Forgotten Australian TV Plays: Seagulls Over Sorrento

December 20, 2020
The latest in Stephen Vagg’s series of forgotten Australian TV plays looks at 1960’s Seagulls Over Sorrento.

Trivia time. What 1950s play by an Australian writer was a blockbuster success in London and Australia, flopped in New York, turned into an unsatisfactory Hollywood-financed film that lost money, adapted for British and Australian TV, and formed the basis for a flop musical?

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, right?

No, actually – Doll was turned into a successful opera, not a flop musical.

I’m talking about… Seagulls Over Sorrento.

To which most of you, presumably, will go “what the hell is that”?

Doll remains famous. It is still revived, studied, discussed, remembered.

Seagulls Over Sorrento is (mostly) forgotten.

Yet at one stage, it was a big deal. A very, very big deal.

The play was written by Hugh Hastings (1917-2004), an Australian actor and writer who moved to England in 1936 to further his career. During World War Two, Hastings served in the Royal Navy for several years, which provided him with much of the material for Seagulls Over Sorrento. This was Hastings’ first professionally produced play; after much rejection, it had a brief run in the provinces, before making its London debut in June 1950.

Sorrento was a comedy-drama about several sailors in the peacetime Royal Navy who have volunteered for hazardous duty on an island in Scapa Flow, just off the north coast of Scotland. Each sailor has a different reason for being there: Badger’s wife has left him, “Sprog” is an orphan, “Haggis” has lost a child, “Lofty” is escaping his torrid love-life, Hudson is a scientist on top secret business. During the course of the play, there is much gentle humour, and conflict with a bullying petty officer, Herbert; Hudson eventually dies in an accident involving torpedo experiments, Lofty clashes with Herbert over Sprog, and a new arrival, Cleland, turns out to be the man who cuckolded Badger.

Critics loved it – a contemporary review is here. Audiences responded even more enthusiastically, to put it mildly: Sorrento ran for over 1,500 performances, making it one of the most successful straight plays (i.e. non-musicals) in British theatre history.

Why was it so popular?

In hindsight, timing seems to have played a great part: the play came out only a few years after the war, when a large number of the population had been in the services (and many Britons were still under arms, with National Service, Korea, Malaya, etc), so they could relate to the characters. The focus on working class types in the Navy during peacetime had a certain freshness. Audiences appreciated the characters’ humour, warmth, loyalty, acts of defiance against petty tyrants, and acceptance of sudden death. The cast of the original London production was very strong, including John Gregson (later star of the film Genevieve), William Hartnell (later the first TV Dr Who), Bernard Lee (later M in the Bond films) and, most notably, Ronald Shiner, who played the leading role of Badger; Shiner had just finished a four-year run in another service comedy, Worm’s Eye View (and after Sorrento would appear in yet another one, Returned Heroes).

The play was presented on Broadway in 1952. Hastings himself helped direct and the cast included J. Pat O’Malley, Leslie Nielsen, a just-pre-On the Waterfront Rod Steiger, and future director Mark Rydell, which is pretty cool. Reviews were lukewarm and the production only lasted 12 performances in New York.

Many reviewers commented on the similarities between Sorrento and Mister Roberts, which came out around the same time: both were slice-of-life comedy drama stage plays with serious undertones about the navy. Mister Roberts was a huge success on Broadway but not in England; the reverse was the case for Seagulls Over Sorrento. Clearly, what was funny/moving in one country didn’t translate to the other.

Australian stage rights were picked up by JC Williamsons, the theatrical “firm” which dominated stage production Down Under in the early 20th century. The cast of the Australian production included William Hodge, a popular British comic who liked Australia so much he eventually settled here, and Gordon Chater, later famed for The Mavis Bramston Show. The show was well received by audiences and toured around the country for over a year.

The play was adapted for British TV in 1953, 1956 and 1961, with Shiner reprising his performance as Badger each time. It was also popular in English repertory and on radio; among those who appeared in various productions of Seagulls Over Sorrento over the years were John Osborne (who wrote part of Look Back in Anger while acting in the play in Morecambe), Harold Pinter, Peter Cushing and John Cleese.

Film rights were sold to the Boulting Brothers, John and Roy, for 10,000 pounds. The Boultings are remembered best for their very British comedies and thrillers, but were going through an “international” phase at the time (Sailor of the King, Run for the Sun) and tried to turn Seagulls Over Sorrento into something of appeal to American audiences.

Mindful of the play’s poor performance on Broadway, they reworked the material to feature more action and include several American characters. MGM provided finance and two of their contract stars: Gene Kelly (taking a break from dancing) and Jeff Richards (forgotten today, but then considered a potential star, coming off Seven Brides for Seven Brothers). For some reason (money? ego? schedules?), Ronald Shiner didn’t reprise his stage performance as Badger; Sid James stepped in instead. The guts of the play – the adventures of ordinary seamen – was still there, but was greatly truncated in order to make room for a whole new plot about the officers conducting the torpedo experiments: these characters, played by Kelly and John Justin, did not exist in the original play. There was also a new subplot added about the clash between American and British methods, personified by Kelly and Justin among the officers, and Sid James and Jeff Richards below decks.

In hindsight, this was a bad decision. I don’t think there was anything wrong with adding action or even Americans (for instance, turning Badger’s nemesis, Clelland, into an American was fine), but taking the focus away from ordinary seamen and emphasising the officers was totally contrary to the DNA of Seagulls Over Sorrento. The Boultings would have been better off “internationalising” the play by keeping the plot the same, adding some action sequences, and getting Badger to be played by a star familiar to Americans (like, say, Charles Laughton or Robert Newton).

The Gene Kelly-MGM Seagulls of Sorrento was a hybrid, part-action film, part-abridged version of the play; audiences sensed it and stayed away. Still, it’s not a bad watch, with pleasing photography and location work, and superb performances from Sid James and Bernard Lee (Lofty).

Which (finally) brings us to the Australian TV version of the play, shot in 1960.

The bulk of local TV drama at the time was made by the ABC, but the commercial stations occasionally joined in the fun. Seagulls was made by Crawford Productions, who in a few years would become legendary for producing Homicide, but at the time were better known as a radio production company. Finance came from the Melbourne TV station HSV-7, who had already presented an early Australian TV version of a stage hit, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. (Peter Randall, the then-program director of HSV-7, was an early champion of local drama).

Seagulls Over Sorrento was broadcast live in Melbourne on 1 May 1960; a recording was made and shown in Sydney on 12 June. Half the cast had appeared in stage productions of the play, notably Bill Hodgson, who reprised his performance as Badger – according to contemporary accounts, this was the 594th time he had played the role. A young Stuart Wagstaff, later famed for Blankety Blanks and the like, played Cleland. It was produced by Dorothy Crawford, and directed by Alf Potter, a pioneer television helmer best remembered for his influential outside broadcasts of VFL games.

You can watch a copy of the 1960 Seagulls Over Sorrento via the National Film and Sound Archive.

To be frank, it comes across like a filmed stage play rather than something properly adapted for TV. It’s full of bits where you watch (or at least I did) and go “that probably worked better if I saw it in a theatre”. Dramatic events like Hudson’s death and Lofty’s final act of heroism happen off screen and Potter seems reluctant to use close ups, a prejudice which marred much early Australian TV drama. There are some technical oddities, too; for instance, the play starts for about a minute, then it cuts to a lady on a couch introducing the play, then cuts back to the play. Shadows from actors are frequently visible.

But after a while I got into the rhythm of the production and enjoyed it a lot. The actors are very comfortable in their parts, everyone feels well cast, and the play has a genuine feel for the camaraderie and conflict among working class sailors (which makes the changes to the 1954 version all the more bewildering).

There’s a striking subplot where the young seaman, “Sprog” (played by John Normann) tells his older colleague Lofty (Peter Aanensen) that Petty Office Herbert (Brian James) has been trying to lure him to Herbert’s cabin; when Lofty asks Herbert to lay off, Herbert insinuates that Lofty wants the kid, leading to Lofty thumping the officer. It’s remarkable to watch what is clearly a gay sub-plot in a 1960 Australian television production. Number 96 deserves a lot of credit for its pioneering depiction of queer characters, but they were not the first cab off the rank. The early Australian TV plays featured several members of the LGBTI community on screen, albeit all portrayed negatively (the psychotic killers in Rope (1957), the predatory officer in Seagulls Over Sorrento (1960), the drug addicted poets in A Season in Hell (1964)).

Reviewing the Melbourne broadcast, “Janus”, then TV critic for The Age was snippy saying “it was adequately presented but lacked atmosphere. The players were scared of the TV cameras for the first half hour.” Mind you, Janus was a notoriously bitchy critic, and if that upsets any of his relatives who happen to read this, I apologise but I’ve had to trudge through years of his mean-spirited reviews, and they are hard work. (He wasn’t as bad as Frank Roberts of The Bulletin, though, who was every cliche of a bitter, twisted TV critic you could imagine.) Val Marshall of the Sunday Sydney Morning Herald was more enthusiastic, saying the production “came off pretty well” and had “an excellent cast”.

Hugh Hastings never managed to repeat his success with Seagulls Over Sorrento. He tried: he wrote plays, screenplays, turned Sorrento into a musical (Scapa Flow), acted, performed in revue. He never came close – his one blockbuster was his first time out. Still, better one hit than none.

For all its flaws, I am glad that there is an Australian TV version of Seagulls Over Sorrento. It was written by an Australian, it was an early production from Crawfords, it features a mostly Australian cast, it is a far more reliable record of the play than the 1954 movie. Copies are available via the National Film and Sound Archive if you want to check it out.

Credits

Crawford Productions for HSV-7

Director: Alf Potter

Produced – Dorothy Crawford

Associate producer – Ian Crawford

Cast

William Hodge as Badger

Brian James as P.O. Herbert

Peter Aanensen as Lofty

Frank Taylor as Haggis

Donald Crosby as Hudson

John Normann as Sprog

Carl Bleazey as Lt Commander Redmond

Mark Kelly as Sub Lt Granger

Stuart Wagstaff as Cleland

The author wishes to thank Simon Drake and Steph Carter of the National Film and Sound Archive for their assistance with this piece.

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

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