Writing about old Australian TV plays, I often find myself typing the words “I don’t know exactly why the ABC picked that particular play to film”. Sometimes it was obvious (eg. a Shakespeare adaptation when that play was on the Leaving Certificate), but there doesn’t seem to have been a cohesive policy… it feels (I could be wrong) that selection of material was made according to random whims of whoever had the power to greenlight. And until the 1960s, it seems that what the greenlighters wanted to make, more often than not, was versions of things being done in England.
Now, the late 1950s and early 1960s was a very exciting time for British film, theatre and TV; very often, far too often, it seemed those in charge of Australian TV drama at the time would think ‘well, why bother competing with something of our own, it’ll be too hard, we suck, let’s just film a script from England instead’. It was kind of superfluous because it was TV – couldn’t you just show the English version? – but anyhow, that was the attitude.
And, it must be admitted, this resulted in a truly eccentric collection of TV plays, which has exposed me to writers who I otherwise never would have read. One was Benn Levy (1900-1973), whose play The Rape of the Belt was adapted by the ABC in 1964.
Levy was an MP as well as a writer – a combination that was/is surprisingly common in England, for whatever reason: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Edward Percy, Winston Churchill, Christopher Hollis, Nadine Dorries, Wilfred Fienburgh, Hilaire Belloc, etc. This could explain why British writers are so better treated by their government than Australian ones.
The Rape of the Belt was first performed on stage in London in 1957. Despite having a title containing the word “rape”, it’s actually a light, battle-of-the-sexes comedy in the style of George Bernard Shaw based on the Ancient Greek Myths and set in olden times. The plot concerns two Grecian warriors, Heracles (better known as Hercules) and Theseus who travel to the city of Themiscyra to accomplish the ninth of the Labours of Heracles: stealing the belt of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons. The Amazon society – run by Hippolyte and her sister Antiope – is matriarchal, with men used purely for stud breeding, which of course is treated as a hilarious joke and overcome by the end. The gods Zeus and Hera pop up to occasionally comment and cause trouble.
It’s a tongue-in-cheek version of the myth – a myth which I admit I had to google, but may have been more familiar to audiences in the 1950s when classical education was more widespread (I could be wrong about that). All the violent backstory of the characters (eg. Heracles having killed his wife and children) is treated lightly, and the story is given a more upbeat ending than the Greeks used.
The Rape of the Belt isn’t very well-remembered these days, but the original 1957 London production was a hit, running for over a year; out of interest, it starred Richard Attenborough, John Clements, Kay Hammond and Constance Cummings, who was married to Levy in real life (you might remember Hammond and Cummings from co-starring in the 1945 film version of Blithe Spirit). The play was adapted for Australian radio and was performed on stage in Sydney by the Elizabethan Theatre Trust before being adapted by ABC TV in 1964. If I had to guess, the ABC would have been influenced by that Elizabethan Theatre Trust stamp of approval – Aunty filmed a number of plays performed by the Trust, including Ned Kelly, The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day, Lola Montez and The Shifting Heart.
The production was directed in Sydney by Henri Safran, a Frenchman who moved to Australia and had a highly successful career here in television and films (his credits would include the original Storm Boy). Safran was one of the more, shall we say, sexually progressive/mature directors in early Australian TV: his other works included A Local Boy (1964), which featured the first near-nude scene on Australian television; A Season in Hell (1964), the first exploration of a male gay relationship on Australian television; and The Swagman (1965), where the bulk of the plot consists of a station owner’s wife trying to root the hunky Italian foreman but being continually cockblocked by a visiting swagman. The Rape of the Belt, though a comedy, is quite sexy and adult for its time: women have sexual desires, there’s talk of a stud farm of men, a couple do it in the bushes and the woman moans.
I watched a copy of the production recently. At times, I admit that I couldn’t help thinking ‘maybe this played better on stage’, especially the antics of Zeus and Hera, but overall it was a fun watch: the cast are extremely energetic and likeable, the costume and sets impressive, and it’s great to see an Australian TV play where the women are allowed to be powerful, sexually active, and look great… and not be punished for it. Mostly.
The leads, Tony Ward (Heracles) and Reg Livermore (Theseus), play their parts in a sort of Bing Crosby-Bob Hope-in-the-Road-movies-style, bickering and bantering their way through adventures in a foreign land. Livermore, who would go on to become one of the icons of Australian theatre (Rocky Horror Show, Betty Blokk-buster Follies, etc), has a bright, sparky presence on screen. He teams well with Tony Ward, who was an actor and TV journalist, hopping back and forth between the two careers over many years; he is probably best remembered for discovering Paul Hogan for a segment on A Current Affair, and starring in the spy series Hunter, alongside his love interest here, Fernande Glyn.
The female leads, Fernande Glyn (Antiope) and Arlene Dorgan (Hippolyte) make splendid Amazons, particularly Dorgan, a performer with whom I was entirely unfamiliar before seeing this; she’s fantastic. Livermore, Glyn and Dorgan all had extensive revue experience, and this pays off in spades for this production. (Out of interest, in real life Dorgan later wed satirist and comedian Willie Rushton, while Glyn had a long marriage to a well-regarded Australian actor, John Unicombe).
There’s broader comedy from Neva Carr Glynn (Hera), Chris Christensen (Zeus) and especially Sheila Kennelly (who you might remember from Number 96 and Home and Away) as Hippobomene, head of the Amazonian army – she’s terrifically funny. You might also recognise actors like Ethel Lang (Thalestris), Victoria Anoux (Anthea) and Susanne Haworth (Diasta).
I had no idea what to expect before I saw The Rape of the Belt. While I would have preferred that the ABC film the work of an Australian writer, it was a fun, vigorous production that captures the talents of some excellent actors.
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