One of the greatest challenges a screenwriter can set themselves is to try a one-location thriller. The difficulties are obvious – how do you sustain audience interest with one location without making it seem like filmed theatre? But the rewards can be considerable – they’re cheap to make (only one location!) If done well, they can be artistically sublime: look at films like Rope (1948), Buried (2010) and Phone Booth (2002), radio plays like Sorry Wrong Number (1943), and Australian TV plays like The Tape Recorder (1966), which I’m discussing today.
The Tape Recorder was the second episode of Australian Playhouse (1966-67), an anthology series for the ABC. Not many people remember Australian Playhouse today, but it was a landmark, in a way: the most ambitious attempt until that date to support Australian TV writing.
The series was the brainchild of British expat Drew Goddard, a former BBC employee who had become director of drama at the ABC. Goddard took inspiration from British anthology shows like Armchair Theatre and Saturday Playhouse, and wanted to create an Australian one. There had been a number of local attempts along these lines – The General Motors Hour, Shell Presents, Wednesday Theatre – but Australian Playhouse would be the first one to use nothing but local scripts. Goddard declared the series would “all be written by Australians and produced in Australia. And because they are written by Australians and aimed at television audiences primarily in Australia, they will reflect, comment on, or observe in a fictional way life in this country, as those writers see fit, know it, or have experienced it. In a word, it will be Australian drama.”
The Tape Recorder was written by Pat Flower, a Sydney novelist who mostly specialised in crime and comedy, and who had penned a number of TV scripts for the ABC. According to Goddard, The Tape Recorder had its genesis from a lunch he took with Flower: she accused the ABC of wanting plays with one set, one actor and no dialogue because they would not pay for anything else; Goddard challenged her to write something along those lines, and Flower took the bait.
The Tape Recorder wasn’t the first one-location thriller produced for Australian television. There had been a 1958 production of the “granddaddy” of the genre: Lucille Fletcher’s American classic Sorry Wrong Number (I strongly recommend reading this play, or listening to one of its many radio versions… it’s a marvel). There was also Box of One (1958) starring Robert Helpmann, based on a British script by legendary theatre director Peter Brook. However, The Tape Recorder was the first Australian one-location TV thriller from a local writer.
It takes place in real time at a city apartment late at night. Only one character appears on screen – a young woman, Miss Collins, who arrives to take dictation from a tape recorder left behind by an author who lives in the apartment but who is not present (or so it seems). Miss Collins doesn’t say a word throughout the whole script…. All the dialogue comes from the tape recorded voice of the author who, it gradually becomes apparent, is unhealthily obsessed with Miss Collins and possibly has murderous intentions towards her.
The production was filmed at the ABC’s Melbourne studios under the direction of Henri (Storm Boy) Safran. Jennifer Wright played Miss Collins and Wynn Roberts provided the voice of the unnamed author.
I was lucky enough to recently see a copy of The Tape Recorder. It’s an excellent piece of television, only 30 minutes long, with Safran’s direction extracting every amount of tension and creepiness from Flower’s strong script. While the technology used has dated, the violent misogyny displayed by the author character has not – his hatred towards Miss Collins, a woman he desires and wants to punish, is extremely well done, and all too familiar behaviour today. The camera work and sets are first-rate and Wynn Roberts provides a superbly creepy author’s voice.
The production was well received. Pat Flower’s script was bought by the BBC who filmed it in England in 1967 with Aussie/Kiwi expat Guy Doleman playing the part of the author; it was also produced for television in Canada, Belgium, the US and Italy, and was adapted for the stage (like I said earlier: one location thrillers can be lucrative because they’re cheap to make.) It is arguably Flower’s best known work. I’m surprised some enterprising film producer never expanded the story into a feature – such things are possible even when adapting short films that seem to have inherently short running times (eg. When a Stranger Calls).
The Tape Recorder helped get Australian Playhouse off to an excellent start. However, in hindsight, David Goddard was probably overly-ambitious with his show. Reportedly, in its first year, 39 plays were filmed, of which only 30 were aired (many written by Flower). It’s hard to keep the quality consistently high on an anthology, when you can’t rely on recurring characters or situations. Val Marshall, one of the most sympathetic TV critics of the time towards Australian writing, estimated 10% of Australian Playhouse’s episodes were excellent, 40% fair, and the rest “good tries”. The series was renewed for a second season, but that lasted only 13 episodes before being wrapped up. Critical response, initially enthusiastic, turned venomous (unfairly) and Australian Playhouse remains little remembered today.
But in the long run, Goddard’s boldness reaped great rewards: by the late 1960s the concept of Australian drama written by Australians became the norm. I would argue that Australian Playhouse played a not insignificant part in normalising the concept of a purely locally written show. It definitely helped produce one mini-masterpiece in The Tape Recorder.
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