One of the most pleasing developments in the Australian film and TV industry over the past decade-and-a-bit has been the increasing number of productions emitting from Tasmania: Rosehaven, The Gloaming, Lambs of God, Lion, The Nightingale, The Kettering Incident, The Hunter, the three versions of the Alexander Pearce story that came out within 12 months, etc. Because, for a long time, our southern most state was (mostly) ignored. Geographical isolation and a small population played a part in this, of course, but I think, also the whole concept of Tasmania is a little intimidating for northerners: the history is too problematic, the locals too foreign, there are too many trees and rivers, etc.
The Apple Isle was not completely absent from our screens however. In addition to sporadic films over the years (Manganinne, The Tale of Ruby Rose, They Found a Cave, various versions of For the Term of His Natural Life), the ABC filmed several TV plays in Hobart in the 1960s including The Happy Journey (1963), Drive a Hard Bargain (1964), Double Jeopardy (1965) and The Finder (1966). There was also the Hobart-set-but-Melbourne-shot The Tower (1964), which I’m talking about today.
The Tower was based on a 1962 play by Hal Porter (1911-84), a writer who I heard a bit about growing up but who doesn’t seem to register as much these days (I could be wrong). Porter wrote all sorts of things – plays, novels, poems, short stories, essays, but probably best known for his autobiography The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony (1963). The only thing of his that I had read before The Tower was his non-fiction work Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (1965), which was mean-spirited, snobby and full of errors, so I went into The Tower without optimism. I was pleasantly surprised and discovered, on the page, a first-rate piece of gothic melodrama which should have made a fantastic TV play.
The Tower takes place in 1850s Hobart, in the mansion of wealthy Sir Rodney de Havilland. Members of Sir Rodney’s household include his spinster sister Hester, his wheelchair-bound step-daughter Amy, his new 19 year-old-wife Selina, and creepy 14 year old son Edwin. Amy falls off the new tower being built on top of the house and signs point to it not being an accident. Was it suicide? Was she pushed? There are lots of twists and memorable characters (including a hunky ex-convict and dodgy maid), and the house is a wonderfully creepy setting in the style of Thornfield Hall or Manderley. If Porter doesn’t quite nail the ending, he keeps you reading about this messed up family, scary Edwin especially. You could absolutely see it being filmed by Hammer in the 1960s by Seth Holt from a Jimmy Sangster script, or by Universal Pictures in the 1940s by Robert Siodmak.
The play won the Sydney Journalists Club Prize in 1962 and was published in a collection of Australian plays the following year (others in the collection were Douglas Stewart’s Ned Kelly and Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year, both of which were also filmed for Australian TV). It was first produced on stage in London in February 1964; later that year the play was staged in Melbourne, as well as being adapted for ABC radio and television.
The Tower should have made great television. The source material had rich parts, a memorable setting and a highly entertaining melodramatic plot. I was really looking forward to seeing the TV adaptation.
But it isn’t very good. Mostly because it is badly directed.
I don’t want to get into grave stomping here, truly I don’t, so I’m not going to name the person responsible, but on the page, The Tower is a gift for any filmmaker – it’s got a creepy old mansion, dysfunctional family, plenty of murder, secrets, sex and insanity… Directors would normally eat that stuff up with a spoon, but the TV version is devoid of atmosphere and feeling. Moments that should be powerful are skimmed (such as Amy falling off a tower, I mean, come on, how do you stuff that up?), camerawork is unimaginative, blocking is perfunctory, and close ups minimal. (Lack of close ups was a notable feature of early Australian TV plays – in his memoirs, actor Gordon Chater called it “the usual ‘feet, knees and in the distance pictures’. People watching TV are interested in people and close ups in Australia were hard to come by in the early days of Australian television.”)
It does not help that the adaptation was so faithful to the original play – people, events and situations are constantly described instead of being seen, which doesn’t matter so much on stage but damages something like The Tower where part of the pleasure of watching it should be in the creation of mood. One of the striking features of early Australian TV plays was how much fidelity adapting screenwriters had to the original source material; while in theory this was admirable, it often led to an under-utilisation of the potential advantages of the new medium (editing, quicker transitions, a moving camera, the power of the close up, etc). Far too often stage plays that were filmed for Australian TV were merely trimmed for time and censorship as opposed to being properly adapted for the new medium; The Tower was a case in point.
It’s also not very well acted – the cast carry on like they’re in amateur dramatics complete with unconvincing wigs. But they are not helped by awkward blocking and handling, and I’ve seen most of them be better in other productions, so I’m inclined to put most of the blame on the director.
I don’t mean to be cruel here, truly – the whole point of this series of articles is to celebrate the existence of a little known art form. But I get frustrated; so many contemporary reports from this period would routinely criticise the quality of Australian writing, and here was a good story that was stuffed up by the director.
The ABC later adapted another of Porter’s plays for the small screen: Eden House in 1970. I haven’t seen it and have no idea how it turned out, but I hope it was a happy experience. The definitive screen version of The Tower remains to be filmed – and it would still make a good movie, BTW, as gothic melodrama does not date (just look at Jane Eyre). Anyway, over to you Screen Tasmania…
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