Forgotten Australian TV Plays: Flowering Cherry

March 14, 2021
In his series on forgotten Australian TV plays, Stephen Vagg looks at the ABC’s 1963 adaptation of Robert (A Man for All Seasons) Bolt’s British play, Flowering Cherry.

For me, Grant Taylor was the great lost film star of Australian cinema. In 1940, he came seemingly out of nowhere (the boxing ring, to be precise) to play lead roles in two hit Australian films: Dad Rudd MP and Forty Thousand Horsemen. His impact was immediate, especially in the latter: swaggering, virile, cheeky, two-fisted… one of the first screen embodiments of the macho Aussie screen archetype, Jack Thompson before there was a Jack Thompson.

Taylor’s career momentum was interrupted by World War Two and he never really got it back, in films at least, only playing a few more leads (Rats of Tobruk, Captain Thunderbolt) before drifting off into character actor land. This was mostly due to the moribund nature of the Australian film industry at the time, but Taylor didn’t help his own cause by not taking care of his appearance (he gained weight, refused to wear a hair piece, and had a clear fondness for the bottle).

On stage, it was a different story: Taylor, with his booming voice and imposing presence, became one of the most popular leading men in post-war Australian legitimate theatre. He also made an impact in early Australian television drama, including playing Robert Newton’s sidekick in The Adventures of Long John Silver (co-starring Taylor’s son Kit as Jim Hawkins), several guest roles in the meat pie Westerns series Whiplash, and, most notably, the lead in the 1963 TV play, Flowering Cherry.

Flowering Cherry was based on a little-remembered 1957 stage play by Robert Bolt. Bolt later became legendary for his David Lean screenplays and A Man for All Seasons, but it was the West End success of Flowering Cherry that originally enabled the one-time English school teacher to become a full time writer.

The play concerned an insurance salesman, Jim Cherry, who tells his wife and two adult children that he has quit his job and intends to buy an apple orchard. It eventually turns out that Cherry was fired from his job, has developed a drinking problem, steals money from his wife, and has no intention of bringing his dreams to reality. He (SPOILERS) winds up dying of a heart attack trying to prove his virility by bending an iron bar around his neck.

The play was a hit in London – due in no small part to the popularity of stars Ralph Richardson and Celia Jonson – and had a short run on Broadway; it was never turned into a feature film – perhaps it was felt too similar to Death of a Salesman – but was shot for British TV in 1960 and 1965.

For some reason, the ABC decided Flowering Cherry was just the thing to be adapted for Australian television in 1963. I had no idea why this decision was made… perhaps director Colin Dean wanted a complete change of pace from the historical miniseries which he had been making (Stormy Petrel, The Outcasts). Perhaps it was due to Bolt becoming a very hot property after the 1960 debut of A Man for All Seasons (incidentally, the ABC would film that, too, in 1964, with Wynn Roberts as Sir Thomas More).

Anyway, the decision was made, and the play shot in Sydney. It was the first Australian drama to be broadcast on the ABC’s coaxial cable simultaneously in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra (before then, a show generally had to be broadcast live in one city, then the taping of that broadcast was shown in other cities).

The cast was headed by Grant Taylor, then appearing on stage in Woman in a Dressing Gown. The role of his wife was played by Margo Lee, a leading stage, radio and TV actor of the day, with the support cast including Peter Adams (who later became a household face as JJ in Cop Shop) as the son, and one time Olympic medal winning diver Elizabeth Ferris, who plays a friend of the daughter who dates the son and flirts with dad.

The running time was a healthy 75 minutes, meaning most of the play’s nuances were captured. The storyline could have been relocated to Australia –there’s nothing particularly British about it, Australians dream of escaping to the countryside too – but Noel Robinson’s script adaptation was a faithful one, keeping the action in England.

I saw a copy of Flowering Cherry through the National Film and Sound Archive. To be honest, it feels like a filmed play – there’s one set, long scenes, theatrical entrances and exits – but Colin Dean’s direction is sensitive, and the film is quite entertaining in a well-made-play-of-the-fifties way, particularly the superb performances of Lee and Taylor. Lee is perfect as the tired, betrayed Isobel Cherry, weary of life, unsure of how she got to her current position, pushed to the limit. Taylor is also excellent as the blustering, ageing Jim Cherry; the actor’s physicality and former status as a Forty Thousand Horseman heart throb makes his decline more touching: you believe Taylor would feel like he could still bend an iron bar around his neck, even though he’s clearly on the verge of a heart attack.

I wish the ABC had filmed an Australian play or script rather than Flowering Cherry, but at least it provided two of our best actors with sensational roles to remember them by. Far too much of their – indeed many Australian actor’s – best work has vanished to the mists of time with no record. But thanks to the National Film and Sound Archive you can easily see a copy of Grant Taylor and Margo Lee at their best in Flowering Cherry.

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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Forgotten Australian TV Plays: A Tongue of Silver

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Forgotten Australian TV Plays: You Can’t Win ‘Em All

Forgotten Australian TV plays: Marriage Lines

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Merchant of Venice

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: Seagulls Over Sorrento

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