John Cundill: ‘The Vil­lagers’ scriptwriter who went on to en­joy a ca­reer en­core in Aus­tralia

1936-2016

Sunday Times - - NEWS -

JOHN Cundill, who has died in Aus­tralia at the age of 79, wrote scripts for some of South Africa’s ear­li­est and most pop­u­lar TV dra­mas, in­clud­ing The Vil­lagers, West­gate and 1922.

He was also the scriptwriter for Jock of the Bushveld, the highly suc­cess­ful film based on Percy Fitz­Patrick’s book about his ex­pe­ri­ences as an ox-wagon trans­port driver who criss­crossed the Transvaal bushveld with his Stafford­shire bull ter­rier in the 19th cen­tury.

In 1987, Cundill em­i­grated to Aus­tralia where he made a name for him­self as a writer of TV and film scripts, in­clud­ing Never Tell Me Never about would-be Olympic skier Ja­nine Shep­herd who was hit by a truck dur­ing a train­ing ride on her bi­cy­cle and told she would never walk again.

Af­ter read­ing her book, Dare to Fly, Cundill be­came a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to her home where he spent count­less hours quizzing her on ev­ery de­tail of her life be­fore writ­ing the script.

Al­though the writ­ing came eas­ily to him, he put an enor­mous amount of time and ef­fort into re­search to en­sure au­then­tic­ity.

He also wrote Love in Limbo star­ring Rus­sell Crowe, Mer­cury with Ge­of­frey Rush and the TV se­ries Heart­land (also known as Burned Bridge) star­ring Cate Blanchett, which deals with the mys­tery sur-

Al­though the writ­ing came eas­ily to him, he put an enor­mous amount of time and ef­fort into re­search

SE­RIAL HITS: John Cundill was re­spon­si­ble for such lo­cal TV dra­mas as ’West­gate’, ’The Vil­lagers’ and ’1922’ round­ing the death of an Abo­rig­i­nal girl and doubts about the guilt of her boyfriend who is ar­rested for her mur­der. This was suc­cess­ful in Aus­tralia and abroad.

Cundill was born in Ger­mis­ton on May 30 1936. His father was the gen­eral man­ager of one of South Africa’s big­gest gold mines, op­er­ated by Gold­fields.

The fam­ily lived in a big house on top of a hill with work­ers’ ac­com­mo­da­tion and recre­ation club and can­teen at the bot­tom. Dur­ing his hol­i­days from school and univer­sity Cundill spent many hours in the recre­ation club, lis­ten­ing to con­ver­sa­tions about the min­ers’ lives and closely ob­serv­ing their man­ner­isms.

It was no ac­ci­dent that much of the ac­tion in The Vil­lagers, which ran once a week for three years from 1976 to 1978, was set in a work­ers’ recre­ation club at a gold mine — and in the house of the gen­eral man­ager, Hil­ton McRae, played by Gor­don Mul­hol­land.

Mul­hol­land, a vet­eran stage per­former by the time TV ar­rived in South Africa in 1976, be­came a house­hold name thanks to The Vil­lagers, as did sev­eral oth­ers. il­le­gally shipped to Aus­tria for racial stud­ies more than a cen­tury be­fore.

The land resti­tu­tion com­mis­sion used Le­gas­sick’s re­search as ref­er­ence ma­te­rial when pro­cess­ing land claims in the North­ern Cape.

Uma Dhu­pelia-Mesthrie, a fel­low his­tory pro­fes­sor at UWC, de­scribed Le­gas­sick as “an in­cred­i­ble men­tor who was al­ways metic­u­lously pre­pared and asked pierc­ing ques­tions that of­ten made you re­con­sider your opin­ions and con­clu­sions”.

In 2007, Le­gas­sick was fa­mously in­volved in a pub­lic ex­change of open let­ters with Hu­man Set­tle­ments Min­is­ter Lindiwe Sisulu, over the N2 Gate­way de­vel­op­ment pro­ject. Af­ter his ar­rest in May 2009 for sup­port­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion of va­cant state-owned land in Ma­cas­sar by the shack-dwellers’ move­ment Abahlali baseMjon­dolo, Le­gas­sick told the Cape Times news­pa­per: “If hous­ing can­not be pro­vided im­me­di­ately for all, peo­ple must be al­lowed to find land on which to build shacks, whether that land is mu­nic­i­pal, state, pro­vin­cial or pri­vate.”

Le­gas­sick also demon­strated sol­i­dar­ity with the minework­ers’ protests in the af­ter­math of the Marikana mas­sacre, and with the farm­worker strikes dur­ing 2012-13, pub­lish­ing ar­ti­cles lo­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally to elicit sup­port for the work­ers.

Last year he re­ceived the World As­so­ci­a­tion for Political Econ­omy dis­tin­guished achieve­ment award in political econ­omy, for his book To­wards So­cial Democ­racy.

De­spite pro­longed ill-health, Le­gas­sick com­pleted his fi­nal book, a mag­num opus on land dis­pos­ses­sion and re­sis­tance in the North­ern Cape, which will be re­leased by Wits Univer­sity Press in May .

Le­gas­sick is sur­vived by his part­ner Margie Struthers, his two chil­dren from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage — Rosa and Sean — and two grand­daugh­ters. — Aye­sha Ka­jee

A me­mo­rial ser­vice will be held at 10am on Satur­day March 12 at St Ge­orge’s Cathe­dral, Cape Town

Cundill fol­lowed this hugely pop­u­lar se­ries with West­gate , about the board­room and bed­room in­trigues of a PR agency, which ran from 1981 to 1985 with Mul­hol­land again, Eckard Rabe and Richard Haines.

This was fol­lowed by the TV se­ries 1922 based on the min­ers’ strikes of that year in Joburg.

He also wrote Oh Ge­orge, a 26episode fam­ily com­edy with Clive Scott, Ed­die Eck­stein, Annabel Lin­der, James Borth­wick and a guest per­for­mance by An­neline Kriel.

Af­ter ma­tric­u­lat­ing at St John’s Col­lege in Houghton, Cundill wanted to study drama at the Univer­sity of Cape Town, but his father, with whom he had a strained re­la­tion­ship, would not let him. He did a straight BA there in­stead but made it onto the stage in 1958 along­side Nigel Hawthorne of Yes Min­is­ter fame, who di­rected and acted in a Cape Town pro­duc­tion of Doc­tor in the House.

In 1963, Cundill be­came a reporter on The Star and had stints as a for­eign correspondent in Lon­don and New York.

In his spare time he tried his hand at writ­ing plays. His first at­tempt in 1966 won him best English ra­dio play of the year for To the End of the Road about a young­ster who dreamt of be­com­ing a star ath­lete but ended up in a wheel­chair.

He left The Star to work for the PR com­pany Group Edi­tors be­fore turn­ing to scriptwrit­ing full time.

He won sev­eral awards in­clud­ing the 1978 Olive Schreiner award for two short plays, Re­dun­dant and Wait­ing , which were tele­vised un­der the ti­tle Duet. He won the SABC prize for English drama three times.

In Aus­tralia he worked in Perth and Syd­ney be­fore quit­ting the big city life 2001 for an idyl­lic town called Maleny, Aus­tralia’s an­swer to Un­der­berg.

Here he rein­vented him­self as an ac­tor-play­wright (the hard­est part was try­ing to re­mem­ber his lines, he said).

His plays in­cluded Un­forced Er­rors, The Eu­logy and Up the Tiber with­out a Toga. He ex­pressed dis­ap­point­ment that re­view­ers and other play­wrights did not take his stage work more se­ri­ously.

Cundill died of blad­der can­cer. He is sur­vived by his se­cond wife, Mirella, and three chil­dren. — Chris Bar­ron

Pic­ture: PIERRE OOSTHUY­SEN

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