Forgotten Australian TV plays: The Astronauts

July 11, 2021
The latest in Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays looks at a Melbourne-shot sci-fi take on the space race from 1960, The Astronauts.

Writers of sci-fi TV have faced an uphill battle in Australia – it is a genre that has never enjoyed the prominence of, say, cop/medical/family dramas. Still, science fiction has carved out its own niche here, starting with The Astronauts, the first (to my knowledge) locally written Australian sci-fi drama for the small screen.

The author was Don Houghton, an Englishman who had moved to Australia and was working in radio. He was inspired to write The Astronauts by the announcement of the Mercury Seven in 1959 – the group of seven astronauts selected to fly spacecraft for Project Mercury, the first proper American astronauts (a tale so memorably immortalised in The Right Stuff… and you could argue The Astronauts is Australia’s Right Stuff only, well, fictitious).

The plot concerns a space program based at the Commonwealth of Australia Rocket Research. It is run by a German scientist (Kurt Ludescher), who is supervising four candidates in line to be the first man into space: an Englishman (Tony Brown), Australian (Alan Hopgood) and two Americans (David Mitchell, Mark Kelly). One of the men has a secret.

I have got to come clean here – I’ve only been able to access the first 30 minutes of this hour-long drama. What I saw I enjoyed enormously, though: I mean, the concept of an Australian space program is instantly likeable, to me at any rate, and the story was progressing logically, with strong stakes and interesting characters. When the men sit around joking, trying not to talk about death, it even had slight Only Angels Have Wings vibes.

The Astronaut was broadcast live from the ABC’s studios at Ripponlea on 18 May. Early in the running time, a conversation in a neighbouring studio between two ABC employees about the recent marriage of Princess Margaret was picked up accidentally and broadcast to the viewers. A spokesman for the ABC explained the following day that the wrong switch was turned on and said that it was “a human error for which the ABC offers its apology for any inconvenience.” These sorts of mistakes only happened rarely in Australian live drama – The Astronauts was probably the most notorious. Still, getting busted talking about the then-most-scandalous royal was pretty cool.

Also cool was the fact that The Astronauts was later purchased for screening in the USA on the CBS network as part of the International Hour, which also showed the Melbourne-shot TV plays Scent of Fear and Outpost. (I’m assuming they’d fixed up the sound issue by then).

Don Houghton’s subsequent credits for Australian television were few, despite (because?) of the key role he played in helping establish the Australian Writers’ Guild; annoyed, he moved to England where he enjoyed great success working on shows such as Emergency Ward Ten and Doctor Who, plus writing several early 1970s movies for Hammer (Dracula 1972AD, Shatter, etc); he also married actor Pik-Sen Lim, a Malaysian actor who worked extensively on British television.

The ABC went on to make several other sci-fi television plays in the 1960s, only for whatever reason all of them were from overseas scripts (Ray Rigby’s The End Begins, Nigel Kneale’s The Road, Anthony Church and Marielaine Double’s Campaign for One). There were a fair few locally written sci-fi TV series though, such as Wandjina, The Stranger, Phoenix Five, The Interpretaris, and Vega 4. This established a pattern in the Australian industry when it came to sci-fi… (namely, an attitude of “for kids yes, for adults no”), although the attitude seems to be changing with shows such as Glitch and Bloom. Still, in 1960 the ABC really did make a grown-up space race drama set in Australia and shot in Melbourne: The Astronauts.

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