Forgotten Australian TV Plays: In the Absence of Mr Sugden

July 5, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays looks at one from Brisbane. Yep, it was Hollywood by the Brown Snake in 1965 with In the Absence of Mr Sugden.

During the first few years of television in Australia, local drama production came almost entirely from Sydney or Melbourne. The main reason was “well that’s where all the talented people live” (Sydney/Melbourne-siders rarely came out and actually said that directly, it’s what they thought… indeed, a lot of them still feel that way).

However, by the 1960s, some dramas start to be filmed outside of the big two, with shows being shot in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart… the BAPH states as they were called (they really were, it was an industry term). Some of this was made by local television stations, which in those pre network days had far more autonomy. The bulk were made by the ABC which, for a time in the middle of the decade, made a concerted effort to get some BAPH productions going.

In the Absence of Mr Sugden was shot in Brisbane in 1965. It was the sixth drama the ABC made at their studios in Toowong – the previous ones included Vacancy on Vaughan Street, Dark Brown, Ring Out Wild Bells, and The Quiet Season. Vacancy and Bells were based on scripts by famed (well, famed-ish) Brisbane writer George Landen Dann, Dark Brown was a British play which had been previously filmed by the ABC in Melbourne in 1957, and Quiet Season was written by a southerner, John Croyston. (Prior to these, there was a 1961 performance/broadcast of Christopher Fry’s A Sleep of Prisoners from St John’s Cathedral about which I have written previously.)

In the Absence of Mr Sugden was written by a New South Wales journalist, Ron Harrison, who later wrote the TV play A Ride on the Big Dipper. It’s a bright little tale, a sort of comedy-drama about a burglar (Edward Howell) who breaks into a house to rob a safe, only to be met by another burglar (Stanley Smith) after the same safe, then they are met by the “owner” (John Nash), who turns out to be a third burglar.

The all-male cast of six came from Brisbane, except for Edward Howell, imported from Sydney, presumably to show ignorant Queenslanders how it was done. (Howell had previously served this function on Ring Out Wild Bells.)

The director was Bob Cubbage, the ABC’s supervisor of drama and features in Queensland. This meant, he supervised the radio dramas made in Brisbane, of which there were quite a few, so there was a pool of experienced actors to draw upon.

In the Absence of Mr Sugden is a decent piece of wacky crook whimsy – it’s not fantastic, not terrible. It feels like watching a one act play at the Arts Theatre rather than something specifically devised for television, but the acting is solid, the set is impressive, and Harrison’s script has a beginning, middle and end, some gags and a neat commentary on the divide between thieves who are “professionals” and “tradesmen”.

The ABC would go on to film some other TV plays in Brisbane (The Monkey Cage, Arabesque for Atoms). None of the ones they shot there were particularly Brisbane focused; they could have been set anywhere, which perhaps explains why they made limited public impact. The same argument could be made for ABC TV plays shot in Adelaide (Weather at Pine Top, Dark Corridor), Perth (Fireflies, Rose and Crown) and Hobart (The Find, Drive a Hard Bargain, Double Jeopardy, The Happy Journey). Then, after 1966, the ABC pulled back on their BAPH program and drama went back to being all Sydney and Melbourne. At least they tried. They should have tried harder  ABC drama was subsidised by taxpayers from all around Australia, it didn’t have to be based in just two cities) but they did try. And it is important to remember that the 1988 Mission Impossible reboot wasn’t the first drama ever shot in Brisbane.

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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