Australia’s Forgotten Television Plays: Four from the Goddard Years

October 3, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian television plays looks at four efforts from the ABC in the late sixties: Colin Free’s The Air-Conditioned Author (1966), Pat Flower’s Anonymous (1966), Ron Harrison’s A Ride on the Big Dipper (1967) and Gwenda Painter’s Touch of Gold (1967).

From 1956 to 1965, the ABC’s record of developing Australian screenwriters wasn’t great (i.e. it was bad). The national broadcaster produced a decent amount of drama, but most of it was based on scripts by overseas writers living in Australia (eg. George F Kerr), and/or scripts by Australians living overseas (eg. Iain MacCormick) and/or overseas scripts (eg. William Shakespeare).

Things improved in 1965, with the arrival of David Goddard to run the TV Drama Department. Although an Englishman from the BBC, Goddard was very enthusiastic about supporting local scribes, far more than his predecessor, Neil Hutchison.

This article looks at four different plays by writers who got their chance under Goddard – some had long distinguished careers, others were barely heard of again. But like the stories they told, they are worth acknowledging.

The Air-Conditioned Author (1966) by Colin Free

This was the third episode in the first season of the anthology series Australian Playhouse. It was written by Colin Free, one of the most prolific Australian television writers from the late 1960s to the early 1980s with scores of credits, in addition to various novels, articles, stage plays and radio plays. I believe Free’s first television credit was Duet, a double-bill of comic plays, How Do You Spell Matrimony? and The Face at the Clubhouse Door (1965) which I have discussed previously in another article.

Free’s timing was fortuitous – his writing impressed the newly-arrived David Goddard, who commissioned Free to write a 13-episode sitcom based on Matrimony (which, in turn, was based on a play by Free called A Walk Among the Wheenies), Nice’n’ Jucy (1966-67). Goddard also hired Free as the ABC in-house script editor, in which capacity Free wrote the initial treatment for what became Bellbird (1967-77) (though Barbara Vernon was the all-important first story editor), and did the bible and bulk of the writing on the procedural drama Contrabandits (1967-69);

Free created Delta (1969-70), which Goddard produced, and wrote several episodes of Australian Playhouse (1966-67), which was Goddard’s special project. After Goddard left the ABC, Free continued to be one of the national broadcaster’s key writers, working on series such as Over There (1972) and Ben Hall (1975); he did time on the commercial stations too, writing episodes of All the Rivers Run (1983) and A Country Practice (1981-1993).

Colin Free was clearly a major figure, whose career stands as an inspiration to any Australian writer, particularly those who don’t want to be tied down to a specific genre.

I have to come clean, though: The Air-Conditioned Author is the fourth TV play I’ve seen based on a Free script and I haven’t really liked any of them. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve all got bright ideas and good moments, but I always feel as though they need a rewrite, which is ironic considering Free was a script editor. I do recognise that (a) four scripts is a small sample size for someone so prolific (b) maybe he did better in the world of episodic TV and/or novels, and (c) taste is subjective so what do I know?

The Air-Conditioned Author is about a writer called Nicholas (played by Richard Meikle), whose first novel has just been released to acclaim. A publisher (Eric Reiman) wants the rights to Nicholas’ second book, offering up a pre-existing outline for the author to use that has been written by two hacks in the publishing house workshop, Dorothy (Moya O’Sullivan) and Charlie (Willie Finnell). After some hesitation, Nicholas gives in, and uses the outline to produce a novel which Dorothy and Charlie proceed to rewrite; the novel becomes a best-seller and Nicholas starts to believe his own publicity. You can read a copy of the script here via the NAA.

Director Henri Safran keeps the pace lively, and the cast is interesting; there’s some irony in Meikle playing (very well) a writer since his son, Sam Meikle, became a successful TV scriptwriter. However, I was never quite sure of exactly what point Free was trying to make with The Air-Conditioned Author. It’s kind of a satire of pretentious novelists, and the role of editors, I think, but we never get to know Nicholas that well, or the other characters, and the world he creates is never convincing and the jokes never clear, at least not to me.

Relationships full of potential, such as that between Nicholas and the older, seemingly-doting Dorothy, feel rushed and unexploited. And could not the sexy secretary (played by Sue Walker, who later married actor Michael Craig IRL) have been given some dimension apart from woman-who-lets-publisher-put-his-hand-on-her-leg?) Maybe I’m missing a satirical point that was clearer to audiences in 1966 (though I don’t think so – contemporary reviews sounded confused, too). Maybe this needed to be an hour long. Or just… better.

Still, Free clearly had what the ABC wanted as a writer, and he enjoyed a glorious career. He should be better known – Albert Moran did an invaluable oral history with him at the National Film and Sound Archive if you’re keen to find out more about him.

Anonymous (1966) by Pat Flower

At one stage, novelist Pat Flower was an even more prolific Australian TV writer than Colin Free (Susan Lever devotes a section to both in her history of Australian screenwriting). Indeed, Flower was responsible for so many scripts of Australian Playhouse that wags dabbed it “The Pat Flower Playhouse”. She wrote the best-known instalment of that series, The Tape Recorder, along with  Anonymous (which I’m discussing today), The Lace Counter, The Prowler, Marleen, Done Away With, The Empty Day, VIPP, Easy Terms, The Heat’s On and Caught Napping – that’s over a fifth of the whole series. Her later TV credits included Fiends of the Family (1969), based on one of her many novels, and Tilley Landed On Our Shores (1969).

Anonymous is about a middle aged family man, Walter (Peter O’Shaughnessy) who has died of a heart attack. The action starts after his funeral, where his wife and daughters (Sheila O’Shaughnessy, Helen Harper, Elspeth Ballantyne) are talking about Walter, then we flashback to the events immediately leading up to the fatal attack.

It’s quite a grim piece of work – Walter has a heart attack at home alone, is aware he’s dying, thinks back unflatteringly on his family and then he… well, dies, in pain and alone. Pat Flower later committed suicide (in 1977) and in hindsight Anonymous isn’t the sort of thing written by a happy-go-lucky scribe. It’s harrowing, bold and quite remarkable, with Oscar Whitbread’s direction and Peter O’Shaughnessy’s performance serving the material superbly.

The play prompted a hysterical attack from “Monitor”, the TV critic for The Age who called it “probably the worst play I have ever seen. It is thin, wretched and witless… just unspeakably revolting”.  I think maybe Monitor had a heart issue and this hit too close to home. Seriously, TV critics can get stuffed – this was a good play. Incidentally, Sydney’s Sunday Herald called it a “winner”.

Flower was busy in TV until the early ‘70s, after which her credits dried up – how much of a say she had in that I am unsure; I’m inclined to think it was involuntary but she had her novels, which she continued to produce regularly until her death. Flower was a tremendous and still far-too-unappreciated talent. Of what I have read and seen, I like her stuff a lot more than Colin Free’s, but I have to admit that I’ve only accessed a small proportion of both writers’ outputs.

A Ride on the Big Dipper (1967) by Ron Harrison

This was an original TV play by journalist Ron Harrison, who’d previously written the Brisbane shot play In the Absence of Mr Sugden (1965). Big Dipper is a corporate drama, which were in vogue on TV in the late 1960s (eg. Britain’s The Power Game and The Troubleshooters, Australia’s Cobwebs in Concrete and Dynasty).

The story concerns a construction firm run by Bucholz (Peter Aanensen), who hires an efficiency expert, Denning (Terry McDermott) to test his employees for management potential; one of them, a young draughtsman called Kenton (Allen Bickford), scores off the charts and is sent to run a business Bucholz has taken over in Toowoomba, thereby making this a rare early Australian TV play to be set in Queensland. Kenton proves a great success – so much so that Denning recruits him to supplant Bucholz back at the city office, to the consternation of Kenton’s new girlfriend (Fay Kelton).

I don’t think Harrison had much of a TV drama career, which is a shame because he was a first-rate writer. The script for A Ride on the Big Dipper is tight and worked out logically, well-handed by director Christopher Muir, with a particularly fun performance from Terry McDermott. Kenton isn’t a villain, or even particularly ruthless – he’s just smart and work focused. You could interpret this story as him selling his soul or maybe he just dares to have ambition and be more than a suburban slob. That’s the mark of good writing: being able to interpret something a number of different ways.

A radio version of the script was performed and published in a collection of Australian scripts, but I’ve been unable to find too many drama credits from Harrison after this. It’s a loss to our industry – his was a talent worth nurturing.

Touch of Gold (1967) by Gwenda Painter

This was episode two of the second season of Australian Playhouse. Apparently, the budget for this season was greater than the first, and certainly the production values are high for this tale, which is set in a small town in the 1890s. It focuses on Edith (Judith Fisher), who lives on a rural property with her bitter mother (Neva Carry Glynn) and senile father (Alexander Archdale). Edith wants to marry the gawky Edward (Leonard Bullen, Pat Flower’s brother IRL incidentally) but Glynn wants her to marry the uncouth servant Sam (Bob Haddow) – and mum might get her way when it turns out Edward has a secret. John Croyston directed, and John Seale was one of the cameramen.

Touch of Gold isn’t bad, although it might have been more effective at one hour than thirty minutes – as drafted here, the story feels like it starts in act three, and subplots like that involving the young girl (Elizabeth Pusey) and a local doctor (Moray Powell) feel extraneous. The drama is at its best in the mother-daughter scenes, with Neva Carr Glynn and Judith Fisher doing excellent work. The script was by Gwenda Painter, a writer about whom I confess I know little. I think she came from Adelaide and wrote some historical books later on in life.

Gwenda Painter spent a little time in TV then vanished. Ron Harrison a bit longer before he vanished too. Pat Flower made a big impact, then she went. Colin Free a really, really big impact, then he went. Such is writing. But it was wonderful that all got the chance.

David Goddard’s time at the ABC was a colourful one. He had personality clashes with several people there, notably producer-director Eric Tayler and director Alan Burke. Others adored him, notably writer-director John Croyston. Graham Shirley recorded some superb oral histories with both Burke and Croyston for the National Film and Sound Archive where the subject of Goddard came up; while Burke was withering, Croyston was effusive in his praise. According to Croyston, Goddard was forced out of the ABC and went back to England, where his marriage broke up and he “took to the bottle”. He is little remembered today but he is one of the most significant figures in 1960s Australian television drama.

The author would like to thank Susan Lever, Albert Moran, Graham Shirley and Simon Drake from the National Film and Sound Archive for their assistance with this article. All opinions are my own.

For more articles like this, read:

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Annette Andre: My Brilliant Early Australian Career

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