Forgotten Australian TV Plays: Done Away With

May 19, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays looks at what could best be described as “new wave black comedy”: 1966’s Done Away With, directed by Henri (Storm Boy) Safran.

One doesn’t traditionally associate 1960s Australian television with funky visuals. And for the early part of that decade that was a correct assumption… directors concentrated on just shooting the story, which heaven knows is hard enough to get right.

But as the sixties went on, skirts went up, hair went down, and things became more experimental. Australian directors would have been familiar with the exciting developments of the French New Wave, and the British New Wave, and the Italian New Wave, and American New Wave, and… everywhere they had cinema, there seemed to be a new wave, except in Australia because we made so few features.

However, some of these techniques dribbled through to Australian TV plays, most notably with Done Away With. This was a 1966 episode of the Australian Playhouse anthology TV series about which I have written before. It was made by the team of writer Pat Flower and director Henri Safran, who had previously collaborated on The Tape Recorder. The premise feels like the sort of tale that had been done countless times before, even on Australian television – namely, a man (Alexander Hay) tries to murder his wealthy adulterous wife (Irene Sims).

But Done Away With is different. Firstly, it’s a black comedy, where Hay finds himself accidentally killing off other people – the gardener, maid, etc – instead of his wife. Secondly, it was entirely shot on film – the first Australian TV play to achieve this honour (I think). Thirdly, the handling is unconventional. Flower-Safran tell their story via a whole grab bag of new wave techniques: narration rather than dialogue, asides to camera, zooms, funky music, freeze frames, whip pans, absurdism, dream sequences, stills, animated credits. It’s as if Richard Lester ran loose at Gore Hill. Although based on an original Australian script by a local writer, I think it’s set in Britain, or at least Dial M for Murder-land: everyone talks in posh accents, there’s references to “cook”, the men wear top hats.

It’s all very swinging sixties and has remarkable energy. Safran left for Europe shortly after making this and the play feels directed by someone who’s gone “stuff it, I’m going to go crazy”. It’s quite sexy – Irene Sims and Alexander Hay have a decent sex life (when things are going well) with plenty of touching and neck kissing, she sleeps around with several other men (one of them played by Tom Oliver of Neighbours fame), Irene Sims performs one scene in a bubble bath and another in lingerie. To be honest, she’s probably too good looking for Hay: he gives a fine performance (he was best known as a theatre actor and was coming off an acclaimed turn in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), there’s just a hotness imbalance.

Comedies about wanting to murder your wife tend not to age particularly well but Done Away With still demands some attention for its irreverence and experimentation, particularly visually. It was a complete, entertaining surprise.

For more articles like this, read:

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