You don’t often hear the words “Canberra” and “culture” in the same sentence. A host venue for various “national” organisations/buildings, sure, a chief source of funding, absolutely… but actual local culture? [Insert obvious joke about porn here].
The Sweet Sad Story of Elmo and Me, produced by the ABC in 1965, is to my knowledge the only Australian TV play to have its origins in Canberra. It wasn’t shot there – the ABC had a commitment to make things in the “BAPH states” (i.e., Brisbane Adelaide Perth Hobart), but not the territories. However, Elmo was based on a play by a Canberran writer, Ric Throssell (1922-99).
Throssell was something of a renaissance man, with a very colourful family history. He was the son of Kathleen Susannah Prichard, a notable West Australian author (her novels include The Pioneers, filmed by Raymond Longford) who helped found the Communist Party of Australia and was later played by Googie Withers in the film Shine (1996). Throssell’s father Hugo won the VC at Gallipoli and committed suicide during the Great Depression, his uncle Ric was killed in action at the Second Battle of Gaza, his grandfather George was premier of West Australia, his first wife Bea died suddenly when she and Throssell were living in Moscow. Throssell was in that city working as a diplomat for the Department of External Affairs; he worked at that Department for over three decades, although his career was hurt when Throssell was named as a communist spy by the famous defector Valdimir Petrov; the Australian fought the allegations, mostly successfully, but they dogged him for the rest of his life.
As a sideline, Throssell wrote stage plays, and had a long association with the Canberra Repertory Society as an actor, producer and playwright. The Sweet Sad Story of Elmo was based on Dr Homer Speaks, Throssell’s 25th play (insert joke here about public servants having plenty of free time to write). It was first performed at the Canberra Festival in 1963 where it received a vicious notice from the Canberra Times (no hometown loyalty for Throssell).
However, the ABC liked the play well enough to have it adapted for TV two years later as The Sweet Sad Story of Elmo and Me. I haven’t read Dr Homer Speaks but Throssell said the TV version was markedly different (there’s no Dr Homer in the latter, for one thing). It was filmed at the ABC’s Sydney studios under the direction of Henri Safran who said, “If the play could be described in one word, ‘satire’ would be as close as you could get.”
Elmo tells the story of young couple, Betty (Lynette Curran) and Elmo Jnr (Brian Hannan), who are born on the same day at the same hospital in 1941. Betty’s parents are ex-Aussie serviceman “Digger” Smith (Ron Haddrick) and his wife Shirl (Doreen Warburton); Elmo’s dad is an American soldier, Elmo Snr (Chuck Kehoe). We follow Elmo and Betty from being babies, to primary school students, to teens, to adulthood, where they get married and fully embrace the materialistic lifestyle.
The treatment is extremely offbeat – Elmo is done in that absurdist, surrealistic style that you would sometimes see in the 1960s, with its satirical dialogue, outsize sets, flippant narration, and surrealism, sending up suburbia, materialism, education and television. There are jokes about the Marquis de Sade, Dr Spock, “I Like Ike”, pogo sticks, western and crime TV shows, ‘60s pop music and much more; you could call it Tashlin-esque.
If I couldn’t quite get what Throssell’s ultimate satirical point was, it’s constantly surprising and unexpected, and beautifully realised by Henri Safran, who was easily one of the best directors working in Australian TV drama in the 1960s. Barbara Major’s sets are outstanding. The acting is very good, particularly Ron Haddrick. Incidentally, Haddrick’s real life daughter, Lynette, played his onscreen daughter at age eight; it was the first and last time she acted as a child, although she became an actor as an adult.
The Sweet Sad Story of Elmo and Me was absolutely the sort of thing the ABC should have been doing at the time – bold, experimental, irreverent. That’s one of the reasons why you have a public broadcaster and the ABC did this one in style.
Throssell didn’t seem to do much other television in his career but never stopped writing, writing a number of novels, along with memoirs and editing collections of his mother’s work. He died in 1999, committing suicide after the death of his wife, and is easily one of the most colourful writers of Australian TV plays.
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