Strange Encounters 1

1. Clayton Sinclair/ Hubert Opperman

Perhaps the oddest of the films that never happened is the Sinclair saga.

Clayton Sinclair, quite young and personable, approached me sometime around 1990 saying he had a screenplay about the Australian cyclist Hubert Opperman. Opperman, (who died in 1996 at the age of 91) was celebrated for his participation in the Tour de France in 1928 and 1930. In 1931 he won the Paris-Brest-Paris race of 726 miles –  at that time the longest bicycle race in the world. Back in Australia he won numerous prizes, his crowning achievement being the 1940 Freemantle-Sydney race  –  2875 miles over roads often so primitive that the bicycles had to be carried for miles over sand. Opperman’s time of 13 days knocked five days off the previous record.

He joined the Liberal Party and had a distinguished political career, being at one time Minister for Shipping and Transport; then, from 1963-66, Minister for Immigration. He was Knighted in 1968.

The script , by the writer Peter Yeldham, was rather old-fashioned but capably told an exciting story of a young cyclist battling against poverty and official indifference to become one of the cycling greats.

Clayton, invariably cheerful and enthusiastic, told me that he and his business partner, Ken Lyon, had been to a couple of the recent Tour de France events, with a film crew, and shot footage . I didn’t see much point in this as the Opperman race was 50 years previously and there was plenty of film material available of the modern races. Clayton told me I could view the material he’d filmed but this was never arranged. I didn’t pursue the matter as I didn’t think it could be substantially different from the various documentaries I’d already seen.

He came to London some months after our first meeting and asked me to give the script to any producers I knew. I assumed the point of this was to raise part of the finance for the film as I was aware the budget would be well beyond that of virtually all Australian productions. I gave it to Guy East, a distinguished producer, who had been associated with “Chariots of Fire” among many other films.

Guy was enthusiastic  and quickly offered to finance or part-finance the production. When I told Clayton this he responded by calmly telling me he didn’t need any money as the film was already fully financed – at $26 million. When I asked why, in that case, we had bothered Guy East, he replied that he simply wanted to see if his original judgment of the value of the project was echoed by a reputable European producer.

I thought this was odd but wrote it off to the probability that Clayton was nervous about the project and the sizable budget.

Back in Australia I assumed pre-production would begin almost immediately. With the finance in place I saw no reason not to begin casting and finding a crew.  Clayton had mentioned approaching Mel Gibson to play Opperman but was vague about actually submitting the script to him, as he was about engaging technicians, though he never ceased promoting the production in the press.

Becoming a little suspicious, I arranged for Clayton to meet the producer Sue Milliken, who was less gullible than me and very experienced over a wide range of films. Clayton reiterated his assurance that the money to make the film was already in place and that soon everything would begin.

Sue and I discussed the matter at length. We tended to give Clayton the benefit of the doubt as – what would be the point of making up the whole finance story? What could be gained? The script existed and Peter Yeldham told us he had been paid a writing fee. In addition there had been the trips to France – we had been assured – to film a couple of the races. This wouldn’t have been cheap, so there was finance from somewhere, though a  disturbing newspaper item around this time reported that a travel agent was suing Clayton and Lyons over unpaid first class tickets to France.

With some hesitation I arranged to meet the aged Hubert Opperman for lunch.  I tentatively suggested to him that it was possible Clayton Sinclair was more interested in talking about the film than actually making it, as a few years had gone by without any progress.  Opperman, a courteous gentleman of the old school, replied that he had total faith in Clayton and had no doubt that all would be well. On a visit to Brisbane some time later I was contacted by Opperman’s son, who told me that he, along with other family members, didn’t trust Clayton and believed the film was a fantasy – of both his father and Clayton Sinclair.

I read in the “Sydney Morning Herald” that a group called the Australian Small Businessmen’s Association could check on the bona fides of companies. I phoned the office number listed and explained the situation vis a vis Clayton Sinclair and the curiously stalled Opperman film. About a week later I had a cheerful phone call assuring me there was no problem as Clayton’s company expected a profit of $40 million in the forthcoming year. Greatly relieved by this news, I asked its source, assuming that the Small Businessmen’s Association would have operated something like MI5, skillfully ferreting out concealed information. I was stunned to be told that the source was Clayton himself. I protested that this was the equivalent of asking a murder suspect if he had committed the crime, then calmly accepting his denial as proof of innocence. The Small Businessmen’s representative on the other end of the line was outraged by my attitude and demanded to know what I’d expected. “Who did you think we could go to for information”?, he asked, curtly.

One morning Clayton visited me at my house in Paddington. He was even more cheerful than usual and announced that this was a big day for him as a TV series he was producing was commencing filming in Melbourne. Reassured by this information  – for the reason that it gave Clayton credibility as a producer – I asked what the series was. A drama?  Comedy?  Who were the lead actors?

Immediately Clayton’s attitude made a dramatic shift. He became angry and hostile, demanding to know why I wanted this information. Why, he asked, should he tell me anything about the TV series?  Why did I want to know? Taken aback, I said that there could hardly be any secret if cast and crew were already at work. And why couldn’t I be trusted with the information in any case? Who would I tell? And why? And what if I did? TV series usually thrive on publicity.

Once Clayton left I phoned my Los Angeles agent, Lennie Hirshan, and told him of the recent events. I mentioned that Clayton had repeatedly assured me that the $26 million for the film was already in the bank. Lennie said to tell him I had an old Jewish agent in America who never believed anybody and would he please send a bank statement by fax with details of the account. I phoned Clayton with this request. Cheerful once again he said he would fax the information immediately. No fax ever arrived. As far as I was concerned the whole business was finished. I am sure most directors would have abandoned ship much earlier, but I suppose I convinced myself that the whole affair was too elaborate to be a sham. What was there to be gained if there was no film and no possibility of one?

Over the next few years I read occasional newspaper articles about the Opperman film going ahead  – being produced by Clayton Sinclair. A phone call came one day from Nadia Tass, an accomplished Australian director who lived in Melbourne. She said she had heard I had been associated with the Opperman film and was curious about the experience. Clearly puzzled, she said she had been working on the project for some time with Clayton, but couldn’t seem to actually prod him to begin practical production.

I heard no more about the TV series that had aroused Clayton’s ire. The IMDB website, which lists pretty well all film production worldwide, does not have the name “Clayton Sinclair” listed.

Finally, at least 10 years after our first meeting, I bumped into Clayton in the street in Balmain. He looked a little older but was as exuberant as ever. He told me a new script had been written about Opperman and his cycling career and production on the film was about to commence.

About the author: Bruce Beresford