Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Drover’s Wife

June 28, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays turns to one that perhaps is not a play, but is a notable achievement: a 1968 adaptation of Henry Lawson’s The Drovers Wife... the same short story that Leah Purcell has recently turned into a feature film (as well as a play and novel).

Henry Lawson has gone in and out of fashion with filmmakers over the years. Raymond Longford made movies based on Trooper Campbell and Taking His Chance in 1914; Beaumont Smith filmed Joe and While the Billy Boils in the 1920s; a segment of Three in One (1957) was based on The Union Buries Its Dead. Then in 1968, the ABC filmed Lawson’s short story The Drover’s Wife for television.

The Drover’s Wife was published in 1892. It’s a beautiful, if depressing, tale about a woman stuck looking after her four kids (one of them a baby) in an isolated rural shack while her husband goes droving to bring in cash; she has to deal with various problems (the weather, a snake, her kids), and reflects on her life. Lawson was a famous boozer and The Drover’s Wife certainly feels as if it was written by a depressive; the full text is here. It’s been adapted a number of times in many formats, including re-imaginings by other writers, a ballet, and Purcell’s works.

The 1968 television adaptation is an unconventional one, albeit very faithful to the text. It runs at roughly 42 minutes and contains very little dialogue, the soundtrack mostly consisting of narration (from Alan Ashbolt, who also produced). The titular character is played, superbly, by Clarissa Kaye, who would win an AFI for her performance; around this time Kaye also appeared opposite James Mason in Age of Consent (1969); the two shared a sex scene which went so well they were subsequently married in real life.

The Drover’s Wife was filmed on location in Hermidale in New South Wales (near Nyngen). It was shot entirely on film and looks stunning; Lex Alcock and Geoff Burton did the photography. “Robert Ellis” was production assistant (this was the Bob Ellis, who later referred to the production in a famed hatched job on the ABC he did in 1971) and the director was Gian Carlo Manara, who had recently made the acclaimed documentary Living on the Fringe.

Reviews for the production were strikingly mixed, depending entirely on how they went with the dialogue-minimal-narration-heavy treatment – for instance, a daily TV critic for the Sydney Morning Herald called it one of the disappointments of the year, while the one for the Sunday Herald called it one of the best productions of the year. The good reviews were extremely good – it played at film festivals – and the ABC frequently repeated the program; it’s still available for sale now.

The Drover’s Wife is one of the best things the ABC did in the 1960s. I’m not sure that it constitutes a TV play (neither was the ABC, incidentally – they classified it as a ‘special project’ in their annual report) but I’m happy to pay it a little extra attention – it deserved it.

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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    1. Stephen

      The schools department was quite active. they did a lot of Shakespeare too.

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