I’ve previously written about the groundbreaking-but-little remembered ABC series Australian Playhouse, in particular episodes such as The Tape Recorder, Antarctic Four and The Stay at Home. For this piece, I would like to tackle five episodes at once… mostly, because there’s not really enough in each to justify a full article, although all have interest.
The episodes are The Attack, The House, The Lace Counter, The Nice Widow at Quinto and The Tank. All were filmed but I have been unable to ascertain if The House, Nice Widow at Quinto and The Tank were ever screened (they don’t seem to have been shown in Sydney or Melbourne but they may have been broadcast in another state). Still, they deserve to be remembered, so…
The Attack (first broadcast 17 July, 1967)
This was written by Kenneth Hayles and directed by James Davern, who is best known for creating A Country Practice. It’s an action-adventure tale set in a strife-riddled unnamed foreign country where workers for an Australian petrol company (Telford Jackson, Jeffrey Hodgson) have come under attack from rebel forces; the mercenary soldier in charge of defending the workers (George Mallaby) is convinced a local nurse (Anne Charleston) is friendly with the rebels.
I think the country is meant to be located in South-East Asia – there is what looks like yellow face make-up on Brian James, who plays a local doctor, and there are allusions to Anne Charleston, who plays the mixed race nurse, being of French and Asian heritage; possibly, this means the setting is Vietnam or Laos. (Australian TV dramas of the 1960s were occasionally set in Asia… Cobwebs in Concrete, which I have previously reviewed, had scenes in Bali while Shadow on the Wall concerned the North Vietnamese.)
The cast include two future icons of Australian television using wacky accents as non-Aussies… the aforementioned Anne (Neighbours) Charleston and George (Cop Shop, Homicide, The Box) Mallaby. The best performance comes from Hodgson as an Australian in love with Charleston. Best moment: Mallaby shoots Charleston in the back while she is running away, which has mad Crawfords vs Grundys vibes.
The Attack feels like a piece that really should have run for an hour to properly explore all its themes and characters, but it is lively and interesting to watch. The death toll is very high.
The House (recorded 22 February, 1966)
This episode was written by David Sale, who later achieved cultural immortality as creator of Number 96. That show had a number of famous elder characters and The House focuses around a feisty little old lady, Miss Fraser (Nancye Stewart). She lives in a dilapidated old house that she refuses to leave, even though it has been bought by developers; late one night, Miss Fraser is visited by a woman (Juliana Allan) who claims to be fleeing her abusive husband (Alister Smart), and one or both of them may be lying.
The ending is perhaps a little abrupt, but on the whole, this is a suspenseful, dramatic tale that keeps you watching – rather like the best of Number 96 (though without the sex). I’m genuinely surprised this wasn’t broadcast in Sydney or Melbourne. It was directed by Alan Burke, who later claimed in an interview that he had a major personality clash with David Goddard, then-head of ABC drama (and creator of Australian Playhouse) that led to Burke doing very little ABC drama during Goddard’s tenure at the national broadcaster; maybe that had something to do with it (though Burke also directed The Lace Counter which did air, so there could have been other factors at play).
Nancye Stewart had a tonne of credits in theatre and radio (she was the daughter of Nellie Stewart, one of Australia’s most popular stage stars ever) but this was a rare TV lead for her; she does a fine job.
The Lace Counter (first broadcast 26 September, 1966)
This was written by Pat Flower, who is best known for her thrillers (eg. The Tape Recorder), but who also did a few comedies; The Lace Counter falls into the second category. It’s basically a two hander about one lady (Aileen Britton) purchasing lace from another (Ruth Cracknell) and… that’s about it. There is lots of word play. Lots.
Flower originally wrote this for stage – Alan Burke, who directed, said the script was conceived as a NIDA exercise – and this really belonged in a theatre rather than on television (and at a shorter running time). Burke described it as “wonderful vaudeville”; he tries to jazz things up with a few wacky camera angles and interludes but it’s still essentially a theatrical piece. The two leads are excellent, particularly Cracknell – they are the best thing about it.
The Nice Widow at Quinto (recorded 14 August, 1966)
The script for this was written by Colin Free, who was one of the most prolific writers at the ABC in the late 1960s. The action mostly takes place in a train compartment and is chiefly comprised of a long chat between two work colleagues, the young tyro (Ted Hamilton) and his older colleague who is about to retire (Nigel Lovell). The twist in the tail is that the old dude is about to marry a widow in the town of Quinto (where the train stops)… and the widow turns out to be the young exec’s mother (Joan Winchester). That is a good idea but it isn’t really exploited or dramatised (i.e. if the old guy is about to retire, then what’s at stake?) and the twist probably comes too late in the story. The widow talks about this waitress who got impregnated by a miner travelling through town; we do not meet either character but their story sounds more interesting than what we see on screen. Ted Hamilton later went on to star in Division Four and The Pirate Movie. James Upshaw directed.
The Tank (recorded 10 April, 1966)
This was a thriller written by James Harris. It concerns a gang who are hiding out in an empty tank after robbing a bank: an old chap (Edward Brayshaw), a ruthless young man (Elliott Cairnes) and his girlfriend (Harriet Polak). There’s tension in the group as the old chap realises he’s gotten in business with two crazies, and the group realise they are running low on water. This is the sort of material that was done a lot by Crawford cop shows, which is perhaps why the ABC elected not to show it… though in that case, why did they commission it in the first place? I guess some of the acting is a little OTT. It was directed by Brian Faull, who worked for many years at the ABC and Grundys.
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