Tim Burstall

Tim Burstall
Born (1927-04-20)20 April 1927
Stockton-on-Tees, England
Died 19 April 2004(2004-04-19) (aged 76)
Melbourne, Australia
Occupation Film director
Years active 1960–1996
Spouse(s) Betty Burstall

Timothy "Tim" Burstall AM (20 April 1927 – 19 April 2004) was an English Australian film director, writer and producer, best known for hit Australian movie Alvin Purple (1973) and its sequel Alvin Rides Again.

A key figure in Australian postwar cinema, Burstall was instrumental in rebuilding the Australian film industry at a time when it had been effectively dead for over a decade. He created groundbreaking Australian films including Stork, End Play, Eliza Fraser, The Last of the Knucklemen and the 1987 adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel Kangaroo.

Burstall's films featured early appearances by many legendary Australian actors including Jack Thompson, Bruce Spence, Jacki Weaver, Alvin star Graeme Blundell, John Waters and Judy Davis. Burstall's wife, Betty Burstall, an important figure in her own right, founded the pioneering La Mama Theatre in Melbourne in the late 1960s, with which Tim was involved.

Speaking just after Burstall's death, David Williamson said that Burstall "couldn't stomach" Australia's lack of a film industry. "He was determined to do something about it and he had the energy and spirit to do it. (He) was a very important cultural figure: highly intelligent, widely read, with a succinct and often highly controversial opinion on everything."


Burstall was born in Stockton-on-Tees, England in 1927. His family came to Australia in 1937 after his father took up a chair as professor of engineering at the University of Melbourne. Attending Geelong Grammar, Burstall was taught by historian Manning Clark. When his parents returned to England after World War II he remained in Australia. He graduated with an Honours Arts degree from the University of Melbourne in 1946. He met Betty, whom he married, at the university. They built a mud brick house at Eltham, Victoria.[1] The family home from 1967-2013 was 148 Nicholson Street, Fitzroy (sold, 2013[2]).

Burstall originally wanted to be a novelist and thought that if he worked in film it might be a way to move into writing.[3] He went to work for the National Film Library with a view to getting a job at the Commonwealth Film Unit as a scriptwriter. He worked on a series of documentaries, editing and writing for the Antarctic Division. He became interested in film making after seeing 1953 French film White Mane at the Melbourne International Film Festival.[3]

He and Patrick Ryan established Eltham Films in 1959.[4]

In February 2012 sections of Burstall's personal journals from 1953–1955 were published by Melbourne University Press, under the title Memoirs of a Young Bastard.[5][6][7][8][9]

Early career

Burstall's first film was a black-and-white short, The Prize, which won an award at the 1960 Venice Film Festival. It tells the story of a boy who wins a goat in a fairground competition, then has it stolen from him. Burstall's two young sons had acting roles.

Working with other leading Melbourne film identities including David Bilcock, Dusan Marek, Giorgio Mangiamele, Gerard Vanceburg, Allan Harness and composer George Dreyfus, Eltham Films made many short subjects, including acclaimed documentaries on Australian art, and early children's puppet series Sebastian the Fox. The latter first screened on the ABC in 1962-63, and Burstall later described the title character as "one of the first recessive Oz heroes".[3]

Eltham's Australian art films encompassed the contemporary internationally recognised artists of the Melbourne set — including Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, John Perceval, John Brack, Albert Tucker and Clifton Pugh They also proved influential in helping form Burstall's views on Australian cultural identity. The Eltham documentaries also covered Australian historical figures, aboriginal bark paintings and the treasures of the National Gallery of Victoria. Together, Eltham Films and Collings Productions were the main contributors of a filmed record of Australian art in the 1960s.

In 1965 Burstall made two films for the Commonwealth Film Unit - documentary Painting People, an overview of the work of some of the artists he'd surveyed in his earlier documentaries, and children's film Nullarbor Hideout. He also collaborated on Eltham Films production The Magic Trumpet, an animated short co-directed with Dusan Marek.

From 1965 to 67 Burstall was in the United States on a Harkness Fellowship. He studied scriptwriting with Paddy Chayefsky, directing with Martin Ritt, and acting with Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio in New York.[1]

La Mama Theatre

One of the results of the trip would be the founding by Tim's wife Betty Burstall of La Mama Theatre back in Carlton, Melbourne. It opened on 30 July 1967, modelled on the "off-off-Broadway" theatre of the same name in New York City. Having travelled with Tim in the United States, Betty wanted to re-create "the vibrancy and immediacy of the small theatres there". It became a hub of cultural activity, and Tim Burstall was part of that hub; within its first two years, twenty-five new Australian plays had premiered there, and La Mama also fostered new works from composers, poets, and filmmakers. Many leading Australian 'new wave' playwrights including David Williamson had their first successes there.

After America

Burstall earned a place in Australian cinema history as the writer and director of 1969 feature 2000 Weeks. It marked Australia's first locally-made feature film since Charles Chauvel's Jedda in 1955. A commercial failure, savaged by the critics, the film's poor reception would lead Burstall to move to more populist works with his next films, Stork and sex comedy Alvin Purple. The film's failure also influenced Bruce Beresford and Phillip Adams to move in a more populist direction when they came to make early Australian hit The Adventures of Barry McKenzie in 1972.

Burstall then formed a new company with Pat Ryan, David Bilcock and Rob Copping, Bilock and Copping with the view to making commercials to fund features. They made the short Hot Centre of the Earth, then Burstall briefly returned to documentary for the making of cult surfing film Getting Back To Nothing (1970). He looked at making a film called Filth and had money to develop it, but decided to make Stork instead.[10]

Stork and David Williamson

Stork appeared in 1971, and proved a moderate commercial success. Burstall raised the money for this early Australian comedy by selling several of his Arthur Boyd paintings. It also marked the first screen credit for acclaimed playwright and screenwriter David Williamson, who adapted it from one of his earliest plays, The Coming Of Stork, which had premiered at La Mama in 1970. The film featured most of the La Mama/APG ensemble, including Bruce Spence in his screen debut. The title role had been written for him. Stork won multiple Australian Film Institute awards, including best narrative feature, best director and best actor.

After the breakout success of Alvin Purple, Burstall would later return to work with Williamson on three further films: social drama Petersen (1974), which was seen in England and the United States (for which Stanley Kubrick praised Burstall for his direction and Jack Thompson for his acting),[1] big-budget romp Eliza Fraser (1976, the first major Australian period movie)[1] and Duet for Four (1982), the tale of a mid-life crisis. Burstall has argued that Eliza Fraser was made for an increased budget after Roadshow insisted on overseas stars; Susannah York played Eliza, and the cast also included Trevor Howard.

Alvin Purple

After forming a new production company, Hexagon Productions, Burstall directed, produced and co-wrote (with Alan Hopgood) his next feature, sex comedy Alvin Purple (1973). Australia's most successful film release between 1971 and 1977, it is now seen to be one of the key works in the 70s era revival of Australian cinema, and in the so-called "ocker" genre, films that were deliberately pitched at the mainstream popular market. It was a huge commercial success in spite of almost unanimous critical disapproval. Significant as a marker for the revival of the local industry, it was also the first locally-made feature to have significant backing from a local theatrical chain. The film was released in some territories as The Sex Therapist.

Burstall estimated that he made $120,000 from Alvin Purple.[11] The film spawned a successful sequel which Burstall co-wrote. Later Hexagon films performed less well at the box office. In 1980 Burstall made a film for another company when he took over war movie Attack Force Z after Phillip Noyce had creative disagreements with the producers just before filming was due to begin.


Burstall also worked extensively in television, directing episodes of series including Special Squad, Return to Eden II, The Man from Snowy River and Water Rats. His miniseries Great Expectations: The Untold Story was the first co-production between an independent filmmaker and ABC TV.[1]

Recognition and achievements

Burstall won a number of Australian Film Institute awards for his work, including best director for Stork (which also won the grand prize) and a best director nomination for his 1976 thriller End Play. His final theatrical feature was an adaptation of DH Lawrence novel Kangaroo in 1986. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the Australia Day Honours 1996.[12] His wife Betty had been similarly honoured in 1993.[13]

A portrait of Burstall won the 1975 Archibald Prize, but the artist, John Bloomfield, was controversially stripped of the honour after it was revealed he had painted it from a magazine photograph (the prize stipulates that portraits must be painted from life).


On the evening of 18 April 2004 Burstall suffered a massive stroke while attending a screening of his short films, organised by Eltham Council, the Melbourne suburb where he'd made early short The Prize. He was taken to hospital, but died soon after, in the early hours of 19 April. He was 76.[1] He was survived by his wife Betty (d. 2013)[14] and his sons Dan, a cinematographer, and Tom, a film producer and husband of actor Sigrid Thornton.

Awards and nominations

Selected filmography



Unmade Films



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