Forgotten Australian TV plays: Marriage Lines

November 29, 2020
In his series on forgotten Australian TV plays, Stephen Vagg turns his attention to the ABC’s Marriage Lines (1962).

Marriage Lines was based on a TV script by Clemence Dane (1888-1965), an author not often talked about today, but her name will be familiar to fans of the Golden Years of Hollywood because of the classic films based on her work. They included such notable credits as A Bill of Divorcement (1932), which made Katharine Hepburn a star, based on a Dane play; Murder! (1930), an early sound film from Alfred Hitchcock, from a Dane novel; Anna Karenina (1935) starring Greta Garbo, adapted from a Dane script; and Perfect Strangers (1945), with Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr (a movie I can’t believe hasn’t been remade, it’s central concept is so strong), from a Dane story.

She was a major, major writer. Marriage Lines was written towards the end of her life; it was an original for television, first produced by the BBC in 1961. The ABC snapped it up for production in 1962.

I’ve been unable to discover what prompted the decision. Maybe the ABC were attracted by Dane’s reputation. Maybe they liked the fact that it was essentially a three hander and that one of the characters mentions going to visit Australia. The BBC stamp of approval would have helped.

But this should never have been put on. Marriage Lines is a dreadful play and agonising to watch.

I’ve seen around ten Australian TV plays and read the scripts for over twenty, and enjoyed every single one. They are a mixed bag, to be sure, but all have been fun to watch/read.

Except for Marriage Lines.

The story doesn’t sound fatal in pitch form: in London, a thrice-married woman, Lysette Eggerton (played by Mary Ward) sets her eye on publisher Felix Pilgrim (Walter Sullivan), despite him being the long-time husband of her cousin Virgilia (Patricia Kennedy). Felix is tempted and an affair commences, but he is still drawn to Virgilia.

But that brief synopsis doesn’t convey the dreariness you get from watching it: all these distinguished actors spitting out upper class dialogue in upper class voices having upper class chats about upper class problems (he’s getting a knighthood, their daughter is having a baby in Kenya, etc, etc) without any wit, insight, tension, freshness or skill. There’s loyal maids and loyal secretaries and everyone discusses how hard poor Felix works while Virgilia clutches her pearls. The jokes die, drama is non-existent, the actors seem embarrassed, the story just seems to end.

I don’t mean to be cruel – Dane had a long and distinguished career, as did the actors, as did director Christopher Muir. But they all go down with the ship here. The inclusion of a near-constant music score does not help.

One gets some joy in the little things. An appearance by Campbell Copelin, one of my favourite “characters” among Australian actors because he would steal planes and go for joyrides when drunk. There’s some pleasing camera work and production design. And the fact that it is a 1962 Australian TV play is inherently interesting, to me at any rate: it says a lot about who we were as a nation and what we considered as “culture” at the time.

Australian critics of the 1950s and 1960s would routinely moan about the lack of good local writers. Even the worst Australian script from the time had more life and point to it than Marriage Lines – and it would have had some cultural point too.

Marriage Lines is available for viewing at the National Film and Sound Archive, if you can get to an access centre. While I can’t recommend it on entertainment grounds at all, we’re lucky to be able to see it.

For more articles like this, read:

60 Australian TV Plays of the 1950s & ‘60s

Annette Andre: My Brilliant Early Australian Career

Barry Creyton Live

Forgotten Australian TV Plays – The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: A Tongue of Silver

The Flawed Landmark: Burst of Summer

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Grey Nurse Said Nothing

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

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