Forgotten Australian TV Plays: Antarctic Four

May 1, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on Australian TV plays turns its eye to some Antarctic-sploitation, Antarctic Four (1966).

Australian filmmakers have rarely seemed interested in Antarctica. On one hand I get it – it’s tricky to go on location there, it’s not easy to recreate in studio, there aren’t that many people living there to tell stories about… Still, it’s a shame. The Australian Antarctic Territory is huge, we have a long historical association with the region (Douglas Mawson, Frank Hurley, etc), and you could think of stories to do there (rip-offs of The Thing or Ice Station Zebra, rescue dramas, political thrillers, comedies).

There have been exceptions: the Happy Feet movies, 1984 Graeme Blundell sitcom Brass Monkeys, 1967 televised ballet She, 1962 TV murder mystery Manhaul (based on a script by journalist Osmar White, who went on an expedition to the South Pole)… and the 1966 TV play Antarctic Four, which I’m talking about here.

This was an episode of the ABC anthology series Australian Playhouse (1966-67). It was written by Oriel Gray, best known for Bellbird and her plays The Torrents and Burst of Summer (I have written about the latter before). The director was James Davern, who went on to become a very successful head of drama at the ABC and an even more successful producer of A Country Practice.

The plot of Antarctic Four revolves around a group of five men from the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition who are stranded in an outpost, “Antarctic Four”. They include the macho, knife-throwing cook, Mick (played by TV host Gordon Boyd); a Polish scientist still traumatised by the war, Leopold (Kurt Ludescher); an aspiring writer, Peter (Clive Winmill); the stiff-upper-lip skipper who admires Captain Scott, Alan (Terry McDermott), and the seriously ill Ralph Ellis (George Whaley), who lies in bed muttering, unable to hear the others.

There is conflict between Mick and Peter, and Ralph seems to have gone crazy. It turns out that (SPOILERS) Mick, Peter, Leopold and Alan are actually dead, killed by a mystery disease, and Ralph is the only one alive. A pilot (Terry Gill) arrives to rescue Ralph and they leave the bodies until they can be retrieved in the spring. The ghosts are left alone in the base, realising they are ghosts.

I knew little about this play going in and was enjoyably surprised. It’s highly theatrical – five actors, one set, long soliloquies – but very effective; the simple twist works well. All the characters are interesting and the acting very good, particularly George Whaley as someone who seems to be a wide-eyed crazy, and Terry McDermott as a solid type. The ending is very moving, with the ghosts lying there, realising that their bodies will be there until the spring.

Antarctic Four isn’t The Thing, but ghosts in the Antarctic is still pretty cool and Australians should totally make more TV shows set on that Continent.

For more articles like this, read:

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Annette Andre: My Brilliant Early Australian Career

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