Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Big Client

May 14, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays looks at the ABC’s 1961 advertising industry drama, The Big Client.

Advertising agencies have traditionally been a great crucible of talent for Australian film and TV. The reasons are obvious – many of the skills for working in advertising are transferrable to drama, namely, the importance of being creative/being political/faking confidence/working to a budget/sucking up/developing a drinking problem/creating an awards system to give yourself a sense of validation, etc. Many people behind our most successful shows and films have an advertising background or even foreground: writers (Bryce Courtney, Pat Flower, Bob Ellis), directors (Ray Lawrence, Paul Middleditch, Fred Schepisi), producers (Michael Robertson, Philip Adams, Robert Stigwood) and actors (Cate “Tim Tams” Blanchett).

So, it’s surprising, in a way, that so few Australian TV shows and movies are set in the advertising world. It’s not as if Australians are hostile to stories that take place there – look at the success of Mad Men (aka the show that made a thousand baby boomer ad execs cry out “that was my idea…”). There are exceptions: The Gruen Transfer, of course; the 1985 film Bliss, and the TV sitcom 30 Seconds; the male juvenile in Dad and Dave Come to Town was an ad man (played very sympathetically by Billy Rayes – Ken G Hall came from publicity and had a soft spot for the breed). There was also the 1961 TV play The Big Client.

This was based on a script by the British team of Eric Paice and Malcolm Hulke (later a notable contributor to Dr Who), which had originally been filmed in England in 1959 under the direction of Ted (Wake in Fright) Kotcheff and starring Ian Bannen. The play was very well received – it was adapted for stage – and the ABC decided to film it in 1961.

The Big Client is set in a small British advertising firm, whose manager, Fred (Barry Lineman), is determined to secure the lucrative account for an American pharmaceutical company run by a ruthless millionaire (James Condon). Fred is a classic angry young man of the time, bitter at his lack of education and working class origins, and prepared to do whatever it takes: he blackmails a fraudster, betrays his best friend and fiancé, dobs in one colleague and misleads another, exposes a bad marriage, gives up his one chance at happiness just to land the client… There are numerous supporting characters, including the office secretary (Diana Perryman) who is unhappily married to Fred’s boss (Deryk Barnes), Fred’s crippled best friend (Alistair Duncan), Fred’s other bosses, one Jewish (Noel Brophy) the other a lazy playboy with a left wing past (Ric Hutton), a fraudster (Keith Buckley), and Fred’s possible true love (Pamela Page).

The writers were left wingers and apply an acid look at the advertising industry. This cynicism helps the piece age well (that and the fact that it is simply well written)… I’m surprised this was never turned into a feature, as it fits very neatly into the Angry-Young-Man-chasing-after-excess-in-soulless-London films made at the time (Room at the Top, Saturday Night Sunday Morning, I’ll Never Forget What’s-is-Name, Nothing But the Best); you can easily imagine how they could add swinging sixties sex and glamour to jazz it up for something starring Laurence Harvey/Stanley Baker/Albert Finney/Oliver Reed. People who love stories set in advertising firms will find all their trope boxes nicely ticked here: there’s chain-smoking execs getting stuck into the booze at the bar, seen-it all secretaries, intense sales sessions on the phone, propositions from married men to sassy career girls, poor but honest cripples, corporate betrayal, constant lying, and devastating realisations that the lure of money has cost you your soul but you go after it anyway. I enjoyed it tremendously.

The Australian production was directed by James Upshaw, a French-American former ballet dancer who moved to Australia when he married an Australian woman and got into television. He does a fine job, helped by a solid cast; it’s a particularly showy piece for Lineman, an actor who mostly worked in Britain but was out here at the time.  Once more, I wish the ABC had used their budget to film an Australian script instead, but at least this one is very well made, and makes for an entertaining TV play.

For more articles like this, read:

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

Annette Andre: My Brilliant Early Australian Career

Barry Creyton Live

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