Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Swagman

May 28, 2021
Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays looks at the steamy (ish) 1965 ABC drama, The Swagman.

Judging from contemporary accounts, Australian TV plays rarely attracted that much press attention in their day. There were a variety of reasons for this – lack of publicity, irregular broadcasting times, a tendency to shoot foreign scripts rather than local ones, the fact that most of them were on the less-watched ABC, etc. Some did break through into the general cultural conversation, though – particularly the ones about sex. A case in point was The Swagman (1965).

This was an original for TV set in Australia but, oddly, based on a script by a British writer, Ian Stuart Black, who had never been here. Black was a highly experienced scribe who wrote all sorts of things – novels, scripts, screenplays – and was important in the early days of the classic TV series Danger Man. I don’t know what possessed him to write something about Australia, but Australian-set TV plays were not uncommon on British screens in the 1960s.

The Swagman is set on an isolated outback property, whose owner (Don Reid) has gone into town overnight to get medicine for his unwell foreman Tony (Vincent Gil)… not knowing Tony is faking the illness so he can root the owner’s wife Janet (Jane Thody). Their attempts at rumpy are interrupted, at first by a nosy neighbour (Brenda Sender) and then by a visiting swagman (Edward Hepple). They get rid of the neighbour soon enough, but the swagman hangs around, doing odd jobs and eventually worming his way into the house so he can have his own crack at the wife.

The Swagman is a fascinating piece, part neglected-housewife-wanting-sex-in-a-sweltering-hot-environment melodrama, part psychological thriller. I guess you could call it “outback noir” only there’s no plot to murder anyone for cash. It’s got a great sense of menace and rising tension, because you sense the swagman character is going to do something bad but you’re not sure what and you don’t know how reliable Tony is going to be about stopping it.

The three leads are all superb: Hepple is terrifying as the slimy, scruffy, misogynist, violent Iago type swagman; Thody, an actor with whom I was unfamiliar, is stunningly good as the lonely, bewildered farmer’s wife, who just wants some decent conversation; and Gil (later famous for his biker/roughneck roles) impresses as an insecure would-be stud muffin. I also enjoyed the performance of Don Reid as the cuckolded farmer and the director Henri Safran handles it all with pace and tension. The script does require Janet and Tony to be dills in act two, but I guess they don’t know they’re in a TV play.

The production was shot at ABC’s Gore Hill Studios in Sydney in 1965. Some critics loved The Swagman, others got up in arms. The Age said it “offended Australian women by implying bush wives are as hard as nails to swagmen”, “made repeated and I think unnecessary, disparaging references to Italian migrants” and “painted a false picture of the swagman.” There were also angry letters to the editor of various newspapers complaining about the content, followed by letters defending the piece.

The controversy was reminiscent to that surrounding an earlier Australian TV play, The Multi Coloured Umbrella (1958), based on the stage play by Barbara Vernon, about a family of Catholic bookmakers where one brother lusts after the wife of his sibling, who is not sexually satisfying the wife. That production was given a big splash at the time, the first one broadcast from ABC’s Gore Hill Studios, but resulted in a storm of complaints about its content (well, a couple of people wrote in to the paper, anyway).

In both The Multi Coloured Umbrella and The Swagman, the female lead was a married woman unhappy with her sex life and actively attracted to a third party. I believe it was this factor more than anything else which upset (some) viewers. You didn’t have this controversy for TV plays about men who cheated or wanted to cheat (Marriage Lines, Split Level)… but if a wife wanted to cuckold hubby, gasp, it was the end of days. To be fair, The Swagman also climaxes (SPOILERS) with the swagman trying to rape Janet… a very well-done, confronting, and all-too believable scene that may have confronted viewers with its verisimilitude, particularly if they were sentimental about swagmen.

The response to The Multi Coloured Umbrella shook the ABC in 1958: plans to show the production in Melbourne were cancelled (sorry, the “tape was damaged”) and the ABC did not film an Australian script for TV for something like 12 months. However, in 1965, when The Swagman was shown, the cultural conversation had shifted; sexual content on screens was more common, so was Australian content. There was still an uproar, but it doesn’t seem to have had as big a fall out – the ABC were a little tougher by now, and they kept pushing Australian content (on the whole).

The Swagman is a powerful, unusual drama. It is problematic, like much television about women’s sexual desires that is written and directed by men… I mean, Janet is really punished for wanting to have sex with Tony: she winds up almost raped, her husband no longer trusts her, the swagman and Tony leave… and she didn’t even get to have her slice of afternoon delight. But it is extremely well made and acted. It’s also great that it stirred the pot and the ABC didn’t back down afterwards, the way they had seven years earlier… they, like the country, had grown up a little from 1958 to 1965.

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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