A notable feature of Australian screenwriters is how many successful ones have been foreigners. They include scribes from America (Everett de Roche, Justin Monjo), Austria (Sonia Borg), Britain (Frank Harvey, Pat Flower), and Canada (Della Foss Paine). There’s no reason you have to be Australian to write a good Australian script… but I do think it helps a lot to have moved here: the writers I just listed were migrants, not tourists.
The leading writer of Australian TV plays in the 1950s and early 1960s (a very small field, admittedly) was from England: George F. Kerr. Kerr had an unusual background; he originally studied to be an accountant, enlisted when war broke out and wound up spending five years as a POW in Europe (interestingly, an Australian who had great success in England as a TV writer, Iain MacCormick, was also a former POW). After demobilization, Kerr tried his hand at writing a TV play which led to an in-house job at the BBC. Kerr emigrated to Australia in 1957 where he worked for the ABC as their inhouse script editor as well as penning his own scripts for TV and radio; he also wrote stage plays, one of which, Hunger of a Girl, played at the Independent in Sydney.
From 1957-61, Kerr earned more stand-alone TV credits than any other writer in Australia (the writers of the TV serials – Autumn Affair, Stormy Petrel, The Story of Peter Grey, etc – would have clocked up greater overall numbers). He adapted the works of other writers’ works for the screen, such as Barbara Vernon’s The Multi Coloured Umbrella, Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland’s A Little South of Heaven, and an Australian-set version of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. He did the true-crime series Killer in Close Up, and adapted his own stage and radio plays in a number of genres: thrillers (Blue Murder, Heart Attack), family dramas (Jenny), war stories (She’ll Be Right).
Kerr was certainly the most prominent early writer of Australian TV: he was profiled in magazines and newspapers, he wrote articles offering opinions on drama, and penned letters to the editor defending plays he’d adapted that were criticised. Kerr returned to England in the early 1960s, resuming his British TV career; his credits seem to tail off in the 1970s and I have no idea what happened to him, although IMDB says he died in 1996.
Today, I would like to discuss Kerr’s TV play She’ll Be Right. This was probably the most distinguished production he was involved with in Australia – it was based on Kerr’s radio play which was Australia’s official entry in 1961 for the Prix Italia, a prestigious international Italian television and radio award. She’ll Be Right was filmed by the ABC at their Melbourne studios in 1962 under the direction of Christopher Muir.
It tells the story of an Australian woman (played by Mary Reynolds) and her American boyfriend (Alan Hopgood), who are holidaying in a small town in present-day France. They, along with a tourist from Switzerland (John Royle), come across a memorial to resistance fighters executed during the war, including an Australian soldier, “Nugget” Wilson (Kevin Hanily). A visiting Englishman, Guthrie (Fred Parslow) reveals himself to be an old comrade of Nugget’s and he explains what happened.
She’ll Be Right is an odd play. It’s a sort of Laura/Citizen Kane-like flashback tale investigating the past of a dead person, with different vignettes making up a composite picture of said person… only all the flashbacks are from the point of view of the one narrator, Guthrie, and all the vignettes tend to tell the same thing: that Nugget was a likeable, uncomplicated knockabout bloke who was brave. There’s little dramatic tension or mystery or complexity in any of the characterisations. Nugget’s mate (Syd Conabere) was a good bloke, his mother (Agnes Dobson) was a dear old thing, Nugget was brave, you have to kill people in war and that’s rough, Guthrie has survivor’s guilt, the end.
Look, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed watching it – the sheer novelty of a 1960s story about an Australian escaping from a French POW camp and joining the resistance got it over the line for me. It’s hard to resist a story – for me any rate – where actors run around a studio backlot with machine guns wearing berets assassinating members of the Wehrmacht.
The cast is of interest. It offers a rare TV acting role for Kevin Hanily, who reminded me of Josh Lawson, even though the two don’t look alike; Hanily went into producing and production management, running the Seymour Centre for many years; he also battled alcoholism and spent time in a monastery. Fred Parslow was a mainstay of Melbourne theatre for several decades. Alan Hopgood later wrote Alvin Purple (among many, many other things). John Royle was an announcer. Mary Muchesne, who plays a member of the French resistance, was a dancer.
But, it’s got to be said, She’ll Be Right is not a very good TV play, mostly due to the quality of Kerr’s script. Exposition is bald, reveals are confusing, there are too many characters who don’t seem to serve any purpose. A large number of moments that would be exciting to see are talked about instead of being dramatised – Nugget escaping from the POW camp, for instance, or the scene where he’s captured, or where a German is shot. I read a copy of Kerr’s original radio play which flows far more smoothly – for instance, that is all clearly told from Guthrie’s point of view, the jumping around in time is done with finesse, whereas in the TV adaptation it’s all clunky. I’m not sure how much of this is the fault of Kerr and how much is due to the handling of director Chris Muir who doesn’t do particularly good job here. And I’m sure Frederick Parslow was a very good actor but in this, he plays his part in the one mode (guilt torn) which gets wearying over time.
She’ll Be Right is the only George F Kerr play I have seen filmed, but I have also read his scripts for The Multi Coloured Umbrella, A Little South of Heaven, Blue Murder, Jenny and Enemy of the People. The first two are perfectly fine adaptations of their source material – a line edit rather than an adaptation. (You can read a copy of them here and here. The other three scripts have one thing in common, or two, rather: they are set in Australia, but they don’t read like it, and the characters don’t sound or feel Australian. She’ll Be Right doesn’t feel terribly Australian either, even though there are several Aussie characters and scenes set here.
I don’t mean to be overly critical: I know how hard it is to write something decent, especially for network TV. All of Kerr’s scripts I have read are with interest: The Multi Coloured Umbrella and A Little South of Heaven are faithful renditions of works by major Australian writers; Jenny is a rare TV play from the time that tells the story of a teenager, and has a scene where she encounters beatniks (!); Blue Murder has a theatre critic as hero and genuinely clever twists; Enemy of the People sees Ibsen transfer quite well to Australia (it’s a really fascist play but that’s Ibsen’s fault rather than Kerr’s).
I am sure George F Kerr brought a lot to the table in terms of early Australian TV drama. And I sincerely hope that if any old relatives, friends of Mr Kerr read this, they don’t get upset. But the fact is, he was brought out here to Tell Us How To Do It, and when he was out here he Told Us How To Do It, giving a lot of lectures on how to write TV drama, as well as judging competitors and getting his own scripts on air instead of Australian ones… and, based on what I have read, I’m not sure he was that good a writer himself. His scripts don’t compare to the work of Australian screenwriters working in TV at the time like Rex Rienits, Peter Yeldham, Alan Seymour, Oriel Grey, Pat Hooker, Bruce Stewart and Pat Flower.
I don’t want this to come across as xenophobic, truly – again, I stress, many fabulous writers of Australian scripts came from overseas. But those writers would make a commitment to Australia, they got the country in their blood. Kerr never could. For instance, he wrote every episode of the first Australian anthology TV series, Killer in Close Up, a dramatisation of famous trials; every trial Kerr selected was from England, and when asked why he didn’t pick an Australian trial, Kerr said he could not find one “sufficiently documented” (this, in a country which gave us trials involving the Makins, Ned Kelly, the Norfolk Island mutineers, the Borgia of Botany, George Dean, the mad dentist of Wynyard Square… Kerr says he was going to do a South Australian one but it was not made. You can’t have that attitude when writing about a country.
But then, it was the 1950s, when cultural decision makers assumed that foreigners did it better and we had a rash of mediocre scripts about Australia from screenwriters who were good in their home country: John Dighton (the film of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll), Alexander Baron (The Siege of Pinchgut), Bill Lipscomb (1957’s Robbery Under Arms), Harry Kleiner (1962’s Kangaroo).. and George F. Kerr. Still, she’ll be right. It did turn out alright in the end for Australia. When we learned we may as well do things ourselves.
For more articles like this, read: