Australian TV plays of the early 1960s covered all sorts of genres: musicals, sci-fi, drama, light comedy, black comedy, Shakespeare, Ibsen, thrillers. Once or twice they even ventured into the realm of comedy-adventure set in fictitious third world countries. Such an example was 1962’s You Can’t Win ‘Em All.
It was based, like so many early Australian TV plays, on a script previously filmed by the BBC – in this case one written by Welsh author Alun Owen (1925-1994). Owen’s best remembered for his work on the Beatles movie, A Hard Day’s Night (1964), but was far more influential on the small screen, being one of the most highly regarded dramatists in British TV for over thirty years.
The BBC version of You Can’t Wn ‘Em All aired in Britain in February 1962. In my ignorance, I assumed it would be something social realism-y about working class people speaking in regional accents around the kitchen skink. And, to be fair, Owen did write a fair few TV plays in that vein. But You Can’t Win ‘Em All is actually a light-hearted comedy adventure closer to a 1940s Humphrey Bogart movie at Warner Bros, complete with colourful support characters, sexy dames and a backlot third world setting.
It tells the story of a swashbuckling, womanising, cockney radio operator/soldier of fortune named Corrigan Blake, who accepts a job fixing radios for a team of revolutionaries hiding out in the jungle of an unnamed South American country. The revolutionaries are led by Feliz, whose idealistic sister Anna Maria is lusted after by Corrigan. When Feliz is kidnapped by army troops under the command of his old nemesis, Selasco, Corrigan must decide where his loyalties lie.
The play seems to have been well received: the BBC decided to spin off the character of Corrigan Blake into his own series (named Corrigan Blake), which ran for seven episodes in 1963. In addition, the ABC arranged to film an Australian version of Owen’s script. This sounds a little odd now (why not just show the British one?) but was quite common at the time; for many years the bulk of Australian TV drama was made from scripts that had previously been filmed in England.
The Australian You Can’t Win ‘Em All was shot in the ABC’s Melbourne studios at Ripponlea under the direction of Patrick Barton, an Englishman who had just moved into drama. Sydney Conabere, one of the busiest actors in Melbourne at the time, was cast as Corrigan Blake; Alan Hopgood (later famed for writing Alvin Purple) played Feliz, Judith Thompson was Anna Maria, and Norman Kaye (who would go on to make so many movies with Paul Cox) took the part of Selasco, wearing what looks like brown face. Among the extras were Anne Charleston (who became famous as Madge on Neighbours) and Sonia Borg (an actor who became a writer and wrote the script for Storm Boy, among others). It clocks in at 60 minutes.
I watched a copy of the play via the National Film and Sound Archive and it was a bizarre experience: all these Australian actors pretending to be South Americans in a backlot jungle, trying to stop their natural accents sneaking through, and Syd Conabere channeling Bogart/Alan Ladd/Dick Powell/John Payne. I had no idea that’s what I was in for, and wound up enjoying myself a lot more than I thought I would going in: but then, I’ve always liked these junky sort of stories more than social realism.
Indeed, I wish the play had embraced its junkiness to a greater degree: it could have done with more action/sex/tension and less chat. And Syd Conabere, fine an actor as he was, doesn’t quite have the charisma the role requires – better casting may have been someone more obviously macho like, say, Grant Taylor. But it’s cute how they allow for his Australian accent (Corrigan Blake is given a backstory that includes time in Australia), Judith Thompson is very winning in a thankless role (sexy idealist), and it was a delight to see Alan Hopgood, who I normally associate with old-timer character parts, playing (very well) a virile jungle fighter.
And it’s hard for me to resist the sort of film which starts out in a dingy bar full of shady characters, has a mercenary hero who finds redemption, where guides with three day growth keep calling the lead “gringo”, and all the revolutionaries break out into a dance number at the end (the revolutionaries seem to be around 30% female, incidentally, though only Judith Thompson gets any dialogue).
Incidentally, this wasn’t the only Australian TV play to center around a soldier of fortune in a revolution-torn South American country starring Judith Thompson: there was also Last Call (1958), which featured an acting performance from future billionaire Richard Pratt (!!). And The Strong are Lonely (1959) was set in Peru, concerning Jesuit priests trying to protect the locals from slavers.
You Can’t Win ‘Em All is the easiest to see of the three, however – you just have to go down to a viewing centre at the National Film and Sound Archive and ask for an access copy. That will probably only interest weirdos like me but anyway, it’s there if you want to check it out…
For more articles like this, read: