Australian Directors' Guild   

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07/03/2024 5:21 PM | Anonymous

It is with profound sadness that we announce the death of Michael Jenkins, whose work has left an indelible mark on Australian television and cinema.



I didn’t know Michael Jenkins personally. But like many Australian directors and writers breaking through in the 90’s and 2000’s, Michael’s work on Australian TV was world changing. His creativity reared up and shouted to an Australian TV audience that had been held captive by a producer-centric model and network influence that employed filmmakers as functionaries. 

Even the movie spirit of Kennedy Miller could not crack fast shooting TV schedules to any great cinematic effect. Australian TV Drama was visually and sonically constipated and light years behind the best of US and UK TV. 

Then along came Michael Jenkins. His TV was faster and more visceral. Blue Murder says it all about where Jenkins came from and where he wanted to go as a creative force. He and his teams of actors, writers, drama coaches, brave 1st ADs and amazingly skilled TV cinematographers found ways to shoot fast and beatifically, exciting us viscerally and psychologically. Streamed episodic series have long since moved on from Michael’s vision. 

As a filmic form, the best streaming series now arguably go deeper than cinema into character and story. But no doubt, Michael Jenkins’ creative cannon was a seminal Australian TV milestone of the 80s and 90s.

Rowan Woods

ADG President


I was honoured when Mike’s long time partner Amanda asked me to write something about Mike, as I’d only interfaced with him sporadically throughout our lives; when he first appeared maybe just aged 20 at the ABC as a PA in late ‘66 or early ‘67, when I cut for him five years or so later on “Certain Women,” then editing his episodes of the 1976 series “Rush” and then when I directed episodes on “Young Lions,” one of the many series that he created… then sadly, the other day on the Northern beaches.

Launched into this world in 1946, Mike grew up in beachside Collaroy, Sydney. His grandfather introduced Mike to sailing on Narrabeen Lake and subsequently triggered a life long love of all things nautical, culminating in a 10-year boat-building project resulting in

‘Echo’ – a 42’ trawler-style boat. Horticulture was Mike’s other passion; he’d garden and landscape wherever he resided.Mike left Shore School in North Sydney at seventeen and after uni, where he majored in philosophy – doing his honours thesis on Plato, Mike worked for a couple of years as a cadet journalist with the ABC, living in Canberra and working in the press gallery.

In ’66 Mike transferred to the ABC studios at Gore Hill and worked on Alan Searle’s Gardening program before becoming production assistant in the drama division. ‘The Cottage’ housed drama preproduction and post where I worked as a sound editor and that was where I first sighted Mike – both he and Mike Carson, fresh faced, bursting with a zeal that portended careers of significance. Melbourne based “Bellbird,” the legendary ABC soap, was where Mike cut his directorial drama teeth. “CERTAIN WOMEN” and “RUSH” back in Sydney was where I again worked with Mike as his film editor.He met the actress Jenny Lee on the set of “Certain Women” and they later had two boys – Daniel Jack Jenkins in 1976 and Jack Raymond Jenkins in 1980 and now granddaughters, Sydney (12) and Vera (9). 

Mike began his Writer/Director phase around ’73 with “Serpent in the Rainbow.” In 1980 as Writer/Director, he made “SPRING AND FALL” and reunited with Michael Carson who worked as his producer.Later that year Mike won a Writer’s Guild Award and the prize was a scholarship to UCLA. Mike completed a gruelling course in screenplay writing and structuring in the American idiom - One course demand was to turn out a production-ready feature film script, usually based on a front-page story from a newspaper, every 6 weeks. On his return he’d admit it was absolutely punishing, but he learnt skills that led to a huge slate of written/director projects.

In’83 he wrote the highly acclaimed feature, “Careful, he Might Hear You,” directed by Carl Schultz and for which Mike won the then AFI awards ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ category.“Robbery Under Arms” and “Rebel” followed – and on the set of the latter, Mike met assistant editor, Amanda Robson and they began their forty-year love affair. Amanda and Mike subsequently had a son and daughter, Tom and Matilda. Concurrently, Mike began the highly productive auteur phase of his career. In 1983 the landmark series “Scales of Justice,” hit home screens. As one critique put it; “one of the most controversial mini-series ever produced.” “Scales” examined corruption in all levels of law enforcement…” Then, as testament to Mike’s versatility he directed “The Leaving of Liverpool,” the moving story of children being shipped post WW2 from the Star of the Sea orphanage in the U.K. to far flung Commonwealth destinations

There followed the auteur feature “The Heartbreak Kid,” later spawning the internationally successful multi season series “Heartbreak High.” The hard-hitting “Blue Murder,” pulled no punches, likewise the gritty “Wildside” and “Young Lions” - it was a momentous decade for Mike. Another review at the time paid high praise to Mike - “Jenkins is one of the most highly regarded Australian directors of the 1990s, known for his distinctive, gritty style, particularly his use of multiple hand held cameras, and semi-improvised dialogue.” Themes of justice and humanity underlie pretty much every project Mike has been drawn to. Whether it traces back to influences from his QC father or his Plato based studies in philosophy, the notions of fairness and empathy remain consistent.

In an interview he gave in regard to “Blue Murder,” he talked about not judging characters, “no matter how corrupt or evil they outwardly appear.” When he set about making “The Wrong Girl,” a tough, based on fact project about a pack rape in the early 2000s, he collided with power figures and narrower minds.

Speaking with the press, Michael said of the victim, "The journey of this young girl is a heroic journey. It's an enduring and determined fight for personal justice." He said The Wrong Girl would treat victims with sensitivity while looking at why such horrific crimeswere committed. The film's writer, Nicholas Hammond had spoken extensively with one gang rape victim. "She was the first one to say, 'This movie is the only good thing I've had in my life in the last four years when I've been going through these trials.”

The planned film had been inspired by Mike seeing one girl give evidence. The title came from her answer when asked how she had coped with the court case. She replied: "They picked the wrong girl to rape" alluding to her determination and tenacity to speak out. The then State Premier found the subject matter too hot to handle and sadly, on this occasion, Mike’s mission to speak justice and dignity for a young victim was shut down.Misfortune also struck his ‘Bali bombing project’ shortly after it went into production for the ABC. In 2005 writer Peter Schreck conceived a two-parter about the terrorist attack in Kuta in October 2002 in which 202 people, including 88 Australians, were killed.

The first part Mike wanted to make from the point of view of the Australian victims and covering the police operation. The second part, though, took the position of the bombers. It was to be filmed entirely in Indonesian, and screened with subtitles. The show was about four days into production

when it fell apart – two more terrorist bombs were detonated in Kuta, killing 20. "They blew up a restaurant, and we heard the explosion, it was so close to us," Mike recounted. "And then the whole country went into panic mode. We had about 30-odd permissions [to film] and they were progressively withdrawn." The Balinese feared that the production would foster further extremism and so the Indonesian military finally shut the show down. "So we just had to abandon that project," Mike said on his return. "It was a fantastic idea but we had very bad luck." Mike and Amanda left Sydney around 2006 to take up retirement in Tasmania.

They bonded with the people and extensively toured the state. It was a bucolic existence just outside Hobart where they gardened, landscaped and Mike sailed, ultimately leading to several years creating his own 42’ vessel – “Echo.”

But his highly awarded “Blue Murder” of the mid nineties hadn’t finished with Mike. When Roger Rogerson was arrested for the murder of Jamie Gow in May 2014, the Seven network contacted Mike. It seemed an obvious opportunity for a follow-up series given the notoriety of Rogerson and the success of the original show. “Killer Cop” was shot in 2016, and aired the following year with audiences, ratings and press all white hot for “Jenkins’ knife edge directing.”

Early signs of movement problems started the same year. By 2020 they were significant and Mike received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. During 2021 & 2022 Mike had some dreadful falls resulting in multiple breaks and hospital stays. It became obvious Mike and Amanda couldn’t easily manage the property, and the distance from family in Sydney necessitated their move back. Mike passed away in the late afternoon of the 4th (March 2024) with his long time partner Amanda and close family by his side. The industry will always remember him as a master Film maker, but beyond the passionate and driven personality, Mike will always be remembered as a warm, fair and empathetic friend and of course a tender and loving husband and father. 

Unequivocally, Mike has been a prodigious creator of excellent and groundbreaking film and television spanning five decades. “Creator, writer, director” is a tag that appears over and over in Mike’s lengthy filmography…”Scales,” “Heartbreak High,” “Blue Murder,” “Wildside,” “Young Lions,” and more – Time and time again the industry recognised Mike’s work in awards; AFI ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ for “Careful…” along with the Premier’s Literary Award. ‘Best writer and director’ for “Scales,” ‘Best Screenplay and Director’ for “The Heartbreak Kid,” an AFI and Logie for ‘Best Mini-Series’ for “The Leaving of Liverpool,” again ‘Best Mini-Series and Director for “Blue Murder,” little wonder he’s been written of as one of “the most important and innovative film makers of the 80’s and 90”s.”

I’d long marvelled at Mike’s talent as a film maker and his ability for capturing truth in performance and to achieve startlingly realistic visual styles and I clearly remember one day in preproduction when we were having a coffee rave about movies we admired and the process of maintaining a truthful and distinctive style and Mike said, “when I first arrive on a location, I decide upon the hardest place to shoot the scene from and that’s where I put the camera.” And though I got the wisdom of it and was maybe drawn to applying it to my own shooting, conventions of symmetry and the perfect frame would always be there to seduce me. But that was the innovative tenacity and the magic of director Mike.

Ian Barry