Malcolm Douglas 14 March 1941 to 23 September 2010

In 1976 kids and adults piled into the old Paramount Theatre in Echuca and in the darkness watched the amazingly raw and totally believable scenes in Malcolm Douglas’s film ‘Across the Top’, in awe.  None of us had seen anything like it – because no-one had ever made a journey like it or filmed it (it was filmed during the mid-late 1960s).  None of us knew that up north there was such a fabulously wild, fascinating and sparsely unsettled region of Australia, so vastly different to our relatively suburban southern existence, rural though it was.  I can’t have been the only one who found ‘Across the Top’ inspirational.  Malcolm Douglas’s ‘Across the Top’ may well have been one of the reasons why I headed to the far north.  Unfortunately it has taken until now for me to realise it.

Malcolm Douglas was killed in a car accident on his Broome Wilderness Wildlife Park last week.

By chance I caught a tribute screening of one of his Kimberley adventures on Channel 7 last night and it was a stark reminder of what we have lost.  Malcolm was only 69 and he was an absolute fount of knowledge in relation to the bush – wildlife, the environment and survival – especially in WA’s Kimberley region.  What you saw was what you got, and the honesty and un-stageyness of the filming was a breath of fresh air after so much hideous ‘reality TV’ drivel in recent years.  With Malcolm you knew what you were seeing was real and no it hadn’t been set up, fiddled with or edited to create drama where none actually existed.   Not a false  orange sky in sight!  He loved the bush and everything in it, and this genuine passion shone through everything he did.  Malcolm Douglas belongs in the same category as the Leyland Brothers (Mike and Mal Leyland), Harry Butler and Jack Absolom – all died in the wool bushies who loved the bush, loved what they did, and called a spade a shovel.  They make more recent equivalents look like plastic show ponies by comparison.  And of this group of blokes, Malcolm is the long-term stayer – the only one who has hung on through thick and thin and remained in the public eye all these decades, still producing documentaries and running his Malcolm Douglas Wilderness Wildlife Park.

His son Lachlan sounds as straightforward, honest and realistic as his father.  He has recently been quoted as saying his father ran his parks ‘purely through love and without an interest in profit’ and the family were unsure whether the parks could continue on without the subsidisation from Malcolm’s income-producing films and endorsements.

There’s two sorts of people in Australia – those who run businesses purely for profit, and the passionate people who run businesses for love of what they do and a belief in the importance of what they do – with financial profit viewed simply as an essential to enable them to continue doing what is important.  Into this category fall many family farmers, conservationists, artists, authors, etc.  Including me.  All price takers rather than price makers – because that’s what happens to anyone in this situation – even though profitability can be a struggle, the business owner continues on because they believe in it.  Unfortunately the former group cannot understand the latter, and usually presume that everyone operates as they do – purely for personal financial gain – and it’s common for them to view those who operate primarily for love of what they do as less than competent.  Personally I can’t understand people who run a business purely for financial gain (without morals, ethics and a sense of purpose apart from financial gain) and laugh when such people mistakenly view themselves as clever because they believe they’re the first one to think of some specific financial decisions that others had already thought of but decided not to pursue for ethical reasons.  Purchasing then de-staffing and amalgamating neighbouring cattle stations, that are large and healthy enough to be run separately as profitable enterprises; and leaving historic buildings to dereliction are ideal examples of this unscrupulous behaviour.  There are several empire-creating pastoralists at work right now who fall into this category and unfortunately, increasing numbers of large pastoral company board members who think likewise (dollar is king, nothing else matters – including staff welfare, rural community health and the preservation of history).  Such people are a blight on society and the tragedy is that so many end up on a pedestal as financial geniuses – with awards bestowed on them such as OAMs etc – when they’ve simply got to where they are by making ugly choices that others have already considered and rejected for moral reasons.   

I wholeheartedly sympathise with Malcolm Douglas’s family about the exceedingly difficult situation they are now in, with regard to what to do with their father’s life’s work.  In reality, like every other enterprise commenced by a passionate creator, it will not be able to continue as-is.   Such people basically operate for the good of the public at large, at great cost to themselves; and only a passionate originator can stick this out in the long term. 

Visiting Malcolm Douglas’s Wildlife Park was on my to-do list and of course I am very sorry now that I didn’t achieve the aim.   I hope Malcolm Douglas finally receives the public recognition that he deserves.

Many of Malcolm Douglas’s films are for sale on his website so presumably it would be greatly helpful to his family if the public at large shook the spiders out of their wallets and bought up some classic Australian outback documentaries, filmed in places they’ll never be able to visit themselves, as well as some they could.  This may at least give Malcolm’s family some breathing space in regard to making decisions about the future.   Wikipedia has a very long list of all the films Malcolm has made over the years plus some other information – he was born in Beechworth (Victoria) and he and his travelling companion David Oldmeadow were apparently stock & station agents in the Riverina region (where I grew up), before they set off on their travels up north in 1964.  Dominic Fry wrote an excellent article on Malcolm’s background on Fishing Monthly, well worth a read.

His family have lost a husband and father and Australia has lost a unique and immensely talented bloke – what a tragedy for all.

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