One of the great pleasures of late ‘70s Australian cinema was watching Frank Wilson slam his hand on a boardroom table, point his finger and yell at people in films like Money Movers and The Club. It’s less well known that he played a similar sort of role a decade earlier in the 1968 TV play Cobwebs in Concrete.
This was based on a script by John Warwick, an actor-writer of many years’ experience here and in England, whose CV included (arguably) discovering Errol Flynn for In the Wake of the Bounty.
Cobwebs in Concrete was an original for Australian television, a boardroom drama in the style of “fierce looks at unbridled capitalism” British TV series like The Power Game (1965-69) and The Troubleshooters (1965-72).
The story explores the corporate fall out of a bridge collapse near a small village in Bali, which kills four adults and 22 children. The victims are mentioned but never seen (seriously, there’s not even a 50 worder Balinese); the action focuses on the fall out on Australians and Britons involved: the head of the construction company (Frank Wilson) that built the bridge, his millionaire superior (Michael Duffield), the bridge designer (Wyn Roberts), the head of a transport company (Peter Aanensen) whose driver may have caused the collapse, a smarmy TV journalist (Dennis Miller), and a PR man (William Hodge). The crux of the action revolves around the construction company trying to blame the transport company and vice versa, with everyone trying to manipulate/intimidate/bribe everyone else.
There’s a lot of middle aged white alpha males yelling at each other over boardroom tables being ruthless and cynical, with a few female roles thrown into the mix: Aanensen’s secretary (Sheila Florence, later of Prisoner), who, along with a construction boss (Ian Neal) is the closest thing the play has to a moral conscience; Aanensen’s colleague (Lynn Lee), who is Neal’s daughter and used to have a thing for Roberts; and Wilson’s secretary (Anne Charleston) who… is just kind of there.
I had a good time watching it: cynicism ages well and all the macho posturing, corruption and ego clashing feels all too realistic, even in 2021. The story is a sort of forerunner to the workplace clash stories that David Williamson would tell so well on stage, in particular his play The Department – like that, this was an entertaining dramatisation of corporate dick swinging and ambition which occasionally got bogged down by technical detail. Cobwebs in Concrete lacks the humour and characterisation of the best Williamson, but then so does The Department.
It feels utterly wrong that there are no Balinese characters, even though the second half of the story mostly takes place in a backlot Bali. There’s a big climactic scene with a bunch of men shouting at each other about construction specifications which feels like Warwick fell in love with his research. And the ending comes across as abrupt.
However, the strengths of Cobwebs in Concrete outweigh its defects. The acting is very strong. Wilson is superb – I love how he began his career as a song and dance man and then turned into the archetypal tough guy (a career trajectory similar to American actor/singer Jerry Orbach). The director was Patrick Barton, who normally specialised in shooting foreign scripts; he does a decent job, with a funky music score adding freshness. The brutal take down of capitalism is something to see, and a further reminder (if any more were needed) that the great Australian drama revival of the 1970s did not come out of thin air.
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