You cannot tell a history of the arts in Australia without touching on the contribution of LGBTQI people. The history of forgotten Australian TV plays is full of notable queer contributors including writers (Alan Seymour, Sumner Locke Elliot, Hal Porter), directors (Alan Burke), and actors (Thelma Scott, Gwen Plumb).
It did not follow, though, that the plays touched on many queer themes. In the 1950s and 1960s, such matter was generally taboo on our screens, reflecting the social conservatism and laws of the time. But the non-hetero world was not completely absent from our screens.
In the 1950s, there were two Australian TV versions of Patrick Hamilton’s classic play Rope, about a pair of gay thrill killers based on Leopold and Loeb. In 1960, there was a TV version of the hit play Seagulls Over Sorrento, including a subplot where a (male) sailor complains that another (male) sailor wants to seduce him. And in 1964, there was A Season in Hell, an 80-minute depiction of a romantic relationship between two men. That’s right, eight years before Number 96 took Australian TV’s virginity, two men were getting it on with each other in prime time on the ABC.
A Season in Hell was based on a script by Pat Hooker (1925-2001), a one-time stenographer and amateur playwright, who in the early 1960s established herself as one of the leading writers for Australian television. She later emigrated to England where she had a successful career penning radio and TV plays.
A Season in Hell tells the (real-life) story of the romance between the French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine in the 1870s. They had the sort of tempestuous, drama-filled love affair that has impressed first year Arts students for over a century, with its wild sex, self-centered behaviour, infidelity, absinthe guzzling, opium-taking, domestic violence, pretentious chat, defying authority, writing classic poetry, breaking up and making up and breaking up for good, then dying young (well, young-ish) in exotic locations.
The relationship has been dramatised a number of times over the years: Christopher Hampton wrote a 1967 stage play, Total Eclipse, which was filmed in the 1990s (with Leo di Caprio as Rimbaud); there was also a 1971 Italian film called A Season in Hell which (I think) has nothing to do with Hooker’s play (one of Rimbaud’s most famous poems was called A Season in Hell, and that title gets used a lot on Rimbaud-inspired works).
Pat Hooker’s take on the story begins with a dying Arthur Rimbaud (played by Allan Bickford) lying in bed. He reminisces about being a young man (as in, sixteen years old young) arriving in Paris, meeting Paul Verlaine (Alistair Duncan) who has admired Rimbaud’s poetry. It’s lust at first sight for Paul and Arthur, and the two start a torrid affair, much to the consternation of Verlaine’s pregnant wife (Anne Haddy from Neighbours). The two men don’t exactly have the most emotionally healthy relationship – Verlaine winds up shooting Rimbaud in a fit of jealousy – but they can’t seem to quit each other.
This is quite racy stuff to get on our screens, especially in 1964 (remember, South Australia didn’t decriminalise homosexuality until 1975). I can only assume the script got past the censor because it was (a) based on real people of historical importance, (b) set in the previous century, making the subject matter less scary, (c) concerned French poets, who no one expects to behave well, so it’s not shocking when they don’t, (d) a story that ends in tragedy and misery, so while the leads may be gay they’re never happy, and (e) treated with tact and taste, for all the absinthe drinking (an unworldly person could watch it and think Rimbaud and Verlaine were just good friends). One key moment is conveyed via description rather than dramatising, and while normally I’m a fan of “showing not telling”, that moment involves Verlaine hitting his child and trying to strangle his wife, so I’m sympathetic to Pat Hooker electing to handle it more discreetly.
It’s a superb script from Hooker, incidentally, a dramatic and intelligent exploration of the relationship between two complex, compelling characters (not likeable – they’re clearly self-centred narcissists, we did not get nice LGBTQI on Oz TV until Don Finlayson on Number 96 – but compelling). She collaborated brilliantly with director Henri Safran, who Hooker said was crucial to her research on this script; the two had previously worked together on the 1963 TV play Concorde of Sweet Sounds (which, like this, examines the notion of what it is to be an artist). They might have turned into one of the great writer-director teams in Australian television had not both emigrated in the mid-60s. (Safran would return to Australia to live but not Hooker)
The running time is 80 minutes, meaning scenes have time to breathe; it is a character piece rather than a plotty one, and some may find the pace too slow. The acting is very fine (I had not seen Alistair Duncan in anything before but I swear his voice was familiar) and the sets and costumes are superb.
Pat Hooker’s English credits included the landmark TV play The Golden Road (1973), the first lesbian-themed play broadcast on British television to have been written by a woman. Considering this and A Season in Hell and the fact Hooker never married, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest Hooker was a lesbian in real life, though I can’t say for sure. British historian Billy Smart has written some first-rate pieces on Hooker, including one on The Golden Road here, and a biographical overview of the writer here. They are wonderful tributes to her talent, but Hooker is still far too little known for someone who was clearly a major writer.
A Season in Hell should also be better known; it was adapted for radio and the stage as well as this TV version (which was repeated), so it was hardly ignored, but it was never regarded as the classic that it was and is. It ranks among the finest TV plays ever made in Australia.
For more articles like this, read: