Forgotten Australian TV plays: Reunion Day

May 23, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays looks at a production that was banned in Australia: Reunion Day.

Today, I’m going to take a slight detour and discuss a TV play I haven’t actually seen. In my defence, there are no copies of the play to see (to my knowledge). However, there’s a script, it’s terrific, and it’s important. I’m talking about Reunion Day by Peter Yeldham.

Yeldham’s had one of the longest, most successful, yet relatively unheralded career of an Australian screenwriter. He hasn’t toiled in anonymity – the Women’s Weekly did a profile on him in the 1960s – but he has never garnered the profile of say, a David Williamson or Morris West, despite a CV of more than fifty years that includes radio plays, episodic TV, feature films, stage plays, miniseries, TV plays, short stories, novels, articles and a memoir.

I think this is partly due to his versatility (see: previous sentence, the), and partly due to the fact that so much of his work was done in England rather than Australia. I also feel that it’s because he once wrote a masterpiece about Australia and Australians that has never actually been seen here. This is Reunion Day.

Yeldham began his career in Australian radio in the 1940s, moving to Britain in the mid-1950s where, after a few rough years, he managed to establish himself in television. After a few more years, Yeldham began to write TV plays on Australian subjects, starting with Thunder on the Snowy and then Reunion Day. (Others included The Cabbage Hat Boys, East of Christmas and Stella, which was later turned into the feature film Boundaries of the Heart (1988)).

Yeldham later said he had the idea of writing a play about Anzac Day for about three years. He wrote in the introduction to Reunion Day that “As a boy in my native Sydney I remembered Anzac reunions, emotional, excited days when old soldiers gathered together and drank far into the night. Living in the past for one drunken day, for when they got together, the past was all they had in common.”

He tried to write up the idea twice, submitting one version to Armchair Theatre, an anthology series for ITV, who rejected it. Then the BBC asked Yeldham if he had any ideas, and he tried a third time. This time, Yeldham cracked it – the script took him a month and was broadcast on the BBC in 1962. The story was set in Australia but there were so many Australians in London at the time it was easy to find actors for the roles; they included Ray Barrett, Ron Haddrick, Reg Lye and Frank Leighton.

No copy of the broadcast exists, but academic Susan Lever wrote a superb article on the play which includes a complete script and an introduction by Yeldham.

Reunion Day has been completely overshadowed in cultural memory by another Anzac Day work that came out around the same time – Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year, which debuted on stage in 1960, played in London in 1961 and was filmed for Australian TV in 1962. While both works are set on Anzac Day, they are entirely different. The One Day of the Year is the story of a family in conflict – specifically father and son. Reunion Day is about a group of friends all roughly the same age having a, well, reunion – a sort of Big Chill for Australian war veterans.

There’s Jack (played by Ken Wayne), going through a mid-life crisis and unhappy with his marriage to Grace (Madge Ryan), which originated as a one night stand; there’s Tim (Ray Barrett), who was a war hero, a major at 23, but has never come close to matching that achievement since; Dave (Ron Haddrick) is Jewish, successful in business and happy in his marriage to Judith (Nyree Dawn Porter) but who cracked up during the war, a fact held over him by Tim; Greg (Jerold Wells) was a lousy soldier who is now a prosperous pub owner; Col (Alan Tilvern) is a womaniser who sleeps with prostitutes.

Their problems are treated with empathy and clarity, and Yeldham kept surprising me: you think (SPOILERS) Tim asking Dave for a job will come at the end of the story, but it happens at the beginning, Dave gives it, then Tim continues to be a prick; Greg’s daughter Kitty (Lyn Ashley, once married to Eric Idle) seems to be set up to be a victim of Col, but she thinks he’s pathetic. These surprises are truer to character and strengthen the drama.

It’s very adult – there’s talk of one night stands, we meet a prostitute and hear anti-Semitic cracks, characters admit to being horny, upset, lecherous, broke. It’s a play about middle-aged Australian men and their wives in all their messy, flawed glory.

Reception in Britain was strong, and the play was sold to West Germany. The production was bought by Frank Packer’s TCN-9 station for broadcast in Australia on Anzac Day 1962. (Sometimes Australian networks would buy scripts that had been performed overseas and produce their version locally, but TCN-9 picked up the British production.)

However, the censor refused to pass it. Chief censor C.J. Campbell told the TV Times that the play “contained matter that was quite contrary to the Broadcasting Control Board’s standards for television. The language used may be all right for a soldier’s reunion, but it is all wrong for a suburban sitting room.”

A spokesman for TCN-9 – which had bought the play, remember – said “Reunion Day depicts Anzac Day as just another excuse for a debauch. There is no remembrance of Gallipoli, or sacrifice. The action takes place almost entirely in a pub. The language goes from bad to worse. The characters have nothing in common. The conversation runs out every two or three minutes, and somebody says: ‘Let’s have a drink’. There is even a dose of anti-Semitism thrown in. The whole thing was blasphemous, obscene and thoroughly nasty. If we had shown it, we would have had the RSL marching on us and not without justice. We would have appealed against the censor’s ruling if we had thought the play was worth it. We didn’t.”

Actor Ray Barrett wrote a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald saying he was “appalled and amazed that this play has been banned… It is a true and honest comment on men’s difficulty to settle down after the war. This is not a play attacking the RSL or, in fact, the tradition of the reunion, but a play of life.”

But it did no good. The play was never seen in Australia – a state of affairs that continues to apply in 2021.

What got everyone so upset?

This play is fantastic. I would call it a masterpiece, our very own Best Years of Our Lives, and the fact that it was essentially banned from being seeing here was a stunning misjudgement.

Looking back, though, I do get why it was banned. I’m not saying they were right – they were dead wrong – but I get it.

The Australian society of 1961 – large sections of it, at least – was notoriously insecure about Australia’s place in the world, with an inordinate amount of pride being placed in a few areas: the quality of our rural output, sporting champions, and our war record. Reunion Day took on the latter, and the Powers That Be couldn’t handle it.

Not that Reunion Day trashed our war record – no one was accused of war crimes, say – but the veterans depicted were not the wistful sunburnt happy-go-lucky warriors of legend (see: Rafferty, Chips), but people who were flawed. They included men who were dissatisfied with life, casually anti-Semitic, reluctant to grow up, borderline alcoholic, keen on sex, cowardly in battle. In other words, human beings.

It’s a great pity that Reunion Day was never adapted into a stage play or a film. I wrote a biography of Rod Taylor (who starred in the 1966 spy comedy The Liquidator from a screenplay by Yeldham) and he would have been perfect for several of the lead roles. The same applies for Bryan Brown or Russell Crowe or Jack Thompson or Grant Taylor or any one of the many splendid actors this country has produced. It’s full of great parts.

In 1966, Yeldham, asked to address the controversy, said “there’s a local shyness about the RSL and attitudes to the Vietnam campaign. Not that it attacks the institution of Anzac Day. It is a study of old comrades who find they have carried memories beyond reality. But it is relevant to Australian life, and if anyone does produce it here, I’ll donate the fee to the Australian Writers’ Guild.”

This did not happen and still hasn’t happened. Instead of becoming acknowledged as the excellent piece of work it is, Reunion Day drifted off into obscurity until Susan Lever’s article gave it some much needed attention.

Yeldham moved past it. You have to overcome disappointment, to be a professional writer, even one as successful as he is. Reading his excellent memoir Beginning with an Empty Page I was struck just how many hurdles Yeldham had to overcome in his life: the early death of his mother, a totally unsympathetic father, a troubled relationship with his father’s new wife, a hostile cultural environment, financial challenges, marital hiccups (he was happily married for most of his life but his wife took off for a few months), family turmoil (his beloved brother David, a judge, committed suicide after being accused of pedophilia… just before a TV movie written by Peter Yeldham with a pedophilia subplot, Whipping Boy, was about to air), physical ailments, the general contempt for writers in the Australian film and TV industry, fights with directors and producers, widowhood.

But he plowed on, constantly adapting to not just survive but thrive, branching from radio (Address Unknown) to episodic TV (Emergency Ward 10, Shadow Squad), to TV plays (Thunder on the Snowy) to low budget features (The Comedy Man), to Harry Alan Towers films (Our Man in Marrakesh, Ten Little Indians), to blockbusters (The Liquidator, The Long Duel), to stage plays (Birds on the Wing, Fringe Benefits) to miniseries (1915, Captain James Cook, The Heroes), to Australian features (Age of Consent, Touch and Go), to novels (The Currency Lads, Dragons in the Forest).

(A personal aside: apart from Reunion Day, my own personal favourites of Yeldham’s output are Our Man in Marrakesh, a fun 1965 comedy thriller with Tony Randall imitating Cary Grant directed by fellow Aussie Don Sharp, and Heroes II, the 1992 miniseries that dramatised Operation Rimau).

As Yeldham writes in Beginning with an Empty Page, “with major disappointments… the only thing to do is pick yourself off the floor and write something else.” Yeldham’s career is a tribute to that.

Anyway, give Reunion Day a read. It deserves it.

The author would like to thank Susan Lever for her assistance with this article.

For more articles like this, read:

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