Alice romance and achievement story aims for Hollywood

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1976 (from left): Former St Francis House boys Desmond Price, John Moriarty, Charles Perkins, Vincent Copley, Isabel Smith, Father Percy Smith, Les Nayda, Gordon Briscoe.

By MARK SMITH

Old letters that reveal a romance, made possible by the threat of a 1940s Japanese attack, have provided the inspiration for a movie script that may take Alice Springs to the big screen.

Sample movie poster.

Finding Miss Almond is a story about the life of Isabel Almond, my grandmother, who in her late twenties was living in Adelaide in 1941 when she was drawn to Alice Springs for the Christmas holidays to visit her boyfriend who had joined the army.

Alice Springs had become a major staging camp for the army as the Japanese threat intensified in the Pacific during the second world war culminating in the bombing of Darwin in 1942 by 188 planes. 

I pieced the story together, looking closely at my family history since my father, John P McD Smith, passed away suddenly in November 2022.

John had been a regular contributor to the Alice Springs News and shared many stories about Aboriginal people helped by his father, Percy Smith, who was the first resident Anglican priest in Alice Springs from 1933.

Sharing the story of Isabel and Percy Smith was very important to my late father, which began when he and my grandmother gave evidence to the national inquiry into the Stolen Generation in 1996, set-up by the Keating Government.  

Since my father passed away I have been immersed in all of the old photos and documents and talking to the Aboriginal families. I found the submission notes for the national inquiry. Then I found my grandparents’ love letters folded neatly between the pages of one of Isabel’s prayer books, along with a photo of Percy. 

Then by surprise someone sent me the transcript of a 1996 interview with Isabel by a lady called Annette Roberts as part of her research for her biography of Sister Eileen Heath (A Life with the Lid Off) who managed St Mary’s Mission, that I never knew about.

Her descriptions of Alice Springs were so vivid. I knew that this was something special that had been preserved for me to share.

Outside the old Church of the Ascension in Bath Street in 1944 were some of the first group of boys who went to Adelaide. Bill Espie, John Palmer (back), Noel Hampton, Charles Perkins, Malcolm Cooper (Front), Mrs Isabel Smith, Father Percy Smith.

I kept trying to put this all aside and move on, but the 2023 national debate about the voice referendum kept the issues front of mind, as the multi-generational impact of Isabel and Percy’s love and care was part of the daily news for months with Rachel Perkins, daughter of Charlie, leading the YES campaign.

So, I started to write and write. A book then evolved into a screenplay before a chance connection with a big time film director, Mark Webber.

The movie starts with Australia grappled by the fear of war in the early 1940s as Isabel travels on the train into the unknown Central Australia in the height of summer. 

There she meets the local priest who was also a part time army chaplain supporting the new community of soldiers. Isabel and Percy married in 1943 in Alice Springs at the old Church of the Ascension, after an intense and whirlwind romance that changed her life.

She left everything behind in Adelaide, friends, ageing parents, a wartime job in a munitions factory and a career as a music teacher. A bold move. 

From there she was thrust into the daily work of caring for children at St John’s Hostel for bush children, which Percy had set up in 1941 in Bath Street.

She fell in love with the Aboriginal children and became a trusted friend to their mothers.

In the 1996 interview for the Eileen Heath book Isabel talked emotionally about the day when she first met Charlie Perkins and his younger brother Ernie and their mother Hetti, when she asked Father Smith if the boys could come and live at the hostel.

Charlie and five other boys, eventually came with her to Adelaide in 1945, with the permission and support of their mothers, for an opportunity in the big city at what was known as St Francis House in an old stone Victorian mansion with a square castle like turreted tower by the sea near Port Adelaide.

Such was the success of the home in its early years that more boys soon followed from Alice Springs and other parts of the country. The social experiment began to attract attention.

I hope this story wlll bring people together and showcase the beautiful Centralian landscapes to the world. 

Honeymoon Gap, where Isabel and Percy camped for a few days after they married, the Old Telegraph Station as the site of The Bungalow, and the open desert views from The Ghan as the train gets closer to Heavitree Gap, would all be potential filming locations.

It is an opportunity to introduce people to the Centre, through a nostalgic 1940s period lense and then trace Isabel’s life with the Aboriginal boys she cared for and what they went on to achieve to improve the lives of Aboriginal people.

Among the St John’s Hostel and then the St Francis House group were trailblazers such as John Moriarty, the first Indigenous Socceroo who is known for his Qantas Aboriginal Flying Art series, historian and academic Gordon Briscoe who was the first Indigenous person to stand for Parliament and to achieve a PhD, civil rights activist and Commonwealth Department Secretary Charles Perkins and Wally McArthur who played rugby in England after he missed out on Olympic selection for running, on racist grounds.

Other key figures include Joe Croft who lived at The Bungalow in the 1930s after being removed from his mother. He was helped by Percy Smith to get to a top private school before he became the first Indigenous person to be accepted into an Australian university.

Bill Espie who became a Chief Inspector in the NSW Police Force after being one of the first six boys to go to Adelaide with Isabel and Percy in 1945.

Woodford, Tilmouth, Butler, Palmer, Cooper, Bray, Kunoth, Hampton, Nayda are all known Alice Springs names that are part of this story.

The film is being coordinated by Live Heart Productions with the support of Mr Webber, Los Angeles and Adelaide based film director and actor who has had a remarkable record of success with his films at major international film festivals including Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival held each year in Utah. Mr Webber said from Los Angeles where he is finishing his latest film Figments of Freedom: “There is an enormous appetite for authentic stories told from the heart. 

Father Smith celebrates 50 years of ordination 1926-1976. (From left) Charles Perkins, Mrs Isabel Smith, Father Percy Smith, Bill Espie, John Palmer, David Woodford.

“The international market is desperate for genuine content as Hollywood resets after a tumultuous 2023 defined by strikes and conflict as actors have rallied to protect themselves from the AI threat. Acting is a pure art that needs to be preserved and protected.

“I am honoured to be working alongside Mark to bring his family’s incredible story to the big screen.

“Finding Miss Almond has all of the ingredients to be a great film, love, conflict, passion, war. I want to help deliver Mark’s dream project and create opportunities for local acting talent to shine.”

Without Mr Webber’s help the project would not be possible. 

He has a track record of taking unique stories from concept to screen success. 

With his guidance, experience and collaborative approach I want to share Isabel’s journey to shine a light on the stories of the people she knew and young people she loved and cared for and the lifelong bond they shared. Her story is also their story.

Isabel and Percy believed in the children, at a time when few other people did.

They helped them to find acceptance, in a world where they thought acceptance would never be possible.

“It is important for people to understand their past. The past is always influencing the present. We cannot change that. All we can do is try to better understand it.”

Mr Smith is determined to see the project through to the end and said a wise person recently told him, “Never stop believing in the power of storytelling to amplify marginalised voices.”

[Mr Smith is the writer of the script for the film, researcher and provided all the primary sources of information.]

21 COMMENTS

  1. In those pre war years most people never thought Aboriginal kids could ever be more than domestic help or farmhands. This was visionary for the time – pre 1967.

  2. This could be a great way to boost tourism again – letting the world know about our natural beauty, get some $$ into local businesses again.

  3. This is the amazing story that shows how Australia has evolved as a nation and still coming to terms with how Aboriginal where treated. The bombing of Darwin sounds scary with 188 planes like Pearl Harbour.

  4. This could be a way to show people how Alice was back in the old times when life was simpler.

  5. These kids would never have done all these things if they had been stuck in Alice Springs.

  6. What an amazing group of young men … we need to hear more of these positive stories about Aboriginal people.

  7. What a lovely story about Isabel and Percy Smith. On how they brought up and care the Aboriginal children to aim high and achieve more for their future.
    Bringing them from Alice Springs to the big city such as Adelaide. I am positive for the filming of such story that it will come to realisation and am glad to see the ne Telegraph Station which I’ve been to years ago.

  8. Women’s roles really changed during the Second World War – they entered the workforce in so many new roles due to the Labour shortage. White collar jobs during they day then packing ammunition in factories at night.

  9. This reminds me of the old classic Australian films, like Man from Snowy River and We of the Never Never. They had a quality that I miss. Class actors like Kirk Douglas ….

  10. @ Chris Webster: The war really broke down the class system in places like Britain, a to a lesser extent here. In America they even set up a Women’s Baseball League.

  11. The amount of work and dedication put into this article is amazing, you have my support.

  12. We had the honour and pleasure of calling John P McD Smith our very dear friend.
    He was immensely proud of his father and mother and their stories of dedication and calling.
    John would be thrilled that their memories, work and legacy will be honoured in “Finding Miss Almond”.

  13. Gordon Briscoe did all of the leg work for Fred Hollows when he was treating people for glaucoma. He was a great man.
    Also a key part of the First Australian SBS series.

  14. We need to make Australian Film great again. These are the types of stories that can make this happen.

  15. After exploring your website, I’m fully behind your mission to bring the powerful untold story of Isabel and Percy Smith to the big screen. The historical photos and details you’ve gathered reveal their remarkable courage and love in the face of the injustices against the Stolen Generations.
    Beyond their humanitarian work, this profound romance of two soulmates bound by social justice deserves to be shared widely. The testimonial from John Moriarty whose life they positively shaped highlights their lasting legacy.
    With its timely themes, I believe this film could inspire change and understanding for global audiences.

  16. As Mark Smith’s cousin, I am extremely proud of him for sharing Isabel and Percy’s story.
    This truly is an incredible story, and I would just absolutely love to see it come to life in a film.
    I feel like this movie would provide amazing opportunities for high school students to learn more about Australian history!
    It will also help people understand some positive stories of white people helping Indigenous Australians and how those people used their education to help improve the lives of Aboriginal people.

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