Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Scent of Fear

May 12, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on Australian TV plays looks at a thriller from 1960, which doesn’t actually have that much to do with smell, The Scent of Fear.

In 1961, the American TV network CBS bought two Australian TV plays for broadcast – the first time (to my knowledge) Australian TV drama had been shown in the USA. One play was Outpost, about which I have written before; the tale of Aussie soldiers in New Guinea, written by Melbourne’s John Cameron, it was an entirely logical choice to display our nation’s culture. The second one was The Scent of Fear, shot in Melbourne, based on a script by… British writer Ted Willis. One of the earliest examples of Australian drama shown to the world was from a British script.

It’s got to be said, though, it was a pretty good script and a fine production. And it does have some Australian content. Ish.

Ted Willis – or Baron Willis, as he became – was one of the most notable British TV writers of the 1950s and 1960s (as well as a big supporter of the Labor Party… hence the baron thing). He is best known for the TV series Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76) but has a huge number of credits including the stage plays/scripts for Woman in a Dressing Gown (1958) and Flame in the Streets (1961). He visited Australia several times in his life, supervising productions of his plays and attempting to set up various feature films (one with Morris West, another called Last Bus to Banjo Creek with Rod Taylor). He never succeeded, but Willis was supportive of the local industry; he was encouraging of attempts to establish the Australian Writers’ Guild and when the critic Frank Roberts had a swipe at Australian authors in The Bulletin, saying we shouldn’t have quotas, Willis wrote a stinging letter of rebuke.

The Scent of Fear was based on a story by American author Mary Higgins Clark. It first aired on British TV in 1959, as an episode of the highly-regarded Armchair Theatre anthology series, in a production starring Anthony Quayle.

The script was filmed live by the ABC in Sydney in 1960, and I saw a copy of this production recently.

The plot is set in 1949 and concerns a British passenger plane flying from an airport in an unnamed Central European city to Heathrow in London. A flight attendant (Diana Perryman) discovers a stowaway (Max Meldrum), who claims to be fleeing authorities. She decides to help him escape, only to discover that the local head of police (Eric Reiman) is on board, along with a bureaucrat (Owen Weingott) who may be friend or foe.

It’s an exciting tale that grips for most of its 60 minutes. Aeroplanes often made ideal settings for TV plays – cramped, inherently dangerous, plenty of opportunities for different characters (the ABC later filmed Arthur Hailey’s plane thriller Flight into Danger in 1966). Willis’ inventiveness does drop off in the last third when Diana Perryman’s character takes a back seat and she is saved by a deus ex machina, but it is always enjoyable.

Director James Upshaw does a solid job, and the support cast includes people like Leonard Teale.

It’s a great part for Diana Perryman, a popular actor at the time (and former flight attendant in real life, apparently), and also for Eric Reiman, a man with considerable theatre credits as an actor and director but who is probably best remembered for his monocle-wearing villain in the film Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940).

Several of the actors playing pilots and flight attendants use Australian accents, which is nice to hear. And it’s fun to see location footage of Mascot Airport standing in for a communist country, complete with nasty uniformed guards marching across the tarmac.

The Scent of Fear is a decent thriller, well handled. We should make more things set in aeroplanes.

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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