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Thomas William (Tom) Haydon (1938–1991)

by Richard Brennan

This article was published:

Thomas William Haydon (1938-1991), documentary film-maker, was born Thomas William Heaydon on 22 January 1938 in Sydney, son of New South Wales-born Thomas William Heaydon, traveller, and his New Zealand-born wife Phyllis Louisa, née Houghton. Tom was educated at Manly Boys’ High School, where he did well in English and was a student editor for the school journal. He graduated from the University of Sydney (BA, 1959) with honours in Australian history. On 2 April 1960, at St Matthew’s Church of England, Manly, he married Jennifer Margaret Grieve, a teacher trainee; they later divorced.

That year Haydon joined the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) as a specialist trainee with the education department. Beginning as a producer and director of children’s programs, he progressed to documentary film work, such as University of the Air. He became the first producer in the science unit, working in television. His initial production, The Case for Conservation, showed him to be a film-maker who was ahead of his time on environmental issues. On 26 August 1966 in a civil ceremony he married Andrina Bettini (née Watton), a widowed former actress and ABC producer, at her home in West Ryde. His first great success was The Talgai Skull, which was effectively a detective story about the connections between prehistoric and modern humanity. It won a Golden Reel award in the 1968 Australian Film Institute (AFI) awards.

The ABC’s documentary work was attracting acclaim in the late 1960s through programs such as Four Corners, This Day Tonight, and Chequerboard, which took inquiring and challenging positions that would previously have been rejected as outside the remit of the commission. Haydon was a strong conservationist, and his commitment was reflected in his next film. Dig a Million, Make a Million looked behind the scenes of the mining operations of Hamersley Iron Pty Ltd. He used comic juxtapositions to make points about the need to utilise Australia’s resources in a way that did not destroy the environment. Curiously, the mining companies saw the film as a validation of their policies and bought copies, while opponents of the companies saw the film as an exposé of rapacious foreign investment. It received a Silver award from the AFI in 1969.

In 1969 Haydon travelled to London to work for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). He joined the documentary section, making programs for series such as Horizons, before becoming executive producer of the British Empire series. He wrote and directed three episodes. One of these, ‘Beyond the Black Stump,’ presented a view of nineteenth-century Australia in order to comment satirically upon myths of Australian national character. Reaction was hostile in Britain and Australia. In a debate about the series in the House of Lords he was denounced as a ‘long-haired layabout from Kings Cross’ (Eng. HOL 1972).

Haydon left the BBC in 1975 and became an independent producer. Having received a creative fellowship from the Australia Council for the Arts, he established Artis Film Productions and began to set up The Last Tasmanian, the film for which he is best known. It told a story of genocide, describing the near extermination of Tasmania’s Aboriginal population by British colonists in the nineteenth century. The project was not easy to finance and was cobbled together over fourteen months with funds from several sources, including the Australian Film Commission (AFC), the Tasmanian government, French television, and the BBC. The complexities of the co-production arrangements included the requirement that the film be delivered in three versions: English, French, and Welsh. The 105-minute film was a shocking experience for viewers and hugely controversial. In particular, Tasmanian Aboriginal people criticised the film for suggesting that they and their culture had been eradicated, an assertion that jeopardised their claims for recognition. It was sold to television in twenty-two countries and, after an initial showing at Cannes, France, it received numerous theatrical releases. Screened at seventeen international festivals to much acclaim, it was nominated for the Gold Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival (1979).

In the 1980s Haydon took up various executive positions for the Australian Film Television School and the Special Broadcasting Service, and was an executive producer with Film Australia (1984-86). He was vice-president of the Screen Producers Association of Australia, and chairman of its documentary division. His major legacy from this period was the Documentary Fellowship Scheme. The award was initiated by the AFC to promote excellence and originality in documentaries, and implemented by Haydon. Each year it gave up to two documentary film-makers the opportunity to create a work of their own choosing.

Behind the Dam (1986) was Haydon’s last major film. It was intended as the first part of a trilogy explaining the conflict between environmentalists and miners, loggers, and hydro-workers in Tasmania. Ebullient and idealistic, he was unafraid of challenge and controversy. He was a generous and willing colleague and mentor to others in the film industry. Throughout his working life he remained a person of vision and enthusiasm and at the time of his death he was working on a feature film about the origins of Australia’s Aboriginal population. In the middle of 1990 he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Divorced from his second wife, on 15 June 1991 at St Peter’s Anglican Church, Watsons Bay, Sydney, he married Susanne Margaret Arane-Weston (née Arane), a consultant. He died on 6 July 1991 in Darlinghurst, survived by his wife, the daughter of his first marriage, and the son of his second.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Connolly, Keith. ‘The Last Tasmanian.’ Cinema Papers, no. 18 (October-November 1978): 143-46
  • England. House of Lords. Parliamentary Debates, series 5, vol. 332. 6 July 1972. Accessed 11 March 2015. Copy held on ADB file
  • Haydon, Tom. ‘Tom Haydon.’ By Ian Stocks. Cinema Papers, no. 12 (April 1977): 305, 306, 372, 377
  • Jones, Rhys. ‘Tom Haydon 1938-1991: Film Interpretation of Australian Archaeology.’ Australian Archaeology, no. 35 (1992): 51-64
  • Nicklin, Lenore. ‘The Many Talents of Tom Haydon.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 14 October 1978, 13
  • O’Regan, Tom. ‘Documentary in Controversy: The Last Tasmanian.’ In An Australian Film Reader, edited by Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan, 127-36. Sydney: Currency Press, 1985
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Richard Brennan, 'Haydon, Thomas William (Tom) (1938–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2015, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Heaydon, Thomas William

22 January, 1938
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


6 July, 1991 (aged 53)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (lymphoma)

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