place. There are many who owe him a debt. I know I do.

Patricia Edgar
Patricia Edgar AM is an author, television producer, educator and industry campaigner, who was the founding director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation, which she ran from 1982 until 2002.