Philip Hickie

My obit for my father, published in the SMH, December 21, 2012

In the introduction to Peter Kenna's The Slaughter of St Teresa's Day, Philip Hickie wrote of the Paddington of his childhood: ''We had a notorious but semi-retired criminal living opposite … My father rationalised the presence of such an undesirable citizen … on the grounds that the presence of one really good criminal in the street would keep out the others.''

Philip Leonard Hickie was born on November 16, 1927, in a small cottage in Cooper Street, behind the Five Ways cinema where his father, Col Hickie, an Irish electrician, worked as projectionist. The tiny, two-room house was also home to his mother, Dolly (nee Gresser), three siblings and occasionally his two uncles.

Hickie enrolled in science at the University of Sydney, but financial reality made him transfer a few days later to a scholarship in engineering at the new University of Technology (now the University of NSW).

Although he continued to work at the Sydney Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board and then the Department of Public Works after graduating, Hickie's heart was in the theatre.

He designed many amateur and semi-professional productions for, among others, the Independent Theatre, the Elizabethan Theatre Trust and The Genesian Theatre, where he also directed. His design for the Independent's production of T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral won him the Commonwealth Jubilee Stage Design Competition in 1951. At the Independent he also met his wife, actor Philippa Baker.

Hickie was close to his brother-in-law, novelist Kenneth Cook. Together they would walk home late at night across the top of the Harbour Bridge, scrambling over the fencing to scale the arch. A week spent with Cook in Broken Hill formed part of Cook's novel Wake in Fright. Hickie's retelling of their night roo shooting was equally horrifying but much funnier. His story culminated with him dropping off his blood-soaked clothes in a Kings Cross laundry, where they were cleaned and returned without comment.

When television came to Australia in 1956, Hickie was appointed as one of the ABC's first two designers and he worked also as a director. He initially worked from the temporary Arcon studios, broadcasting live to air. Sets were built as other programs were being broadcast, actors went missing between scenes and, in the final, thrilling shot of one drama, the camera panned in as a door slowly opened to reveal … another camera. He worked on Mr Squiggle with Norman Hetherington, who asked for a puppet to distribute sweets to the audience and Bill the Steam Shovel was born.*

In 1964, Hickie left to set up Patrician Films, named after his sister, Patricia, with ABC colleagues. Patrician Films specialised in shorts needed to fill the 10 minutes left for ads in imported hour-long programs. These included Lens on Lilliput, A-Roving, Under the Morning Star and Great Sea Battles. He re-created the battles in Great Sea Battles with tiny sailing ships and gunpowder in his bathtub.

Along the way Hickie indulged in his creativity in freelance commissions as diverse as an air fountain for Westfield Burwood, proposed Christmas street decorations for the Sydney City Council and a colour-coded interior to facilitate navigation in the original labyrinthine Australian Film and Television School.

In 1966 he became head of the division of design at the National Art School in Darlinghurst. In the mid-'70s he was part of the founding staff of the Sydney College of the Arts, as the senior lecturer in industrial design. He went on to be head of division in the School of Civil Engineering at the NSW Department of TAFE and also to lecture in areas as diverse as computing, fluid mechanics and environmental planning.

In retirement Hickie developed a passion for ceramics; once a technique was mastered it was abandoned for another. He became involved in local government, first through the local Progress Associations, then for two terms as a councillor on Willoughby Council. He was instrumental in the push for the Willoughby Civic Place development (The Concourse) and passionately involved in its planning.

Philip Hickie is survived by Philippa, two daughters, two grandsons and sister Doreen.

*Note: This is the obituary as it appeared in the paper. Something got lost in editing here. Philip was the one who asked for a puppet to distribute treats. The design was, of course, Norman Hetherington's