Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Grey Nurse Said Nothing

November 17, 2020
The latest in Stephen Vagg’s series highlighting forgotten Australian TV plays focuses on Sumner Locke Elliott’s The Grey Nurse Said Nothing from 1960.

In the early 1960s, the easiest/least difficult way to get an Australian story on television wasn’t to write one in Australia – it was to emigrate, get that Australian story produced for English or American television, and then sell it to Australia.

That’s what happened for Australian writers such as Bruce Stewart (The Devil Makes Sunday, Shadow of a Pale House), Rex Rienits (Close to the Roof, Who Killed Kovali, Bodgie), Ralph Peterson (The Square Ring, Night of the Ding Dong), Phillip Grenville Mann (The Sergeant from Burralee, Funnel Web), and Raymond Bowers (It’s the Geography That Counts): Australian producers only filmed their scripts after they had been filmed overseas. It’s what happened, too, for Sumner Locke Elliott on The Grey Nurse Said Nothing.

Elliott (1917-1991) was one of the major Australian writers of the twentieth century. He’s probably best remembered for his classic autobiographical novel Careful He Might Hear You (1963), which was turned into a movie, but that was just one chapter in a spectacular career.

Elliott was a child prodigy, who was working professionally as a writer and actor in theatre and radio while still a teenager. Along with countless radio scripts, Elliott penned a number of stage plays, the best known of which was Rusty Bugles (1948), a classic of Australian theatre,  and Buy Me Blue Ribbons (1951), which had a short run on Broadway. Most Australian writers of his generation with international ambitions went to London, but not Elliott: he moved to the US in 1948, where he became one of the leading TV scriptwriters during the first Golden Age of Television. By the 1960s, his focus shifted to novels, which earned Elliott his greatest acclaim.

The Grey Nurse Said Nothing was originally written as a feature-length episode of the legendary CBS anthology series, Playhouse 90, arguably the most prestigious TV show of its era. Grey Nurse was based on a famous real-life Australian mystery, the Shark Arm Murder Case of 1935, where a tiger shark at Coogee Aquarium coughed up the severed limb of a missing bookmaker. This led to a murder investigation and trial, which became the tabloid sensation of its day, capturing the public’s interest with its grisly initiating incident and colourful underworld characters. A man called Patrick Brady stood trial for the murder but was found not guilty; the mystery was never officially solved, and still inspires discussion among crime buffs. Elliott took the notion of a severed arm being discovered inside a shark and spun it off to his own story; all the characters would be completely fictitious.

The Grey Nurse Said Nothing focuses around the murder trial of a ruthless businessman, Herbert Willis, accused of killing boatman Patrick Ahearn, whose severed arm was found inside a grey nurse shark. Evidence given at the trial explains Ahearn’s relationship with Willis and his family, and various other people in the small coastal town where they all lived; the true killer is eventually revealed, but not until a lot of dirty secrets are uncovered. The structure uses flashbacks extensively – it starts at a coronial enquiry, leaps back twelve years to the trial, then jumps back and forth in time to dramatise key events.

The story could have been easily set in America, but Elliott decided to locate it in Cairns, North Queensland. I’ve been unable to ascertain why he did this; it was far more common at the time for Australian writers to tell stories set outside Australia, and this was written for the American market. My guess is that Elliott wanted the point of difference that came with an Australian locale, but didn’t want the legal hassle that would’ve come from setting it in Sydney, so decided on the Great Barrier Reef: a colourful, shark-friendly area that was at least a little bit famous in America.

Some of the cast of the US TV version

The Playhouse 90 edition of Grey Nurse aired on CBS in America in 1959. It was directed by Ron Winston (who later made the 1967 Robert Wagner film, Banning) and featured a cast mostly comprised of British actors, presumably on the grounds that Brits could impersonate Australians better than Americans. To my knowledge, there were no genuine Aussies in the cast; back then, there were only a few working in the US, like Rod Taylor (who appeared in a few Playhouse 90 episodes) and Ron Randell (who had been in an earlier Elliott-penned TV play, Wicked is the Vine); presumably none were available. However, the actors who were chosen were of high calibre, including Ann Todd (as the accused’s alcoholic wife), Angela Lansbury (as the accused’s hungry-for-love sister) and Hugh Griffith (as a reverend who also acts as narrator). Reviews were generally strong, most critics praising the quality of the acting and script, and the novelty of the initiating incident and setting.

Australian rights to the script were purchased by ATN-7 (a.k.a. Channel Seven) who were planning on making a series of local TV plays sponsored by General Motors, under the title The General Motors Hour. The Grey Nurse Said Nothing would be the first episode.

ATN called it “the most ambitious dramatic production ever attempted in Australia” – the American success of the script clearly gave them a great deal of confidence that the show would work and they weren’t stingy with the budget.

There was a cast of more than seventy (twenty speaking parts), including some of the leading actors of the day such as Guy Doleman, Frank Waters, Nigel Lovell and Lyndall Barbour (the one you’re most likely to remember today is Doleman who turned up in a lot of British movies like The Ipcress File). David Cahill, ATN-7’s top drama director (who had made Pardon Miss Westcott) was put in charge of the production. The cast were given a month of rehearsals, including three weeks of “dry runs” in a city studio. ATN paid for Cahill and designer Geoff Wedlock to fly up to Cairns, where they made sketches and took photographs of the local courthouse, so it could be reproduced at ATN 7’s studios in Epping. The play was performed and taped on 23 April 1960. The total cost of the production was a then-hefty four thousand pounds, of which 3,500 was provided by General Motors.

There was some last-minute excitement when Patrick Brady, who had been charged with murder in the real life Shark Arm case but found not guilty, tried to get an injunction stopping the play from being broadcast. Despite being represented in court by legendary barrister Clive Evatt (who got him off the original charge), Brady was unsuccessful and the broadcast went ahead.

The Australian edition of The Grey Nurse Said Nothing isn’t available on DVD or streaming, but a copy of the production is available at the National Film and Sound Archive. You can watch it if you can get to an access centre.

It’s well worth the effort. This is a first-rate piece of melodrama, with an excellent script from Elliott, full of the pace and twists  you would expect of someone who learned their trade penning radio soaps, but with the visual flair of someone also experienced in television, and the empathy for character that is the mark of a good writer regardless of the medium. There’s adultery, alcoholism, suicide, sassy old ladies, attempted rape, rich bastards, stabbings, traumatised children and political intrigue. It’s very Australian – there are references to “stone the crows”, “Yorkey’s knob” and, it must be admitted, lots of derogatory slang about Aboriginal people (which, while upsetting, is absolutely accurate to the way some Queenslanders talked back then).

It’s a very theatrical piece, with Nigel Lovell (as the reverend) breaking the fourth wall throughout the story and the action leaping about in time.  But it works marvellously, because Elliott specifically devised it for television, and David Cahill and his crew do an excellent job of realising the writer’s vision: the multiple cameras move around with skill and speed, close ups are judiciously used, the lighting is excellent, the scene changes quick. The production values are tremendous, and most of the cast are outstanding, notably Frank Waters  (the accused), Guy Doleman (the deceased), Ken Goodlet (prosecutor) and most of all Lyndall Barbour (the accused’s sister), playing the definitive small town teacher: loyal to her students, battered down by life, desperately lonely, principled, kind, hungry for love.

I think it’s a splendid piece of television, bold, entertaining, and interesting to watch, and all associated with it had every right to be proud. Contemporary reviews were, amazingly, a little sniffy; perhaps they were upset by the unflattering depiction of many aspects of Australian life, or maybe they were just mediocre critics (I’ve read a lot of contemporary criticism of early Australian TV and the quality of analysis was fairly dire, with one or two exceptions, notably Valda Marshall).

The Grey Nurse Said Nothing was, oddly, the only one of Elliott’s American TV plays filmed for Australian TV. Rusty Bugles was adapted by the ABC in 1965, but another writer did the script. I am especially surprised that no Australian network filmed Wicked is the Vine, another real-life-inspired murder tale set in Australia, or Buy Me Blue Ribbons, a fun comedy. Maybe there was a rights/cost issue; maybe there was an element of cultural cringe: the main producer of Australian drama at the time, the ABC, loved putting on plays by expats which had been first performed in Britain, but seemed less keen when they’d first been performed in America. I’m also surprised that Grey Nurse was never turned into a feature film or mini series in the 1970s/80s – it would have seemed a natural, with its tropical locations, sharks, sexy subplots and juicy roles (it doesn’t have an obvious hero part, admittedly).

The General Motors Hour ran on and off for the next three years, more “off” than “on: it only produced a handful of shows. However, some of those shows were very classy. They included an adaptation of the legendary Australian play The One Day of the Year, a comic version of the famous novel Mystery of a Hansom Cab, and another TV play from an Australian writer originally performed in the US but set in Australia’s past, Shadow of a Pale Horse (by Bruce Stewart).

And of course, there was The Grey Nurse Said Nothing, a very stylish adaptation of a strong script from one of our best writers. Hopefully one day the work will be released on DVD or streaming, but in the meantime, at least it is easily available if you visit the NFSA.

For more articles like this, read:

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

Annette Andre: My Brilliant Early Australian Career

Barry Creyton Live

Forgotten Australian TV Plays – The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: A Tongue of Silver

The Flawed Landmark: Burst of Summer

 

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