Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Life and Death of Richard II

April 5, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s look at forgotten Australian TV plays ventures once more into the world of Shakespeare, with an analysis of the ABC’s 1960 production, The Life and Death of Richard II.

Writers love to use the expression “this was when [INSERT NAME] finally came of age”. Which made me wonder, when did Australian TV plays come of age? The 1958 thriller Gaslight, the first production of which the ABC seemed to actually feel proud? The 1959 wartime drama Outpost, the first locally-written show sold to the US (I think)? 1959’s Johnny Belinda, the first live one-hour drama on commercial television in Australia? (You probably won’t have heard of these… take my word for it, they were big-ish deals in their day.)

An argument could be made that Australian TV plays came of age with the ABC’s The Life and Death of Richard II in 1960. One of the most elaborate productions ever made in this country until then, it was shot in Sydney using three studios; it has been described as “a concept of such complexity and audacity that it was never repeated.”

The plot of Richard II concerns the last two years in the life of the titular king, from 1398 to 1400. It starts with him refereeing a dispute between Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke, which results in the king deciding to banish both from England. One of his advisers, John of Gaunt, dies after making one of the coolest deathbed speeches of all time; Richard seizes John’s land, which leads to nobles supporting Bolingbroke when the latter decides to invade England and claim the throne. Richard can’t handle the pressure and winds up abdicating in favour of Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV (best known today as Henry V’s dad – the one sick of his kid hanging out with Falstaff). Richard intends to live quietly in retirement but poses too much of a political risk for the new regime and winds up executed.

Richard II isn’t a top level Shakespeare play; it’s never (to date, at least) been made into a feature film and tends to be overshadowed by its sequels, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, as well as (the non-sequel) Richard III. However, it is still a very fine play, containing one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches: John of Gaunt talking about “This Sceptred Isle” of England on his deathbed (“this Demi-paradise, this happy breed”, etc, etc).

The part of Richard II is a rich one; he’s not a hot-tempered warrior like Macbeth, Prince Hal or Othello, or a moody youth like Hamlet or Romeo; rather, he’s a trust fund mediocrity, a self-entitled aristocrat who discovers he’s in over his head, someone who only got his job via being a lucky sperm, but who achieves a sort of grace, or at least dimension, through suffering (that’s my interpretation anyway). The role was once closely associated with John Gielgud, but many other top actors have had a swing at it, including Eddie Redmayne, Maurice Evans, Paul Scofield, Mark Rylance, Ben Wishaw, and Fiona Shaw. It’s been adapted a bunch of times for TV.

The ABC liked to do double-bills of small screen Shakespeare around this time – in 1959, they produced Hamlet in Sydney and Antony and Cleopatra in Melbourne; in 1960, they did Richard II in Sydney and Macbeth in Melbourne. I’m not quite sure why the drama department picked Richard II to adapt rather than something more famous like, say, Julius Caesar: the fact that the play was being studied for the high school leaving certificate (thus guaranteeing an audience of resentful teens) surely had some influence.

Regardless of motive, once the decision was made, the national broadcaster went all in, providing a hefty budget of 6000 pounds, as well as allocating three full studios at their Gore Hill premises. The script adaptation was written by Alan Seymour, just prior to his achieving theatrical immortality with The One Day of the Year. The director (or “producer”, as they were called) was Ray Menmuir, who along with David Cahill was probably the leading TV director in Australia at the time. Menmuir’s assistant was Storry Walton, who went on to become a director himself (notably the 1965 small screen version of My Brother Jack). The cast was headed by Ric Hutton (as Richard II), James Condon (Bolingbroke), Richard Parry (John of Gaunt) and John Faasen (Thomas Mowbray). The play was broadcast live in Sydney on 5 October 1960; it was recorded and shown in other cities at a later date.

“All three studios at Gore Hill were used,” recalls Storry Walton. “Studios 21 and 22 (the big studios) and also studio 23, the small presentation studio reserved for news and presentation. With the telecine suite used to play in the pre-recorded film inserts, Richard II therefore employed the entire resources of the Gore Hill studio complex. One of my tasks was to race between studios to direct opening shots from each studio while Ray left the outgoing studio to take over command from me, and I directed the scenes from Studio 23 entirely.”

I was lucky enough to watch a complete copy of this production recently. While Richard II isn’t one of my favourite Shakespeares (I prefer the sequels), it’s a very admirable adaptation, beautifully mounted and sensitively done: you can see why contemporary audiences were so impressed. Ric Hutton is superb as the king, all faux dignity, insecurity and incompetence; Hutton had a light, sophisticated presence as an actor (a sort of Bob Cummings type, I guess you could describe it), which is deployed here to excellent effect.

Ray Menmuir’s direction is superb – he is in complete control of the material, keeps the pace moving, and knows when to go in for a close up and when to pull away. The costumes impress and we even get some location filming: knights on horseback jousting, no less (filmed at Centennial Park).

Reviews were glowing, and public response appears to have been excellent. Unlike most Australian TV plays, the impact of Richard II lingered long after its original broadcast. For instance, in the 1963 Senate Select Committee on the Encouragement of Australian Productions for Television, Senator Vincent, chairman of the committee, listened to evidence from Ric Hutton; Vincent recognised the actor from Richard II and praised the production. The recommendations of that committee (eventually) led to the government support that revitalised Australian drama (Vincent died in 1964 but the crucial reforms were carried out by his good friend John Gorton when the latter became Prime Minister. Both, incidentally, were members of the Liberal Party – not all supporters of the arts in this country come from the ALP).

I watched the production with Storry Walton, and asked him what he thought of seeing it after so many years.

“I am surprised at how static it is,” he said. “Not too far removed from theatrical style and enunciation. Within a year or two, Ray’s work is unrecognisable in comparison to this, when, in the UK his work quickly became visually fluid. Richard II seems to exemplify how the massive industrial mechanics of the studio inhibited visual liveliness in the way that film had been doing for decades – in that sense live tv drama was, in its early years, a step back. I realise how much, once fully-fledged as a producer/director on productions such as The Stranger and My Brother Jack, I bent over backwards to animate the live studio coverage of drama.”

The ABC continued to splash the cash on small screen Shakespeare productions throughout the 1960s, making versions of The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, and another version of Macbeth, as well as filming The First 400 Years, a kind of “greatest hits” of Shakespeare moments. I admit that I would have preferred these resources to have gone to Australian plays, but Richard II was a quality production, and all associated with it have every right to be proud. It was also a politically important production, in that its success helped reinforce the government’s commitment to locally made TV drama at a time when that could not be relied on. It did help us “come of age”. Thanks, Richard!

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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Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Grey Nurse Said Nothing

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: You Can’t Win ‘Em All

Forgotten Australian TV plays: Marriage Lines

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Merchant of Venice

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: Seagulls Over Sorrento

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: Noeline Brown

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