Obituary: JOHN POWER 1930-2016
Award-winning film director John Power spent his childhood watching film after film in his grandfather’s Prince’s Picture Palace in Maitland. He would often sneak away to watch the latest Hollywood movie and newsreels.
Those afternoons in the late 1930s and early 1940s shaped his career as a journalist, and producer and director of more than 30 documentaries, dramas and feature films, including Like a Summer Storm, Billy and Percy, The Picture Show Man, A Single Life and The Dismissal.
John Beresford Power was born on November 20, 1930, in Maitland, the youngest of four children to William “Bish” Power, a pharmacist and Gallipoli veteran, and his wife, Ethel (daughter of the cinema owner, Lou Prince). His older brother, David, became one of Australia’s great long distance runners, winning Commonwealth gold and silver medals, and an Olympic bronze at the 1956 Olympics.
Happy to leave his Marist Brothers’ school at 16, Power started as a cadet journalist with the Maitland Mercury.
It was an ambition he’d harboured for years: he went to a primary school fancy dress party as Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer with a Press card stuck in his hat.
By his early 20s, he had moved to Sydney to work as a reporter on the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mirror.
If he had a regret, it was that he never attended university. From an early age, he read and read – from Chaucer and Shakespeare to nearly everything by Ernest Hemingway, Anthony Burgess and Patrick O’Brian.
He was rarely without a book, and never without a notebook or a diary to scribble ideas down in his perfect shorthand. Even in his late 70s, he would write every day, and happily recount his latest ideas over a cup of tea. Until his early 80s, he continued to walk in Cooper Park near his home in Woollahra, body surf at Bondi Beach and play tennis once or twice a week.
In 1955, the Daily Mirror sent Power to Canberra at a critical moment in Australian politics. Cold War politics had fractured the Labor Party but leader Doc Evatt resolutely opposed outlawing the Communist Party. Power’s encounter with Evatt made a huge impression on the 25-year-old reporter. Many years later, Power revisited the story in his award-winning documentary about Dr Evatt and the Petrov affair, Like a Summer Storm.
Around this time he met and married Janice (nee Kenny).
They had three children, but divorced in the early 1970s.
Power became the country’s youngest metropolitan columnist when he was appointed co-writer of the Sydney Mirror’s gossip column, “Sidney Mann”. He also directed a children’s show for the ABC, and later was appointed studio director of a live quiz show, Take a Chance, at Channel 7.
The quiz was produced simultaneously in two studios with six comperes, two bands and live commercials. He later confessed that: “I had no idea what I was doing but I wasn’t alone in this.”
After television began in Australia in 1956, Power was hired by Ken Hall at Cinesound to oversee the daily news service syndicated to TCN 9.
In 1963 he signed on with the ABC’s Four Corners team, immediately producing controversial shows about the RSL and the plight of a WA man facing the death penalty.
His team was sacked over each of these stories – with front page coverage in the newspaper tracking the disputes.
All this made him reluctant to continue in current affairs when he was initially offered a job as a producer on This Day Tonight (TDT), the precursor to the 7.30 Report.
He was won over by the promise of being able to produce stories about anything he wanted and the opportunity to work with a great team of reporters including Ray Martin, Gerald Stone, Mike Willesee, Peter Luck and Caroline Jones.
It was chaotic and challenging. “Every night it had to be topical, hard-hitting, witty and informative. A tall order, and some nights it wasn’t any of those things, but most nights it was some of them, or came close to all of them,” Power said.
But it was in documentaries that he flourished. His award winning documentaries gave Australians their first real look at Indonesia, the war in Vietnam, the drama of politician and judge Doc Evatt’s life, and the loneliness of the Outback.
What counted for Power wasn’t the awards he collected, the many Logies that gathered dust in a hallway closet, the occasional cash prize and, later, the army medal he was awarded for coverage of the Vietnam War.
What counted was the freedom to sharpen his skills as a storyteller.
In the early 1970s his dramatisation of WWI Prime Minister William Hughes’ life, Billy and Percy, won the AFI Best Director award and his simple but affecting working class drama They Don’t Clap Losers, won the Writer’s Guild award for best screenplay.
Power wrote the script for Losers on his typewriter at home in a few days. His prose was strong and elegant, and he was a ruthless editor of his own work and others, including his family’s. Keep It Simple Stupid, he would say, many years before before the term became a cliche.
After he had separated from Jan, Power shared a flat with newsman Peter Luck. It was around that time that he met his second wife, Priscilla (nee Tambone), who was only 21 and an American in Australia for a short time. They admitted they had little in common but a passion for each other, and most of their friends thought the relationship would never last. They had two sons, and the relationship flourished for nearly 45 years.
In 1977, Power directed his first cinematic feature film, The Picture Show Man, which starred John Meillon and Rod Taylor.
Although the initial reviews were mixed, it became a sentimental favourite with viewers.
It was followed by the telemovie The Sound of Love, and the feature film A Single Life, about a woman who decides to have a child on her own.
The 1980s was the decade of the television mini-series: Power directed ratings-winners like All the Rivers Run, Tanamera, the Lion of Singapore, Alice to Nowhere and the Dirtwater Dynasty. He was one of six directors on George Miller’s political drama, The Dismissal.
In 1990 he directed his second feature film, Father, an intense drama about a German migrant in Australia who was outed as a Nazi. Power couldn’t hide his delight and pride at casting Max Von Sydow, the actor synonymous with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and other classics.
In 1991 American television asked Power to adapt a Stephen King novel, The Tommyknockers, starring Jimmy Smits. That led to a decade in the United States directing Movies of the Week for major US networks.
It was demanding work which meant time away from his wife and children, but he thrived. In his 60s by then, he was thrilled to be working.
Power was diagnosed with dementia more than 10 years ago. He died of complications associated with the disease. He is survived by his children Julie, Michael, Bill, Joe and John (Jack), and four grandchildren.