by Stephen Vagg

Early Australian TV plays rarely took a strong line on political issues. Presumably, this was due to not wanting to offend anyone (always an issue for TV networks, especially when the ABC was involved); there also would have been a reluctance to risk boring the audience – polemics can be hard going, as anyone who has watched a lot of political theatre can attest. There were the occasional exceptions, such as Murder Story, made by the ABC in 1958.

This was based, like so much early Australian TV drama, on British source material – specifically, a 1954 play by Ludovic Kennedy. Kennedy was a writer perhaps best known at the time for being Mr Moira (The Red Shoes) Shearer; he went on to become a noted author and broadcaster on British television.

Kennedy’s inspiration for Murder Story was the real-life Derek Bentley case. Bentley was a 19-year-old small-time criminal executed in 1953 for the murder of a police officer during the course of a robbery; Bentley didn’t actually fire the gun – his 16-year-old accomplice did – but he swung anyway, in part because he was heard to shout out “let him have it” just before the fatal gunshot. (There was a 1991 British film about Bentley called Let Him Have It.) Bentley’s hanging became a cause celebre for anti-capital punishment activists in England, along with the executions of Ruth Ellis and Timothy Evans – whose lives were, incidentally, also turned into features (Dance with a Stranger (1985) and Ten Rillington Place (1971) respectively, the latter being based on a book by Ludovic Kennedy. Incidentally, Ellis’ life is sometimes called the inspiration for another anti-capital punishment film, the superb Yield to the Night (1956) with Diana Dors, but those similarities were coincidental). They never made a feature film out of Murder Story, but the play was adapted for radio and TV in Britain and Australia.

I recently saw a copy of the Australian TV production and it’s fantastic. The plot concerns a 19-year-old, Jim Tanner (John Ewart), who lives with his mother (Neva Carr Glynn) and father (Douglas Kelly) and is slightly intellectually disabled. Jim gets fired from his job and decides to accompany a friend (Richard Meikle) on a robbery, during which the latter kills a police constable. Jim is arrested, tried and sentenced to death for the crime. In prison he is taught to read and write and forms a strong bond with the prison chaplain (John Alden) and a warden (Don Crosby). Appeals are made for clemency, including by the dead policeman’s widow (Myrna Dodd), but they are unsuccessful and Jim is executed.

Kennedy stacks the deck to make his point in Murder Story, to put it mildly: Jim is shown to be a decent kid, a bit dim, with nice parents, who clearly doesn’t deserve to die; all the characters feel sorry for him, even the wife of the constable who was killed. The play is still dramatically powerful; indeed, it has some of the most emotionally devastating moments I’ve seen in early Australian TV: the prison chaplain explaining the logistics of execution day to a disbelieving warden; Jim’s parents wondering what they did wrong; the chaplain delivering a final letter from Jim to the parents; the final scene, with a hood put over Jim’s head on the scaffold as the camera fades to black. The story builds skillfully and relentlessly (Alan Seymour, of One Day of the Year, did the adaptation), Ray Menmuir’s direction is confident, sensitive and sure, and the production design is perfect. John Ewart occasionally overacts (always a risk for actors playing someone with a disability) but is always touchingly likeable, and has a brilliant final scene. The other actors are excellent, notably Don Crosby as a warden who suffers a crisis of conscience about the death penalty, and Douglas Kelly as Jim’s bewildered father; Richard Meikle also impresses as a bad boy killer (I’m surprised Meikle never had a crack at Hollywood; he would have made a great gangster over there).

I wonder if Seymour and Menmuir ever discussed relocating the story to Australia – after all, that’s what happened on their next TV collaboration, Bodgie (also starring Ewart and Kelly), an Australian-ised adaption of the British play Wide Boy. Murder Story could have easily taken place here – the death penalty was still in effect on these shores in 1958 (Edgar Cooke was executed in 1964, Ronald Ryan in 1967). However, that probably would have been too hot for the ABC to handle. I can’t blame them on that one: it would have been hard enough to get Murder Story on air in the first place.

The ABC were very proud of Murder Story. They repeated the production on air several times – something not common with their TV plays – and would refer to it in their advertising for other shows (eg. Bodgie was promoted as being “from the people who gave you Murder Story”). They had every right to be proud: it’s sublime work, powerful and moving, and easily one of the best early Australian TV dramas.

For more articles like this, read:

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