One of the most popular genres to be found in early Australian TV drama was the thriller. It is not hard to guess why: thrillers were highly suitable for the small screen, benefiting from intimate treatment and requiring few sets, effects or characters; if done with taste they weren’t overly challenging to the censor and/or politically tricky; producers could draw on a rich backlog of road- tested material from the stage and/or radio to adapt.
The first thrillers made for Australian television were (inevitably, considering the culture of the day) versions of foreign works. The plays of Patrick Hamilton were a particular favourite (The Governess, Gaslight, The Duke in the Darkness, two versions of Rope), as were one-location pieces (Sorry Wrong Number, Box of One) and tales of Cold War conflict (Scent of Fear, Shadow of a Doubt). However, there were also a large number of Australian thrillers: some which had been performed first overseas (In Writing, It’s the Geography that Counts, Close to the Roof, Who Killed Kovali, Funnel Web), or had run overseas (Lady in Danger), others written by foreigners temporarily living here (Chance of a Ghost, Heart Attack, Blue Murder), some that were original works for television (Outpost, The Turning Point, Eye of the Night, The Music Upstairs, Dark Corridor, The Tape Recorder, Manhaul, Antarctic Four). One of the best of them was 1960’s Reflections in Dark Glasses.
Reflections in Dark Glasses was an episode of Shell Presents (1959-60), the short-lived anthology for ATN-7 (I’ve reviewed other episodes of this series, such as Pardon Miss Westcott). The play was envisioned as a starring vehicle for Muriel Steinbeck, who had just appeared in the ATN-7 soap opera Autumn Affair (1958-59). Like many female actors, then and now, Steinbeck’s talent was often wasted in wife/mother roles, but Reflections gave her a sensational part that put the star front and centre.
She plays Nancy Rogers, who we first meet in a brilliantly chilling opening sequence, wearing sunglasses watching children play at school. (A heads up – I am going to give a lot of spoilers.) She visits a schoolteacher, Miss Truelove (Eve Hardwick), asking to see “Ronnie”. The teacher, who is clearly terrified, says Ronnie doesn’t go there anymore but Nancy doesn’t believe her.
She goes to the apartment of a painter, John (James Condon), who turns out to be Nancy’s estranged husband and fellow parent of a boy, Ronnie. John denies knowing their son’s location so Nancy visits John’s mother, Agnes (Winifred Green), to get information, threatening the old lady with a pair of scissors in the process.
Nancy then tracks an invoice signed by John to what she believes is a school run by “schoolmistress”, Mary (Ruth Cracknell!). Once more, she demands to see her son. It turns out Mary is a psychiatrist whose “school” is a hospital where Nancy has been an in-patient for months. A year ago, Nancy abducted Ronnie from John’s house, using dark glasses as a disguise; a car accident ensued in which Ronnie was seriously hurt. We assume Ronnie has been killed (I did, anyway) but it turns out that he is alive and recovering somewhere. Nancy is taken away by a nurse, after declaring she no longer needs to wear sunglasses. Mary tells John, who has been waiting outside, that this is a major breakthrough in Nancy’s treatment and declares that mother will soon be reunited with her son.
It’s an unconvincing end to a story that feels as though it has been building up to a more tragic climax. It is also slightly unsatisfactory in that we never meet the oft-discussed Ronnie (or “Michaela” who I think is meant to be John’s new girlfriend). And even to my layman’s eyes, the final it’s “a breakthrough” scene came across as unrealistic, though it does give some finality to the drama. (I assume writer James Workman was influenced by all those post-war psychiatry dramas which ended with a big “breakthrough where we find out what really happened” climax eg. Suddenly Last Summer, Three Faces of Eve, Spellbound, The Home of the Brave).
Still, what’s there is incredibly powerful. You can tell Workman was a former actor (he even co- starred with Steinbeck in the 1949 film Into the Straight): he creates highly distinct characters, and is great at exposition and dialogue scenes. The script starts with a bang, then proceeds with a series of excellent two hander scenes – Steinbeck vs Hardwick, Steinbeck vs Condon, Steinbeck vs Greene, Steinbeck vs Cracknell – building to a thrilling climax with Cracknell (superb in a straight part) interrogating Steinbeck under a spotlight. Director David Cahill, who does a typically strong job throughout, uses sounds effects, lights and reflections to create a memorable climactic version of insanity.
The bulk of early Australian TV thrillers, whether written here or overseas, tended to be in the vein of Dial M for Murder: tales of sophisticated upper-class types who are short of cash, fond of quips and forever trying to murder/blackmail/double cross their wives. But they were not all like that, certainly not Reflections in Dark Glasses. This was a psychological thriller – visceral, dark, intense – and extremely moving. (It also has the best poster art from any Australian TV play I’m familiar with – kudos to that designer, whoever she or he was.)
I don’t want to overhype this play, it has flaws, but I genuinely feel that it’s a minor gem: the acting and handling are excellent, the tension compulsive. It is one of the best dramas from the early years of Australian TV that you can see with relative ease (A viewing copy is available at the access centres for the National Film and Sound Archive.)
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