Obituary: Don Battye, television producer

Don Battye, television producer was a leading light in Australian soaps. Picture: Contributed
Don Battye, television producer was a leading light in Australian soaps. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 29 September 1938, in Melbourne, Victoria. Died: 28 February 2016, in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines, aged 77.

Sons and daughters,love and laughter, tears of sadness and happiness.” It was cheesy, but the theme song from Sons and Daughters was one of the most recognisable on television, co-written by the programme’s producer, Don Battye, who became a leading light in the country’s newly found industry in exporting such Australian soaps around the world.

He also wrote 138 of the 972 episodes in the serial featuring two families, the wealthy Hamiltons of Sydney and the working-class Palmers of Melbourne. Created by Reg Watson, Sons and Daughters (1982-7) began with romance between Angela Hamilton (Ally Fowler) and John Palmer (Peter Phelps), who, in classic soap style, were revealed to be twins separated at birth.

The families’ further dramas often revolved around super-bitch Patricia “Pat the Rat” Hamilton (Rowena Wallace) and were sometimes acted out against opulent locations as Battye – who in 1983 took over from Watson as executive producer – began to move Australian soap away from its traditional studio-bound format.

This made him ideal to take on the same role in 1988 with a soon-to-be bigger international hit, Neighbours, whose exteriors were shot on a real residential cul-de-sac. Battye was following in the footsteps of the serial’s creator, Watson, who had steered it from tricky beginnings three years earlier to what would become Australia’s longest-running soap and a massive audience-puller in Britain.

It was another story of families, this time centred around the Robinsons, Clarkes and Ramsays of Ramsay Street, in the fictional Melbourne suburb of Erinsborough, and launched the careers of Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Guy Pearce.

During almost five years at the helm (1988-92), Battye was responsible for killing off the programme’s youngest character, when 17-year-old Todd Landers was fatally hit by a van, after actor Kristian Schmid decided to leave. Generally, Battye stuck to a tried-and-tested formula by employing a team of scriptwriters reflecting both young and old attitudes and rarely allowing the soap to veer into melodrama.

“The whole point of Neighbours was that it was to be a reflection of real life, albeit slightly rose-coloured, and although some people experience several tragedies in their lives, the norm is not quite so traumatic,” he said in a 2003 interview.

Donald Gordon Battye was born in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond, the son of Gordon and Olive. His mother, a classical piano teacher, taught him to play as a child.

In his early teens, while attending Melbourne High School, he trained as an actor at the Crawford School of Broadcasting and made his radio début in an OK Peanut Bar commercial, receiving a bar as payment. He then acted in the radio series The Fakamagangees, Honor Bright and Respectfully Yours. On leaving school, Battye performed with repertory companies in Melbourne and made his first screen appearance in the 1959 live television play The Big Day.

A year later, he met lyricist and composer Peter Pinne, beginning a 27-year personal relationship, as well as writing with him songs for the satirical TV sketch programme The Mavis Bramston Show (1964-8) and 16 stage musicals.

At the same time, Battye gave up acting to work behind the scenes in television. For ABC, he wrote 1968 episodes of the television soap Bellbird before switching to Crawford Productions, where he scripted and script-edited the crime dramas Homicide (1969-72) and Division 4 (1971-3), and wrote Matlock Police (1971-3). He landed his first producer’s job on Division 4 (1973-5), followed by Bluey, The Box, Homicide and The Sullivans (all 1976-7). Battye also wrote the screenplay for the 1972 film A City’s Child, which won Monica Maughan the Australian Film Institute’s Best Actress award.

In 1977, Battye switched to Grundy Television following Reg Watson’s return to Australia to set up a drama department there after producing the soap Crossroads in Britain. Battye produced The Restless Years (1977-82), Chopper Squad (1978-9) and Bellamy (1981) before hitting on a popular formula with Sons and Daughters, the most successful Australian soap of the 1980s. As well as writing its theme song, performed by Kerri Biddell and Mick Leyton, he and Pinne contributed a song to Prisoner: Cell Block H (1985) and two to Neighbours (1986 and 1989).

Another Australian serial produced by Battye and screened in Britain was Richmond Hill (1988-9), but it was axed after a year. In 1992, he launched the New Zealand soap Shortland Street, which is still running. Three years later, he left his job as senior vice-president for drama development at Grundy, although he continued writing episodes of Neighbours (1990-2002).

In his final stage collaboration with Pinne, he had British success with Prisoner: Cell Block H – The Musical, based on the cult Australian TV serial. The show opened at the Queen’s Theatre in London’s West End in 1995 and was followed by a British tour (1996-7).

It completed a 36-year professional partnership that also included the shows All Saints Day (1960), about an Australian Rules football team, Don’t Tell Helena (1962), set in a department store, A Bunch of Ratbags (1966), the story of a teenage gang leader, It Happened in Tanjablanca (1968), a whodunit that was later reworked as Red, White and Boogie (1973), and Sweet Fanny Adams (1971), about two warring 1930s madams, as well as pantomime musicals for children staged at Monash University’s Alexander Theatre (1973-80). They also ran their own record label, Bayview. On his own, Battye was musical director for the 1968 Australian premiere of Oh, What a Lovely War! (St Martin’s Theatre, Melbourne).

In 1998, Battye moved to the Philippines, where he continued to write music.