Forgotten Australian TV Plays: Outpost

April 16, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays takes us to 1959, and the wartime drama Outpost – the first Australian play to be shown on US network television.

The most common complaint about early Australian TV was “well, there are no good Australian writers”. This lament/whinge was heard pretty much from the start of, well, television in this country. It was used by the commercial networks to justify why they didn’t make Australian shows. By ABC execs to explain why they preferred foreign scripts. By critics to explain why they were such snobs. During early Australian TV, local writing was the number one whipping boy of the industry, with daylight second.

Looking back at hundreds of contemporary articles, reviews, and official reports to Parliament, the constant, relentless criticism was a sight to behold. It could be patronising (“aw they did their best the poor widdle things”), vicious (“the ABC should refund my licence for showing that”), idiotically unrealistic (“we shouldn’t show any until they are classics”), prudish (“they talked about sex”), Australia-phobic and Anglophilic (“Rex Rienits needs to take lessons from Leslie Thomas”), lazy (Frank Roberts of The Bulletin would frequently review shows of which he’d only seen part) and show astonishingly little insight into the nature of the industry, or how writing worked, or what people wanted to see.

There were an eerie number of parallels to the arguments against diversity that dominated the scene prior to the late 2010s (“well, of course we’d love to put some on but the fact is none are good enough…”, “to put on something not ready would be patronising”). The prejudice against Australian writing ranged from unconscious discrimination to outright hostility, and it didn’t really let up until the late 1960s, when the success of shows like Homicide, The Mavis Bramston Show and Bellbird made the industry realise that no matter what bigots thought, Australian audiences actually really liked seeing their culture reflected on screen.

Until then, to put on Australian drama took a genuine act of will. Which is why it took the ABC almost four years to broadcast an original Australian TV play.

This was Outpost.

It wasn’t the first Australian script – there had been several adaptations of local plays (The Sub Editor’s Room, The Passionate Pianist, The Multi Coloured Umbrella, an Australian-set adaptation of Enemy of the People), and scripts set overseas written by foreign writers who happened to be temporarily in the country (Chance of a Ghost, the Killer in Close Up series) – but this was the first written expressly for the screen.

It came about because the ABC were beginning to feel awkward about having such a low proportion of local scripts (that feeling of awkwardness would ebb and flow over the first decade of Australian TV) and put out a call for some originals. The one they liked best was Outpost, a tale of murder on an isolated Australian army base in World War Two New Guinea, written by someone called John Alexander.

The ABC were delighted. Here was a fresh script by an unknown writer – someone not part of the ABC gang. “John Alexander” then had to admit he was actually John Cameron, a manager of facilities at the ABC studios in Ripponlea Melbourne. Cameron wasn’t a writer, but he loved theatre and had some experience as an actor (he was friends with Sumner Locke Eliot), so he decided to write a script based on his war experiences and submitted it under a pseudonym. The ABC took his deception with (relative) good humour and decided to produce it under the direction of Chris Muir.

‘Outpost is set in 1943. The plot takes place over two days and concerns four Australian soldiers who are guarding a top-secret base deep in the New Guinea jungle which is to be used in an upcoming attack on Buna. They are visited by an air force sergeant who manages to offend every one of the group within the space of an hour… then winds up murdered. The survivors have to figure out who did it – a local tribesman? some Japanese? one of their own? – while at the same time fearing a Japanese attack.

It’s a taut, simple script, based on Cameron’s experience at a secret base near Tufi, on the north coast of New Guinea (His memoirs are available here.) The acting is excellent – the cast is comprised of Dennis Miller (who you will recognise from millions of cop shows… it’s a jolt to see him as a shirtless young man), Syd Conabere, John Morgan, Keith Eden and Paul Karo. They all play distinct types: Miller a young, Shakespeare-reading radio operator; Morgan a slightly pompous, older cultured German Australian; Karo a lecherous, cocky, “Errol Flynn” Air Force type; Eden a sweaty, tormented sergeant; Conabere an easy-going old timer who is roused to anger when someone sleeps in his self-made bed.

It’s very obviously filmed in a studio, but Chris Muir’s handling is generally very good, and the whole production benefits from tremendous verisimilitude: the slang, the attitudes of the characters, the constant sarcasm and banter, the furniture, the way soldiers hold their cigarettes and shake hands after a shouting match, the sledges about Melbourne and Sydney, the radio, even the imported bananas; it all feels so real. I am guessing it was real – Cameron was a veteran, and he wouldn’t have been the only one on the production, not in 1959, and they presumably kept things honest.

As an Australian, it is wonderful to hear references to Blamey, MacArthur, Chermside in Brisbane, and Melbourne, and Sydney and slang. Less pleasant are the racial slurs, however accurate to the time and the place: the word “b**ng” is constantly used to describe the unseen locals – like, fourteen times – and the Japanese are described as “N**s”. (The script does make the point that the four main soldiers are more respectful of the locals than the visiting Air Force sergeant who wants to turn them into servants… but they all like using that “b” word.)

Outpost was broadcast live in Melbourne on 18 November 1959, recorded, then shown in other cities at a later date. Reviews were generally positive, though there were inevitable whines. The Sydney Morning Herald TV critic could not resist taking a swipe at the script saying “the author makes no better than commonplace use of the clever idea” which simply was not true.

The American TV network CBS decided to run a world television drama series and they bought Outpost from the ABC (along with another Melbourne shot-play, The Astronauts). It was shown in 1961, making it, I believe, the first Australian drama broadcast on US network television. The New York Times saying the writer “telegraphed his resolution early in the drama and also grievously overtaxed the element of coincidence. But the settings and direction were first rate.”

The success of Outpost did not lead to a deluge of Australian product but there was a mini boom of local stories during the years of 1959-61: adaptations of stage plays like Ned Kelly and The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day, original works like Pardon Miss Westcott and Reflections in Dark Glasses. The hatred of Australian writing proved too strong for it to last and there was a sharp fall off during 1962-64… but then came Homicide, Bramston and another revival, and quotas led to the seventies Aussie drama boom.

Cameron later wrote in his memoirs that Outpost was a spectacular first effort, and I never lived up to it.” He tried…. his later writing credits included Teeth of the Wind (about an African nation achieving independence), The Quiet Season (a domestic drama) and Otherwise Engaged (a comedy about a man who basically kidnaps his family and forces them to live on a tropical island). He never gave up his day job, however, which may have been the right move in the long run, both for him and Australia; he became a director of drama at the ABC, during a golden period for drama on that network. Still, it’s a shame Cameron didn’t write more (or that his writing wasn’t produced more): there were many periods in his life that cried out for on screen dramatisation (eg post war Sydney theatre at the Independent, war service in Borneo and Milne Bay).

At least he did Outpost, the first original Australian TV play, the first Australian drama to screen on US television, a rare TV glimpse of the Australian war in New Guinea. It’s a fine play, an important play, a play that 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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Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Merchant of Venice

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