From history to a media career

8 December 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

The traditional path to a media career usually starts with a Media Studies course at tertiary level.  But sometimes there are less obvious pathways.  Alex McDermott is a historian, currently pursuing his PhD in History at La Trobe University, while working as a freelance researcher and writer for film and television.  How he has bridged the path from studying history to working in film and television is an interesting story in itself.

McDermott’s love of history started in England. “When I was five I went to England for a couple of months with my English mum…Mum’s parents lived in Hastings, Sussex, and we stayed with them. I developed a daily habit of barging in on my grandmother as she tried to take her afternoon nap. I’d plonk myself down onto the bed next to her and demand she’d tell me a story. As it turned out she had a lifelong passion for history, and the stories she told me were historical ones – William the Conqueror, Battle of Hastings, Alfred the Great…I’d get to go out and scramble about old historic sites that often had some sort of connection with the stories I’d been told the day before. It kind of started there and never really stopped”.

 While there was never any question that McDermott was drawn to the study of history, he is still, to this day, a little hard pressed to pinpoint why, but suggests it is the concept of foundation stories, how places, people and events begin, that captures his imagination. 

After earning a BA at the University of Melbourne, McDermott’s European history studies led to a realisation about his attitude towards the subject.  “When it came to starting Honours I decided to get a little pragmatic. I didn’t know any other language than English and felt the world could probably live without an English-speaking-only historian of the French Revolution. And in Australia practically all the archives hold, unsurprisingly, Australian material. If I wanted to keep going in history but not deal with Australian history, which I’d done pretty well at avoiding so far, the options seemed pretty limited.”  This lead to McDermott to concentrating on a particular figure from Australian history for his Honours thesis: Ned Kelly.

McDermott is recognised as one of Australia’s experts on the history of Ned Kelly.  His interest has led him to writing and commentating on Ned Kelly’s world and the life of 19th century colonial Australia.  This includes editing and introducing the book The Jerilderie Letter, working as project historian for the archaeological dig of the Ned Kelly siege site in Glenrowan and recently appearing as an historical expert with Tony Robinson on the Renegade Factual production,  Ned Kelly Uncovered,  which screened on ABC1 in 2009.

How, then, does a person who loves history, find his way into the film and television industry?  In McDermott’s case, it was by accident.  “I stumbled into it. It began in 2005 when, getting back from overseas I heard some history researchers were being sought for Film Australia’s Making History initiative. I contacted them, went for an interview and began work on a short term and casual basis.” Some of the Making History programs include the ABC TV series’ Constructing Australia; Rogue Nation, and a series about Australia’s political leaders, including Menzies and Churchill at War; Monash the Forgotten Anzac and The Prime Minister is Missing.

 McDermott continues.  “This led to other work – with Artemis Films for the SBS television series Who Do You Think You Are? and ultimately, to a more permanent job at Film Australia, which is now part of  Screen Australia, as researcher and history consultant.”

McDermott’s research skills have also lead to finding work in other disciplines.  He has worked as researcher for cricket columnist and commentator Peter Roebuck for two books, It Takes All Sorts and In it to Win it: Australian Cricket from the 1970s to Today.  McDermott has also made a foray into scriptwriting, for the feature-length film The Sticks, directed and produced by Marcus Schutenko.

 In following a non-traditional path to a media-based career, McDermott reflects on his own situation and education. “I enjoy these forms of media, and the kind of history-telling opportunities they make possible. I sometimes wonder whether it should be compulsory for all history undergrads to create a script for a hypothetical history documentary rather than simply write essays, as utterly essential as they are. But if nothing else, history documentary scriptwriting ruthlessly encourages cutting right to the crux of an historical character, issue or argument.”

Alex McDermott is currently working on online historical content, for the adaptation of Nadia Wheatley’s My Place, which is  due to be broadcast on ABC3 in 2010.

Kim Hellard is a Bachelor of Arts student at La Trobe University.