Vale Michael Jenkins

13 March, 2024

Mike Jenkins died last week and our industry is diminished by his passing – but forever enhanced by his seminal contribution as writer, director, producer, executive producer. You can count on one hand – less than one hand – the people who have left a permanent mark on Australian film and television. Mike is one of them. 
Even a partial list of his credits reads like milestones in the evolution of our industry, spanning fifty years from Bellbird to Blue Murder and its sequel and encompassing features Careful He Might Hear You, Robbery Under Arms, Rebel, Emerald City, Heartbreak Kid; signature television series Scales of Justice, The Leaving of Liverpool andBlue Murder that advanced and changed the very nature of television drama in this country; and the internationally successful series Heartbreak High along with Wildside and Young Lions
Then the awards: Writers' Guild AWGIEs, an AFI and Premier’s Literary Award for Careful, Best Writer and Director for Scales, Best Screenplay and Director for Heartbreak Kid, an AFI and Logie for The Leaving of Liverpool, Best Miniseries and Director for Blue Murder. This is nothing like a full list of the productions or the awards, and Mike long ago lost count of the nominations, if he ever kept count.
But those of us who were privileged to know him well will remember Mike not just for what he did, but also for the way he did it. Give anybody the power to hire and fire and they can be a boss, but leadership is rare – and great leadership is extraordinary. Mike was extraordinary.
Mike was seldom the tallest person in the room, and in truth he may have sometimes been the shortest – but I guarantee you, you never noticed that until maybe the end of the day or the end of the shoot when you were having a beer. I never once heard Mike raise his voice, but there was never any doubt as to who was in charge – and in charge in the best possible way. 
Coincidentally – or perhaps not so coincidentally – Mike, Nico Lathouris and I first worked together on an episode of Police Rescue, and after that first experience we went on working together off and on, mostly on, for the next thirty years. Nico – actor, writer, dramaturg and friend – recently gave me an actor's take on Mike as Director. He told me that that Police Rescue episode was the very first time he felt that he got close to genuine truth in a performance – and that it was due to Mike. He told me that then – and always – Mike encouraged rebellion; he gave actors freedom, and, just as importantly, he made them feel safe in exercising that freedom. They knew he had their back. 
As with actors, so too with writers and every other creative. He had his own, almost always unstated, expectations – and then was utterly delighted when you delivered something he didn’t expect. Then he encouraged you to take the unexpected further. Then further again – until sometimes you found yourself thinking, ‘Bloody hell, I wish I hadn’t suggested this’. But in the end, you were glad. And then he gave you all the credit – took none for himself; only the blame, if any.
Mike took responsibility. I saw him punch up plenty of times – countless times – but I never once in thirty years saw him punch down. It’s not just that he was a gentleman – though he was – he also had genuine respect for every participant in a creative endeavour. I’ve seen him spend two hours exploring a writer’s suggestion in the writing room, knowing full well that we were never going to take it up – but he showed the writer respect. The most severe rejection I ever heard from him, for a truly dumb idea (probably mine), was a gentle, ‘That’s interesting’. 
But he could fight, and when he fought he was ferocious. He had courage and he had endurance – he saddled up every day. I once saw Mike on location so ill with dysentery he could barely stand, but I doubt that anyone on set was even aware that he was having a bad day – or that it was his third bad day.
And so it was in the end. Down in Tasmania, Mike got a line on a shed full of beautiful seasoned timber and he decided to build a boat – a 42’ trawler.  It took almost ten years and in the final years he must have been suffering the onset of the terrible disease that would claim his life, but he never once complained. He built the boat, he finished it, and it is beautiful. He named it Echo.
Mike’s achievements as a filmmaker are so seminal they can risk overshadowing Mike Jenkins the man, and as one of Mike’s sons, Tom, pointed out – that would be missing the point of it all. We need to be remembering Mike as father of Daniel, Jack, Tom and Matilda, grandfather of Sydney and Vera, loving forty-year life partner of Amanda Robson. Mike as craftsman, boat builder, sailor, passionate landscape gardener, and loyal and inspiring friend to so many of us.
When leaders go they leave behind an example that enlarges us all – and also, for a time, a painful void. We miss you Mike, but we are the better for the pain. Rest in peace, our friend.

A memorial for Mike will be held at the Independent Theatre, Thursday 18 April 2024 at 12.30pm.
by Peter Schreck