Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Recruiting Officer

May 16, 2021
In his series on little remembered Australian TV plays, Stephen Vagg looks at the ABC’s 1965 adaptation of the first European play performed in this country, The Recruiting Officer.

One of the coolest things about Australian TV plays – that’s right, I went there, I called them “cool” – is that they were often adapted from classic (or at least noteworthy) Australian plays. In the 1950s and 1960s, commonly assumed to be a dud period in Australia theatre, there were TV versions of Rusty Bugles, Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day, The Shifting Heart, The Torrents, Burst of Summer, Lady in Danger, The One Day of the Year, Swamp Creatures, Hunger of a Girl, The Square Ring, Night of the Ding Dong, The Tower, Lola Montez, Ned Kelly and The Multi Coloured Umbrella, among others. (No Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, though – I assume because of cost/rights.)

There was also The Recruiting Officer. It wasn’t an Australian play – it was first produced in 1706, and was written by Irishman George Farquhar – but has a strong Australian link because it was the first theatrical European play staged in this country. The occasion was on 4 June 1789, the birthday of King George III, a performance dramatised by Thomas Keneally in his novel The Playmaker, which in turn was adapted into the play Our Country’s Good.

The Recruiting Officer has drifted in and out of fashion over the years, but was always regarded as a classic Restoration comedy. (Contrast this with another foreign play that had strong Australian links: Struck Oil, a hoary old melodrama that was hugely popular in Australia, forming the basis of JC Williamson’s fortune, but is rarely revived). The Recruiting Officer came back into public consciousness in 1963 England via a brand spanking production at the National Theatre in London… which in turn may have been prompted by the blockbuster success of the feature film Tom Jones (1963), a bawdy comedy in the restoration comedy tradition. This, in turn, reminded the ABC of our theatre heritage, so they arranged for The Recruiting Officer to be filmed for TV at their Gore Hill Studios in 1964.

Aunty laid on the trappings for this one – it had a large budget, impressive sets, and a well-known lead in John Meillon, returning to Australia after five years in London. He was supported by a strong cast of emerging talents, many of whom would become famous in the next few years: Reg Livermore, Noeline Brown, Anna Volska, Tony (Hunter) Ward. The director was Ken (Sunday Too Far Away) Hannam.

The plot of The Recruiting Officer concerns Captain Plume (John Meillon), who arrives in Shrewbusry with Sgt Kite (Edward Hepple) seeking recruits for the army. Plume is also determined to seduce, but not marry, a local woman, Sylvia (Anna Volska), while Plume’s childhood friend Squire Worthy (Tony Ward) is in love with Sylvia’s cousin, Melinda (Noeline Brown). Worthy has offended Melinda by not wanting to marry her until she came into wealth, so she allows another recruiter, Brazen (Reg Livermore), to court her. After Sylvia’s brother dies, she becomes her father’s (Ronald Morse) heir and he tells her she must give up Plume. She  dresses up as a man, “Jack Wilful”, and goes to Shrewsbury. There’s further shenanigans with Brazen and Plume both trying to recruit “Jack,” a wench named Rose (Arlene Dorgan) falsely accusing “Jack” of sexual assault, Melinda’s maid Lucy (Yvonne Matthews), dueling, and lots more, but all ends happily. I admit I had to google the plot to fully follow it, but then I have to do that with Shakespeare as well.

“The whole show was not stylised in terms of the acting,” remembered Noeline Brown when I spoke with her last year. “It was a bit schizophrenic in that way. Some playing in it was naturalistic like Meillon. (With Meillon you got Meillon – he did what he wanted to do.) Tony Ward played it as if reading the news. It was all a bit strange. Reg Livermore was a bit classic, and I was trying to do the same. Anna Volska came from NIDA, so she was classically trained. I remember during rehearsals for a show the director would normally say something like ‘I want it all to be played naturally’… that was never said at rehearsal for this.”

However, Ms Brown had a wonderful experience on The Recruiting Officer. “It’s a delightful play and it was great fun to be in it. With television, you don’t really have an opportunity to enjoy yourself – you’re hanging around and you’re on. It’s panic stricken. But that show I remember being glorious. It was shot as if it was in one take, that’s my memory of it, but I’m not sure that’s right because we had a lot of costume changes.”

I recently saw a copy of the production and it was a lot of fun. The actors are clearly having a grand old time, the sets are a delight (I wish it had been in colour). Particularly strong are Meillon, Livermore, Brown and Volska. The latter is one of the country’s best known theatre actors, theatrical royalty as they say, but not particularly well known for her television work; she’s got a great part here, as the cross-dressing Sylvia (a sort of spiritual heir to Viola in Twelfth Night) and makes the most of it. So too does the husky-voiced Brown (lounging in bed with her pet poodle, plotting mischief), the boisterously playful Reg Livermore and the swaggeringly charming John Meillon. Tony Ward and Edward Hepple are less fun, but their stolidness plays off nicely against the others. Director Ken Hannam does a very good job here; Bruce Beresford wrote in his diaries that Hannam was a bit of a pants man in real life, and it’s quite a sexy production.

The broadcast of The Recruiting Officer was delayed until early 1965 because of an odd reason: there was a Senate election in December 1964, conscription was going to be an election issue, and the ABC didn’t want to be seen as causing trouble. The production received more than the usual amount of publicity for an Australian TV play, including a splashy couple of pages in The Australian Women’s Weekly, which showed off the gorgeous colours of the sets and costumes.

This TV play was based on famous source material with an important link to our cultural past, was full of known actors and was entertaining… The Recruiting Officer should have been a perennial, re-run constantly on the ABC in the way they did with James Robertson Justice films, shown in theatre history classes. It should definitely be easier to access than it currently is, because it’s one of the best pieces of television made by Australia in the 1960s. You did good, Aunty. Flaunt it!

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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