Forgotten Australian TV Plays: A Stay at Home and Across the Bridge

June 1, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays gets even more obscure than usual (which is saying something), as he looks at one that didn’t even air: A Stay at Home. There actually wasn’t much for him to say about it, so he throws in some observations about another TV play, Across the Bridge.

There’s something tantalising about a TV show that is made but never airs. You can’t help wondering if a great injustice was done – was it a potential hit that got away? Or was it a mercy killing? Is it a camp classic in hiding, waiting to get out? There’s been a number of shot-but-unaired projects in Australian TV. The 2006 TV movie Secretary, for instance, or all those Number 96 spin-off pilots, or that sitcom Anh Do made about a restaurant. And in 1967, there was A Stay at Home, a 30 minute episode for the ABC’ anthology series Australian Playhouse (1966-67).

Quite few eps of that particular series were spiked, some by name writers such as Peter Kenna and Pat Flower. A Stay at Home was written by Ray Taylor, better known as a broadcaster and TV host (he hosted Australia’s first breakfast TV program) who also did some acting and writing (including a stint penning American TV scripts in the 1970s).

The plot of A Stay at Home concerns a middle aged man (Sydney Conabere) who refuses to go outside his house. A mate (Frank Rich) comes over to persuade him to leave. And that’s about it.

I don’t know what inspired Taylor to write this but I’m going to take a wild guess here and say Waiting for Godot probably had something to do with it. Waiting for Godot disease strikes many writers, normally when attending drama school – they watch/read Sam Beckett’s classic and think they can do a play that mostly comprises of two scruffy chaps having a chat. Sometimes it works, mostly it doesn’t.

A Stay at Home feels like a stage play – long interrupted chats, one location, only two actors. It belonged on stage, like, well, Waiting for Godot, which can work live because of the energy generated by the actors actually being there in front of you; it’s not as effective when transferred to the screen and neither was A Stay at Home. Certainly, the ABC were unhappy with what they’d paid for: the show, recorded in August 1967, never aired (at least, not to my knowledge).

Maybe it would’ve been different had stars been cast in the lead roles – that always makes Waiting for Godot more watchable, too. However, while Syd Conabere and Frank Rich are fine actors (this is a particularly strong showcase for Conabere), they were not household names. I wonder why Ray Taylor didn’t play one of the parts – he appeared in TV plays such as Ashes to Ashes, Slow Poison and Flight into Danger. Maybe he considered himself too young/not right for it. You know who would have been perfect? Chips Rafferty, who was definitely not too snobby about TV in the 1960s (he guest starred in episodes of Whiplash, Skippy, Spyforce, and The Stranger, among others) but who, for whatever reason (his own reluctance, snobbery, availability, money), appeared in a grand total of nil stand-alone TV plays in Australia (he did one in England, Winds of Green Monday).

A Stay at Home was directed by Patrick Barton. It’s not Barton’s fault this doesn’t work. It should not have gotten past script stage and I don’t blame the ABC for not running it, though its sheer existence is interesting.

Across the Bridge was another two-hander made for Australian Playhouse. This one made it to air. The episode was based on a script by Liane Keen, an English (female) journalist who had moved to Australia and decided to stay in the country.

The story takes place over the course of one evening, focusing on a date between a divorced mother (Carol Raye, then riding high on The Mavis Bramston Show) and a married businessman visiting from England (Allan Trevor, who would be dead three years after making this). They pour drinks, smoke cigarettes (as in, a LOT of cigarettes) and speak with beautiful diction as he takes her out for dinner and dancing at a Paddington restaurant then tries to get her into bed afterwards; she says no, both admit to having problems with their kids (her daughter wants to get married at 18, his daughter is knocked up out of wedlock), they go their separate ways. Across the Bridge was mostly shot at Gore Hill studios although there is some interesting location footage of nighttime Sydney with its flashing neon lights.

At times I could not help wondering if the actors were sending up the material. There’s so much high camp with all the drinking, smoking and flowering dialogue, that I was tempted to dismiss this out of hand. And yet… it can’t be. Because Carol Raye plays an all too recognisable type that was all too little seen on Australian TV in the 1960s – namely, a middle-aged single mother whose ex-husband cheated on her, who only wants to sleep with a guy she loves, and who spends her evening being pawed and molested by this rapey, sleazy married man. I don’t think Keen quite nails her script, or Pat Alexander his direction, but this was a then-rare depiction of a divorced Australian mother in 1966, looking for love, slobbered over by predators, unsure of her place in the world. For that reason alone, Across the Bridge was worth making and broadcasting.

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