Forgotten Australian TV plays: Romeo and Juliet

March 8, 2021
In the latest in his series on Australian TV plays, Stephen Vagg looks at a time when the ABC went young and funky over Shakespeare.

Almost thirty years before Baz Luhrmann stunned the world with Romeo + Juliet, there was another Australian film of Shakespeare’s classic play. This was Romeo and Juliet, a 1967 feature length TV production made by the ABC in Melbourne.

“Never heard of it,” (I assume) you reply.

That’s not surprising. It’s not available to rent. It wasn’t widely repeated. It wasn’t a ratings sensation at the time.

But it did exist, I recently saw a copy of it, and found it charming.

It was part of Love and War, a short-lived anthology series broadcast on ABC TV from September to October 1967. Premiering on Wednesday nights, this consisted of seven standalone TV plays with the unifying theme of – you guessed it – love and war.  The other entries were:

Man of Destiny based on the play by George Bernard Shaw – starring Ann (Madge from Neighbours) Charleston

Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance, based on the play by John Arden

O’Flaherty VC, based on another play by Shaw

The Brass Butterfly, based on a play by Willian Golding

Intersection, from a (I think original) script by Australian author Michael Boddy, starring Helen Morse

Construction, from a script by Australian John Croyston

The Romeo and Juliet adaptation – the last episode of Love and War to air – was made at ABC’s Melbourne studios under the direction of Oscar Whitbread. The ABC had filmed a number of Shakespeare adaptations in the 1950s and 1960s, including versions of The Tempest, Richard II, and two goes at Macbeth, but this was the first time they tried Romeo and Juliet.

Whitbread decided to take a youth focused approach, which is now considered de rigour for this play but was less common at the time. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film of Romeo and Juliet was highly acclaimed for using teens in the title roles, but Whitbread’s production – which was broadcast before Zeffirelli’s was shot – took the same approach. “Using young actors makes the story more acceptable,” said  Whitbread at the time. “The basic thing with teenagers is that they tend to become isolated from their parents and society when they fall in love. But do we, as adults, understand the purity of their love?”

Nineteen-year-old Sean Scully, already a showbiz veteran of many years, played Romeo, with 18 year old Liza Goddard cast as Juliet. (If you ever see it, you’ll recognise both actors by the way, they’ve been in heaps of stuff: Scully in Sons and Daughters, Bellbird, John Dingwall’s Phobia, and everything really; Goddard is perhaps best known here for her stints as Clancy on Skippy). The support cast included names well known at the time (like Syd Conabere as inventor-of-the-world’s-worst-plan Friar Laurence) and others who became well known (like Helmut Bakaitis, who plays Paris).

The production is charming, anchored by two excellent lead performances. Scully is superb as the moody, moony Romeo, very well matched by Goddard as the impulsive Juliet. Oscar Whitbread’s direction is dynamic and exciting in the best way; the camera moves around swiftly, but knows when to slow down and always pulls in to a close up at the right time (many directors of early Australian TV were shy of using close ups for some reason; not Whitbread). Scully, who had worked with Whitbread on a production of A Phoenix Too Frequent, told me “Oscar was a lovely guy. I wouldn’t have any sort of black mark against Oscar, he was lovely.”

It’s quite a sexy adaptation – there’s lots of people kissing and Romeo and Juliet are shown in bed together (I guess it was 1967 by now). Of the support cast, Helmut Bakaitis comes off best – the role of Paris can be a thankless one, but here he gets plenty of screen time and makes the most of it.

I don’t want to pretend the production is without flaws – some of the other performances don’t quite land, a few fight scenes could have done with another take – but it is done with taste, feeling and sensitivity, and the ending packs the requisite punch. And it’s kind of cool that the ABC did a youth-driven film of this play three decades before Baz.

The author would like to thank Sean Scully for his help with this article.

For more articles like this, read:

60 Australian TV Plays of the 1950s & ‘60s

Annette Andre: My Brilliant Early Australian Career

Barry Creyton Live

Forgotten Australian TV Plays – The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: A Tongue of Silver

The Flawed Landmark: Burst of Summer

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Grey Nurse Said Nothing

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: You Can’t Win ‘Em All

Forgotten Australian TV plays: Marriage Lines

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Merchant of Venice

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: Seagulls Over Sorrento

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: Noeline Brown

Ten Female Drama Writers from the First Decade of Australian TV | FilmInk


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