Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Long Sunset

March 19, 2021
The latest in Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays looks at one with an early screen appearance by none other than John Bell, The Long Sunset (1963).

When you hear the words “Australian drama”, one doesn’t automatically think “Ancient Rome”. Yet in 1963, a Roman villa and surrounds was recreated in ABC’s Gore Hill studios, Sydney, for filming of the live TV play The Long Sunset.

This was based on a 1955 stage play by R.C. Sheriff, a British writer best known for his classic wartime drama Journey’s End and number of film scripts, notably The Dambusters. Sheriff was an amateur archeologist in his spare time, and The Long Sunset was a topic close to his heart: it told the story of an aristocratic Roman family living in 410AD Britain, who discover the Emperor has ordered all troops to leave the island. The family decide to stay on, despite the threat of invading Saxons and the suspect loyalty of their Caledonian slaves. They are helped by the arrival of a mercenary warrior, Arthur, who helps teach them how to defend themselves, and offers a possible new future for the island of Britain.

The Long Sunset has not entirely aged well: it feels like a (metaphorical) apologia for the British Empire in the era of decolonisation, with the Romans depicted as sympathetic upper class types who are well mannered and “always treat their slaves kindly”, while the Caledonians are simple, violent primitives, and the Saxons remorseless, unseen conquerors whose presence offers little other than destruction and death.

But the central situation is inherently dramatic: aristocratic members of a colonial Empire now in ruins, faced with the option of leaving a no-longer-Imperial outpost for a “home” they’ve never seen, or staying on to face an uncertain future surrounded by hostile neighbours. Sheriff ensures all the characters are distinct and have specific roles: the paterfamilias, Julian, is an old school Roman determined to cling to traditional ways; his wife Serena is a committed Christian; their son Otho dreams of being a Roman soldier; daughter Paula falls for one of Arthur’s knights (by the name of Gawain!); the Caledonian slaves just want to go home and do not how to treat their former masters.

And the ending is very powerful (SPOILERS): while Arthur helps the Romans fight off an initial Saxon attack, he has to head north for the winter (where he will presumably turn in to the legendary King Arthur); Otho and Paula decide to leave with him while Julian and Serena elect to stay behind, only to be abandoned by their slaves; the final scene has the elderly couple hiding out in the woods by their home, facing probable death from re-invading Saxons. (You can read a full copy of the play here, incidentally – https://archive.org/details/playsoftheyearvo017758mbp)

The Long Sunset was not a huge success for Sherriff, but had a bit of a life in repertory and was adapted for radio and British TV. (It originally premiered as a radio play.) I’m surprised no one ever turned it into a movie: the story is full of tension and intrigue, with a clear dramatic throughline, showy star parts, and refers to a number of offstage battle sequences that would have been exciting to dramatise on film. Indeed, the same time period, including a similar re-imagining of the source of the King Arthur legend, was used in the 2004 Jerry Bruckheimer adventure movie, King Arthur.  Maybe the ending was too downbeat.

By the early 1960s, Sherriff had gone out of fashion as a playwright in England; like Terence Rattigan he was a victim (it seemed) of the preference for “angry young men” playwrights (something which made Sherriff quite bitter in his memoirs). However, Sherriff remained much admired at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, who adapted several of his works for local television, including Miss Mabel (1958), Journeys End (which started filming in 1957, with John Meillon in a lead role, but mysteriously was never shown), The White Carnation (1963) and The Long Sunset (1963).

The Australian Long Sunset was directed by Colin Dean, the ABC’s go-to-guy for historical stories at the time, having made several mini series set in Australia’s past (Stormy Petrel, The Outcasts, The Patriots). The script adaptation was by Noel Robinson, who had to cut down the running time to 60 minutes, meaning that some key subplots were lost (notably those involving Otho and Paula) but she did a faithful job; the essence of the play remains.

I will nail my colours to the wall here: I don’t think that the ABC really had any business filming this play for Australian television; they would have been better off broadcasting the 1958 British  BBC TV version of The Long Sunset and spending their drama budget instead on an Australian story. (This is not a knock on Sherriff, a writer I greatly admire: I feel this way about every foreign play filmed for Australian TV, including two other ABC dramas set in the days of the Roman Empire, Antony and Cleopatra (1959) and The Ides of March (1961).)

Having said that, I enjoyed the production a lot. The acting was excellent, particularly Henry Gilbert as Julian and Guy le Claire as Lugar, Julian’s Caledonian slave, who always looks like he wants to cut his master’s throat. It’s great fun to see Lynne Murphy as Serena and future stage legend John Bell, then at the beginning of his career, playing Otho (Bell never did much TV, but the same year as this, he also played Ned Kelly in a TV play called Ballad for One Gun).

Colin Dean might have reined in the performance of James Condon (who plays Arthur) a tad: Condon’s an excellent actor, but he was usually typecast as a solid citizen and I think he got a little overexcited playing a swashbuckling warrior here (his wig does not help). But overall, Dean’s direction is very good, with judicious use of close ups and smooth camera work, and he hits all the right emotional and suspense notes. Douglas Smith’s settings and costumes are impressive, as is Richard Connolly’s music.

It’s extremely watchable entertainment, John Bell fans will get a major kick out of it, and Australian dramatisations of Ancient Rome have definite novelty value. If you are interested in seeing it – access copies are available through the National Film and Sound Archive viewing centres.

The author thanks Simon Drake and Stephanie Carter of the NFSA for their assistance with researching this article.

For more articles like this, read:

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

Annette Andre: My Brilliant Early Australian Career

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