Steven Tandy played Tom Sullivan in The Sullivans

Steven Tandy has had a long and successful career in TV and theatre but perhaps his most well remembered role is that of Tom Sullivan, in Crawford Productions’ wartime drama The Sullivans. Here is a selection of the some of the questions we asked Steven back in 2008.

In 1974 you did a show called The Unisexers.

Yes. It wasn’t until the late Kerry Packer passed away and I read an article about him that it reminded me it was one of the first projects he put money into when he became the director of Channel Nine. It lost money, it wasn’t very successful, and I remember it being pulled off after about a month on air. But it was a good series and it was lots of fun, we had a nice time doing it. I remember coming back from my lunch break one day, I went into town to collect my pay cheque, and when I got back everyone was standing around with glum faces and Tony Sheldon mimicked to me cutting his throat, as if to say ‘it’s over’!

The Sullivans started in 1976. How did the role of Tom come about?

My agent rang me on a Friday afternoon, she’d been trying to track me down, and said ‘you’re flying to Melbourne on Sunday night…you’re screen testing on Monday morning for a role on The Sullivans. It’s a new series about Australia in the wartime, it’s a cross between A Family At War and The Waltons. Do the best you can, it could be three months work…’ So, I flew up and I stayed in my motel room with a piece of white bread and a cup of tea till about three in the morning, learning the lines, then a taxi came to pick me up and took me to Crawford Productions and I screen tested for Tom Sullivan.

That very day they gave me some scripts, took my wardrobe measurements and said ‘as far as we are concerned you are Tom Sullivan, but we need Channel Nine’s approval’. That took two days and then my agent called and said ‘you’re Tom Sullivan’. When I found out the rest of the cast I was thrilled. Andrew McFarlane was playing my older brother (John) and I’d known him from NIDA, where he was a year behind me. I knew Maggie Dence (Rose); I didn’t really know Lorraine Bayly (Grace) or Paul Cronin (Dave) very well and I didn’t know Richard Morgan (Terry) or Susan Hannaford (Kitty) at all. I also knew Michael Caton (Harry) and Norman Yemm (Norm). So suddenly I was in Melbourne and I was part of Melbourne’s favourite wartime family, which became Australia’s favourite wartime family. It was lovely to be at that age and to be playing a hero and a good son and a good brother and a great lover and all that. It was wonderful, you couldn’t ask for more.

Your character, and Norman Yemm’s, were based on the various war fronts, while the other action was taking place at home.

We used to joke actually that we went through every theatre of war possible. We went from fighting the Germans to fighting the Japanese to going to Changai prison…boats in Java and Sumatra, working with the Dutch Verzet (Resistance). It was an amazing Boys’ Own adventure story for us, and then we’d come back to Australia and be so loved. It was wonderful to be a part of a storytelling of real history, that’s why The Sullivans is so unique, because it dealt with a real period in history. As terrible as it was at least it showed the humanity and the warmth and the love; it was a really unique series and I’m very honoured to have been a part of it.

The war locations were filmed closer to home than viewers were led to believe, weren’t they?

Most of the locations were around Melbourne. We filmed at the beaches of Rye, I remember Crete was Sunbury, and the Dandenong forests of Victoria became the jungle of New Guinea. I remember weeks running round the Dandenongs, freezing cold! I think the worst period for me was portraying the Changai sequences, because we actually filmed them in the middle of winter at the Port Melbourne Gasworks and it was freezing. We’d stay up all night to do night shoots, huddled round these little heaters with ponchos round our shoulders and boots on to keep us warm. We were breathing vapour because of the cold so before the take they’d put ice blocks in our mouths to stop it, because we were supposed to be in Singapore in the middle of summer.

In 1979 Crawfords actually flew me, Norman Yemm and Olivia Hamnett (Meg) to Holland, to film for two weeks in Amsterdam. All we did was ride bicycles around everywhere, we didn’t do a lot of dialogue, in fact the director David Stevens said ‘we didn’t come all this way to do dialogue!’, they just wanted background shots. I remember it well because I turned 27 over there, and the film crew gave me a beautiful bottle of Dutch gin for my birthday.

Was The Sullivans on TV over there at that time and did they know who you all were?

I don’t think they did, because there was one day when we had to do a scene with a few extras dressed as German soldiers and a lot of people in the streets weren’t happy about it, they were being reminded of the war.

You did a lot of your work on The Sullivans with Norman Yemm, who played Norm.

We were great mates. He’s a wonderful man. What you see on screen is what you get with Norman Yemm and me. He was like my uncle, and a protector, and we had great fun and laughs.

Presumably you didn’t get to see much of the actors who were filming episodes based in Camberwell?

We didn’t often. We were on location and then we’d come back to the studio to do some family scenes. The way it was shot was quite strange. We’d go back to rehearse studio scenes with the family, which were out of continuity, and suddenly we’d be doing scenes with Grace and Dave and then the next morning we’d be back in jungle huts in Sumatra.

When the war was over and Tom came back to Australia, did you enjoy working in the studio, or did you prefer the action era?

In a way I preferred the action. When Tom came back from the war he married Patty Spencer, an American from Boston he met in London. Then he went to Law School and it all became a story about postwar life in Melbourne.

There was talk that the action would skip a decade or so and then carry on from there?

I actually went to London after having talks with Hector Crawford about the future of the show in mid 1982. Mr Crawford had said to me that Paul Cronin was leaving us to go to Channel 10 and they were thinking of elevating Tom to be the head of the household. So I went to London for four weeks thinking when I got back to Australia I would be playing the head of the Sullivan clan. But during my absence the show was axed, and I returned to Melbourne to find I had only two weeks to complete the series. It was a bit of a blow, but I had to take it on the chin.

Is there anything you’d like to say to the listeners (of The Soap Show during this interview)?

I’d just like to say thank you so much if you are still thinking about me and The Sullivans in England. I love thinking about England and all the actors and the theatre, and the giants of the stage that worked in England. They still inspire me, even though I’m an Aussie!