Forgotten Australian TV Plays: Prelude to Harvest

August 21, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on Australian television plays looks at a story of colonial era Sydney made for Australia Day in 1963, Prelude to Harvest.

One of the most successful – if not the most successful – initial Australian television dramas produced at the ABC was the cycle of historical mini-series from the early 1960s. It started with Stormy Petrel (1960), the story of the Rum Rebellion, and was followed by The Outcasts (1961, which centered around William Redfern), The Patriots (1962, about William Wentworth) and The Hungry Ones (1963, on Mary Bryant and her famous escape). All of these were directed by Colin Dean and all bar The Patriots were written by Rex Rienits. I say they were successful “at the ABC” because according to ratings figures from the time they never lagged in audience numbers behind even the few Australian shows on commercial stations, such as Emergency (1959), Take That (1957-59) and Whiplash (1961) – but by ABC standards they had a major impact.

It’s surprising then, that so few Australian plays from that decade dramatised Australian history. Surely, there were stories to be made out of, say, the life of Adam Lindsay Gordon, or the Eureka Stockade, or bushrangers, or Caroline Chisolm. But the cultural cringe at the time was very strong.

There were some exceptions – two arty versions of the life of Ned Kelly (Ned Kelly, The Ballad of One Gun), a film of the stage musical on Lola Montez (Lola Montez), a look at the murder of an Aboriginal outside Newcastle (The Sergeant of Burralee) and Prelude to Harvest.

Prelude to Harvest was one of two television productions commissioned by the ABC to screen over the Australia Day weekend of 1963, the 175th anniversary of Governor Phillip’s landing. The first was The Land that Waited, a documentary on the history of white exploration and settlement in Australia. Prelude to Harvest was a dramatised account of the early history of the Sydney colony.

It is set in 1789, when Phillip (Wynn Roberts) and co. have got things up and running at Sydney but there’s not enough food to go around. The main plot strands include the voyage of the Lady Juliana, a ship full of female convicts, from London to Sydney, under Lt Edgar (Edward Howell); Phillip getting convict James Ruse (Terry McDermott) to do some farming; the sinking of the Sirius; and a romance on the Juliana between Stewart John Nicol (Deryck Barnes) and convict Sarah (Joan Morrow).

Apart from Phillip, Ruse and Nicol there are cameos from a number of early figures in European Australian history like Watkin Tench (Ric Hutton), who wrote the best known early account of the settlement; the famously grumpy Major Ross (Henry Gilbert), who was forever causing trouble and is always the villain in dramatisations of this period; Captain Collins (Richard Meikle), who later helped settle Sullivans Bay and Hobart; Elizabeth Parry (Mary Reynolds) who later married Ruse; and Lt King (Keith Buckley), who later helped settle Norfolk Island and struggled against the Rum Corps. There are no Aboriginal characters, although there is a fleeting mention of the Aboriginal people and Bennelong. While there are several female characters, it definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test.

Prelude to Harvest was directed by Colin Dean and written by Kay Keavney, who was predominantly a journalist and radio dramatist, but also did the odd screenplay; her other television credits include episodes of The Adventures of Long John Silver and the TV play Eye of the Night.

Keavney was not as skilled a dramatist as Rex Rienits, at least not based on the evidence presented here – but then, she may have been working to a brief. The script tries to incorporate too many characters for a 60-minute running time – to do this story properly you need to tell it via a mini-series (as would be proved when the ABC adapted The Timeless Land in the late ‘70s and Banished in the 2010s). Or to focus on one of the strands – the story of the Lady Juliana would have provided enough material alone; so too would the story of Ruse and/or Phillip and/or Ross.

There are some good performances, particularly by Wyn Roberts, and decent sets, but it’s probably fair to say that this is more a dramatised documentary rather than a proper play. On those grounds it is definitely worth watching.

After Prelude to Harvest and The Hungry Ones, the ABC cooled a little on convict era stories (their mini-series in 1964 would be a contemporary spy story, The Purple Jacaranda).  Aunty came back to them in a big way in the 1970s and 1980s with works such as Essington, The Fenian Conspiracy and the aforementioned Timeless Land. Those tend to be remembered even these days. But it was those early 1960s works that got there first.

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