Forgotten Australian TV Plays – The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day

October 19, 2020
Stephen Vagg shines a light on Australian TV plays worth remembering, starting with The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day which aired on the ABC in 1960.

Most Australians would be unaware that we produced live TV drama in this country. And, truth be told, we didn’t make that much, certainly not compared to the British or Americans or Germans, but we still turned out a fair amount.

The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day was based on a stage play by Peter Kenna (1930-1987), below, a quasi-legendary figure in Australian theatre, never quite fashionable, but never quite forgotten either. Kenna was the eleventh of thirteen children from an Irish-Australian family in Balmain; he began his showbusiness career as an actor and prop-maker, and wrote eleven unproduced plays (eleven!) before penning the stage version of Slaughter while appearing in a Melbourne production of The Bells Are Ringing.

The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day has a terrific set-up, one of the best I’ve ever read in Australian theatre. It takes place around a party held by Ursula “Oola” Maguire, a middle-aged “colourful local identity”, based on the real-life underworld figure, Tilly Devine. Oola lives in Sydney’s inner-city with her lover Charlie and friend Essie, and holds an annual party on St Teresa’s Day to celebrate surviving being shot in the back eight years previously by “a gentleman I had a disagreement with” (she attributes her deliverance to praying to St Teresa). Her guests consist of various male bookies, gangsters, and pimps (women tend not to be invited, apart from Essie); there’s no alcohol and Oola insists everyone leave their guns at the door. This year the party is complicated by several new arrivals: Oola’s nephew, Whitey, fresh out of Long Bay Prison; his estranged father, Paddy; Wilma, a former prostitute whose relationship with Whitey caused said estrangement; Horrie, an acquaintance of Charlie’s who is also just out of prison; and Thelma, Oola’s sixteen-year-old daughter, visiting from her convent boarding school.

Tension rises during the party as the guests find a way to get drunk and Thelma announces her intention to become a nun. Paddy overcomes his dislike of Wilma’s past and re-connects with his son, but Horrie tries to seduce both Oola and Thelma, resulting in a confrontation that leads to gunfire and death. The following day, Thelma returns to school, her relationship with Oola (and future) left on an ambiguous note.

The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day won the 1958 National Playwrights Competition; one of the judges was author Kylie Tennant, who called the play “a witty commentary on human behaviour, passion, pride and vanity and the curious innocence which keeps people lovable for all their cunning and downright wickedness. It has humour, tolerance and the ability to bring people on the stage alive.”

Tennant was spot on: Slaughter has a brilliant core character, a fascinating world, a rogue’s gallery of colourful support players, clever dramatic set-ups that you know are going to be paid off in exciting ways (“guns left at the door”, “no drinking”), and a very solid dramatic situation (a gangster tries to seduce a criminal mother and convent-educated daughter). Kenna writes with a wonderful compassion, humour and empathy for these outsiders; he seems to like, and understand, all his characters, be they prostitutes, murderers or nuns: even Horrie, who is a violent sex pest, shown to have PTSD from prison and has a lovely moment where he gives Thelma a tip on how to use her imagination to get through bad times.

The play was first presented by the Elizabethan Theatre Trust in Sydney in 1959. It received, from all accounts, a quality debut production: the cast included some of the leading actors of the day, such as Neva Carr Glynn (as Oola), below, Dinah Shearing (Wilma) and Grant Taylor (Horrie). Reviews were a little snippy but generally supportive. It wasn’t a blockbuster like the Trust’s earlier Summer of the Seventeenth Doll but it was a qualified success; the play has been revived a number of times over the years, and was published in book form in 1972.

It was naturalistic, road-tested, critically approved, offered showy roles and all took place in one location. As such it was ideal for television adaptation.

The ABC had been producing television plays since 1956, but overwhelmingly the output consisted of performances of overseas scripts. For instance, the first locally-shot small-screen drama broadcast in this country was The Twelve Pound Look, from a British play by J.M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame).

There were some Australian plays, and Australian adaptations of overseas stories, but these were in the minority. The common excuse for this at the time was “there were no good Australian writers” which simply wasn’t true – there were scores of them, some of international standing (Peter Yeldham, Sumner Locke Elliott, Rex Rienits, Ruth Park, Alan Seymour) and there were plenty of novels, short stories, plays and historical events to adapt, as the 1970s would demonstrate. The real reason was the contempt felt for Australian writers and stories by people who decided what went to air. Hatred of Australian writing ran through local culture in the 1950s and 1960s like a Trojan virus; that statement may seem extreme, but trudge through a decade of newspaper reviews of these plays and then tell me what you think – the relentless bagging of local writing was something to behold.

It took a genuine act of will to produce local stories for television and sometimes people were punished for doing so: for instance, the broadcast of The Multi Coloured Umbrella (1958), based a play by local author Barbara Vernon, prompted a storm of letters demanding how dare the ABC depict Australians like this. Peter Yeldham’s superb script about Anzac Day, Reunion Day (1962), was shown to great acclaim on the BBC but was considered so offensive in its depiction of veterans, that it was effectively banned in Australia by the local censor. It was not easy to stand up for Australian writing: it was simpler to pick scripts from overseas, especially ones with a BBC stamp of approval, and blame poor ratings and lack of impact on the cultural philistinism of Australian audiences.

Still, like I said, some local stories snuck through the wire – in particular, in 1960 the ABC seemed to go on something of an Australiana drive. That year, not only would Aunty produce a ground-breaking mini-series about the Rum Rebellion, Stormy Petrel, they would make ten television plays from new Australian writers, including The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day.

The director of Slaughter was Alan Burke, one of the leading TV directors based in Sydney at the time (admittedly there were only around three TV directors in Sydney at the time). Some of the cast had been in the initial stage production, notably Neva Carr Glynn (Oona), Frank Waters (Paddy) and Rodney Milgate (Whitey); there were some newcomers, notably Annette Andre (Thelma) and Walter Sullivan (Horrie). The adaptation was a faithful one, although several trims were made (the running time was 75 minutes).

Like most local TV plays from the era, Slaughter was broadcast “live” from its home studio – in this case, the ABC Studios at Gore Hill, Sydney. There was some location footage shot to top and tail the production; this consisted of Annette Andre as Thelma arriving at Central Railway Station before the party, then of her walking away from the house the next day. A kinescope record of the production was broadcast out of Melbourne in June.

I don’t know what the ratings were like: probably not too high, they never were for TV plays on the ABC (Stormy Petrel, on the other hand, was a blockbuster). Reviews, however, were very positive: The Bulletin said Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day was when Australian television drama came of age and The Age called it “a landmark in Australian TV drama”.

The landmark is little remembered today. It seems to have been rarely repeated. I was able to source a copy via the National Film and Sound Archive.

I won’t lie – the production is creaky. It very much comes across like televised theatre; Alan Burke was skilled at blocking and handling his cast, but had some way to go before mastering the art of the close up. The actors sometimes play to the gallery. There are several long monologues which don’t really work on screen, but you can imagine would have been effective on stage, such as Horrie discussing how he got his name, and Paddy and Wilma dancing. (There were even more monologues in the original play – as a writer, Kenna tended to be more interested in character than narrative drive).

But it is always interesting. The characterisations are strong, the basic dramatic situation sound, the language and detail are a delight. If Kenna doesn’t exploit his central idea to its full potential, he does at least include action (there’s kissing, a knife fight, gunshots). In hindsight, it’s a shame no one tried to adapt the play as a TV series: it had a fascinating world and characters that would generate compelling storylines over a long period.

Neva Carr Glynn and Annette Andre are excellent as Oola and Thelma: two very different people, almost strangers, trying to still love each other. Oola’s gangster friends (played by Kenneth Goodlet and John Fegan, among others), are fantastic – so much so that one wishes they had more screen time. Alma Butterfield’s performance as Essie is sublime: she brilliantly encapsulates an entire generation of Australian womanhood, with her hunched shoulders, faded dress, mangled vocabulary and verbal sniping. Walter Sullivan is prone to overact as Horrie but has some wonderful moments; I would have loved to see Grant Taylor, the charismatic film star of Forty Thousand Horsemen repeat his stage performance as Horrie, but Sullivan brings a lounge-lizard dimension to the character that is effective. The young lovers – Wendy Playfair (Wilma) and Rodney Milgate (Whitey) – are strong, as is Gordon Glenwright as Charlie. The only really distracting performance is that of Frank Waters (Uncle Paddy), who is clearly a skilled actor but is caked in white make-up to appear twenty-five years older; this may have worked on stage but under the harsh lights of TV is extremely distracting.

The success of Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day did not lead to an explosion in Australian TV plays over the ensuing few years. There was a slight increase, including several sequels to Stormy Petrel, but the bulk of locally made television came from foreign pens. For instance, in 1964 the ABC broadcast twenty TV plays, of which a grand total of three were from Australian writers. It wasn’t until the second half of the 1960s, with the success of shows such as Homicide and Bellbird, not to mention increased quotas for local shows, that executives came to realise the drawing power of Australian stories.

Kenna went on to have an eclectic career. Like most Australian writers of his generation, he lived for a time in the UK, where Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day was filmed by the BBC in 1962 (the cast included Susannah York alongside such Australian expats as Madge Ryan, Reg Lye and Vincent Ball, which is pretty cool). He returned home, had severe health issues, and wrote a number of plays, one of which, A Hard God, became a classic of 1970s Australian theatre. His friendship with the legendary prisoner-playwright Jim McNeil inspired the Nick Enright play Mongrels.

Alan Burke stayed at the ABC for most of his career. Like many of his colleagues who directed early Australian TV, he never made the transition to features, but he had a long, distinguished list of credits, including a number of other adaptations of local plays.

Does the 1960 TV production of The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day matter? Absolutely. Creaky museum piece it may be, but it completely captures a time and a place in Australia’s history. Oola Maguire’s blustering, laughing, sentimental bookie, cackling away with Essie, brilliantly brings to life a segment of society in my grandparents’ generation, with their garish side tables, pictures of saints, transistor radios and men with moustaches; it’s the time of SP bookies, and sing-a-longs around the piano, of prostitutes, sly grog, and schools run by nuns. It’s there in hundreds of little details: the way Walter Sullivan’s Horrie cleans his fingernails with a dagger, or how Essie answers the phone, or Oola’s reading glasses, or Wilma’s anxious dancing, or how the men hold their cigarettes and drink beer and swagger and say “right oh”.  It’s an Australia that has vanished now, but which Kenna and company bring to life for 75 minutes of flickering kinescope that you can see at the National Film and Sound Archive.

It’s not a masterpiece but it is important, and should be better known.

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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