Ex-crims go back to gaol for redemptive documentary

15 August, 2013 by Don Groves

Grant Thompson with the cast of TAKING ON THE CHOCOLATE FROG.  Photo by Kate Ryan


A troupe of ex-criminals has agreed to go back to a prison to learn how to become actors in a new TV observational documentary series, Taking on the Chocolate Frog.

The three-part series will follow the wannabe actors as they rehearse and perform in front of a live audience The Chocolate Frog, a play by Jim McNeil.

The venue is the Parramatta Correctional Centre, where McNeil wrote the play while he was incarcerated for 17 years for armed robbery and shooting a police officer.

The play was first performed in Parramatta Gaol by a group of inmates in 1970. McNeil was paroled in 1974 and died in 1982, homeless and penniless, aged 47.

Created and executive produced by Simon Steel, Screentime’s Executive Producer Entertainment, the docu was commissioned by Studio, SBS’s arts and entertainment channel on Foxtel. Funding came from the Foxtel Production Fund and Screen Australia.

The ex-crims are being put through their paces by drama teacher/mentor Grant Thompson, who has been working with reformed ex-prisoners for the past three years. Some of his students have won paid acting jobs in Australian and US films and TV series including Screentime’s Underbelly and Bikie Wars: Brothers in Arms.

The director is Debbie Cuell, who's also co-executive producer. Shooting will take 10 weeks and the play will be performed in front of an audience that will include A-list actors and prominent theatre critics.

Steel said, “The incredible story of Jim McNeil is largely unknown to many Australians. We are excited to introduce a new generation to an extraordinary part of Australia’s theatre history as Grant and his cast take on The Chocolate Frog. This documentary is a positive, redemptive story which aims to bring the absolute best out of the actors.”

The play (the title is prison slang for "dog" or informer) exposes the justice system's hypocrisy and flaws.

The series will air on Studio early next year. Screentime’s parent, the Banijay Group, will handle international sales.

The Foxtel Production Fund has helped Studio commission a number of new programs since 2010 including Creative Minds, Raising the Curtain, Studio at the MEMO and Tina Arena Live in Melbourne.

“Foxtel is thrilled to continue encouraging and investing in the Australian arts scene and capturing original content for broadcast around the country,” said Foxtel’s Executive Director of Television Brian Walsh.