Tragedy, as has often been observed, is easy – it’s comedy that’s hard. With comedy, there’s no middle ground – people find it funny or they don’t. When it hits, nothing is better to watch; when it dies, it’s hard to find something worse.
Quite a number of early Australian TV plays were comedies. Initially, they were almost entirely versions of foreign plays or British TV scripts. You had adaptations of Chekhov (The Proposal), Jane Austen (Elizabeth Refuses), Shakespeare (Taming of the Shrew), Shaw (The Man of Destiny, Village Wooing), Farquhar (The Recruiting Officer) and Sheridan (The Rivals), plus sci-fi satire (Tomorrow’s Child), French farce (Holiday in Biarritz, Don’t Listen Ladies, My Three Angels), Mexican slapstick (Sunday Costs Five Pesos), and comedies set in Italy (Captain Cavallo). The very first local drama made for the ABC was a comedy, an adaptation of JM Barrie’s The Twelve Pound Look.
As the years went on, there was Australian-written comedy: comedy thrillers which had been performed on Broadway (Lady in Danger), a satire of a Russian invasion scare in colonial Adelaide (Night of the Ding Dong), a send up of modern marriage (The Little Woman), a satire about the Devil visiting Sydney and meeting a typical Aussie family (Light Me a Lucifer), the tale of a Spanish bullfighter visiting Australia and meeting a typical Aussie family (The Right Thing), a gentle satire of the horse racing world (Ring Out Wild Bells)…
There was also The Man Who Saw It, a political satire from the ABC in Sydney. It was a 60-minute original for TV made in 1966, written by Allan Trevor, a farmer turned radio actor turned writer, who died in his forties (as a lot of people did then…). The plot concerns an accountant (Ron Haddrick), who has just earned pre-selection for the fictitious “Australasian party” to stand in a marginal seat; he sees a UFO on the beach, news of which eventually leaks, causing fury from his political masters.
Political satire does not seem to have been that common on Australian TV in the 1950s, but became increasingly prevalent the following decade with programs like The Mavis Bramston Show and That Was the Week That Was. There was also a lively stage revue scene in Sydney and Melbourne, which frequently made fun of the political scene.
I’m not sure that The Man Who Saw It is completely successful as a TV script – the structure feels slightly off, there’s too many references about characters we never see; I was unsure of what point Trevor was trying to make. But it is offbeat, imaginative, and interesting television. Some of its issues remain universal: Haddrick has to suck up to a wealthy woman so that she will finance his campaign, and deal with cynical minders (John Gray, Don Crosby), and a drunken speech writer (Ben Gabriel). Some of it is very sixties: there is talk of the White Australia policy (“where’s he stand on White Australia?” “He’s got sense to shut up about that”), Haddrick has a son with a Beatles style haircut who does groovy sixties dancing and wants to be in a band (the son is played by Scottish actor Mark “Taggart” MacManus who lived in Australia at the time… he was, distractingly, only around six years younger than Haddrick).
The director was John Croyston, a man better known for his writing, but he does a good job, helped by an excellent cast, particularly Haddrick, Don Crosby and John Gray. The Man Who Saw It is no masterpiece, but it does have interest, and tells us something about Australian life in 1966, far more than any American sitcom from the time might do.
For more articles like this, read: