Forgotten Australian TV Plays: A Tongue of Silver

November 7, 2020
The latest in Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays looks at the 1959 John Meillon vehicle, A Tongue of Silver.

For a country whose history and culture was/is so influenced by Ireland and the Irish, Australia has not exhibited that much interest in depicting Ireland on screen. To be sure (to be sure), Irish characters swarm over colonial era sagas, particularly anything involving convicts, bushrangers or the Eureka Stockade, but there has been a surprising lack of interest in showing Ireland itself.

Early Australian TV plays were adapted from writers as varied as Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Jean Cocteau and Jean Anouilh, but Irish playwrights like O’Casey, Yeats, Behan and Beckett were ignored; plays by Shaw and Oscar Wilde were filmed, but only ones with English settings.

A rare Australian TV play actually set in Ireland was A Tongue of Silver, an episode of the ATN-7 anthology series Shell Presents (1959-60).

This was based on a script by Michael Dyne which had previously been filmed for US television in 1957 as an installment of Matinee Theatre. The story is set in a small village visited by a mysterious traveller who claims to be an emissary from the Lord; the traveller tells the villagers they can get into Heaven provided they give him money for plots of land.

It was a light comedy about a conman, gullible rustics and a smart and sassy schoolteacher, sort of like The Music Man meets The Quiet Man come to think of it (the story would have made an ideal musical and/or John Ford movie). The script appears to have been highly regarded at the time, being published in an anthology, The Best Television Scripts of 1957, and was filmed again for US TV in 1960 with Robert Goulet.

This acclaim presumably contributed to ATN-7’s decision to film Dyne’s script in Australia for Shell Presents. My guess (and it’s only a guess, but an educated one) is that they wanted to tell an “Irish story”, but didn’t wish to tackle anything political (which ruled out, say, adaptions of Sean O’Casey and Brendan Behan), and preferred using a road-tested script that had already been filmed overseas versus taking the risk of commissioning something new from an Australian writer with Irish heritage (of which there were quite a few, even then, including Jon Cleary, Peter Kenna, Michael Noonan and Morris West.) They may also have been influenced by the fact that A Tongue of Silver would provide a terrific star part for John Meillon, who had just impressed in On the Beach (1959) and an earlier episode of Shell Presents called Thunder of Silence.

The play was shot at ATN-7’s studios in Epping, Sydney, under director David Cahill, who does a typically excellent job. Meillon is perfectly cast as a smooth-talking con man, full of blarney and charm; he even sings several times, twice while playing the harp, which is cool. It’s also fun to see Gwen Plumb as a barmaid, Minnie Love as a particularly naive rich old lady, and Gerry Duggan (an Irish actor, then living in Australia, who later had roles in films such as Goldfinger) as a policeman.

It’s a shame that the story couldn’t have been adapted to be set in Australia – we have plenty of gullible idiots here too – and if you don’t like Irish whimsy, then A Tongue of Silver is unlikely to change your mind, but if you do, you’ll have good time watching it. The theme of a shameless conman praying on people’s fears has not aged one bit, the cast all get into the spirit of things, and it provides one of our greatest actors (Meillon) with a fantastic lead role.

A copy of the play is available from the National Film and Sound Archive if you can get to a viewing centre.

For more articles like this, read:

60 Australian TV Plays of the 1950s & ‘60s

Annette Andre: My Brilliant Early Australian Career

Barry Creyton Live

Forgotten Australian TV Plays – The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day

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