Skippy the Bush Kangaroo is one of Australia’s all-time most successful cultural exports. The TV show had a global audience in the early 1970s of more than 300 million – and the character was a star that rivalled Doctor Who and The Avengers in terms of popularity in Britain’s TV Comic for many years.
While today, most might perhaps consider Australian soap operas such as Neighbours and Home and Away to be the country’s best known TV exports, Skippy was the most successful series ever made in Australia. It has had sales in over 100 overseas markets, dubbed into 25 languages (it was known as Skippy el canguro in Mexico and Skippy, das Känguruh in West Germany), and was syndicated on US television.
For those of you unfamiliar, the drama series, made in the 1960s featured nine-year-old Sonny Hammond (Garry Pankhurst) and crime-fighting “Bush Kangaroo” Skippy. Sonny, constant companion and best friend to Skippy, lives with older brother Mark (Ken James) and widower Matt Hammond (Ed Devereaux, who died in 2003), Head Ranger of Waratah National Park. They’re joined by a handsome helicopter pilot and ranger, Jerry King (Tony Bonner), and a blonde teenage boarder Clarissa ‘Clancy’ Merrick (played by British actress Liza Goddard).
The adventure show was the first Australian series to be heavily merchandised with a fan club, the strip in Britain’s TV Comic, which had two long runs in the weekly title between 1967 and 1973, annuals, toys and books, a wide range of branded product from pyjamas to ice-creams to Skippy money boxes – and Corn Flakes.
When Skippy and Sonny went on promotional tour around Australia they supposedly drew more people than the Queen Mother and US President Lyndon B Johnson combined – although not every appearance was as successful as others, according to Maurice Fawcett, inaugural manager of Perth’s Innaloo Shopping Centre.
Skippy was produced by Fauna Productions, a partnership between film producer/director and documentary maker Lee Robinson and former film actor John McCallum with a Sydney lawyer forming the third partner.
Although born in Australia, John McCallum had spent most of his professional life in Britain where he had worked extensively on stage and in film, returning to Australia to take a senior executive position with JC Williamson and Company, the largest theatrical group in Australia and New Zealand. He became involved with the production of the comedy feature film, They’re a Weird Mob and he and Robinson, who had been production manager on the film, briefly considered producing a spin-off television series. Taking advice from the international distributor, Global, they decided on Skippy instead – a family friendly series about a dubiously intelligent kangaroo with nods to other animal characters such as Lassie and Flipper.
What made the show such a success, at home and abroad, seems to have been its unique Australian locations, the choice of bush kangaroo Skippy as series star (played by numerous kangaroos) and a likeable cast. Produced between 1967 and 1969, the first series running to a total of 91 episodes, and one feature film, the show was actually broadcast in the UK before airing in its native Australia.
Skippy the Bush Kangaroo made its UK debut on 8th October 1967, running continuously as the entirety of the commercial ABC‘s Sunday afternoon children’s programming. The show ran continuously until June 1968. It appears to have also screened on Ulster, who took it simultaneously, though perhaps not for the whole period.
Unlike today’s national ITV network, ABC did not cover all of the UK, but it did cover Birmingham, London and Manchester and together with Ulster the three regions between them would have encompassed around 40 per cent of the UK population – a sizeable proportion.
Although ABC continued with Skippy into the new year, Ulster did not. Westward started showing the series on Fridays from January 1968, and by March it was on in London and the north of Scotland too. So by then, at least two-thirds of the UK population either had or had had the opportunity of watching it. (These are overall populations – I don’t know whether these reflect the numbers of children in the various parts of the country).
In Australia, the series didn’t begin to be broadcast, on the Kerry Packer-owned Nine Network, until February 1968.
It must have made an impact almost immediately, despite the lack of a national screening, because “Skippy the Bush Kangaroo” began its first run in TV Comic in December 1967 as a one page strip drawn by Bill Lacey, an artist whose credits stretching back to the 1950s include work on Mickey Mouse Weekly and strips such as “Mytek the Mighty” for Valiant in the 1960s and “Eagles Over the Western Front” in Look and Learn from 1971 – 1973 (explaining why, perhaps, John Canning drew the second run of “Skippy” over the same period).
(It wasn’t unknown for TV Comic to launch a strip which wasn’t national. They started Fireball XL5 in October 1962 when only ATV Midlands were showing it, and A-R London and others didn’t start airing it until the spring of 1963).
The first “Skippy” series ran until February 1970 in Issue 948, replaced by “Catweazle”.
Strangely, Australian publishers weren’t as quick off the mark to spot the show’s success – a short-lived comic ran for just 12 issues, published by Magazine Management between 1970 and 1974. The strips were drawn by the accomplished writer and artist Ronald Keith Chatto (1924 – 22 October 1992), who, his Sun Herald obituary noted, was also the first Australian illustrator to draw a full-length episode of The Phantom comic, one of his last works.
The decision to film the series on film and in colour, even though Australian television had not yet moved to a colour transmission system, helped the show’s longevity across the globe, with Skippy often repeated in the UK in the early 1970s, as elsewhere.
It must have helped persuade the publishers of TV Comic to continue the strip, expanding it to two pages for a run which began in February 1971 (in Issue 1000) and continued until September 1973 (Issue 1131).
John Canning is best known for his work on TV Comic‘s “Doctor Who” strip, drawing the first, second and third Doctors from 1966 to 1970, then taking up the strip again in 1975 to do all but three of the original fourth Doctor stories. As comics archivist Shaquille le Vesconte notes, he continued, in a kind of surrogate way, to work on the strip until it ended in TV Comic, by painting Tom Baker’s features on reprints of Gerry Haylock’s artwork for the third Doctor, and even one of his own for the second Doctor.
In addition to “Skippy” Canning worked on other strips and comics, for Junior Express, (later Express Weekly) and was a long-running artist on the colour Ladybird Adventure Club and Milky Bar Kid advertising strips in the 1960s. He also drew “The Avengers”, “Tarzan”, “Star Trek” and more for TV Comic, and contributed to Lady Penelope in its first year, illustrating text stories.
Skippy also featured in some TV Comic Holiday Specials, in text stories or strips and in some TV Comic annuals, and World Distributors published numerous annuals and two “Big Television Books” featuring Skippy.
The TV Comic or annual strips were also reprinted in Europe, although details are, for now, sketchy.
We can’t forget, either, that there have been many “Skippy” comic spoofs, as well as TV spoofs, including a one-off, one page dig at the antipodean animal superstar in VIZ, drawn by the brilliant Davey Jones, back in 2014. (Be warned, it’s a bit racy… well, it is VIZ!)
While Skippy has had to share international recognition with other Australian series such as Neighbours after its run ended (Fauna going on to produced another action show, Barrier Reef, which also featured kangaroo), the original series success spurred a spin-off series, The Adventures of Skippy which ran to 39 half-hour episodes, set on an animal sanctuary near the Gold Coast.
An animated series, Skippy Adventures in Bushtown featured Skippy as the park ranger in the cartoon world of Bushtown in the 1990s and in 2009, the documentary Skippy: Australia’s First Superstar was broadcast on ABC in Australia and the BBC in the UK.
In 2019, there’s still interest in the character who was a star of both TV – and British comics – for two decades.
• Classic Australian Television: Skippy
Part of a great site about every major Australian TV show
• The Skippy Project
Old blog devoted to all the original show’s locations. The examines how Sydney and its surrounding areas have changed in the last 40 years.
• The original Skippy the Bush Kangaroo is available as a 14-DVD Box Set (Amazon Affiliate Link)
Liza Goddard recalls the problems shooting the show. “The kangaroos were always bogging off into the bush, and there was a prize for whoever captured the most Skippies at the end of each day. You’d also have to try and act while a man lay on the floor holding a kangaroo’s tail to prevent another escape. They weren’t house-trained either, so the interior scenes were disgusting, especially in that heat.”
• Kangaroos don’t say ‘tchk tchk tchk’. Australian Screen notes sound editor Phil Judd remembers getting producer Dennis Hill up to the microphone to demonstrate Skippy’s trademark sound. Visually, Skippy ‘talking’ was achieved by giving the kangaroo something to chew. Many alternatives were tried including chewing gum, rubber bands, chocolate and, most successfully, grass.
• When filming ended Skippy continued to live in the film set in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, which was opened to the public in January 1970 as a theme park and animal sanctuary, but is currently closed
SKIPPY THE BUSH KANGAROO – COMICS LINKS
• All 116 episodes of “Eagles over the Western Front” by Mike Butterworth and Bill Lacey have been collected in three volumes published by Bear Alley Books. Buy Volume One | Buy Volume Two | Buy Volume Three
With thanks to Simon Coward, Peter Gray, Alistair McGown, David McDonald Paul Scoones, Shaquille le Vesconte and members of the Peter Gray UK Comics Facebook group
Skippy the Bush Kangaroo © Norfolk Productions/Fauna Productions
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