Creating Australian Television Drama: A Screenwriting History by Susan Lever is an excellent work that surveys the careers of a number of leading television writers, from the early days of the 1950s through to the present. Stephen Vagg recently spoke with Lever for FilmInk.
What was your inspiration for the book?
“In the 1990s, I was asked to write an Australian Dictionary of Biography article on the crime novelist and screenwriter Pat Flower and found that while her novels were readily accessible, her pioneering work as a television writer was difficult to find. I realised that this would be the case for most of the writers who worked in early Australian television and began to collect material about them. I have taught and written about Australian literature throughout my career and I know that television drama has been neglected by literary studies in Australia. Cultural and Media Studies took over television in the universities, but they have never been interested in television drama as a literary creation. I felt I had to try to do something about this obvious absence in our literary history.”
What was your process?
“It was such a large field that I began by identifying individual writers with a substantial body of work, principally for the ABC — Cliff Green, Peter Yeldham, Tony Morphett. In the 1990s, the ABC was quite good at providing video copies of early drama, and I collected as much of their work as I could and interviewed these writers. I approached the Australian Writers’ Guild to see if they were interested in my work just at the time when Geoffrey Atherden was setting up the Australian Writers’ Foundation for the Guild. He organised a committee with Tony Morphett as chair and established an oral history videorecording project with the support of Malcolm Smith at Foxtel and a grant from the NSW arts program. I conducted interviews with veteran writers chosen by the committee that included a much larger range of writers than I could have approached, some I didn’t know about. I wrote the book as a way of drawing the information from the interviews into a narrative history.”
What things surprised you the most as you did your research?
“Coming from a literary background, I was interested in the writer as ‘creator’. The writers I interviewed taught me that television works to a range of constraints and that they couldn’t afford too much aspiration to art. But they all understood the genres of television and the popular dramatic traditions it developed, whether comedy, melodrama, crime or historical drama. I enjoyed the sense of a working life, often collaborating with others, that they conveyed. Everyone I interviewed admitted that writing for television, especially in the early days of Crawfords and the ABC, was fun. The stereotype of the lonely writer was dispelled as they told me how they sought out opportunities and adjusted to changing circumstances.”
Why have Australian writers been held in such contempt over the years do you feel? (This is a leading question may refer more to pre-1970s attitudes)
“I don’t think it is contempt so much as ignorance. Nobody knows the names of Australian television dramatists; they are pretty well invisible. People recognise actors and sometimes directors and producers, but the writing credit quickly disappears from view. As well, television is a popular art form and there is sometimes an assumption that popular genres are so formulaic that they write themselves. Until videorecording and the internet, Australian television drama was so ephemeral that it was impossible for serious critics to write about it in any depth. I was interested to find that the period that is usually regarded as a low point in Australian stage drama and film (the early 1960s) was precisely the period when writers had turned to television drama. Of course, writers actually make a living from writing for Australian television — as opposed to stage drama or even film screenwriting. There is, perhaps, some snobbery about commercial writing.”
What were among your most memorable encounters with writers?
“One of the most memorable interviews was the joint interview with Tony Sattler and Gary Reilly of Kingswood Country fame. They hadn’t seen each other for a while and turned up wearing almost identical clothing. Some of their exchanges were hilarious and it was easy to imagine them writing comedy sketches together. As the individual interviews reveal, Tony is quite a shy person, while Gary is outgoing. The range of different personalities was fascinating — Ian Jones was serious and scholarly, Hugh Stuckey full of wisecracks, Eleanor Witcombe opinionated, and Brian and Mary Wright modest with an immense fount of knowledge about Australian broadcasting. Anne Brooksbank was quiet and unassuming while her husband, Bob Ellis, kept us painfully suppressing our laughter while we recorded him. I laughed out loud transcribing his interview. The writers were all good storytellers.”
What hidden gems in particular did you discover that you could recommend?
“There are many classic miniseries of the 1980s and 1990s that ought be remembered in the canon of Australian film and television, Ride on Stranger, The Cowra Breakout, Waterfront, The Dismissal. I think the Kennedy Miller series Vietnam is far superior to any of the film depictions of the Vietnam war, as it uses the longer form to cover a range of issues — but the Simpson Le Mesurier Sword of Honour is also much better than I remembered. They are great dramatic treatments of Australian history. Sue Smith and John Alsop’s Bordertown (1995) was a revelation, as I missed its first broadcast. It dares to explore possibilities that I have not seen on Australian television before or since, mixing realism and the fantastic — I think it is a forgotten masterpiece. Andrew Knight and Deb Cox’s Crashburn (2003) didn’t get a fair showing at the time and deserves an audience. Like the CoxKnight After the Deluge and Geoffrey Atherden’s Grass Roots these shows play around with time sequences and call for an attentive audience — they probably work better as binge viewing. I still think Ian David’s Joh’s Jury is one of the finest dramas made for Australian television. These miniseries are television drama at its artistic best. But there are old comedies such as My Name’s McGooley, What’s Yours? that really demonstrate what good writing can do within the parameters of studio filming and the limits of a 23 minute comedy; a miniseries like You Can’t See Round Corners shows what can be done with minimal production values. Hyllus Maris and Sonia Borg’s Women of the Sun (1981) pioneered telling Indigenous stories on television and should not be forgotten as we watch more recent shows such as The Circuit or Redfern Now. We have so many talented writers, I recommend following their credits to see how their ideas develop.”
What common threads kept coming up in writers’ personal stories? (if any)
“A lot of the early writers for television began as stage and radio actors or dramatists and adapted to the new technology of television — Eleanor Witcombe, Alan Hopgood, Tom Hegarty, Bevan Lee. They wrote for television to make a living and reach a wide audience. I think this adaptability is important. None of them were precious about their work and many started writing for soap opera or comedy sketch shows. They didn’t box themselves in and were ready to try new things. It’s astonishing how many writers moved across historical miniseries, docudrama, crime, soaps and even comedy series. In Australia there has been little room for specialisation.”
Moving forward, at a time when Australian writers face such an uncertain future (not that it’s ever been a super secure)… what thoughts do you have for the future?
“The international streaming services have made the ‘showrunner’, a writer/producer figure, central to the creation of television drama. The quality and production values on some of these shows are excellent. We need to be sure that Australian writers and creative people have access to this new level of television drama. Some of the shows of the past now seem to have been created ahead of the technology — many of those miniseries of the 1980s and 1990s would work brilliantly on the streaming platforms. I think it’s important for new writers to understand the achievements of the past and the lessons learnt by earlier generations of writers. We have to have Australian drama content on our screens and, somehow, Australian material has to penetrate the big streaming platforms.”