Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Cell

May 26, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays looks at a tale of nuns behaving badly: 1968’s The Cell.

There was (is?) an old Australian TV saying that “nuns always rate”. And when you look back, the Australian public has displayed an enthusiasm to observe the adventures of that brethren: All Saints, Brides of Christ, The Flying Nun, The Sound of Music, Heaven Knows Mr Allison. I’m not sure how the 1968 TV play The Cell rated, but it deserved to do well, because it’s a fascinating, thought-provoking piece of television.

It was made as an episode of Seek and Destroy, a short-lived anthology at the ABC, which consisted of four BBC plays and one Australian play – The Cell was the Australian play. It was based on a 1966 stage play written by Robert Wales, a Scotsman who emigrated to Australia after the war and became a grazier then writer. The play had been quite successful for an Australian drama in the 1960s, being performed in a number of cities, and filmed by British TV (as A Swallow’s Nest) in 1968.

The Cell concerns an order of nuns who run a school for delinquent girls – a concept so strong that it would make an amazing TV series. The emphasis is not so much on the students, however, but the nuns – in particular, an attempt to by the mother superior, Mother Denis (June Winchester), to move the charismatic but troublesome Sister Catherine (Ruth Cracknell) from her job of being in charge of supervising the girls. Matters are complicated by the vague Sister Lenora (Betty Lucas), a Sister Catherine ally, and ambitious Sister Matthew (Shirley Cameron), who is to take over Sister Catherine’s job.

It’s a classic workplace drama in other words, a battle of wills between two nuns, which takes an unexpected twist when Mother Denis winds up dead… possibly killed by Sister Catherine performing a sort of voodoo ceremony/poison. That sounds weird, I know, but it works, helped by Cracknell’s amazing performance as a nun having a breakdown… but not necessarily wrong (Mother Denis is shown to be quite controlling).

In order to assist Cracknell’s performance, director John Croyston elected to shoot the whole play in one take – which was how all TV plays used to be done, but by 1968 had become rare; he was rewarded with superb work not just by Cracknell but all the cast. Don Crosby plays the only sizeable male role, a visiting priest. One of the delinquent students is played by Sue Costin, a model and actor who was briefly a regular on the TV series Riptide (1969) and who committed suicide in a Bondi motel in 1971. Another student was played by Michelle Fawdon, who later won an AFI for Cathy’s Child. I wish more had been done with the student characters but then it only clocks in at 70 minutes and the meaty stuff is all with the nuns.

I’m surprised that The Cell isn’t performed on stage more – it’s got fantastic roles for women, is not inherently expensive once you’ve got your nun’s habits, and tackles all sorts of interesting themes (the notion of power, doing good, how to punish, etc). I’ve got no idea what happened to Robert Wales after this – presumably he had to focus on earning a living. At least he got to see The Cell be given a very good small screen treatment.

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