Ken James: Skippy

Skippy is an Australian icon and the TV series was a worldwide hit that has millions of fans. Ken James spent 3 years as Mark Hammond on the Australian series, he caught up with TV Flashback to revisit his time on Skippy.

1) A pilot was shot and shopped around to find a backer for the show – how confident were the cast and crew that the show would be picked up? Did you feel you had something special when you shot the pilot?

The Producers of Skippy, Lee Robinson, John McCallum and Denis Lee wanted to create a uniquely Australian family television series. They came up with the name Skippy, based on a father, his two sons and a helicopter pilot set in the bush. Similar to the American series Flipper. The head Ranger Matt Hammond was played by Ed Devereaux. The eldest son Mark played by Ken James, his younger brother Sonny, played by Garry Pankhurst and Jerry King the pilot played by Tony Bonner. During the making of the series we all felt we had something special, and the ratings soon proved it. After the first 9 episodes were completed, the Producers felt a female presences was required so Liza Goddard was cast to play Clancy. Finance from Europe was being injected into what was becoming a huge success story, so a German actress Elke Neidhardt was added to play an animal scientist Dr Steiner. She may have been included as a love interest for Matt although it was kept very subliminal. Our family name was Hammond. The series took 2 and a half years to complete, making 92 episodes and a Feature Film. As the series became more popular world wide every actor in Australia wanted a guest role. The most memorable was Frank Thring playing Dr Alexannder Stark, Skippy’s arch nemesis.

2) After the Nine Network green lit the show, you left a NIDA course to work on Skippy, what made you choose Skippy over NIDA?

After we made the pilot Channel 9 were undecided wether to go with the series. I had auditioned for NIDA and was granted a scholarship. My agent suggested I accept the offer so I began my stint at NIDA. Four days into the course Channel 9 decided to commission 13 episodes of Skippy. I had the choice of going to University and learn about acting, or work in the industry and learn on the job. I chose to go with the show. Which in hindsight was a good choice. Years later another Producer said to me. Don’t tell me where you have been, show me what you have done.

3) Skippy was heavily location based – what was the shooting schedule for an episode of Skippy like?

The schedule for Skippy was a six day week. A call sheet was allocated the night before and you were told what time you would be required on set. Because the location was a good 50 minutes drive from the studio you might be required to leave home at 5am to be in makeup at 6.30. We filmed in colour so getting as much daylight as possible was imperative. I soon learnt the importance of punctuality on a film set. You are like a catalyst. If you are late the make up department is late. The wardrobe department is late. The Director can’t communicate with you, and believe me, you don’t keep a director waiting if you want to continue working in the industry.

4) Skippy had a lot of action scenes, helicopters, underwater filming and stunts, how demanding was it working on the show and how did you personally meet the challenges that created?

I was always a fit kind of bloke, and felt very comfortable doing my own stunts. I remember in one episode my character was required to jump out of a helicopter in to the water to grab a trailing anchor line from the speeding patrol boat. I told the director I could do it. When the rushes were seen by the Editor Don Saunders, he asked me was I mad. I think the crew were impressed, as were the audience who sent me hundreds of fan mail congratulating me. From then on falling off the helicopter or riding horses through rough terrain was easy.

5) How hard was it to work opposite a kangaroo? What sort of challenges did it create for the actors?

We actually had 9 Skippy’s. One in particular was called Jo Jo and was the easiest to handle. Kangaroos can get irritated when they are not happy. They were kept in wet sugar bags to keep them docile. One of the guest actors Jack Allen, a comedian, asked what the 9 sugar bags were. I said that’s Skippy’s sack, he replied “If that’s the stars dressing room what do I get”? Our Directors told us make sure our performance was spot on each take, because the one where the Kangaroo is good, is the one we print.

6) Out of all the crazy situations that Skippy got into, were there any that made you stop and go, how is this even possible?

Obviously we were making a family oriented show where belief was expected to be stretched. I found it easy to be in the moment and go with the script.

Skippy playing the drums was amusing.

7) You had the opportunity to work with a lot of big stars, including Ed Devereaux and multiple guest-stars – what was it like working with them and did that give you a chance to learn a-lot?

As I said earlier we had a multitude of guest stars appearing on the Show such as Chips Rafferty, Frank Thring, Jack Thompson. The who’s who of Australian acting talent all wanted to add Skippy to their CV.

8) Why do you think Skippy had such a big international following and was so successful?

The show had a wholehearted feel and I think the chemistry of the cast worked very well. Of course some of the situations Skippy found herself in, and had to get out of were far reaching. But once again the imagination of the audience never let us down.

9) Do you think Skippy finished at the right time, or do you think it had more to give?

Ed Derveraux wanted to finish up and felt we had run our course. Tony had a falling out with the Producers over not being paid residuals and went to work in England. Garry wanted to be a little boy again without the trappings of stardom, and I was told I was still under contract to Fauna Productions and would be cast in their next television series “Barrier Reef”, spending 12 months playing a scuba diver named Kip Young based on Haymen Island on the Great Barrier Reef. I had my 21st birthday during the production.

10) What will you treasure most from your time working on Skippy, from both a professional and personal perspective?

The opportunity to work on an international television series, which has become an Australian Icon. Learning my craft day in day out from an amazing range of fellow actors and most importantly to work with some of the best crew in the world. My only sticking point was not receiving any residual payment for the series being shown around the world for the past 50 years.

11) In this day of reboots, do you think a Skippy reboot would work? Would you ever consider reprising your role?

The show was briefly revised some years ago with a different cast but it didn’t work as well as the original. I will be turning 72 in November so jumping out of Helicopters is no longer an option.

12) What have you been up to recently?

My last acting role was in a play called “Ladies Night”. We toured Australia for 6 months. I was then asked to direct a play “Calendar Girls”. for the same company. I no longer have an agent so bookings and enquires don’t come my way.

A couple of years ago we shared a Villa in Bali with the Chief Executive of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce Mark Stone AM. He invited me to work for him on special projects. One of my duties was to contact CEO’s of major companies to become members of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce. I worked on and off for Mark for a couple of years and made quite a lot of money for the Chamber. My foray into business was a success. I seem to be able to communicate and network effectively.

Thanks so much to Ken James for great insight into an Australian classic. Since Ken gave up his time, we would love to promote a charity Ken supports, please give generously to:

You can catch Ken James in action in Skippy in the video below: