by Phil O’Brien, Fixer
My name is Phil O’Brien and I live in a place called the Northern Territory of Australia. It’s a place you can wind your clock back a few years, have a beer, and live in peace. Spectacular, panoramic and wild, it’s a huge area, and there’s way more cattle live there than people.
I suppose I’ve lived a bit of a gypsy life drifting from job to job, and had my share of adventure and also a little misadventure in this great place. Everything from catching crocodiles to trying my hand at being a drink waiter… and everything in-between. But not so long ago, I got roped into one of the most exciting rewarding experiences of my life, and I’ll never forget the day the BBC film crew came to the ‘Outback’.
The phone rang with a sharp electrified burst, directly over my left ear, was way too early for a bloke that had been drinking beer after beer, some short hours before. Somehow I got the phone to my ear and answered.
The BB who? BB what…eh, excuse me?
Well, the sweet melodic voice of charming BBC Researcher Jane Atkins never missed a beat. ‘We need a ‘Fixer’ she politely announced. Now me being still half cut and not understanding film terminology, did what any respectable citizen of the Northern Territory would have done…hung up and went back to sleep.
During the next few days Jane Atkins followed up with more calls and information, dedicated and relentless in her pursuit of organising the film shoot, which had to be in the heart of Northern Territory cattle country. I tried to explain that Territory cattle country can be hard, merciless and unforgiving …and that was on a good day! But Jane Atkins stuck to her guns, and wanted me to help organise something that was going to be bigger than Ben Hur. What an honour! This wasn’t going to be no ordinary Mickey Mouse documentary, the BBC wanted to get right down in the bulldust and cow dung and film a rip roaring helicopter cattle muster in one of the world’s last frontiers.
It was a big ask, but Jane Atkins had come to the right man.
I knew just about every bloke, every horse, and every anthill in the Northern Territory. I knew that when it comes to cattle, one man had risen to the top and in a tough environment that breeds tough men, that’s no mean feat.
Big bustling ‘Ben Tapp’ was no ordinary legend.
Built like a brick toilet block, Ben Tapp liked to sprinkle horse shoe nails on his muesli…. he knew no fear. Ben Tapp was one hundred percent pure Territory cattleman, and when I told Jane he also flies a helicopter like a man possessed, the stage was set. Ben Tapp took no convincing, he always knew he was a larger than life character and it was only a matter of time before he hit the big screen.
The day finally came and the BBC film crew landed at our humble airport in the Territory capital of Darwin. What a fantastic bunch of people, I thought to myself as the introductions flowed and the pommy accents filled the air. They were a star studded line up, the best in their field. Jane Atkins was even better looking in real life than I imagined and the cameraman was a friendly bloke called Toby Strong. Accompanying them was the director, charming Susan McMillan, and technical assistant and roustabout, Jasper Montana. Sound man Ian Grant who flew in from Queensland. After a flurry of baggage, camera and sound kit, hire cars and groceries, we headed off on our 600 kilometre journey down to Maryfield Cattle Station, home of the legendary Ben Tapp.
Right from the start I really liked their humility; there was no big egos, no pretence, just a great film crew chomping at the bit. Keen to roll it, wrap it, and get it in the can.
We broke our journey after about 300 kilometres at Katherine, just in time to witness a fairly lively punch up between a couple of locals at the petrol station. The BBC film crew weren’t too fussed, they’d been all over the world, and two bantam weights swinging like rusty gates weren’t about to freak them out. Next stop down the track a bit was the one horse town of Mataranka, population 200 [including cattle].
The BBC was starting to get hungry so I steered them over to the Pub. Inside there were people propped up drinking furiously. It was like ‘God’ had personally just rung the pub and told them the world’s ending in half an hour, so get into it. In amongst it all was the publican, a glamorous lady called Deb, wandering around in a beautiful flowing gown, quite a sight in amongst all the rough necks. I introduced her to the BBC film crew. If she’d had a red carpet she would have rolled it out but instead she cooked a great feed of Barramundi and chips for everyone, she was a great host.
With Barra and chips hanging off our ribs we made the last few hours to Maryfield Station and finally everyone had a chance to meet Ben Tapp. It was all very warm, and although Ben is tough, hard, wild and all the rest of it, he is also a very generous bloke, and he totally opened up his house and his property to the BBC film crew, and nothing was going to be too much trouble. Ben’s hospitality really was first class. He was right on the ball, he had 2000 head of cattle to muster and he had his young team of stockmen fully briefed. His right hand man on Maryfield was a bloke called Rankin Garland who also was a gifted chopper pilot. Right from the start everyone really hit it off.
The next ten days for me were just unreal, I got to see a world class film crew in action and I was totally inspired. Camera man Toby Strong went from sun up to sundown and still had energy, I remember one time he was hiding in a bush filming cattle as they filed passed, a snake came out of nowhere and slithered over his leg, but he never flinched, he just kept filming. There was no stopping him, where ever the action was, there was Toby.
Susan McMillan was a great director and she brought the best out in everyone, she and Toby made a great creative team. I felt sorry for her a bit because I was doing the cooking for everyone and so all my meals revolved around meat, meat, and more meat, poor old Susan was vegetarian and I can’t actually remember her eating anything the whole ten days. She would have paid big money for a lettuce.
Susan, Toby and Ben communicated really well and as the whole focus was on helicopters and mustering, Ben and Rankin didn’t disappoint. Their aerial work was breathtaking, and Ben really got into the whole film thing. He was actually coming up with great ideas for shots and where to put the camera and what angle and stuff. He was proving very artistic, in an outback type of way. Obviously under that tough, rugged, exterior was a sensitive creative new age guy.
Jane Atkins reminded me of the ‘Holy Spirit’, she was everywhere at once. Unstoppable and three months pregnant, she was the rock of Gibraltar. Jane has such a calm beautiful nature, whether it be out in the hot sun assembling the camera crane, or curled up in front of the computer like a cat, watching over everyone. Technical Assistant Jasper Montana was running around like an unregistered dog, tirelessly helping where he was needed and never complained. Sound man Ian Grant was the total professional as well and spent many hours following cattle around, taping their every bellow.
The only drama was when a Jet Ranger helicopter fitted with a special Cineflex camera that the BBC had hired looked as though it wasn’t going to make it. This caused a bit of concern as the special Cineflex camera was crucial to the whole thing. But Jane, after numerous phone calls and emails, and with a little help from God, made it happen.
After days of filming Ben and Rankin doing their wild manoeuvres in the choppers, and cattle wheeling to and fro through the scrub, it was time for the grand finale. It was time for the big money shot. Two thousand head of disgruntled beef had to be brought in and yarded up. It really was a great spectacle and all the many hours of planning really came off. With the Jet ranger and the Cineflex camera high up in the sky taking in the whole vista, Ben and Rankin set about driving the mob into the yards in their dragonfly-like mustering choppers. Through a veil of dust the choppers weaved, pitching, diving, steering the frenzied mob in towards the yards. On the ground were horsemen and motor bikes turning back any beast that tried to head back to the scrub. Toby Strong of course was courageously right in amongst it all getting some of the best shots I’ve ever seen. Ian Grant, camouflaged in the trees, captured some great sound and everything went off brilliantly. The BBC had won the day!
With the cattle yarded, big bustling Ben Tapp landed and rolled himself a well deserved smoke, it had been tough, but all in a day’s work when you’re a legend.
Next day was the completion of the filming. After a humongous party that night, it was time to pack up all the kit and head back to Darwin to get the film crew on the plane. There was many a teary eye and a hazy hangover as we all said our goodbyes. Friendships were made and it really had been a special time. Whether we ever see each other again who knows?
But one thing I know for sure, the Northern Territory will never forget the day the BBC came to the ‘Outback’.