History, as I’m sure someone French once said, rarely moves in a straight line, it zigs and zags. The story of reform is seldom one of slow, peaceful, consistent change, but rather, of constant battles against the forces of regression, reversal and counter-reformation. Just ask any civil rights activist. Or look at the history of early Australian TV drama.
The introduction of television to Australia in 1956 struck a mortal blow to commercial radio drama in this country, rendering scores of actors, directors, producers and writers unemployed. Without quota protection, our (small) screens were flooded with US and British shows; early Australian TV drama production was sporadic, and dominated by overseas scripts: for instance, out of the first 17 Australian TV plays made by the ABC in 1956-57, only three were written in Australia, with just one (The Sub-Editor’s Room) being actually set here. This proportion rose slightly in 1957-58 (reformation!), with seven of the ABC’s 24 TV plays coming from Australian writers. The percentage went scurrying back down in 1958-59 (counter-reformation!), with only two of the ABC’s 21 plays penned locally (this backlash was most likely due to the controversy around The Multi Coloured Umbrella (1958), an Australian TV play which upset some viewers by having a female character unhappy at her husband being bad in bed, and not punished for that fact).
In 1959-61, the tide changed again (reformation!): the amount of local Australian drama increased, with 22 of the ABC’s 43 TV plays being comprised of native stories. In addition, the ABC made locally-focused historical miniseries (Stormy Petrel, The Outcasts), while commercial networks produced early soap operas (Autumn Affair, The Story of Peter Grey), kids shows (The Terrible Ten) and medical dramas (Emergency), as well as high quality anthology series such as Shell Presents and The General Motors Hour.
Then, between 1962-64, came what I call “the great counter reformation” of Australian drama – when the proportion of local stories went into sharp decline again. During this period of roughly two years, a decent amount of drama was shot here (over 50 TV plays on the ABC alone), but the bulk of it (more than three quarters) were adaptations of overseas scripts.
Why this happened, I’m not entirely sure. I think it was a combination of factors: a few controversial homegrown shows (eg. The One Day of the Year, Reunion Day) scared away executives; there were difficulties with unions over how much actors should be paid on the 1962 TV series Jonah, causing the ATN-7 network to avoid drama for a time. I also think there was a deep-seated revulsion for Australian writing amongst many producers and executives at the time that kept re-emerging – especially compared to the far more exciting (it seemed) artistic developments happening in Europe.
And so, the ABC TV drama department produced TV adaptations of works by writers like Jean Jacques Bernard, Harold Pinter, Charles Cohen, JC Brown, Elaine Morgan, Aldous Huxley, Peter Nicholes, Donald Bull, RC Sheriff, GB Shaw, Noel Coward, TS Eliot, Shakespeare, Clemence Dane, Bridget Boland, Robert Bolt, Norman King, Sacha Guitry, Max Frisch, Thorton Wilder, Leslie Thomas, Jean Anouilh, Pirandello, John Osborne, Turgenev, Frederick Lonsdale, Alun Owen, Ugo Betti, Hall and Waterhouse, and Nigel Kneale. It were not just British writers preferred to Australians – it was Italians, Russians and French too. Some Australians slipped through the net, like John O’Grady, Patricia Hooker and Noel Robinson, but the balance was overwhelmingly foreign.
The Hot Potato Boys was part of this counter-reformation. It was based on a script by Welsh author Alun Richards, which had been filmed for British TV in 1963. The Australian version was shot by the ABC in Melbourne, directed by Patrick Barton, an Englishman.
The Hot Potato Boys tells the story of a British sea captain, Culver (Peter Aanensen), whose ship is docked in an Asian port. The captain’s wife Sadie (Roma Johnston) and daughter Joan (Deidre O’Day) are flying out for a dinner where the captain can meet the daughter’s fiancee, Sub Lt Mayne, RN (Noel Tovey) and the latter’s parents, Milicent (Mary Ward) and Commodore Mayne, RN (Kenric Hudson). While the captain’s family comes from rough, lower-class stock, their potential in-laws are snobby upper class types. Shenanigans ensue, complicated by Eurasian prostitute Hong Kong Anna (played by Julia Blake) and Culver’s sidekick (Sydney Conabere).
The play provides a showy star part for Aanensen, a burly, jovial actor who often played lower class types with a dash of humour (he was in a TV version of Seagulls Over Sorrento, which I’ve previously discussed). It features early screen performances from not only Julia Blake (in yellowface) but also Noel Tovey, the first ballet dancer of Aboriginal heritage, cast here as an English naval officer.
It’s not a very good play, though. Maybe it meant something to British audiences in 1963, with its look at class distinction and the navy, both things more important than they are now. But it’s not funny, it’s racist, and has this horrible finale where the daughter “learns” her slack, neglectful, cheating father is actually admirable (I think I’ve got that right). The story is not that interesting. The actors try but it is not that well-made either. Mind you, that did not stop Patrick Barton from putting a picture of himself on the end credits along with the actors. (Why did the ABC think audiences wanted to know what the director looked like?)
The most unusual thing about the play is that it provided a rare TV acting role for Noel Tovey… a man whose personal story is a million times more interesting and relevant to this country than The Hot Potato Boys. Now, I get that would have been too much for 1963 Australian TV (it would make a great biopic now, BTW) but were there not other things the ABC could’ve filmed? The Hot Potato Boys had no relevance to Australia or Australian life. They could have shot one of the many, many scripts by writers on Australian topics that were being filmed in Britain around this time, but which, for whatever reason, were not made here. They include 31 Backyards, Stella, Reunion Day, Thunder on the Snowy, Naked Island, No Decision, Day of the Drongo, Weekend at Willaburra, The Cabbage Tree Hat Boys, Defection! The Case of Colonel Petrov, The Tilted Screen, Beachhead, Lean Liberty, East of Christmas, Jungle Juice, Countdown at Woomera, Flag Fall, The Harp in the South. From 1962 until mid-1964, you had a far better chance of seeing an Australian story on a British TV screen than an Australian one.
It was embarrassing that the national broadcaster had key decision makers that were so uncomfortable about portraying their own nation. I absolutely acknowledge that the ABC were making more drama than the commercial networks during the early 1960s, but the former had the advantage of tax payer funding – and, to be frank, during these years, said funding was being misused by people who liked to pretend they were in London. This attitude was reinforced by key cultural taste makers (notably TV critic Frank Roberts of The Bulletin, a bitchy clown who continually used his nationwide pulpit to propagate for the suppression of Australian writing).
Maybe this makes me a one-eyed nationalist, and I’m sorry if I upset anyone associated with The Hot Potato Boys, but I can’t see the point, then or now, of Australia filming a British story for TV when they could just play the British version instead, and use the time and resources to make something local. Some would have been iffy, but you can always safeguard against that by using experienced Australian writers (of which there were many) and/or adapting established source material. It’s hard to see how too many could have been worse than The Hot Potato Boys and even the bad ones would have said more about Australia.
The great counter reformation against Australian drama effectively ended in October 1964 with the debut (and subsequent blockbuster success) of Homicide on HSV-7. For the first time, Australian drama produced a gold-plated hit; it put a complete lie to the theory that Australians did not like their own shows, and ensured the survival of a local industry. ABC executives commissioning Pirandello adaptations started to look silly rather than classy, and by 1968 (after a little more zig-zagging), all TV drama made in Australia would be written by Australian writers. Ever since then the ABC has been a truly splendid champion of local stories.
That leaves us with The Hot Potato Boys. It isn’t very good, but it does have some interest – mostly to see some talented actors struggle with the material and indifferent handling. Unlike the majority of Australian TV plays, it is quite easy to see, being watchable via access centres of the National Film and Sound Archive.
The author would like to thank Simon Drake and Stephanie Carter for their help in writing this article. All opinions are my own.
For more articles like this, read: