60 Australian TV Plays of the 1950s & ‘60s

February 18, 2019
A format that thrived in the US and UK during a similar period, Stephen Vagg uncovers the many Australian filmed plays that appeared on our televisions and are barely remembered today.

The accepted narrative of Australian TV drama history traditionally goes something like this… in the 1950s and ‘60s, we basically just watched stuff from America, with a little from England, then Homicide came along and proved that Australians like to watch local stories. It helped lead to quotas, which ensured the successful industry we have today (for now).

And there is a lot of truth to that – Homicide was the game changer, the first really big local dramatic hit. (we’re talking drama series, not quiz shows or variety series).

But things weren’t a complete graveyard of creativity before then.

It was a graveyard compared to what came later, but there were shows being made. There was Australian drama on the first night the ABC broadcast television in this country (5 November 1956).

It just seems like nothing was made, because:

a) most of the shows weren’t repeated, so people don’t realise they existed;

b) audiences weren’t huge in the early days of television, so they had minimal impact;

c) it’s hard to source copies of the shows even now;

d) there tends to be a lack of historical writing about local TV drama of this period outside of academia (there is a superb academic resource, AustLit, which lists most of them but you need to belong to a library to access it; there is also a great website – https://www.classicaustraliantv.com/index.html – but that focuses on series);

e) the majority of Australian drama were one-off stand-alone plays, which tended to linger less strongly in the cultural memory than a popular series;

f) many of the shows were Australian adaptations of overseas stories set overseas so they didn’t feel particularly Australian, eg Patrick Hamilton’s Rope, various plays of William Shakespeare, J.M. Barrie’s Twelve Pound Look (the show dramatised on said first night of the ABC), the Hollywood film Johnny Belinda (the first live one hour drama done on commercial TV); and

g) most of the actors, writers and directors who worked on those shows didn’t go on to become famous – unlike, say, those that worked in the Golden Years of American television.

But there was a surprisingly large amount of early Australian TV drama.

Some of the regular series are vaguely remembered, like the first Aussie soap, Autumn Affair (1958 – ‘59), the meat-pie Western Whiplash (1961), the legal series Consider Your Verdict (1962) or the mini series Stormy Petrel (1960).

What aren’t remembered at all are the one-off Australian TV plays – by Australian authors on Australian subjects with Australian casts.

This was a format of drama that thrived at the time in America and Britain (usually in the form of anthology shows), though it is not very popular now.

FilmInk were certainly unaware of the existence of these plays until a few years ago, when we stumbled upon a reference to them in Leslie Rees’ history of Australian drama, and were prompted to do further research.

In an attempt to shed some light on this topic, here are 60 notable Australian TV plays of the 1950s and 1960s.

A few things about the list:

It is not exhaustive. We picked sixty because that’s a nice round number; we could have gone higher as we are not sure exactly how many were made.)

It doesn’t include adaptations of foreign stories (unless for a good reason) of which there were many. (Part of the reason Australian writers struggled during this period was television executives continually commissioned Australian productions of overseas scripts.)

It doesn’t include mini series or regular series of the time. The focus is on one-off plays, or episodes of an anthology series.

It doesn’t include variety shows and revues, many of which have their own considerable historical value, such as Trip Tease and High C’s (1958), which features early performances from Barry Humphries.

Our focus is on the years 1956-64, the year of Homicide. We have included some from the late ‘60s, though, because Australian TV drama didn’t really flourish until the 1970s.

Pretty much all the productions were filmed in Sydney or Melbourne. The ABC shot in both, ATN-7 did a lot in Sydney and GTN-9 in Melbourne (this is before the stations were networked). Occasionally other cities and production companies had a go, and that will be discussed, but those were the big three. (The way it usually worked is the show would be performed, and shown, live in one city, and a recording of that performance was shown in other cities.)

We have not included plays written by Australians and starring Australians which were made for British TV, of which there was a surprisingly large amount, including several written by Peter Yeldham, such as Thunder on the Snowy (1960), Reunion Day (1962) and Stella (1964), and adaptations of The Harp in the South (1964) and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1964).

We haven’t seen ANY of the productions listed. They are very hard to source. The National Film and Sound Archive have copies of some. Many, if not most, were erased. Information has been culled from the internet and newspapers.

We’ve listed the plays alphabetically and tried to include the year of broadcast, production company, director and writer, duration and where it was filmed.

  1. Adventure Unlimited (1965) d Robin Lovejoy. Waratah Productions. 25 mins. Shot on the Great Barrier Reef. This was an episode of the Adventure Unlimited anthology series produced by Lee Robinson, a filmmaker best known for 1950s features and the TV series Skippy. Adventure Unlimited consisted of stand-alone adventure tales which were filmed in 1963 (many on location) and were screened two years later on Channel Ten. They had titles like Crocodile and Camel Patrol. This episode was about divers combatting a people smuggling racket on the Barrier Reef. The cast included Richard Meikle (father of Australian TV writer Sam), the legendary Chips Rafferty, and Australian Olympic swimming champ Murray Rose (who was then trying to be an actor… he went on to have a small role in Ice Station Zebra).

2. The Astronauts (1961) w Don Houghton d Christopher Muir. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Melbourne. An original Australian TV play about men training to be astronauts (two Americans, a Britisher and an Australian) at an Australian research facility. Is this the only Australian TV drama about the space race? The cast includes Alan Hopgood, the actor and writer, who was in many of these plays.

3. Ballad for One Gun (1963) w Phillip Grenville Mann d Raymond Menmuir. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney. A version of the Ned Kelly story, which depicted him as something of a juvenile delinquent. None other than John Bell plays Ned and Mark McManus (later Taggart) plays Dan Kelly.

4. The Big Day (1959) w John Ford d Rod Kinnear. GTV-9. 60 mins. Shot in Melbourne. A play about the last working day of a clerk, produced for Shell Presents, an anthology series by ATN-7 in Sydney and GTN-9 in Melbourne and sponsored by Shell Oil. It sounds like it was one of those naturalistic slice of life dramas that they liked to do on TV in the late ‘50s off the back of the success of Paddy Chayefsky’s TV writing. Critics loved it.

5. Blue Murder (1959) w George Kerr d Raymond Menmuir. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney. Decades before the Richard Roxburgh-starring Blue Murder, there was this Australian TV thriller, about an actress murdered by her son. It sounds as if it would be great, campy fun – a theatre critic even gets involved. Nancye Stewart, a leading character actress of the time, plays the dead actress.

6. Bodgie (1959) w Alan Seymour d Raymond Menmuir. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney. This one had a long gestation: Australian writer Rex Rienits came up with the story, used it as a radio play and novel; it was then adapted into the 1952 British feature film Wide Boy, and into this 1959 TV play, where the screenwriter (Australian Alan Seymour, best known for The One Day of the Year) relocated the action to Australia. One of the few on screen depictions of the “bodgie and widgee” phenomenon of the 1950s. John Ewart played the lead.

7. Boy Round the Corner (1962) w Greg Bunbury d Christopher Muir. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Melbourne. A crime drama about a man who robs a taxi and goes on the run. Sounds like the sort of storyline that would become standard fare for Homicide and the like. Although shot in Melbourne it was set in the Sydney suburb of Erskineville. Norman Kaye was in this.

Burst of Summer

8. Burst of Summer (1961) w Oriel Gray. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Melbourne. An adaptation of a play by Oriel Gray about an aboriginal girl who is cast in a film. It’s based on the story of Ngarla Kunoth, the female star of Jedda (1955) (who, as an aside, later became a nun, then a wife and mother, then a political activist under the name of Rosalie Kunoth-Monks). The cast included Anne Charleston, aka Madge from Neighbours, and Robert Tudawali, the male star of Jedda, who in real life would die tragically at a young age.

9. The Coastwatchers (1959) w John Sherman d Roger Mirams. Pacific Film Production. 65 mins. Pilot for a proposed series about coastwatchers. The series never eventuated – maybe two men watching coasts isn’t inherently dramatic – but the pilot screened as a stand alone film and New Zealander Mirams (who became a major producer of kids’ TV in this country) later reworked the concept as Spyforce (1971–72).

10. Close to the Roof (1960) w Rex Rienits d Raymond Menmuir. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney. Another play by the prolific Rex Rienits, who should be better known – his other Australian TV work around this time included Who Killed Kovali? (1960) and Stormy Petrel (1960), as well as a number of B movies in Britain. This one is about two robbers who get caught in an attic, the sort of one-location thriller that adapts well to television. One of the stars was Ron Haddrick, father of noted writer Greg Haddrick. A full copy of the script is available at the National Archives of Australia, an excellent resource for complete on-line copies of old Australian screenplays.

11. The Concord of Sweet Sounds (1963) w Patricia Hooker d Henri Safran. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney. A play about a pianist touring Australia. The pianist was played by Stuart Wagstaff who became a noted figure on Australian stage and TV. Unlike the majority of Australian TV play directors from the early ‘60s, Safran went on to direct some impressive feature films, including Storm Boy (1976).

12. Dark Under the Sun (1960) w Chris Gardner d William Sterling. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Melbourne. Drama about a half aboriginal man who marries a white woman – an indication that Australian television was willing to confront some of the nation’s trickier social issues head on.

13. The Devil Makes Sunday (1962) w Bruce Stewart d William Sterling. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Melbourne. Stewart was an Australian-New Zealander who originally wrote the script for Britain’s ITV Sunday Night Theatre, after which it was adapted for American TV, before being filmed in Australia. However, the subject matter was very Australian: a convict uprising in 1840s Norfolk Island. Yep, that’s right, there was an American TV show about an Australian convict uprising – it was done as part of The US Steel Hour in 1961 with a cast including Dane Clark and Fritz Weaver. This, along with Light Me a Lucifer, is the old Australian TV play more than any other we wish we could see because it sounds very exciting.

14. Eye of the Night (1960) w Kay Keaveny d Christopher Muir. ABC. 75 mins. Shot in Melbourne. Feature-length thriller about a man who is a mummy’s boy and who murders people. Keaveny was one of the top radio writers in Australia in the 1950s, and also did episodes of shows like Skippy and The Adventures of Long John Silver. The cast included familiar “you’ll recognise them if you see them” Melbourne actors like Brian James and Dennis Miller.

15. Fisher’s Ghost (1963) w John Gordon. ABC. Shot in Sydney. This was an opera, so cheating a little putting it on the list, but it was the first opera ever broadcast by the ABC that had an Australian historical setting. (They showed a lot of operas but they were normal local productions of Carmen and the like.) It’s about the legend of Fisher’s ghost – a great true story that could form the basis of a modern day horror film, by the way – and was performed on stage first in 1960.

16. The First Joanna (1961) w Dorothy Blewett d Christopher Muir. ABC. 75 mins. Shot in Melbourne. Adaptation of a 1942 play by Dorothy Blewett about a woman who moves to an old house in South Australia and draws inspiration from a diary of the woman who lived in the house in colonial times. Blewett and Muir also collaborated on another TV production based on one of her plays, Quiet Night (1961), a medical drama.

17. Funnel Web (1962) w Phillip Grenville Mann d William Sterling. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney. A lot of TV plays around this time sound as though they were inspired by Dial M for Murder, which started as a TV play, i.e. tales of murder among the monied classes. Mann originally wrote this for British TV, then adapted it into a play, then adapted it for Australian TV when he moved here. It stars Grant Taylor, Australian film leading man of the 1940s, who eventually ate his way out of romantic leads into character parts, Jack Thompson-style.

18. The Grey Nurse Said Nothing (1960) w Sumner Locke Elliott d David Cahill. ATN-7. Shot in Sydney. Elliot’s TV play, based on the real life Shark Arm murder, was originally written for Playhouse 90 in America in 1959 with a cast including Angela Lansbury. It was filmed in Australia the following year for Channel Seven’s General Motors Hour, the title for a grab-bag series of specials sponsored by – you guessed it – General Motors. Patrick Brady, who was tried and acquitted in the real life murder case, tried unsuccessfully to get an injunction to stop the broadcast of the Australian production, which was very well reviewed. Surprising that no one has tried to remake this. Elliott is best known for his novels, which included Careful He Might Hear You, but for over a decade was one of the most in-demand writers on American television, and he came up with some cracker stories.

19. Heart Attack (1960) w George Kerr. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Melbourne. Another Dial M for Murder type tale, about a doctor who decides to kill his blackmailer. The cast included Campbell Copelin, a suave old time actor who we’ve had a fondness for ever since we read about the time he once stole a plane for a joyride, crashed it into a golf course and survived.

20. Jenny (1962) w George Kerr d Henri Safran. ABC. 75 mins. Shot in Sydney. A drama about a teenager who considers killing herself when her parents’ marriage breaks up. A rare Australian drama that focused on a teenager. It starred Grant Taylor.

21. Lady in Danger (1959) w Max Afford d Colin Dean. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney. Max Afford’s breezy 1942 comedy thriller was one of the few Australian plays to have a run on Broadway (Afford’s original story was set in England but the Broadway producers, ironically, had it rewritten so it was set in Australia). The ABC filmed a TV adaptation in 1959. The play is very enjoyable, and we wish this film was still around.

22. Light Me a Lucifer (1962) w John O’Grady d William Sterling. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Melbourne. This sounds like brilliant fun: a comedy about the devil (played by Frank Thring) going to Sydney to persuade more Australians to come to hell, based on a script by O’Grady (who wrote They’re a Weird Mob). Contemporary reviews were superb, and considering Thring played the lead there’s every chance this was fantastic. Why is this not more widely available?

23. A Little South of Heaven (1961) w George Kerr d Alan Burke. ABC. 60 mins. Cross cultural romance between an Italian and an Anglo-Australian, based on a radio play by the writing power couple of D’arcy Niland and Ruth Park which had been adapted by the BBC in 1960. It seems to owe a little to the play They Knew What They Wanted which may have invented the migrant-sends-fake-photo-of-someone-hotter-to-prospective-migrant-wife bit used here.

24. Lola Montez (1962) w Alan Burke d Alan Burke. ABC. 90 mins. Shot in Sydney. This was an adaptation of one of the few original Australian stage musicals produced professionally in the 1950s. Burke wrote the book to the musical and thus knew it intimately; he said this TV production fixed up the errors in the original stage production, which make the fact that this show can’t be seen particularly frustrating.

25. Manhaul (1962) w Osmar White d John Sumner, Rod Kinnear. ATN-7. 75 mins. Shot in Sydney.  Tell us this doesn’t sound like it would be awesome? It’s set on an Australian Antarctic base where seven men have been stranded together for 12 months and one is murdered. White was a journalist who had been in Antarctica. Australia’s own version of The Thing… Well, with no creature but still… a murder mystery at a base in Antarctica… How cool is that?

26. Man in a Blue Vase (1961) w Richard Benyon d Rod Kinnear. GTV-9. 60 mins. Shot in Melbourne. Slice of life drama about a Polish family in Australia. One of the bewilderingly few writing credits from Benyon, best known for the classic play The Shifting Heart (see below).

27. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1961) w Barry Pree d Rod Kinnear. GTV-9. 90 mins. Fergus Hume’s 1886 novel had been hugely popular and was filmed three times in the silent era; the ABC would film it as a TV movie in 2012. All those versions treated the material seriously, but this TV version filmed a stage adaptation that sent up the material, playing it for camp.  Screened as part of The General Motors Hour.

28. Ned Kelly (1959) w Douglas Stewart d William Sterling. ABC. 75 mins. Shot in Melbourne with some location filming in Glenrowan. For those who can’t get enough Ned Kelly adaptations, this began as a 1942 radio play by Douglas Stewart, which was turned into a stage play (Leo McKern did a production), then a TV play.

29. Night of the Ding-Dong (1961) w Ralph Peterson d William Sterling. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Melbourne. This sounds like a lot of fun, with a concept like the 1966 film The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming: just after the Crimean War, panic hits Adelaide when a Russian boat is spotted off the coast. It was based on Peterson’s 1954 Australian play which was filmed by British TV before being adapted for Australian TV.

30. No Picnic Tomorrow (1960) w Barbara Vernon d Rod Kinnear. ATN-7. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney. A lot of Australian TV plays of this period involved cross cultural romances – this one, for Shell Presents, was about an Australian woman and a Greek man.

31. The One Day of the Year (1962) w John Sumner d Rod Kinnear. GTV-9. Shot in Melbourne. Alan Seymour’s classic 1958 play about Anzac Day has, bewilderingly, never been turned into a feature film, but was adapted for Australian TV, using the cast of one of the theatre productions… making its difficulty to access all the more frustrating.

32. Outpost (1959) w John Cameron d Christopher Muir. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Melbourne. An original Australian TV play about five soldiers isolated on a New Guinea outpost during World War Two; one of the soldiers is murdered. Author John Cameron, a war veteran, worked at the ABC as a facilities supervisor and submitted the script under a pen name. This production sounds terrific; the production was so well received it was bought by CBS and screened in the USA in 1961 (along with another Australian TV play, The Scent of Fear, which was an adaptation of a script by English writer Ted Willis set in Europe). Why are not achievements like this better known?

33. Pardon Miss Westcott (1959) w Peter Benjamin, Alan Burke music Peter Stannard d David Cahill. ATN-7. 75 mins. Shot in Sydney. A full length original Australian musical written expressly for television and recorded live. A convict-era story, it was done by the creative team behind Lola Montez (see above) and from all accounts was a lot of fun. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to do such stuff now? A cast album was released but is hard to source.

34. The Passionate Pianist (1957) w Barbara Vernon. ABC. 30 mins. Shot in Sydney. A comedy based on Vernon’s one act play about a family of book makers. Vernon brought the family back the following year in a play which was also filmed for TV, The Multi Coloured Umbrella (1958). Being Australia, some idiot politician (MLA Lawrence) complained in parliament that Umbrella was immoral and the production was not shown in Melbourne. The reason given was “Technical issues” but it was likely that the ABC were gun-shy about copping criticism.

35. Prelude to a Harvest (1963) w Kay Keavney d Colin Dean. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney. Drama about crop failures in colonial Sydney under Governor Phillip. Director Dean worked on a number of TV series set in colonial times in the early ‘60s including Stormy Petrel, The Patriots and The Hungry Ones.

36. A Private Island (1964) w Chris Gardner d Henri Safran. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney.  Seachange style drama about a Sydney real estate agent who drops out to live on a Queensland island. There were a few Australian TV plays with this sort of theme around this time – Otherwise Engaged (1965) was another.

37. The Quiet Season (1965) w John Cameron d John Croyston. ABC. 30 mins. Shot in Brisbane. Most TV was made in Melbourne and Sydney, but this romance set in a boarding house, was shot in Queensland’s capital. Contemporary reviews from the southern media were harsh. It’s entirely possible the production was terrible but from reading a bunch of reviews from Sydney and Melbourne about TV plays for this article, there was a definite bias from critics against programs not made in that critic’s home city.

38. The Recruiting Officer (1965) d Ken Hannam. ABC. 100 mins. Shot in Sydney. We’re cheating including this one because it’s an adaptation of George Farquhar’s 18th century comedy… but that comedy was the first stage play ever performed in Australia (in Sydney in 1789), so it has historical importance. John Meillion and Reg Livermore starred. The production was filmed in 1964 but screening was delayed until after a Senate election because of the title – conscription had been an issue in the 1964 election.

39. Reflections in Dark Glasses (1960) w James Workman d David Cahill. ATN-7. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney. A thriller about a woman whose child goes missing and who may (or may not) be crazy. It starred Muriel Steinbeck, who specialised in housewife heroines around this time on shows like Autumn Affair, and co-starred the eventually-legendary Ruth Cracknell as a psychiatrist.

40. The Right Thing (1963) w Raymond Bowers d Raymond Menmuir. ABC. 80 mins. Shot in Sydney.  A family drama with cross-cultural themes (in this case via a visiting Spaniard). The production was also broadcast in England. Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame) saw it and criticised the script but praised the acting, which is par for the course for most critics of Australian television.

41. Rusty Bugles (1965) w John Warwick d Alan Burke. ABC. 75 mins. Shot in Sydney. Ever since the 1930s, Australian radio writer Sumner Locke Elliott wanted desperately to be a successful playwright. For a decade he had minimal success with his imitations of plotty, quippy Broadway hits, so he wrote Rusty Bugles, a plotless slice of life piece about bored servicemen in the Northern Territory during the war based on his own experience. This premiered in 1948 and proved to be a massive hit, if controversial due to its “bad language”. It was filmed for Australian TV in 1965; by that stage Elliott was based in the US so the adaptation was done by John Warwick, an actor and writer whose achievements included helping discover Errol Flynn in the 1930s. The play has been in print for years; the lack of plot is distracting but it captures a time and a place brilliantly and we would have loved to have seen this production.

42. A Season in Hell (1964) w Patricia Hooker d Henri Safran. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney. This wasn’t an Australian story, but included here anyway because it was an original Australian script and the content was so remarkable for its time: it tells the story of the relationship between the poet Rimbaud and Verlaine in nineteenth century France. Yep, gay love on 1964 TV screens in Australia (without having seen it, this element may have been severely downplayed).

43. The Sergeant from Burralee (1961) w Philip Grenville Mann d Raymond Menmuir. ABC. 90 mins. Colonial era drama about the fall of a white settler which is blamed on an aboriginal. Hot topic drama which was critically acclaimed at the time.

44. Shadow of a Pale Horse (1961) w Bruce Stewart d David Cahill. ATN-7. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney. Another script by Stewart which, like The Devil Makes Sunday (see above), had been filmed by British and American TV before being done in Australia, although it was an Australian story: in the 19th Century, a murder trial takes place in the town of Cobar. It sounds awesome and won the Best Drama at the 1961 Logies.

45. She (1967) choreographed by Juan Corelli d Chris Muir. ABC. 30 mins. The ABC filmed a lot of ballet back in the day. Strictly speaking She falls outside the parameters set for this list but we couldn’t resist… This was an original ballet done for television, set in an Antarctic base! Starred Elke Neidhardt who was married to Muir at the time. Other ballets filmed by the ABC include G’day Digger (1958), a ballet about two Australian soldiers on leave in the city.

46. She’ll Be Right (1962) w George Kerr d Chris Muir. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Melbourne. Based on an Australian radio play about travellers in France who hear the story of an Australian soldier killed in World War Two fighting for the French Resistance.

47. The Shifting Heart (1968) ABC. 65 mins. Richard Beynon’s 1957 play about families in Collingwood was one of the most successful local stage plays in the 1950s, touring the country to great acclaim and being produced in London. Typically, for cultural cringe Australia, it was filmed by British TV first before the Australians did a version in 1968, as an episode of the ABC anthology Wednesday Theatre. The cast included Anne Charleston and Tom Oliver, both later of Neighbours. Beynon, like most Australian writers of the 1940s and 1950s, had to move to London to make a living.

48. The Silver Backed Brushes (1965) w Joyce Spelling d Ken Hannam. Waratah Productions. 25 mins. Shot in New Guinea. An episode of Adventure Unlimited about a soldier killed minutes after he marries a nurse in New Guinea during World War Two. Tom Oliver has the lead. Hannam went on to become a noted feature director, his credits including Sunday Too Far Away (1965).

49. The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day (1960) w Peter Kenna d Alan Burke. ABC. 90 mins. Shot in Sydney. Kenna’s play, based on the life of Tilly Devine, isn’t as well known as his later classic, A Hard God, but was still very popular. He wrote the leading role for Neva Carr Glynn, a top actor of the time (perhaps best remembered now as Nick Tate’s mother), who had great success with it on stage, and who reprised her performance in this 1960 TV adaptation – which makes it even more of a shame that this production is not easily available. The play was later filmed in England for the BBC starring Susannah York.

Neva Carr Glynn

50. The Small Victory (1958) w Iain MacCormick. ABC. 75 mins. Shot in Melbourne. A Korean War drama which doesn’t have much to do with Australia, but we put it on the list because the author, MacCormick, was Australian; he served in the army in World War Two, was a POW, elected to stay on in London, where he became one of the top writers in British television. Several of his plays were performed on Australian TV, such as this and One Morning Near Troodos (set during the Cyprus Emergency) but to our knowledge he did not write on Australian themes – a typical example of the talent drain of the time.

51. The Square Ring (1960) w Ralph Peterson d Raymond Menmuir. ABC. 90 mins. Shot in Sydney. Peterson originally wrote this boxing story as an Australian radio play, then adapted that into a British stage play, which became a 1953 British movie with Jack Warner… before being filmed for Australian television. The cast included Guy Doleman, a New Zealand actor who worked for many years in Australia and England, appearing in films like The Ipcress File (1965). Peterson went on to be the main writer on the successful sitcom My Name’s McGooley What’s Yours? (1966-68).

Raymond Menmuir

52. The Sub-Editors Room (1956) w Leslie Rees. ABC. 30 mins. The first Australian written drama to be performed on Australian TV, based on a 1937 one act play by Rees, who was better known as an author of children’s fiction. The word “slut” is heard in dialogue – saucy!

53. The Swagman (1965) w Ian Stuart Black d Henri Safran. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney. Cheating a little with this one because the writer was British, who never visited Australia, but the story is very Australian: a bored housewife in the outback is about to sleep with a neighbour when a swagman comes along. This was considered titillating material at the time and the production prompted letters of complaint to the ABC.

54. Swamp Creatures (1960) w Alan Seymour d Raymond Menmuir. ABC. 75 mins. Shot in Sydney. Seymour is best known for writing The One Day of the Year, but his first play, Swamp Creatures, was also acclaimed. This was the TV adaptation.

55. The Sweet Sad Story of Elmo and Me (1965) w Ric Throssell d Henri Safran. ABC. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney. Slice of life suburban drama about a man who struggles to keep up with the Joneses. Author Throssell was a diplomat, the son of a VC winner and grandson of a West Australian premier, who was later accused of spying for the Russians.

56. The Tape Recorder (1966) w Pat Flower d Henri Safran. ABC. 30 mins. Shot in Sydney A clever thriller from Flower, originally done for the Australian Playhouse anthology series. It’s a one hander, about a woman taking taped dictation from her unseen boss, and proved so popular that it was adapted for TV productions in Britain, Canada, Belgium, the US and Italy, as well as the stage. Flower had an affinity for these sort of tales – her other scripts included titles like The Prowler, Fiends of the Family and Done Away with It.

57. They Were Big, They Were Blue, They Were Beautiful (1959) w Ross Napier d David Cahill. ATN-7. 60 mins. Shot in Sydney. An original Australian story by Napier about two people who get involved in a baby kidnapping. This was an episode of the semi-regular anthology series Shell Presents. The script was chosen via a competition. June Salter, familiar to fans of The Restless Years, was in it and she described the production as terrible.

58. The Torrents (1969) w Oriel Gray. ABC. Shot in Melbourne. Oriel Gray’s 1955 play became famous in Australian theatre for coming equal first in a competition alongside Summer of the Seventeenth Doll but never receiving anything like the same amount of attention afterwards. It was adapted for radio, and then for TV, in 1969 as part of Australian Plays, a short lived anthology series.

59. The Tower (1965) w Noel Robinson d Chris Muir. ABC. 75 mins. Shot in Sydney. Version of the Hal Porter gothic play about a family in colonial Tasmania. Surprising more films aren’t made in the Tasmanian gothic genre, the state is so beautiful and creepy.

60. The Valley of Water (1962) w Jean Allen d Rex Heading. 60 mins. NWS-9. Shot in Adelaide. The main producer of drama during the early days of TV was the ABC with ATN-7 in Sydney second and GTV-9 in Melbourne third. Occasionally, stations did make drama somewhere else – this was an Adelaide production about a flood (ambitious to do in a studio. Future DOP Dean Semler was the floor manager).

Some random observations:

The most popular subjects for writers seemed to be: cross cultural romance, murder in an isolated setting (often in colonial times), murder in a sophisticated setting, and slice of life drama about a “little man”. But really there was great variety in the stories.

Every significant Australian play around this time was adapted for television, notably The One Day of the Year, Rusty Bugles, The Shifting Heart, The Torrents, and Lola Montez – which is a hell of a lot more than Australia’s TV industry does now.

We’re sure some of these plays were terrible. They would all seem primitive. We bet the sets wobbled. But all would be worth seeing and some would be outstanding. It’s an outrage none of them are easily available. The least we can do is leave some record of them.



  1. Linda Watson

    Would love to see these now – a ‘reel’ history lesson!

  2. Pingback: Forgotten Australian TV Plays – The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day | FilmInk

  3. Susan Lever

    Scripts of plays produced by the ABC in the 1960s and after are held in the National Archives of Australia. I got them to digitise as many of them as I could afford when I was researching my book Creating Australian Television Drama: A Screenwriting History (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2020), so they are now publicly available on their website.

  4. Susan Lever

    The National Film and Sound Archive also has video of ‘The Grey Nurse Said Nothing’ and ‘Pardon Miss Westcott’. I’ve viewed them at their Sydney office. I mention them briefly in my book. I suspect the NFSA holds more of the Channel 7 drama series.

  5. Susan Lever

    Sorry, also meant to say that I have a video copy of The Tape Recorder, that I bought from the ABC in the days when it was more helpful to researchers.

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