Forgotten Australian Television Plays: A Tale of Two Kellys

January 15, 2022
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian television plays looks at two done by the ABC about Ned Kelly: Ned Kelly (1959) and Ballad for One Gun (1963).

There are few more famous Australian icons that Ned Kelly, our favourite bushranger/terrorist/freedom fighter/hero/boxer/thug/rebel/Irish patriot/Irish killer/horse thief/sash wearer. On one hand, it’s kind of weird because he didn’t do that much robbing – certainly not in the class of, say, the Gardiner-Hall gang, or Captain Thunderbolt. But Ned’s life had X factor: the charismatic mum, the apprenticeship with Harry Power, the Irish political thing, the charm, the intelligence, the boldness of his escapades, the helmet, the spectacle of Glenrowan and the drama of his execution.

The enigma of Ned and events of his life have acted as catnip to dramatists, inspiring countless books, plays, mini-series, films, musicals, songs and animatronic exhibits (a good source is here).

Famously, the world’s first feature film was The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), based on a stage play – the latter fact is curiously overlooked by many who comment on it. Also under-analysed, IMHO, is the fact that so many movies about Ned Kelly flop… indeed, the only one that seems to have been an unqualified success was the 1906 film. I think this is because Ned’s life resists easy dramatisation – you could argue he was a hero, but then he tried to derail a packed train… you could argue he was a villain, but then he did so many heroic things. For what it’s worth, I think he’s probably better suited to being a support character in someone else’s drama.

Still, as mentioned, Kelly is dramatic catnip, so much so that even in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the peak of Australophobia on Australian TV, the ABC decided to adapt his life for television not once, but twice: in Ned Kelly (1959), based on Douglas Stewart’s play and Ballad for One Gun (1963), from an original script by Philip Grenville Mann. And if this sounds a little populist from Aunty (“I say old chap, aren’t bushrangers better suited for episodes of Whiplash?”), I should point out that (a) no other bushranger got the dramatic treatment at the national broadcaster during this time, just Ned, and (b) both productions were on the arty, non-conventional side: Ned Kelly was from a verse play and Ballad for One Gun was given expressionistic treatment.

I haven’t seen either production in full, but I’ve seen some clips and read the original play of Ned Kelly, and read the script for Ballad for One Gun, and have decided that’s enough for me to talk about them. Because I think it’s fantastic that both were made and they deserve to be remembered.

Ned Kelly (1959)

This had its origins in a 1942 stage play by Douglas Stewart (1913-85), a New Zealand poet, short story writer, essayist, literary editor, critic, journalist and a whole bunch of other stuff. Stewart spent most of his career in Australia, making a major contribution to local literature as a writer and editor, though he’s probably better remembered in literary circles (i.e. academics) than by the general public.

Stewart had written an acclaimed verse play about the Scott Antarctic Expedition, Fire on the Snow, which was hugely acclaimed. (Indeed, I’m surprised that the ABC didn’t film that at one stage – maybe they were worried about recreating the Antarctic on the Gore Hill backlot). He was looking around for a follow up and decided on the subject of Ned Kelly. In Stewart’s own words

“The Greek and Elizabethan playwrights had wicked Kings and Queens to analyse. Here in Australia, with royalty remote and constitutional, we have to look about for a different kind of symbolic figure: and that is where Ned Kelly comes in. He is symbolic, a national legend, because in his best aspects he typifies some of the virtues of our early colonial period – courage, dashing horsemanship, resistance to tyranny, a passion for freedom – and he is humanly interesting for his failings… I was interested in the heroic impulse in man – without which we perish – and became fascinated with Ned Kelly as another example of that heroic impulse, marred and misdirected, yet still powerful. And of course, at the same time the theme gave me a chance to set down a lot of thoughts I had been wanting to express about Australia, both the country and the national character: for Ned moved very close to his native earth – in many ways like an embodiment of it.”

Like Fire on the Snow, Ned Kelly was a verse drama – as in, the lines were meant to be non-naturalistic poetry (eg. Shakespeare). It was written as a stage play but made its debut on ABC radio in 1942 before its premiere on stage. Response to the radio play was excellent: along with Snow, it’s generally regarded as the pinnacle of Stewart’s dramas (he did some others though, including The Golden Lover, Shipwreck and Fisher’s Ghost). ABC radio produced several versions of Ned Kelly over the years, and it was performed on air in Canada and Ireland as well as on BBC radio in 1955.

I’ve read a copy of the stage play version of Ned Kelly and it’s excellent. The story starts during the robbery at Jerilderie and goes up until the death of Ned. I enjoyed the boldness of the verse: sometimes the words seemed flowery, other times it was colloquial. Stewart makes rich characters of three of the gang: Ned, messiah-like, intense, a young Che Guevara; Joe, romantic, flamboyant, smart; Hart, angry at Ned. Dan doesn’t get much of a look in, but there are some interesting support cast including “Inkpot”, a pompous banker worker, the doomed Aaron Sherritt, and most of all “The Roo”, a girl who helps the gang. There are plenty of great scenes, like the Glenrowan siege and Aaron Sherritt waiting to be killed. It is a long play – really long. I’m not sure it needed to run at that length and the 90 minute radio version was probably better. But it’s very good writing.

Ned Kelly was produced on stage by various amateur companies through the 1940s and 1950s then in 1956 received a fancy professional production by the still-fairly-new Elizabethan Theatre Trust. The Trust had enjoyed a huge success with their first Australian play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, and in looking for a second decided on Ned Kelly. I can imagine the appeal of Stewart’s work for them: a high-brow treatment from a well-regarded writer of a famous subject matter which had been thoroughly road-tested on radio and amateur theatre… and it had recently been on the BBC! (The Trust was headed by English expat Hugh Hunt, one of far too many second-rate Englishmen sent out here to run Australian cultural institutions.) Leo McKern, a Sydney actor who had established an excellent reputation in London, returned to Australia to play Ned. John Sumner (another expat Englishman) directed, with Alan Burke (later TV director at the ABC) assisting. The idea was for the production to start in Sydney and then move to Melbourne where it would play during the Olympic Games.

Solid theory. Unfortunately, the production was a commercial disaster which folded early in Sydney and never went to Melbourne – the Trust had to quickly substitute it with another play with McKern instead. Burke said the production simply wasn’t very good but maybe a part was played by the aforementioned lack of public enthusiasm for dramatisations of Kelly’s life. The stage play of Ned Kelly has never been a commercial favourite, though amateur societies enjoy putting it on (a list of some other Australian productions is here at Ausstage).

The ABC did Ned Kelly on radio again in March 1959. This seemed to rekindle enthusiasm for Stewart’s work at the national broadcaster – they had a soft spot for anything put on at the Elizabethan Theatre Trust – and in July 1959 it was announced the play would be filmed for television at ABC’s Melbourne studios at Ripponlea, with the scene of Kelly’s capture shot on location at Glenrowan. It was part of the revival in local writing at ABC television, which started in late 1959 with Bodgie and went until early 1962.

Ned Kelly was adapted for television and directed by William Sterling. The cast was headed by Ken Goodlet (Ned Kelly), Syd Conabere (Joe Byrne), Alan Hopgood (Dan Kelly), John Godfrey (Steve Hart) and Beverley Philips (the Roo). The running time was cut down to 75 minutes.

A unit went out to Glenrowan in late August for three days of filming. A historic building outside the town, originally occupied by Constable Bracken, was dressed up to look like the Royal Hotel in Jerilderie. There was also filming at the Strathbogie Ranges and Beaconsfield. Cameraman Les Hendy used an 18 foot hydraulic crane to film at the latter. The crew included Brian Faull, who later became a director, as floor manager. Robert Hughes wrote the music score, which also included bush songs from the Kelly years.

Ned Kelly was broadcast live in Melbourne in October 1959, recorded off the screen and shown in Sydney January 1960. Janus, the television critic for The Age felt the program was too influenced by American Western TV shows although adding “there were many praiseworthy features about this production” saying “the outdoor scenes were excellently filmed and the film was blended with the studio presentations more effectively than any ‘live’ drama I have previously seen… The female characters… were very impressive… it was an interesting and rewarding experiment and I for one would enjoy watching it again.”

This review prompted a reply from William Sterling where he argued “let’s go our own way in television and receive constructive criticism or praise for what we attempt to do for our own history and let us not perpetuate the purely imaginary and stereotyped methods of the average Hollywood television film.”

The TV critic from the Sydney Morning Herald thought the production “did a disservice to Douglas Stewart’s richly poetic and deeply probing play” in the adaptation “which, with the real meat of the play removed, dealt with very little except its bare skeleton.” He complained that several important speeches were removed and that “the play lost its proper perspective” and that William Sterling’s direction, “after a promising beginning, failed to bring off a number of all too tricky camera effects.”

I haven’t seen the bulk of the 75-minute production, which would have been shot in studio on tape (most likely this tape was wiped for re-use). However, there was some footage shot on film and thanks to Michelle Rayner of the ABC I have watched about 17 minutes of that. So, basically, I have seen bits of Ned Kelly: no huge dialogue scenes, but establishers, scenes of Ned and the gang galloping along and hanging by the campfire, and some of the Glenrowan shoot out.

The photography is beautiful – going on location helps marvellously. The actors do look a little too old for their roles (Ken Goodlet was pushing 40 and Ned didn’t live past 25) but the costumes and sets are great. It’s fascinating to wonder what this was like to watch – I’m so glad it was made. It is, to my knowledge, the only film made of any of Douglas Stewart’s works.

Ballad for One Gun (1963)

The ABC returned to the Kelly story in 1963 with the Ballad for One Gun. (Perhaps not coincidentally, that year BBC radio broadcast a serial on the outlaw, The Last Outlaw, written by Aussie writer Rex Rienits.) This was based on a script by Philip Grenville Mann, an Australian writer who had worked for several years in London before returning home to replace Rienits as drama editor at the ABC. Mann’s credits include The Patriots, The Sergeant from Burralee, which I will write about one day, and Ballad for One Gun. Technically, the latter was an original TV script, although Mann had written a stage play in the 1940s called The Kelly Country and may have repurposed material from that. Like Stewart, Mann emphasised he was not making a strictly factual account of the story, presumably to get all those hard core Kelly historians off his back (there are enough of them, God knows, particularly in Victoria).

Ballad was directed by Raymond Menmuir who had just returned to Australia after having been in Britain for two years. Menmuir told the TV Times that “Ned Kelly doesn’t emerge as an old style hero. The play doesn’t attempt to sit in judgement on the Kellys either. I suppose the basic thing is we look into Ned’s motives and how he gets further into his career he loses sight of the original reasons for his grudge against the police.”

I haven’t seen the production, but I have read a copy of the script. It’s a very strong piece of drama which covers much the same ground as Ned Kelly (Jerilderie, the death of Sherritt, Glenrowan), albeit in more of a naturalistic way, and is full of exciting moments such as the murder of Aaron Sherritt. Kelly’s descent into fanaticism is well conveyed, and the build up to Glenrowan is done excitingly.

I really, really wish I could have seen the screen version of Ballad for One Gun because Menmuir’s production apparently was quite expressionistic, taking design cues from Sidney Nolan’s paintings. Also, the lead role was played by John Bell (far more age appropriate casting than Goodlet), at the very beginning of his career, just after he’d made a stage reputation playing Hamlet at the Old Tote.

Bell told the TV Times the play was “definitely a new approach and a new treatment of the whole Ned Kelly legend… We play the Kelly gang rather like a band of young hoods, but the crux of the play is in the change of motivations and attitudes.” He said when he heard the script was by Mann, the actor thought it would be like The Patriots, and was surprised when he actually read it. “It’s really way out,” said Bell. (For some reason, Bell doesn’t mention making this play in his memoirs).

The production was shot in Sydney, the cast also included Mark McManus and a young Reg Livermore.

Valda Marshall, TV critic for the Sunday Sydney Morning Herald (probably the best critic of the time) called it “a beautifully written superbly produced piece of confusion…. I am still baffled by what author Mann had to say… It was a tricky offbeat experiment that partly came off.” Another reviewer called it “slugging and unconvincing”.

From reading the script, these reviews are really unfair – but like I say, I haven’t seen the production. It sounds fascinating.

Still, I think it’s awesome that the ABC did this and Ned Kelly. That’s why we have a public broadcaster (they returned to old Ned in 1977 with The Trial of Ned Kelly). I have often been critical of the ABC during this period but when it came to our most (in)famous outlaw, I think they did Australia proud.

The author would like to thank Michelle Rayner of the ABC and Graham Shirley for their assistance with this article. Unless otherwise specified, all opinions are my own.


  1. Jenny Batten

    Thank you for giving your time of day to look into this. Have you noticed a lot of blokes around Kelly country have long beards. Must be their way of paying homage to history?

Leave a Comment