by Stephen Vagg

It’s a showbusiness axiom that every drama star secretly wishes to be a clown and every comic wants to be a tragedian. Robert Helpmann definitely wanted to do it all and the ABC let him with Half an Hour with Robert Helpmann, a television special made in 1964 where, in under thirty minutes, its star tries to do pretty much everything in the showbiz handbook: Shakespeare, pop songs (one ballad, one dance number), ballet, crime drama. You know how in the sitcom Will and Grace the character Jack had a one-man show he was always talking about, Just Jack? Half an Hour with Robert Helpmann is a little like that.

Before I get into it too much, I shouldn’t assume you know who Helpmann is, not in 2023. Briefly, he was a ballet dancer, actor, director, and choreographer, born in Mount Gambier in 1909. Helpmann started dancing in various musicals, including many for JC Williamsons, the leading theatre producers of the day; he moved to Britain in 1932 and became a top ballet dancer over there. You can see him leaping around in the film classic The Red Shoes (1948). A longer biography of him is here.

Ballet dancers tend not to have super long careers (it’s not great on your body – or your mental health, if you believe all those movies about ballerinas having nervous breakdowns), so Helpmann branched out into other areas pretty quickly. He worked as a choreographer and director, and also developed a neat sideline as a straight actor, first on stage and then in films. Helpmann wasn’t conventionally handsome – he had pointy features, which meant he missed out on romantic leading man parts, but also made him an ideal character actor, usually of unsympathetic roles. He could be very effective, often stealing the show in movies like One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) (as a traitor), Caravans (1946) (assassin), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) (dancing baddie). Modern viewers might remember him best from his scene-stealing turns in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) (child catcher) and Patrick (1978) (creepy doctor).

For all his overseas success, Helpmann remained a proud Aussie. He came home in 1955 to tour the country in some plays with Katharine Hepburn, and had such a good time that he returned regularly after that, eventually settling here for good. When Helpmann was in Australia in 1958, touring a stage production of Nude with Violin, the ABC asked if he’d like to do some television drama and Helpmann agreed. He appeared in Box for One (1958), a one-person thriller entirely set in a telephone booth with the star playing a criminal who realises people are out to kill him. Box for One was based on a script by famous theatre director Peter Brook (Helpmann had performed it for British television) and the ABC production was directed in Melbourne by Will Sterling (The ABC’s Sydney office had just filmed a one-woman play Sorry Wrong Number and I think the Melbourne office did Box for One so they wouldn’t be out-shone).

Helpmann clearly enjoyed working with Sterling: the following year, the two men collaborated on a ballet for the ABC, A Soldier’s Tale and in 1964 Sterling directed Half an Hour with Robert Helpmann. The brief for the latter was presumably “let Helpmann do whatever the hell he felt like” and the result is a real potpourri of performances from its star, the only person who appears on screen.

Among Helpmann’s turns are:

– “I Still Could Care” – a pop ballad which Helpmann performs while smoking a cigarette. He released it as a single.

– An extract from Midsummer Night’s Dream with Helpmann playing Oberon, throwing in a bit of dancing for good measure.

– Dancing a Peruvian ballet by Frederick Ashton.

– An extract from Hamlet with Helpmann in the title role.

– ‘60s pop song “Surfer Girl” (Helpmann also performed this on Sing Sing Sing hosted by Johnny O’Keefe which you can see here. This was released on the B side for “I Still Could Care”).

– An extract from Richard III.

– An extract from Box for One. (Sterling’s wife, Carole Potter, provides the voice of the girl on the other end of the phone).

It’s all fascinating and enormously fun. Just to recap, within half an hour, Helpmann does three Shakespeare soliloquies, a ballet, two sixties pop numbers and a slice of British “spiv noir”. And he was over fifty years of age – that is someone who is not afraid to have a go. (He completely commits all the way through, incidentally.) The performance of “Surfer Girl” is bizarre, certainly, but that’s because of our notions of ageism in pop music. And I particularly appreciated seeing Box for One, as to my knowledge, there’s no copy surviving of the 1958 production. The lighting and photography are beautiful. Sterling could sometimes show off too much in his directing, but here, he serves the material very well.

Helpmann and Sterling continued to collaborate – they later made a documentary on Helpmann for the ABC series The Lively Arts, and Helpmann played the Mad Hatter in Sterling’s 1972 film version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Helpmann went on to do all sorts of things, from running the Adelaide Festival to guest starring in A Country Practice. Half an Hour with Robert Helpmann was just one small chapter in a many storied career and it’s a little gem – it’s inspiring to see someone who had nothing to prove still take such risks. Personally, I think it should be a law that every ageing Australian star is required to make something like it. Over to you, Nicole and Russell (both of whom would totally do it if asked)…

The author would like to thank James Dyer of the National Film and Sound Archive for his assistance with this piece. All opinions are the author’s.