World War One stories tend to fall into either of two camps in the Anglosphere: downbeat tales of trench warfare in the European theatre, full of mud, gas, tin hats and endless slaughter; or stirring adventures set in the Middle East, with horses, sand dunes and derring-do. The Case of Private Hamp, filmed by the ABC at their Gore Hill Studios in 1963, falls firmly into the former category.
It was based on a 1955 James Landsale Hodson novel, Return to the Wood, which was adapted for TV, theatre and radio, as well as the 1964 feature film King and Country, directed by Joseph Losey with Dirk Bogarde and Tom Courtenay.
The novel was British, and concerned British soldiers, so it seems a little odd now that it was adapted by the national broadcaster. However, in 1963 it was more common for Australian TV drama to be based on British source material rather than Australian.
Indeed, until the 1970s Australian TV networks displayed a surprising reticence to make drama that dealt with our involvement in the war. I say “surprising” because one would think war topics were a natural subject for dramatisation – they were important culturally, reflected the nation’s history, and offered a plethora of rich story material. And there were some Australian war related stories on local TV in the 1960s including adaptations of well-regarded plays (Rusty Bugles, She’ll Be Right, The One Day of the Year) and novels (My Brother Jack), a pilot for a series that was not picked up (The Coastwatchers), a tale shot in New Guinea (The Silver Backed Brushes) and early takes on the Vietnam War (Objector, Shadow on the Wall). But not that many – Australian producers were just as likely to make TV plays that that focused on Englishmen or Americans under arms (eg Seagulls Over Sorrento, The Small Victory, Act of Violence, A Fourth for Bridge, A Sleep of Prisoners, In the Zone, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, A Piece of Ribbon, One Morning Near Troodos).
Even more tellingly, and a little embarrassingly, in the 1960s British TV filmed as many plays about the Australian war experience as Australian TV. These included works such as Reunion Day (about Australian veterans celebrating Anzac Day), Goodbye Johnny (the story of the retreat from the Gallipoli Campaign), Beachhead (from a script by legendary Australian writer George Johnston), The Naked Island (an adaptation of the classic Australian POW memoir), and The Tilted Screen (about Japanese war brides in Australia). Indeed, the English production of Reunion Day – based on a magnificent script by Peter Yeldham – was bought for screening in Australia, then “banned” on the grounds it was considered too offensive. Maybe that was the issue: there was an extra sensitivity about Australia’s war record in the 1960s. So, we had no stories about Kokoda, or Gallipoli, or Breaker Morant, or the Cowra Breakout, or the Lighthorse at Beersheba, or the Rats of Tobruk, or the women at home, or the Eureka Stockade, or Australian POWs overseas, or the Castle Hill uprising, or the bombing of Darwin, or battles with First Nations people… none of the stories, in other words, that would prove popular with local audiences in the 1970s and 1980s.
And so, to The Case of Private Hamp. Set in France in 1917, it tells the story of a British officer, Captain Hargreaves (Ric Hutton) assigned to defend a soldier, Private Hamp (Edward Hepple), being court-martialed for desertion. The accused is not a bad person – he has shown courage under fire, he has simply snapped – but the Powers That Be want to make an example and are determined to have him executed.
It’s hard to go wrong with this sort of material and The Case of Private Hamp is very well done – the drama is strong, and leads up to an emotionally devastating conclusion. It is anchored by some excellent sets (from Jack Montgomery) and superb performance by Edward Hepple (an actor I was unfamiliar with but who has been in heaps of stuff) as the accused. Colin Dean directs with customary sensitivity and the all-male cast is full of interesting actors like Ron Haddrick and John Gregg.
The play is held back by a few unfortunate moments: Ric Hutton seems to be engaging in some outrageous upstaging in his early scenes with Hepple, doing all sorts of business with cigarettes that constantly pull focus (maybe I’m being unfair, but I can’t help feeling Hutton was playing tricks because he knew Hepple was going to get all the sympathy). There are also some attention-distracting moustaches, particularly from Rhod Walker who plays the Court Martial President; I’m sure they were true to period, but for me they spill a little into Blackadder the Fourth territory.
It’s a shame that the piece couldn’t have been adapted to include some Australian content. The Australian army didn’t execute any deserters in World War One, it’s true, but at least two Australians serving with the New Zealand army were executed.
Still, it is a powerful and moving piece of television and makes a fascinating counter piece to the 1964 Joseph Losey film. Copies are relatively easy to source, available through the National Film and Sound Archive viewing centre.
The author would like to thank Simon Drake and Stephanie Carter of the NFSA for their assistance with this piece.
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