Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Monkey Cage

July 21, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s latest article on forgotten Australian TV plays looks at a 1966 effort from Brisbane, The Monkey Cage.

One of the most random things in Australian television drama of the 1960s was what I call the “BAPH” period of 1963 to 1966. During those years, the ABC made a conscious effort to make dramas outside the cities of Sydney and Melbourne in what was known as the BAPH states, i.e. Brisbane Adelaide Perth and Hobart. (The BBC would do a similar thing in its efforts to get productions going outside London.) “BAPH states” really meant “BAPH” – there was no effort to get production going in, say Townsville or Launceston – but it was an attempt to do something different, and the ABC is to be commended for it.

The ABC made a fair amount of radio drama in the BAPH states but only a small amount of television drama. None of the BAPH productions really broke through; they tended to get nice notices in their town of origin, but were not always played in other cities; Sydney and Melbourne critics could be cruel.

The experiment wound up in 1966, with the appointment of David Goddard as Head of Television Drama at the ABC. Goddard had ambitious plans to expand ABC drama, including the introduction of TV series such as Australian Playhouse, Bellbird and Contrabandits. To pay for this he made cuts in other areas, such as getting rid of the ABC’s annual miniseries (a tradition which had gone from Stormy Petrel in 1960 to My Brother Jack in 1965) and bringing all production back to Sydney and Melbourne.

One of the final BAPH productions was The Monkey Cage, a 1966 effort from the ABC’s studios in Toowong. It’s a two hander about a married man (David Yorston) who is on his way to sleep with a married woman, only to wind up stuck in an elevator with the woman’s husband (John Gray).

We never see the wife – a “new Australian” from Italy – but the script was written by a woman: Ruth Fenner (1919-2002), a broadcaster and writer best known for hosting a popular ABC show called Kindergarten of the Air. The director, Wilf Buckler, had worked extensively in Brisbane radio and theatre. There’s some good acting by the leads and a wonderful set that is well used.

Storry Walton, then a director based at the ABC (his credits included My Brother Jack) was sent up to Brisbane from Sydney to assist with the production. We recently both watched a copy of The Monkey Cage and I asked him for his thoughts:

The acronym BAPH did not refer specifically to any period, phase or sub-set of ABC drama production. It was used as shorthand for the entire ABC Territory and operations outside the main national production centres of Melbourne and Sydney. It may even have preceded the introduction of television, but was certainly used routinely from 1956 through the 1960s and beyond. It was meant to be a neutral term, but it often had a connotation of places beyond the black stump.

Its casual use, however, probably jogged the mind of ABC Management about the vast national audience it served. In the case of Drama, the challenge to produce a regular stream of television plays outside Sydney and Melbourne was a big one. The big studios needed for drama sets, the production resources and skills, and the main body of actors and screenwriters were all in Melbourne and Sydney. Nevertheless, Neil Hutchison, Head of Drama and Features initiated the production of tele-plays in the so-called BAPH States through his State Drama and Features Supervisors. I do not know the number made, but I remember there were always some shown nationally each year.

As part of this BAPH program, and as an experienced drama producer/director at the ABC Drama head office, I went to Brisbane at Hutchison’s direction, to support Wilf Buckler in his production of The Monkey Cage. I needn’t have bothered. He was totally capable dramatically and technically for the job and my presence seemed rather patronising.

Looking at the production after 58 years, I am struck by the seamless competence of its direction. The subject and content of the play is very much of its time, but Wilf devised a very clever set with a camera ‘upstairs’ on what must have been a high camera platform. The camera-work and vision mixing (live-to-air editing) is precise and pacey – all hard to achieve in continuous mode. It is very polished.

The play is a saucy comedy in which a middle aged man contends with a wife (unseen) who is ‘visited’ be a succession of men including a fireman called to extinguish a fire in the lift. The audience might therefore have been surprised to see that the screenwriter was Ruth Fenner, famous and beloved by the nation and 100,000 children as the inaugural presenter of the ABC’s Kindergarten of the Air!

A lot of good things happened to ABC under David Goddard, but it’s a shame the BAPH productions could not have been continued. Still, they happened, and they should be better known.

The author thanks Storry Walton for his assistance with this article.

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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