Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Big Killing

April 27, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on early Australian TV plays focuses on a 1965 effort from the ABC, The Big Killing, starring cuddly Sydney newsreader Roger Climpson as a homicidal maniac.

“Oh no dear chap. I want you to murder my wife.”

That line of dialogue does not appear in The Big Killing. But it’s exactly the sort of line that would appear in that sort of play.

Some context…

One of the biggest influences on early Australian TV was Dial M for Murder. Frederick Knott’s masterpiece of murder, blackmail and quips began its life as a 1952 TV play before being adapted for stage and then into the famous Hitchcock film. It was so successful – and cheap to produce – that a rush of imitators soon followed (and Dial M for Murder certainly followed in the footsteps of other writers). For a time in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it seemed like you could not turn on a TV or stumble into a regional theatre without watching some tale consisting of a well-dressed upper class male psychopath wittily plot the murder of his wife/mother/mistress/co-worker/neighbour while pouring drinks in a swish living room set, only to be thwarted by blackmail/incompetence/another murder/betrayal.

This sub-genre proved very popular among the makers of early Australian TV plays. In hindsight, it’s not hard to understand why – there’s always a market for a decent thriller, and the tales were economical to produce (a few actors, one or two sets), not politically controversial, and had usually been road-tested via a radio or stage production. There were Dial M for Murder-esque Australian TV plays based on British plays by British writers (Write Me a Murder, Rope), British plays from Australian writers living in Britain (It’s the Geography That Counts, In Writing, Funnel Web), and Australian plays by British writers living in Australia (Heart Attack, Blue Murder). There was also The Big Killing, a copy of which I saw recently, and the topic for today’s piece.

The Big Killing was based on a 1961 stage play by English writer Philip Mackie (1918-85), who is probably best remembered for creating the TV series Danger Man and for writing the play on which the film The Whole Truth (1958) was based; he did heaps of other stuff as well.

The Big Killing tells the story of a former race car driver, Peter Ashbury, who lives beyond his means in a fancy house with his wife Mary. He makes a bet with his drunken neighbour Charles to murder the latter’s wife Liz, even though Peter is having an affair with her. Peter goes ahead and kills Liz and tries to blame the crime on Charles, but complications ensue.

The ABC bought the rights to the play for Australian television. Noel Robinson wrote the script adaptation, which relocated the action to Australia – something which occasionally happened in Australian TV plays based on overseas story material (Bodgie, An Enemy of the People, Bertrand). The Big Killing wasn’t particularly Australianised, though – while the setting is ostensibly Sydney’s Palm Beach, the action really takes place in the Dial M for Murder never-never land of stylish cads, swish living rooms and adulterous wives (other plays along this line set in Australia – Heart Attack, Funnel Web and Blue Murder – also had the same feel).

The production was made in Sydney and directed by James Upshaw, who worked mostly on variety shows, notably Lorrae Desmond’s, but also made a bit of drama. He does a very good job here, incidentally; the pace is smooth, the handling sure.

And it’s a fun watch. This is partly due to Mackie’s story, which is full of decent twists and turns, but mostly because of the splendid cast. There’s Ron Haddrick as a troublesome neighbour, June Thody and Benita Hardy as unfortunate wives, Nigel Lovell as a boozehead, Stewart Ginn (one of those actors who always looked in their fifties, even when he was in his twenties) as a dogged inspector and Tommy “go-go-mobile” Dysart as Ginn’s offsider. Most of all there’s Roger Climpson, who plays the murderous, adulterous Peter.

Climpson is best remembered for presenting shows like The is Your Life and reading Sydney news for almost thirty years, but he began his career as an actor, mostly in radio and theatre, plus a role in the 1957 Australian TV version of Rope. The Big Killing marked his return to acting after an eight year break doing newsreading/presenting – he left Channel Nine following a money dispute – and he’s wonderful, his smooth voice and suave good looks being deployed to excellent James Mason/George Sanders effect. Climpson did some more acting – he was in some Homicide episodes as well as the TV plays Twelfth Night and The Affair – before returning to newsreading in 1967, this time at Channel Seven. For the next four decades he focused on presenter/news/announcer work, but I bet part of him really missed acting because in The Big Killing he’s clearly having the time of his life.

I’m not going to lie – to enjoy this TV play you have to be the sort of person who likes plays where characters say things like “I seem to have under-estimated you, Inspector”. But if you do, you’ll have a great time.

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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