Anne Whitehead

Anne Whitehead Profile

Anne Whitehead Profile


Anne Whitehead, author and screenwriter, was born in Sydney but spent much of her childhood in England and Papua-New Guinea.  Because of a peripatetic engineer father, she was educated at eleven schools, including in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire villages, the PNG highland goldfields and coastal town of Lae, and boarding schools in Sydney and Queensland. In 1972 she gained an MA in Australian Literature with a thesis on the great Australian novelist Christina Stead and, in 2001, a PhD in Government and International Relations for a History thesis on gender politics at William Lane’s Utopian colonies in Paraguay, both awarded by the University of Sydney.

Broadcast Experience

Anne worked as a producer/director with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, at first in radio and as script editor on Current Affairs, a new TV series for schools. She then became the first producer/director of its successor, the still-running national weekly TV program BTN (Behind the News). In 2018 she was invited to the ABC’s 50th anniversary celebrations of BTN, Australia’s second-longest-running current affairs TV show after Four Corners. Both Waleed Aly and Patricia Karvelas have acknowledged the influence of BTN on their decision to enter journalism.

For the ABC, Whitehead went on to write and direct The Australians, four documentaries on Australian history: They Came to Stay, Blokes and Coves and Coots, Where Are You Going, Mate? and A Track Winding Back. She was invited to join the new Tasmanian Film Corporation and produced 20 short documentaries, including
A Sporting Chance and the 35mm Franklin River Journey, directed by Bob Connolly, which won the Special Recognition Award at the 1982 World Wildlife Film Festival. For the TFC she wrote and directed the telemovie Round the Bend, broadcast by the Nine Network and a short TV drama, Letting Go starring Robyn Nevin, about inter-generational conflict, broadcast on the Seven Network.

Anne then freelanced as a film and TV screenwriter back in Sydney. She was a finalist for two AWGIE Awards and won the 1985 AWGIE (Australian Writers’ Guild) Award for Best Documentary Script for The Loner in the Lodge, a feature-length film she also directed about Australian wartime prime minister John Curtin, for Mike Willesee’s Transmedia and the Nine Network. Her screenplay The People’s Hero about gutter press pioneer, Truth newspaper boss John Norton, was broadcast on the Nine Network in 1988 in the Bi-Centenary series Mike Willesee’s Australians.

She was commissioned to write screen adaptations of some major novels: Olga Masters’ Loving Daughters, Christopher Koch’s The Boys in the Island and Janette Turner Hospital’s Charades. Bruce Beresford and Samson Productions optioned her screenplay The Promised Land for two years. Anne was a script editor and script assessor for the Australian Film Commission and for five years a member of the NSW Management Committee of the Australian Writers’ Guild and for three years on its National Council.

Travel Research

Anne has travelled extensively in Africa, Europe and the US and spent four months in India in 1998-99 on an Asialink Literary Fellowship. In February 1999, in relation to her India project, she was given two days’ research access to the Royal Archives atop the Round Tower of Windsor Castle. For her award-winning Paradise Mislaid, she journeyed three times to Paraguay over twelve years, visiting the two sites – Nueva Australia and Colonia Cosme – of Australia’s 1890s Utopian socialist experiment, and recorded interviews with the numerous descendants, who ranged from peasant farmers to wealthy cattle ranchers, a merchant banker, an international comic-strip writer and the son of an esteemed self-taught anthropologist of Paraguay’s forest Indians.

For her next book, Bluestocking in Patagonia, she made two research trips to Argentina, the second in 2002, a time of financial crisis, and to its southern region of Patagonia (stopping at Welsh colonies on the way), to follow the trail of the young Australian poet, Mary Gilmore. Anne was fortunate to stay at both remote sheep estancias where Will Gilmore was employed, and Mary herself at one, until asked to leave in disgrace. To discover the reason why, you should read the book.

AW in Buenos Aires 2002
For Betsy and the Emperor, her third book, Anne made a week’s voyage from Capetown to St Helena on the last operating Royal Mail ship. She stayed ten days on the remote South Atlantic island, researching in its original East India Company archives. The book also took her twice to England to work in the Manuscript collection of the British Library, to France and, following the Balcombe connection, to a secluded eighteenth-century home with a Palladian façade, deep in the Scottish highlands.

Radio Series Paradise Lost:

In three visits to Paraguay over twelve years, Anne recorded over 50 hours of interviews with Paraguayans of Australian descent from the rival colonies of Nueva Australia and Colonia Cosme. These recordings resulted in a radio documentary series, Paradise Lost, presented by Anne and produced by the ABC Social History Unit, with an original music score – traditional Australian folk songs played on Paraguayan instruments – arranged by Mary-Jane Field. The series was broadcast in 1990 and re-broadcast to acclaim in 2010 in the ABC-RN series Life and Times.

The original recordings, of which these programs are only a fraction, are now held in the Whitehead Paraguay-Patagonia collection in the State Library of New South Wales.

Books, Articles & Awards

Paradise Mislaid: In Search of the Australian Tribe of Paraguay
(UQP; Untapped & Booktopia print edition 2022)

The book traces the story of over 500 Australians who attempted to create a utopian socialist paradise in South America, of how and why they failed, and of the lives of many of their descendants under the long Stroessner dictatorship and afterwards in contemporary Paraguay. Paradise Mislaid was the winner of the 1998 NSW Premier’s Award for Australian History. It was shortlisted for the Nita B. Kibble Award for a work of ‘life writing’ by a woman writer, the Nita Dobbie Award for a first book, and was included in The Age 1997 Book of the Year selection.

Bluestocking in Patagonia: Mary Gilmore's quest for love and utopia at the world's end
(Profile Books, UK; Untapped & Booktopia print edition 2022) 

This book enquires into the ‘lost years’ -1900-1902 – in the life of the young Australian poet Mary Gilmore. After she and her husband Will Gilmore and young son Billy departed the failing Paraguay commune, they moved to Argentina at a time of economic depression. They headed for Patagonia in the far south. While Gilmore worked on remote sheep stations to earn their passages home to Australia, Mary and her son lived a desperate, lonely and often dangerous life. Bluestocking in Patagonia was shortlisted for the 2005 Australian Magarey Biography Medal.

Betsy and the Emperor: The true story of Napoleon, a pretty girl, a Regency rake and an Australian colonial misadventure. (Allen & Unwin, 2015)

Anne’s third book, Betsy and the Emperor, (Allen & Unwin, 2015) follows the tumultuous fortunes of the English Balcombe family, especially the wayward adolescent daughter Betsy – and how their friendship with the exiled Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte on the South Atlantic island of St Helena cast a long shadow over the remainder of their lives. Anne was awarded an Australia Council Literature Board Fellowship for this work and, in 2012, a NSW State Library Honorary Fellowship from the Library Council of NSW for research.

Anne has written articles for Meanjin, Australian Literary Studies, Island, El hilo rojo (Buenos Aires), the 8-volume International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest: 1500 to the Present (Wiley-Blackwell, Chicago, 2009), the Companion to the Australian Media (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014), a short story for the Harbour anthology, poems for Poetry Magazine and numerous newspaper features.

Anne is a member of the

Australian Society of Authors

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