by Stephen Vagg

During the late 1950s, the most powerful man in Australian television drama was Neil Hutchison, Director of Features and Drama at the ABC. This was because pretty much the only production company that regularly made Australian television drama at the time was the ABC, and Hutchison was the man who, basically, decided what got made there.

Like a lot of people in charge of Australia’s cultural institutions in the 1950s, Hutchison was English. He’d studied at Oxford then went into the BBC, coming out to Australia after the war as the BBC’s representative here. He joined the ABC in 1949, and eventually became head of the aforementioned department, which from 1956-65 was responsible for radio and television drama.

All well and good, but the thing is, Hutchison didn’t seem to like Australian writing that much. He was always criticising it in interviews, articles, and parliamentary committee appearances, and (when Hutchison was running the Elizabethan Theatre Trust on leave from the ABC) was part of the notorious decision to not program Patrick White’s play The Ham Funeral at the Adelaide Festival. Under Hutchison, ABC TV in the late 1950s produced very few locally written dramas and most of those were penned by foreigners temporarily living here, such as George F. Kerr, James Carhatt and Royston Morley. He did like some Australian scribes though – most notably, Iain MacCormick.

MacCormick isn’t that well-known today but in his day, that day being the 1950s, he was one of the most highly regarded writers in British television. He was born in Australia in 1918 and was studying medicine when World War Two broke out. He joined the army and was captured in Greece, becoming a POW; on his release MacCormick decided to stay in England, working in advertising before becoming a full-time writer.

A superb biography of MacCormick by British academic Oliver Wake is here. It says, among other things, “in the 1950s, Iain MacCormick was recognised as the first writer to make a name specifically from original television writing in Britain.”  None of his scripts are particularly remembered – none were, say, hugely controversial, and/or turned into a hit film or play – but he was a reasonably big deal at the time.

MacCormick received a decent amount of publicity in his home country – everyone likes a local boy made good yarn – and four of his TV plays were filmed for Australian television: Sound of Thunder (1957), The Small Victory (1958), One Morning Near Troodos (1959) and Act of Violence (1959). The first three were filmed in Melbourne under the direction of Will Sterling, the latter was shot in Sydney by Paul O’Loughlin.

The National Archives of Australia have a copy of Small Victory which I was lucky enough to see recently. It was the second in a cycle of four plays by MacCormick called “The Promised Years Cycle”, which all dealt with the effect of war on small groups of ordinary people of different nationalities, “small people in the big messup,” according to MacCormick; even though all stories were stand-alone, there were some reoccurring characters.

The plays were Sound of Thunder a.k.a. The Liberators (set in World War Two), The Good Partners (Berlin Airlift), Small Victory (Korean War) and Return to the River (set in the same Italian town as Sound of Thunder).

The Small Victory is set in Korea in 1951 and focuses on a group who have been trapped by the Chinese army under Colonel Feng (John Morgan in yellowface). The prisoners include an Irish priest (Brian James), Swiss nun (Beverly Dunn), English businessman (Laurier Lange), alcoholic journalist (Sydney Conabere), mysterious woman of indeterminate nationality (Bettine Kauffmann), pregnant English widow (Judith Godden), Korean woman (Kira Daniels) and English soldier (Nevill Thurgood, playing the same character as he did in Sound of Thunder).

Feng insists that the priest and nun sign a confession saying they have committed atrocities or else he will start to torture the others. He makes good on his threat and pressure builds until… well, (SPOILERS) the priest and nun simply don’t crack, Feng says he will shoot them all and the last scene has the priest blessing everyone. So, presumably they all die. Thanks, Father! Catholicism rocks!

I’m being silly. This is a very tense and extremely well done play – characters are all distinct and precisely evoked, the action proceeds logically with a rising dramatic tension. Some of it is of its time – the yellow face, the drunken reporter character – but it holds up excellently. MacCormick knew how to write. He subverts expectations constantly: a blossoming romance takes a dark twist, a greedy businessman turns out to be tough, the priest holds his ground, Feng starts out hating the Westerners but ends up liking them. Brian James is the best of a strong cast, and the lighting is particularly superb (a visiting BBC lighting expert, WE Whitmore, helped out behind the scenes and it was worth it.) The ABC clearly had faith in the project – production values are high and the running time was a then-healthy 75 minutes.

(Aside: there were quite a few Commie vs Catholic dramas on the ABC from this period – The Prisoner (1962), Shadow on the Wall (1968)as well several anti-Communist stories – Shadow of Heroes (1960), Crime Passionel (1959), The Attack (1967), Lady in Danger (1959). And they refused to film a script they had commissioned, Alan Seymour’s Lean Liberty, because its hero was not sufficiently critical of the communist party – only for Seymour to sell it to British television in 1962.)

The ABC went on to film two more MacCormick scripts – One Morning Near Troodos, about Cyprus (with Judith Godden again), and Act of Violence, set in an unnamed central European state. From what I gather, he rarely wrote about Australia – I think some of his early stage plays, Stairway to the Stairs and Call Back the Night, were set here but that was about it.

MacCormick kept writing until his relatively early death in 1965. I am unsure why the ABC went off him – perhaps due to Hutchison’s three year stint away from the ABC running the Elizabethan Theatre Trust (1960-63) or maybe there was another reason. Writers tend to go in and out of fashion unless their surname is Shakespeare.

It says a lot about the ABC of the late 1950s that their favourite Australian writer was one who lived overseas and rarely wrote about Australia. But Iain MacCormick was a very talented man, The Small Victory a very good script, and the ABC did its production proud.

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