Forgotten Australian Television Plays: The Sub-Editor’s Room

January 17, 2022
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian television plays looks at the first Australian-written television drama ever broadcast here: Leslie Rees’ The Sub-Editor’s Room (1956)

In a series on forgotten Australian television plays, it feels appropriate to do one that focuses on a work by Leslie Rees (1905 – 2000), because Rees, like the plays themselves, was once very important but is now little remembered… outside specialist circles, anyway. Which is a shame because Rees was a major figure in Australian writing. Not so much for his own creative work, though he did some, particularly children’s books, or his contributions as a radio director, which were extensive and impressive. It’s for his role in promoting Australian writing at a time when that was very (very, very) unfashionable – the period from the 1930s to the 1960s. During that time, most people in positions of power at Australian cultural institutions (theatre companies, film distributors, politicians, reviewers, etc) actively disliked Australian writing. Rees not only liked it, he promoted it.

From 1936 until 1966, Rees worked at the ABC as federal drama editor (which basically meant he helped pick what plays Aunty did on radio). In 1938, he helped establish the Playwrights Advisory Board, an organisation crucial to helping promote local writers (they held the competition that unearthed Summer of the Seventeenth Doll). He wrote key histories of Australian writing, The Making of Australian Drama Volume One and Two. Such assistance to Australian literature is not so odd now, in these post-Australia Council years, but it was in Rees’ time.

So, it’s kind of nice that Rees wrote and directed the first ever truly local drama on Australian television – The Sub-Editor’s Room, aired by the ABC in December 1956.

It was the fourth play made locally by the ABC, all done from Sydney (the ABC’s first Melbourne production was a drama called Roundabout, which aired in January 1957). The first three had all been from foreign sources: The Twelve Pound Look, from JM Barrie’s one-act stage play; The Rose and Crown, from a television play by JB Priestley; and The Valiant, from an old American play by Holsworth Hall and Robert Middlemass.

The ABC’s British head of radio and television drama, Neil Hutchison, asked Rees if he would like to try his hand at making something for the small screen. Due to the limited technical capabilities of the time, whatever play chosen could not run longer than half an hour and use more than two sets. Rees decided to adapt The Sub-Editor’s Room, a one-act play he had written back in the 1930s.

The action takes place in the office of Tom Jevons, a sub-editor at a metropolitan newspaper (Rees had a background in journalism). Jevons has an ethical dilemma when asked to keep two people’s names out of court reports due to appear in tomorrow’s edition of the paper. One is a woman (who we never meet and who is described as a “slut”) whose father is connected with the paper’s owner. Another is a shop owner, Mr Goudie, who asks Jevon if Goudie’s name can be kept out of the paper for selling sub-standard milk. The other characters include a female reporter, a young male reporter whose work is amended by Jevons, and the editor who asks the sub editor to pull the story about the “slut”. No such favours are done for Goudie, who then tries to commit suicide.

I was able to read a copy of Rees’ original play because it was published in a 1937 collection of Australian one-act plays. The Sub-Editor’s Room is a perfectly decent, solid one-acter which tells a story with clarity about something (it’s quaint in these Murdoch heavy days to listen to a story of ethics). It is refreshingly different that the story is told from the point of view of a sub-editor rather than an editor. The work isn’t obviously Australian – you can imagine this being set in England or America – but it does explore an aspect of contemporary Australian society.

Rees talks about the experience of adapting The Sub-Editor’s Room for television in his memoirs, Hold fast to dreams: fifty years in theatre, radio, television and books. He had to do it in his spare time while still working for ABC radio, editing and programming plays.

Rees rehearsed in a temporary television studio in Gore Hill, which he described in his memoirs as twice as big as a garage. There were only two cameras, which Rees said were already old fashioned. “There was hardly room to swing a sound boom without knocking down one of the half dozen players and perhaps a camera assistant to boot”, wrote Rees. One Saturday, Rees and his cast were locked out of the studio and unable to rehearse. That cast consisted of Edward Howell (Goudie), Deryck Barnes (Jevons), Gina Curtis (Erna Orson, the female reporter), Lewis Fiander (Charlie Riddle, the young reporter) and Moray Powell (Mr Taunton, the editor).

The Sub-Editor’s Room went to air live on 18 December (I’m not sure if it screened in any other city outside of Sydney). Rees wrote “the show went on with reasonable success (for the times), despite my momentary fear, in the control room, that at any moment something would happen in the studio”. No copy of the production exists, at least not to my knowledge, but I was able to read a copy of the script at the National Archives of Australia, and it was (not surprisingly) a very faithful adaptation. The Australian Women’s Weekly commented on it saying “The play was outspoken and the word “slut” was used several times [to describe the divorcee]. Full marks go to the A.B.C. for putting on such a play without emasculating the author’s words.”

Rees did not enjoy the experience of working in television, however, feeling that all of the technical requirements distracted him from his job of directing the actors. He decided “to stick to the one sense medium (so far as producing went) before I became a psycho case.” In hindsight, this was a turning point, as ABC television lost its biggest in-house champion of local writing. It gave more control to Anglo and Europ-philic/Australophic decision makers such as Neil Hutchison, who ensured for many years that ABC television drama was dominated by British and European written stories.

That collection of one-act Australian plays, which included The Sub-Editor’s Room also featured five radio plays and fifteen other stage plays. The authors were noted writers such as Edmund Barclay, Louis Esson, Katharine Susannah Prichard, and Miles Franklin. Guess how many of these apart from Sub-Editor’s Room were filmed by the ABC for television, during a time when Hutchison and company were whinging about there being no Australian writing? None.

Rees later edited a published collection of Australian radio plays in 1946, packed full of great script ideas for television drama. He also wrote Towards an Australian Drama, a history of Australian writing published in 1953… in plenty of time for copies to be available for ABC television producers looking for plays to adapt… hardly any of which were taken.

In hindsight, it was a truly great pity that Leslie Rees was not more involved in Australian television drama. No one knew more about Australian writing than he did, certainly not at the ABC – he could have stopped that influx of basically pointless English and European scripted productions (pointless because it was television not theatre… you could just show a BBC production instead).

Mind you, one never knows. Australian cinema never had a more effective champion than the great director Ken G. Hall of Cinesound fame, yet when he was general manager at TCN-9 in Sydney in the late 1950s and early 1960s they produced practically no Australian drama.

Anyway, that’s enough of what could have been… I want to acknowledge what happened. The ABC still ensured their fourth ever television play was an Australian one. That is pretty cool.

The author would like to thank Graham Shirley for his assistance with this article.
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