Autopsy on a Dream

Opera House Sketch

Autopsy on a Dream is John Weiley’s long-lost 1968 film about the troubled birth of Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s masterpiece.

The film, narrated by Bob Ellis, was premiered at the Sydney Opera House to an audience that included former Opera House construction workers. It was then screened for the first time on Australian television on  ABC1 and made available to watch on demand.

John Weiley’s mesmerising and still controversial film about the creation of the Sydney Opera House… beautiful to look at, often funny, frequently moving and occasionally shocking.

Graeme Blundell The Australian,  19 October 2013

The program is a valuable time capsule – far more than a simple retrospection. Its original character sustains, and its relevance is enhanced.

Doug AndersonThe Guardian, 21 October 2013

terrific in its own right… a wonderful document of Australian life and history

Melinda Houston, Sydney Morning Herald Critics Choice, 20 October 2013


Bob Ellis

Bob in London, 1968

My oldest friend died on Sunday 3 April, 2016. A North-Coast country boy like me – same age – same mud between the toes. We used to hide behind the shelter shed while they were picking the sides for the football team – Not that they would have chosen either of us – well known to be useless and, when coerced, playing our own game of footy which involved keeping as far away from the ball as possible.

Bob was at Lismore High and I was incarcerated in the local Marist boarding school and we didn’t find each other until fifth year. Then we never had enough time. We were bursting with new discoveries – the non-existence of God, that Shakespeare was actually really interesting, ill-informed but avid speculation about sex. Then the football season ended – the Leaving Certificate loomed and we went back to having no-one to talk to at all.

Sydney Uni 1959. Day one of Arts One: Coming toward me up Science Road Ellis. Grey polyester suit, grey polyester shirt (it was originally white) and in each hand a heavy brief case. We hadn’t corresponded and we knew no-one else so we fell on each other like hungry hyenas. Soon we discovered the Buttery (cheap food) and Les Murray and Roger McDonald and other hungry beginners and our shelter shed conversation was resumed. Pretty much the same subjects as before (we were all still desperate virgins) but gradually new subjects were introduced – most significantly for Bob and me, Film.

The university Film Society was very active, (mostly screening the great Russian classics) and then there was the recently created Sydney Film Festival. Bob and I fell hopelessly in love with the silver screen and were excited to find that enthralling movies were made in places other than Hollywood. Like most kids of the period we saw two movies a week – 100 a year – a few English but the vast majority made in Hollywood. Not a single Australian film. Bruce Beresford was the star of the film society – a couple of years older than us and appointed unopposed Director of the society’s first film production – “The Devil to Pay” (I still have the minutes) Bob and I were un-credited but enthusiastic helpers.

Bob completed his BA and joined the ABC . By that time I had gone to London and a career at the BBC. Late in 1968 I had completed the fine cut my film about the Sydney Opera House (“Autopsy on a Dream”) and was drafting the narration when Bob turned up in London. I put him to bed on my sofa and to work at my desk. The result was pure Ellis – gorgeous prose but about twice as long as the film. Editing Bob is a famously difficult task – hard enough without him denouncing you as a traitor and philistine but eventually we got it down to length.

I’d always planned to have an Australian voice for the narration and had booked a great Australian actor who lived in London – Ray Barrett – but it became obvious that only the Ellis voice could do justice to the Ellis prose.

Bob dealt with his first-night nerves in his usual way (as later with “Newsfront” et al) by declaring the whole thing a complete disaster that should never go to air. It did and was warmly received. My department head popped into my office with congratulations but wondered if I knew anything about a madman who had somehow got the phone number of Sir Hugh Carleton Green (then Director General of the BBC) and called repeatedly to demand that the transmission be stopped.

Bob returned to Australia to be there for what was arguably the most interesting decade in Australian politics and we are greatly the richer for him being there and staying in Australia.

He was astoundingly prolific (whether you wanted him to be or not) but here is a detail that doesn’t fit: I have letters from Bob – foolscap pages long – each letter of the alphabet perfectly and separately formed – a tribute to Lismore Public no doubt but not at all the scrawl you might expect.

The Chemo blessed Bob with a kind of Indian summer – lost some weight, gained colour and for months looked better than he had for years. Only in the last couple of weeks could he hear the bell toll and have a chance to say goodbye to his children and above all to his wonderful, gentle, steadfast wife Annie without whom he would have been lost long ago.

ABC is playing “Autopsy” on iview for the next couple of weeks as a tribute to Bob. I switched it on to make sure all was working properly. There was Bob – the voice of a disappointed Creator – “It’s an object like no other object: Not so much a building as a thing – a thing like a pyramid or a Druids altar – a gesture toward the infinite like St.Peters……” Bob Lives.