Forgotten Australian TV Plays: Ashes to Ashes and Caught Napping

September 3, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays looks at two thrillers from the ABC: Ashes to Ashes (1966), starring Ray Taylor, and the never-aired Caught Napping (1967).

Being the public broadcaster, the ABC has always had to be more respectful than its commercial competitors when it comes to the pursuit of ratings – the advertising is always that little less shameless, the subject smatter a little less ripped from the headlines. But even in the 1960s, a time when Auntie would routinely do versions of Ibsen and Shaw, the ABC was not above a little stunt casting to get viewers interested.

For instance, black American dancer Joe Jenkins was given the lead role in an adaptation of The Emperor Jones (1960). Olympic swimmer Murray Rose made his acting debut in an Australian TV version of the Broadway hit My Three Angels (1963). Vehicles were found for visiting film stars such as Robert Helpmann in Box for One (1958), Jessie Matthews in Dinner with the Family (1959), Michael Denison and Dulcie Grey in Village Wooing (1962). And, in 1966 presenter Ray Taylor starred in the murder mystery Ashes to Ashes.

Taylor isn’t hugely remembered today, but in the 1960s, he was a big(ish) deal. He was a Brit who moved out here in the 1950s, and wound up working on Australian TV, hosting Australia’s first breakfast program, Today, then the variety program The Ray Taylor Show (1964-66). The latter had just been axed when the ABC offered him the lead role in Ashes to Ashes. Taylor had some experience acting in repertory in England and he decided to accept.

Ashes to Ashes was based on a British TV script by experienced scribe Marc Brandel that had only just aired on the BBC. It’s about Barbara (Gerda Nicholson), an advertising account executive, who meets an artist, Paris (Ray Taylor), at an exhibit. Despite a number of red flags – he stalks, talks over, paws and constantly tries to isolate her – they get married quickly and he take her to his seaside cottage where there’s even more red flags, including arsenic in the back shed and the discovery that Paris had a previous marriage which he omitted to mention. Barbara comes to believe that the earlier wife may have been murdered and worries she might become his next victim.

The original script was “relocated” from England to Melbourne and Port Campbell but pretty much every character talks in an English accent – seriously, everyone, even Terry McDermott who plays a servant/mechanic person. The director was an expat Englishman, Patrick Barton, who made a number of TV plays at the ABC in the mid-1960s.

Ray Taylor acts his part in handsome cad mode a la George Sanders or James Mason. This play would make a decent double bill with The Big Killing (1965) starring Roger Climpson, which I have already reviewed.

There’s some funky opening and ending credits in the style of something like The Avengers, with stills and a groovy rock song over the end credits, “Women” by Brisbane band the Purple Hearts.

However, the material and handling of the play itself is more conventional – it could have been a film from the 1940s or 1950s starring, well, James Mason or George Sanders. It’s still quite enjoyable in that have-I-married-a-psychotic-murderer vein with entertaining performances from Taylor (clearly having a lot of fun) and Nicholson plus some location work at Port Campbell.

Watching Taylor in this and reflecting on Climpson in The Big Killing made me wonder if every TV presenter would make a believable killer… Kochie, Karl Stefanovic, Tracey Grimshaw… yeah, I could see all of them playing a sociopath plotting to murder their spouse.

Gerard Kennedy has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance (I must have blinked – I couldn’t see him, but his name is in the credits) and Tony Morphett, later one of the best screenwriters this country has ever produced but then better known as a TV journalist, plays “Tony Morphett”… it’s a walk-on part at the beginning as a person in the background at the gallery.

Taylor went on to appear in a few more plays for the ABC including Flight into Danger and Slow Poison; he also wrote the script for the filmed-but-never-shown A Stay at Home for Australian Playhouse (which I did a piece on here). Taylor eventually emigrated to America and wrote scripts for TV in the 1970s before returning to Australia, after which he worked in radio.

Like Taylor’s Stay at Home, Caught Napping was an episode of Australian Playhouse that was filmed but never shown. The director was Patrick Barton, who made Ashes to Ashes, and the writer was Pat Flower, the most prolific scribe for Australian Playhouse (I’ve done pieces on other episodes she wrote for the show like The Tape Recorder and The Lace Counter).

The plot of Caught Napping concerns a married couple, Doris (Ethel Lang) and Ted (Peter Collingwood), who live with Doris’ bedridden mother (Nancye Stewart). Doris wants Ted to bump off mum so they can get the inheritance, not realising that (SPOILERS) the others are in cahoots.

Flower was a very good writer, one of our best in the sixties, and Caught Napping is a solid script, featuring three excellent actors – it’s bewildering why this never aired. Critical reaction to the second season of Australian Playhouse had been hostile, maybe that had something to do with it. Maybe someone at the ABC hated Nancye Stewart – she was in The House which also deserved to be aired but was pulled from screening. Like Ashes to Ashes, Caught Napping is a bit meta with the characters discussing other murders – this was a trope among thrillers at the time.

Ashes to Ashes and Caught Napping – two solid thrillers from the mid-1960s. If anyone knows what happened to Patrick Barton, please tell me – he was a busy bee at the ABC for a long time, then kind of vanished.

For more articles like this, read:

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

Annette Andre: My Brilliant Early Australian Career

Barry Creyton Live

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