Stephen Vagg thought he would ask Mr Creyton about one of the more obscure chapters… his appearances in Australian TV plays of the 1960s.
What do you remember about live Australian TV drama from the time?
It was a very important period. Australian television was just starting in the late 1950s. They did ambitious plays – the sort that they didn’t get around to doing again for at least another decade.
How did you get involved?
I was from Brisbane originally. I established myself in theatre there, such as it was in those days, and in radio plays for the ABC.
In the 1950s, Brisbane was a very large industrial town with a dirty river. The “arts”, particularly the performing arts, were low on the list of essentials. Yet there were three ambitious theatre groups, which did accomplished productions with good actors: Brisbane Repertory Theatre, Twelfth Night Theatre and Brisbane Arts Theatre. These had devoted audiences, yet the press reviews came in somewhere below the sports news. My mentor and champion in those days was the redoubtable Babette Stephens.
Creyton’s first TV drama appearance was in a 1960 production of Macbeth
Needing to spread the wings, I relocated to Melbourne in 1960, when I was twenty. I was there only a year, but did many radio plays, a revue and my first TV production – I literally carried a spear in Macbeth. This, after I’d had so much success in my hometown (laughs).
Brian James, the actor, was a friend and he helped me find a rooming house. The landlady was one of those great funny women who told me her entire life story when I unpacked my bag. At the end, she said, “Oh, by the way, you need to be at ABC studios right now, they want you in Macbeth.” I took a cab to the ABC studio – and held a spear, and I was on television. It was my very first day in Melbourne. Kind of an overwhelming day (laughs).
Then, I was in a production of a Clifford Odets play with Googie Withers, which toured Australia and finished in Sydney. I decided to stay there, and the very first thing I was cast in was The Merchant of Venice.
The Merchant of Venice was adapted for TV on the ABC in 1961. Barry Creyton played Lorenzo.
That was memorable for me, it was a large, lavish production. Being live, you were constantly running from one part of the stage to another, from scene to scene. I remember during my vital speech to Jessica, “how sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank”, a makeup girl dropped a jar nearby. That was very disconcerting, but being live, we just continued as if a makeup jar dropping onto concrete was a common sound in old Venice.
The Sydney production went out live, but the play was recorded by kine for showing in the rest of Australia – this was a method of filming simultaneously via the TV camera lens – there was no video tape in 1960. The kine lost half an hour of sound, so Annette Andre (who played Jessica) and I had to go back to the studio to loop one of our scenes. I remember in the scene I was in a gondola (on wheels) punting my way up the Venetian canals; and there was a balcony scene. My first experience of looping, that was very exciting.
Even when video tape started it was very primitive. In 1964 doing the Bramston Show, if we flubbed a line, we couldn’t go back and simply do the line again, we had to do the entire segment again. You couldn’t edit videotape easily then. It was very primitive until the late 1960s.
The director of Merchant of Venice was Alan Burke. He became a good friend – I respected him tremendously. He wrote the book for Lola Montez, the stage musical, which was a staggering breakthrough in Australian theatre. He became a great buddy and even though I never worked for him again, he was always a champion of my work as an actor. He was a very gentle, erudite man. Very sympathetic – he knew exactly what he wanted from actors and how to get it without ranting and raving; he would coax it out of you. We wanted to make the Shakespeare accessible to even a non-Shakespearean ear. We tried to make it sound like actual conversational English and were criticised by old Shakespearean actors for doing so. My leading lady at the Sydney Music Hall [where Creyton performed in the early 1960s] was Fernande Glyn and she told me, furiously, she couldn’t understand why we ignored the poetry.
The production employed three cameras. We got to know where our close ups would be, where our long shots would be – it was handled with great efficiency.
Live TV had its drawbacks for an actor like me, who was brought up in theatre. It was like rehearsing a play exhaustively for just one performance. We rehearsed for a month and then it was over. In the theatre, if you were lucky, you got to perform a play eight times a week for many months and you could always improve and hone a character. Live TV drama was anti-climactic that way.
Any memories of your fellow cast members?
I met Annette Andre doing Merchant and we became very good friends – and still are. She and I played the lovers Jessica and Lorenzo. She was a terrific actress, great sensitivity and assuredness, and very glamorous! She’d had much more TV experience than I and was wonderful to work with.
The actors I got to work with in this production were big radio stars when I was a kid, my idols – and now I was playing alongside them.
Owen Weingott (who played Shylock) was a very grand actor, a very good actor. Great stature, great presence.
Tanya Halesworth (Portia) was an ABC newsreader at the time. She played Portia very well. Sweet, very nice. We got on tremendously well.
Leonard Teale (the Prince of Morocco) was in it – I used to listen to him playing Superman on the radio when I was ten! A very nice guy.
Carolyn Keely played a servant to Jessica. When I wrote Lady Audley’s Secret for the Musical Hall in 1962, I wanted her to play the young ingenue because she was very funny.
Veronica Lang played a servant. She played my wife in the London production of Don’s Party.
John Faasen was also in it. He went on to direct at the Music Hall.
Why didn’t you do more TV drama after Merchant of Venice?
I think, because they wanted to cast me as young juveniles, and the roles really didn’t excite me. I auditioned for another TV play right after Merchant of Venice, it was an Australian play, I can’t remember the name, but the character, while my age, was far from the usual milk-sop juve. I remember the director said to me, “We don’t need any long-haired romantics in this one.” That’s how I was thought of. I put the lie to that the same year at Sydney’s Music Hall Theatre.
During the year I spent in Melbourne in 1960, I saw George Miller’s production of East Lynne.
I was so impressed by it, and by the comedy that could be extracted from a creaky old melodrama if played earnestly, for real. When I heard Miller was going to open a lavish theatre restaurant in Sydney with East Lynne, I practically badgered my way into the role even though I was twenty years too young (laughs). A little gray in the sideburns, a villainous moustache. It proved to be the right decision – it established me in Sydney theatre and led to the Bramston Show. So that sort of took over my life. Then I became known as a “personality”.
The Music Hall plays led to Creyton being cast in The Mavis Bramston Show which made him nationally famous. He returned to TV plays with two productions in 1966, both part of the Australian Playhouse anthology series: Keep it Clean and All Fall Down.
Keep It Clean.
I remember that one co-starred a friend of mine, Desmond Rolfe. A dear, funny man whom I’d worked with on stage. I enjoyed that. I got to play a scheming bank executive intent on robbing the bank vault and inadvertently being locked in it at the end. That was fun to do. By that time, we had tape. We still had to do it in one fell swoop, though.
All Fall Down.
I didn’t enjoy that as much – due to ego more than the script, though (laughs). My co-stars where these singing twins, two girls who were popular at the time (Katherine and Karen Kessey). At that time in the ‘60s, I was well enough known to have top billing and they didn’t give it to me, they gave it to the twins, and I was pretty pissed.
What was the cultural impact of Australian TV plays?
I think they were popular. They weren’t blockbusters – not compared to something like an American TV series of the time like, say, The Untouchables. I remember very well when I was touring with Googie Withers she used to complain that Thursday night audiences were sparse because it was Untouchables night. But these early entries were indicative of the future of Australian TV drama which became strong, and evolved into major series, and movies. I think they had a pretty good impact. I think people were curious and generally impressed with the productions, albeit experimental and constricted as they were by being done live.
I was particularly impressed by a couple of ambitious productions of opera the ABC did in those early days – again live! The singers were recorded and actors lip-synced. Ric Hutton played Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly in a pretty lavish production. No idea who sang the role, but Ric was handsome and convincing.
Why didn’t you do more drama?
I loved doing it so much – I thought I found my niche. But the “personality” had taken over my life. After the Bramston Show, I did my own show The Barry Creyton Show. Then I wanted to become a working actor again, so I went to London for twelve years and virtually started my career over. I did quite a few shots in TV dramatic series for BBC, ITV and London Weekend, and musicals, revues and straight plays on stage.
This doesn’t have anything to do with TV plays, but I want to ask you about Michael Plant. He’s not very well remembered but he had an incredible career… wrote for English and American TV, had a play on Broadway and an early producer on Mavis before dying at the age of 33.
Michael Plant was a terrific guy. I was very close to him and was devastated when he died. He had a lot of success overseas and they brought him back to do the Bramston Show. He had a wicked sense of humour and understood precisely the nature of topical and political satire. ATN kept a bunch of lawyers vetting everything we did for libel and slander, but Michael always managed to stay one step ahead of the threatened lawsuits, always with stinging wit. He was a great talent. It was an immense loss when he died so young. We’d relieve the driven week of Bramston rehearsals by having drinks at the Southern Cross hotel on Saturday afternoons with friends in the business. Michael would join us, along with Patti Mostyn who was Johnny O’Keefe’s assistant, my secretary, a couple of other friends from Seven and a few of the multitude of writers. We got to let off steam those afternoons, with much laughter. It was necessary – the Bramston schedule was relentless. We’d rehearse all day Monday and record the show before a live audience Mondays, then started in rehearsing for the following week the very next day. We did more than forty shows in our first year and Michael was on top of all of this.