Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Shifting Heart

June 7, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays looks at an adaptation of a stage play that is definitely not forgotten: Richard Benyon’s drama, The Shifting Heart.

The Shifting Heart is, arguably, the second most famous Australian stage work of the 1950s. It never had the fame, or earning power, of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, but has carved out its own niche and still gets regularly revived. It was never turned into a feature film, but was adapted for TV by the ABC in 1968.

The author of The Shifting Heart was Richard Benyon, an actor and writer from Carlton who emigrated to the UK in the 1940s. The play (Benyon’s first) tells the story of an Italian immigrant family living in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood: parents Poppa and Momma, and their adult son Gino. On Christmas Eve, they are visited by their heavily pregnant adult daughter Maria and her Anglo husband Clarry. Clarry works with Gino but is reluctant to go into partnership with him. Gino gets in clashes with Anglo locals at the neighbourhood dance, a propensity that eventually leads to tragedy and places pressure on Clarry and Maria’s marriage.

The Shifting Heart won a 1956 Sydney Journalists Club Award and came third in the London Observer World Play Award Competition. The Australian premiere happened in 1957 through the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, and the play enjoyed a run on England’s West End in 1959 where it was appreciatively reviewed by Ken Tynan. The ABC expressed interest in adapting it for TV as early as 1958 but it took a decade for them to achieve this (presumably this was a matter of obtaining the rights, or Aunty may have been scared off filming it after the response to their version of another local play about the lusty working class, The Multi-Coloured Umbrella). It was filmed for British TV in 1962, under the direction of Lionel Harris (who later came to Australia to make the TV play Kain), starring several expat Aussies such as Keith Michell and Reg Lye.

The 1968 Australian TV version of The Shifting Heart was shot in Melbourne under the direction of Oscar Whitbread. The cast included Tom Oliver (Clarry), Syd Conabere (Poppa), Madge Ryan (Momma), Anne Charleston (Maria), and Allen Bickford (Gino). The best-known cast member at the time was Ryan, who had a huge career in England.

The play is ideal for television because it mostly takes place in a cramped, working class house.

It’s a faithful adaptation, and is mostly shot like a stage play, with a few location scenes thrown in, such as when Gino gets hassled at a groovy ‘60s nightclub full of boomers gyrating and/or being racist. It’s well written with a more subtle take on racism than expected: Clarry thinks he’s a good bloke and isn’t prejudiced, but comes to realise that he’s more uptight than he first thought. There’s some neat period touches such as Gino singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”.

The big stumbling block of the TV version of The Shifting Heart – for me at any rate – was the fact that all the Italian roles are played by non-Italian actors who use broad accents for their parts, particularly Conabere. I presume this was because “there were no good Italian actors available” (the stock excuse)… and it’s got to be said that all the actors are excellent, it just took me a while to adjust to the pronunciation.

Tom Oliver plays Clarry in a cheery hail-fellow-well met style that was not what I got of the character reading the play, but actually works terrifically well; in addition, Neighbours fans will love seeing him play an on-screen husband to Anne Charleston, who was Madge on Neighbours. Some of it is very moving. I hadn’t seen Allen Bickford in anything before this: he has an intense screen presence that is very effective.

Despite the success of The Shifting Heart, Benyon did not seem to be that keen on theatre (he was probably wise: few Australian playwrights manage long stage careers). Instead, he moved into British television, having a lot of success as a writer, story editor and producer of shows such as Z Cars and Rebecca. He did occasionally write the odd script for Australian TV, such as Man in a Blue Vase (1960) and Face of a Man (1970), but the bulk of his career was in England.

The Shifting Heart is an important Australian play, and it received a worthy production from the ABC in 1968. It’s just a shame that it is so hard to see: surely there would be some sort of audience for these pieces (and small screen adaptations of other classic Oz stage works like Rusty Bugles and The Torrents), even if purely from an educational point of view?

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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  1. Chris Keating

    The ABC won’t screen archival drama. Just won’t.

    I’ve no idea why, but it’s seemingly been their policy for a long time. The overwhelming bulk of their drama output has never been repeated, and despite the proliferation of digital channels and iView, there’s almost no archival drama to be found.

    Sadly, what survives will basically sit in the ABC Archives and National Archives, never to be seen.

  2. Stephen

    It’s a question of rights, I believe. The rights have to be cleared with the actors and sometimes the writers which involves a cost.

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