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Picnic at Hanging Rock
 - The Unseen Voices
by John Godl
Length: 2,267 words

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Picnic at Hanging Rock - The Unseen Voices

Few movies in Australian cinematic history have stood the test of time to become as celebrated as "Picnic at Hanging Rock", let alone generated the international cult film status Peter Weir’s 1975 classic has achieved.

Based on a novel of the same name written by Joan Lindsay (1896-1984) it details the complex, interwoven lives of teachers and students at Appleyard College, a posh turn of the century girls’ boarding school which is turned upside down by the baffling disappearance of three girls and a teacher during a St Valentines Day picnic in the shadow of the enigmatic Hanging Rock. The event sends shockwaves of suspicion and anxiety through the local community, who are unable to come to terms with events due to the mysterious nature of the disappearances preventing closure. First published in 1967 by F. W. Cheshire Ltd, it was a critical success in its own right and has never been out of print since, selling well over half a million copies world wide to date.

Miranda and More

After accepting the commission to make the film Peter Weir went in search of actors who resembled his vision of characters in the book, travelling as far as England to audition potential players such as Rachel Roberts and Dominic Guard. In Australia he secured well established actors like Helen Morse, Vivean Gray and Jacki Weaver. He placed the angelic Anne Lambert in the central role of Miranda. Although only in her late teens she had already proven herself as one of the countries leading talents in a series of TV soaps.

With the all important central parts cast he conducted auditions across Australia for young girls to fill the secondary role of the school girls. Finding the professional young actors he auditioned too modern and worldly looking, he went to great pains to find unknowns who matched his perception of upper class girls of the Victorian era as being unworldly and innocent. Their ability to act irrelevant, he could tailor scenes to fit their individual strengths. However using amateurs meant their dialogue had to be kept to a bare minimum, looking pretty on camera eating cake. Sitting to attention in a classroom or prancing down stairs in a flowing muslin dress was one thing but delivering believable lines is somewhere professionalism comes in and it was decided to dub the voices of professional actors over those of the amateurs.

Whose Voice Is That?

Peter Weir was not new to the possibilities of post synchronisation, his first major film, The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), had its actors’ voices dubbed with those of Americans before distributors would release it in the United States. So, faced with a small budget already being stretched to its limits and tight shooting schedule, dubbing over the voices of amateurs with those of trained professionals made sense. From a professional standpoint it could have been perceived as frivolous to go to such trouble to avoid using professional actors because their appearance conflicted with his mind’s eye image of characters. As a result, it was kept secret for over 30 years, until now.

One moment which stands out in the recollections of all viewers is the scene in which the pudgy, bespectacled school girl character Edith played by novice actor Christine Schuler, seemingly perceives evil. She cries out for the other three girls to stop their ascent of the eerie rock formation before screaming and taking flight in terror. It is a defining moment of the movie, conveying a sense of horror and alarm which raises goose bumps. However viewers would be surprised to know that this famous scream never emanated from Christine Schuler’s lips. It was dubbed in afterwards by a trained voice actor. Indeed every word of dialogue uttered in the movie by Christine Schuler was dubbed, with the voice of actress Barbara Llewellyn.

Barbara's Background

Barbara Llewellyn was born into show business. Her father John was an actor and her mother owned and operated the top theatrical agency in Sydney. At the age of five Barbara won The Jack Davey Radio Show talent contest. Two years later she became an Australian icon by starring in the now famous Aeroplane Jelly television commercial. She mimed the well-known Aeroplane Jelly jingle and was ever after identified as The Girl on the Swing.

Barbara’s childhood and early teenage years were filled with work in commercials, documentaries, films such as The Sundowners and theatre, including the original Sydney production of The Sound of Music. At 17 she was accepted into NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Arts) and while there she performed in numerous stage productions, graduating in 1971. She starred in Seven Little Australians and was a regular in Class of ‘74 and Class of ‘75, Young Ramsay, Matlock Police, The Box and other now classic Australian TV shows.

For over 30 years her contribution to the success of Picnic at Hanging Rock has gone unappreciated by movie fans, as has the fact that other key moments of dialogue were voice overs. Even the recently produced documentary celebrating the 30th anniversary of the film credited with bringing about a renaissance in the Australian film industry, went into the minutia of production, but neither Peter Weir nor Christine Schuler, who were extensively interviewed, made any mention of this important fact.

Picture Perfect

“Peter Weir chose most of Picnic’s school girls for their looks, not their acting ability, knowing that he could dub in the right vocal performance at a later stage,” Barbara Llewellyn said in her first public statement on her secret role in the film . “The girl visually portraying Edith was not a professional actress. Peter told me that he chose her because she looked exactly as he wanted the character of Edith to look. He was well aware throughout the entire filming process that he would employ a professional actress to dub her vocal performance.”

Picnic at Hanging Rock

“I actually post synced the entire performance of Christine Schuler, the girl playing Edith, including the famous scream. Every word or sound that comes out of the onscreen Edith’s mouth is my voice,” Barbara Llewellyn continued. “I was also the voice of the girl reciting the poem Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day, as well as doing numerous other one-liners in background noise.”

Barbara was a well known actor at the time with an excellent reputation for post synchronisation. She became a professional voice artist in childhood and continues to do a large amount of voice work today. Her voice quality is consistently described as nurturing and soothing and her extensive character voice repertoire has been utilised in children’s animation and audio series, radio plays and films.

Very Hush-Hush

“Peter Weir asked for me by name,” she recalls. “I didn’t have to audition for the part, my agent June Cann handled all the details. Another little known fact is that there were two other female voice artists, beside myself, who dubbed other voices in the film.”

The dubbing of the school girl voices with those of professionally trained actors was kept secret at the time.

”I don’t remember being given a script prior to the day of taping. Considering the supreme secrecy surrounding the process, it’s unlikely Peter would have considered that a good idea,” she remembers. “Picnic had finished filming and, to a large extent, had been edited. The voice work was done in a post sync facility in Sydney in about four hours or so, maybe a bit longer. I would have read the script, or rather my parts of the script, then memorised them as we went along, syncing them with the prepared filmed pieces (with the red line process) ensuring that my characterisation, words and scream matched as perfectly as possible with the onscreen actress. Peter Weir was in the booth directing the performance he wanted.”

A Secret and a Mystery

”I am not sure about the names of the two other voice actors but I think that one of the female voice artists was Rosalie Fletcher, a well known voice over artist of the time. Everything was all very hush-hush with Peter being very secretive, not wanting to tell me who else had done voice work and also insisting that I not tell anyone about the work I had done on the film. I did not have direct contact with anyone but Peter Weir as I ‘did my bit’. I was only allowed to read the script in Peter’s presence and was not given a script to take home, all part of the hush-hush hype. I have no idea who the other characters were who were dubbed. All I know is that at least one of them was another major school girl character in the film. It was mentioned that one of the other characters who was dubbed had an even bigger on-screen role than the part I dubbed.”

It is interesting to speculate whether this explains why Margaret Nelson, who played ill-fated Sara, has steadfast refused to take part in cast reunions or discuss her popular performance in the movie. Dropping out of the movie industry a number of years ago, perhaps her performance was subjected to voice over and she has rejected it?

That Famous Scream

For many movie fans a highpoint is Edith’s famous scream on the Rock. Taping that famous scream is something Barbara recalls well.

“Peter Weir was in the booth with me during the entire process of post synchronisation and I remember he was very happy after I did the scream only about six or eight times.”

Barbara’s association with the movie was not only professional. She was a close friend of star Anne Lambert and they had worked together in Class of ‘74 and The Box while sharing a house. She had also been flat mates with Ingrid Mason who had been initially chosen for the part of Miranda before Peter Weir changed his mind, taking on the secondary role of Rosamund in the movie instead.

Over 30 years have passed since the release of Picnic at Hanging Rock and the use of voice actors for key scenes in the film has remained a guarded secret until Barbara decided to tell her story. Neither she nor the other voice actors used were given a credit in the movie or invited to the premier.

“I was going to complain to Equity about that at the time but my agent said not to create any waves. It’s only in recent years that I’ve decided to proclaim the reality of the situation.”
“I must admit to being somewhat dumbfounded to hear that the woman who was the visual part of Edith took full credit for the character,” she continued, “but maybe Peter never told her the truth and she has somehow convinced herself that my voice was actually her own. I truly thought that Peter would, at some stage, do the honourable thing and let the world know that he had dubbed certain characters in the film but he has continued to conceal the truth, goodness knows why. Considering the amount of time gone by since that secret was created and that Peter did not give credit to the actresses who helped make his film a success, I believe myself relieved of any need to continue the illusion.”

Hidden Talent

It disappoints Barbara that there’s no industry rule that voice actors be acknowledged for their work in Australia, unlike the US where credit must be given, according to local industry union ‘The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance’ if a producer has a desire to keep their work secret it can be stipulated before an actor is hired as a condition of employment.

This is something Barbara would like to see changed, not for herself, but for the other actors whose vocal performances have helped make movies successful. Although at this point in time the fact that actors like Barbara are not acknowledged for their contribution to movies and others take the credit for their work seems very unfair, the fact that the iconic scream in Picnic at Hanging Rock was another actor’s voice dubbed in is an important detail for film historians to know.

Now and Then

Barbara Llewellyn lives in Queensland with her husband Rod Kirkham. As a child he was one of the six original cast members of Young Talent Time and went on to become an actor in his own right. Rod and Barbara met on the set of The Box where they became a couple, marrying in 1978.

Barbara is the director of Bright Light Multimedia and continues writing, performing and publishing. She writes songs with a special focus, at the moment children’s lullabies, and maintains her Bright Light Café website to which she is looking at adding an online radio channel to further promote her work and those of her stable of authors. She has also written a novel about life after death titled Letters to Michael, which is the first in her series on that subject.

Production of Picnic at Hanging Rock began at Hanging Rock, 50 kilometres North West of Melbourne, on 2nd February 1975 . Due to funding arrangements it was filmed in Victoria and South Australia and the shooting schedule was an amazing six weeks and was brought in for around $450,000. The rights to the novel were secured by executive producer Patricia Lovell in 1973 and it required a long hard slog by her to get the movie made. It premiered at the Hindley Cinema in Adelaide on the 8th August 1975 and was an instant critical and commercial success launching Peter Weir on the world stage.

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Barbara Llewellyn


Reviews (applause received)    Applaud with your positive comments by clicking here

rodrigo   Brazil
"Hello, okay? first I would like to congratulate you for the article cork the film "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and also like to take and try to take a question: you know something about the actress Margaret Nelson, today? a big hug."

Note from Editor:
Thank you, Rodrigo, for your applause. Unfortunately, neither Mr Godl nor Ms Llewellyn have any information about Margaret Nelson who portrayed Sara in Picnic at Hanging Rock.

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