If you asked an average Australian of 1965 if they’d heard of an Australian stage play, the most likely answer (well, apart from “no”) would have been “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll”. The second would probably have been “Rusty Bugles”, aka “the play that preceded the Doll but was then overshadowed by it”.
Rusty Bugles had its stage premiere at the Independent Theatre, Sydney, in 1948. It was written by Sumner Locke Elliot, a then-young but already-highly-experienced radio actor and writer who would go on to become a top TV scriptwriter in America (The Grey Nurse Said Nothing) and best -selling novelist (Careful He Might Hear You). Elliot had long dreamed of writing a hit play – he was a fixture for many years at the Independent Theatre – and prior to Rusty Bugles had turned out a number of slick, Broadway-inspired tales for the stage, none of which particularly hit the public’s fancy.
Rusty Bugles was completely different to other things he had written: a plotless account about Australian soldiers stuck in an isolated supply base in the Northern Territory during the war. They squabble, moan, joke, deal with a petty sergeant, call home, play cards; nothing really much happens – some soldiers go, others stay, two men become friends (perhaps more), another has a breakdown, some are cuckolded back home but can’t do anything about it. The play definitely doesn’t fall into the tradition of the “well made play” like The Doll does (which is perhaps why it isn’t revived as much these days). Still, the public responded to Rusty Bugles in enormous numbers (well, enormous for an Australian stage piece); at a time when the war was fresh in everyone’s minds, audiences appreciated its honesty, accuracy, humour and heart. Plot doesn’t always matter.
Rusty Bugles would have seemed a natural for television adaptation by the ABC (culturally significant, self-contained, high profile source material, etc etc), but this did not happen until 1965. Maybe, there was trouble securing the rights. There could have been apprehension about the lack of story (which matters more on screen than stage, where the energy of live performance can get you by). Concerns about the language were possibly an issue: Rusty Bugles was famously banned for obscenity by the NSW Chief Secretary, days after it opened in Sydney, and was only allowed back on stage once a few discrete trims were made; that sort of controversy can scare network executives.
Whatever difficulties were involved were eventually sorted out and Rusty Bugles was filmed at ABC’s Gore Hill studios in 1965. The director was Alan Burke, who had recently returned from a stint in Britain (where he helmed a production of Ruth Park’s Harp in the South for British TV). Burke was an ideal person to work on a TV version of Rusty Bugles, having directed a stage production of the play in 1949. The script adaption was written by John Warwick, who was fairly faithful to the source material, apart from toning down the language.
The TV version of Rusty Bugles captures the essence of the play – the camaraderie, humour, bickering. The lack of story does make it drag occasionally, especially over 75 minutes, and there are a lot of characters to keep track of. At times, I wondered if the production would not have benefited from a less faithful adaptation, which merged together some of the characters. But then that would not be Rusty Bugles.
The cast includes the heavyset comedian and musician Jack Allan, who plays the cuckolded Mac; Kerry Francis as the city slicker Rod (the Sumner Locke Elliot surrogate – Francis is probably too old for the part); Guy Le Claire as the trouble-making Darky (the role played by Lloyd Berrell in the original stage production); Robert McDarra, who was so good in the feature film 27A (1974) and who died relatively young from alcoholism, as the bossy sergeant; Graham Rouse, whose face will be familiar from years of guest spots, as Vic, who is keen to see action, and has a bromance with Ron; and Mark Edwards, who later had a stint as a leading man in British films like Blood from Mummy’s Tomb, as a soldier. The most effective performance comes from Charles Little, who plays Ken Falcon, a soldier who never talks (they call him “Dean Maitland”, as in “The Silence of Dean Maitland”) and has a nervous breakdown.
There are some beautiful moments of silence and reflection – Charles Little leaning his head against books in the library, Kerry Francis standing in the rain at the end. More of these would have worked wonders; ditto more close ups to emphasise key emotional moments and dramatisations of events described that would’ve been good to actually see (eg. why not show Ken’s nervous breakdown?).
Rusty Bugles was never turned into a feature film – apparently Tim Burstall considered doing it in the 1970s when he wanted to make a “male bonding film” but he elected to adapt The Last of the Knucklemen instead. The play was filmed by the ABC again in 1980, with Alan Burke producing and Graham Rouse once more in the cast. The colour photography in the latter does not seem to suit the story as much as the black and white photography for the 1965 version; certainly, reviews for the earlier adaptation were superior.
The 1965 Rusty Bugles isn’t the definitive version of the play, but it’s an effective adaptation, a worthy record of a play that is vitally important to our nation’s theatre history.
For more articles like this, read: