Forgotten Australian TV plays: Kain

June 8, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays looks at arguably the most expensive one made in the 1960s: Kain.

You don’t hear much about Kain these days. I fancy myself an Oz film and TV buff and I had no idea it even existed until last year. It’s surprising, in a way, because at one stage Kain was a very big deal. The first co-production between the ABC and BBC. The first television performance in Australia by not one but two local boys made good. An imported director of international renown. Location filming in the Northern Territory. Plenty of publicity during its production in 1966. Some superb reviews and some hostile ones, leading to more publicity. Repeated screenings.

And then… it dropped off the radar. Such is the ephemeral nature of TV, especially TV plays. Or was there more to it? What was Kain, exactly?

It was originally written for stage by Alan Poolman, an Australian actor and writer who had moved to England, like so many Oz artists of his generation. The story of Kain is loosely based on the Cain and Abel, and focuses on two brothers, Kain and Rattler, who live on a station in the Northern Territory. The unstable Kain clashes with the more laidback Rattler over several issues – money, treatment of local blacks, cattle, but most of all, their Aboriginal housemaid, Kaita, whom Kain is convinced Rattler has impregnated. Kain winds up (SPOILERS) murdering Rattler in a fit of fury, then is tormented by guilt, which comes to the fore when he romances a white girl, Inala. Kain abandons Inala at their wedding ceremony, confesses all, then takes off into the desert.

Poolman’s writing impressed a fellow Australian expat in England, Keith Michell, then one of the biggest names in British theatre (including long stints in Irma La Douce and at Stratford-Upon- Avon), as well as having enjoyed success in television (Wuthering Heights) and cinema (The Gentleman and the Gypsy). Michell had been acting professionally for almost twenty years but had rarely played Australian roles; he was excited by the part of Kain and his interest seems to have been the magic ingredient in getting it produced.

The stage play version of Kain premiered in January 1966 at Guildford, with another Australian expat, Alan White, cast in the part of Rattler, and Irish actor JC Devlin playing a friend of the brothers. The director was Lionel Harris, who had extensive credits on stage and TV (there’s an excellent piece on him here). Michell, Poolman, White, Devin and Harris would all take part in the television production of Kain, which leads me to surmise that it may have always been envisioned with a small screen version in mind.

The stage production received mixed reviews, but there was enough enthusiasm for the ABC and BBC to decide to pool their resources and make a TV version later that year. A healthy budget of $65,000 was allocated, which enabled key talent to be flown out to Australia and location filming to be done in the Northern Territory.

That is a big commitment for a small screen adaptation of a play that was not very well known, from a writer without much of a reputation, but the ABC and BBC probably took confidence from the prospect of pretty outback pictures, and from the presence of Michell in the lead; Alan White had a decent profile at the time too, from a regular role in the British TV series The Flying Doctor. In addition, the ABC had some prior experience with international co-productions, having made The Right Thing (1963) in collaboration with Associated-Rediffusion.

Keith Michell flew out to Australia in early 1966 along with White, Poolman, Devlin, Harris and Audine Leith (who played Inala); the rest of the cast and crew would be Australia-based.

Kain was filmed in March and April of that year: exteriors were shot in the Northern Territory near Tennant Creek, at Warrabri and at Devil’s Marbles, with interiors filmed at the ABC’s Gore Hill studios.

The unit manager was Tom Jeffrey who later became a noted feature film director (The Odd Angry Shot). The camera operator was Frank Parnell who, not long after filming on Kain completed, would die in a famous helicopter accident near Circular Quay in Sydney.

Kain did not air until April 1967. Some of the reviews were excellent, others harsh; Michell’s personal notices were generally superb. The play was repeated in 1969 and then appears to have vanished from the public eye: the stage version was/is rarely revived, and obituaries I’ve read of Keith Michell didn’t even mention it.

Kain is a truly unique, odd slice of television. It’s very theatrical, with long monologues, clearly delineated “acts”, and key characters and events which are referred to but never seen (such as Inala’s ex-boyfriend, who is the real father of Kaita’s baby). It’s a bold piece of drama to be sure, tackling all sorts of themes: sibling rivalry, treatment of blacks, lust, money, race, death. It does not quite “get there”, at least not in my opinion: there’s too many unresolved plot strands and characters, particularly Kaita; the drama feels too unfocused; it’s structurally wonky, suffering from the complete absence of Rattler in the second half, when the entire focus shifts to Inala, who we barely see in the first half; it’s problematic racially, with the leading Aboriginal character (Kaita) performed by an actor in blackface (not untypical of the era, unfortunately) and the Aboriginal characters allowed little screen time.

One can see the appeal of the piece to Keith Michell: the part of Kain involves fratricide, shouting, whispering, quoting Plato, getting slapped in the face, seduction, strutting around in a cowboy hat with a bare chest, being racist, joking, swearing, jilting your fiancée at the altar, and running off into the desert. It was thus perhaps unavoidable that Michell’s performance comes across as a little erratic: at times he looks and acts like a 1950s Rank company star in a meat pie Western (eg. Ronald Lewis in the 1957 Robbery Under Arms), on other occasions he seems to switch between playing Iago and Othello, in some scenes he underplays quite beautifully. Alan White is superb as the brother, and JC Devlin is good value as their friend. I liked Audine Leith as Inala, and Teddy Plummer and Michael Williams impress in their small roles. Candy Devine has some effective moments as Kaita but is hampered by her blackface make up and lack of character development.

The location work is impressive – it’s beautifully shot and it’s awesome to see the actors actually doing their scenes in the Northern Territory. I don’t think Kain gets there as drama – Alan Poolman needed to give his script a decent rewrite, and Lionel Harris needed to reign in Michell – but it has ambition, it makes you think, and it certainly swings for the fences. It definitely should be better known.

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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