Forgotten TV Plays: Pardon Miss Wescott

November 4, 2020
In part two of his series of Australia’s forgotten TV plays, Stephen Vagg turns his attention to the first original musical-comedy made for Australian television.

In the mood for a musical?

What about something set in colonial Australia, with singing convicts, high-kicking servant girls in bloomers, and comedy “B” strands about escaped rabbits?

If that sounds up your alley, then Pardon Miss Westcott is for you.

This was a 1959 musical-comedy made specifically for Australian television by ATN-7 in Sydney. Chances are you haven’t heard of it but Westcott was a big (-ish) deal in its day: the “most ambitious and costly project ever undertaken by ATN 7 at the time” according to historian Peter Pinne.

The bulk of early Australian TV drama was produced by the ABC, but the commercial networks occasionally joined the party, even before quotas came in, especially ATN-7. In particular, they had an anthology series called Shell Presents (1959-60) which presented a series of stand-alone locally-made dramas, sometimes versions of overseas scripts (Johnny Belinda), and sometimes purely home-grown stories, such as Pardon Miss Westcott.

Westcott had its antecedents in the 1958 stage musical, Lola Montez. This hugely entertaining show, from the team of Alan Burke, Peter Benjamin and Peter Stannard, concerned the adventures of legendary real-life dancer/courtesan/whip enthusiast Lola Montez on a visit to Ballarat during the Australian Gold Rush. Lola received a professional production through the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, a super-rare thing for home-grown musicals in the 1950s, when our legitimate stages were dominated by overseas shows and imported stars. The show wasn’t a blockbuster but it was much admired and has been frequently revived over the years.

Here’s a clip of one of the numbers.

Lola’s admirers evidently included executives at ATN-7 who commissioned Burke, Benjamin and Stannard to write an original family musical to be filmed in time for Christmas. This became Pardon Miss Westcott.

Like Lola Montez, Westcott is a light-hearted look at Australian history. Set in the year 1809, immediately after the Rum Rebellion, it focuses on Elizabeth Westcott (played by Wendy Blacklock, a highly experienced musical theatre actor of the day), a convict serving a five-year sentence in the penal colony of New South Wales for killing a pig. While on the transport ship to Botany Bay, Westcott befriends three fellow convicts (played by Chris Christiansen, Nat Levison and Michael Walsh), and a hunky, politically liberal soldier, Soames (played by Michael Cole, who got the gig in part because he’d been fired from Lola Montez and the authors felt guilty about it). When Westcott arrives in Sydney she is assigned to work for the (fictitious) acting governor (Nigel Lovell), making the latter’s wife Lydia (Queen Ashton) jealous. Miss Westcott winds up opening a tavern, where she has to deal with drunken soldiers, her troublesome convict friends and Lydia, but all ends happily.

Pardon Miss Westcott is a charming film, 75 minutes long but full of life and energy, with enjoyable tunes and dance numbers; the cast completely commits, particularly the supporting players, the production values are impressive, and the script even makes vague political points (about how laws should be just, and you shouldn’t keep stealing things).

It’s very well directed by David Cahill, who was ATN’s leading drama director at the time. Cahill’s barely remembered these days (his one feature film was You Can’t See Round Corners in 1969), but he and his team did an excellent job on Westcott: the blocking is spot-on, the camera moves smoothly and always seems to be in the right location, the lighting is skilfully done. This achievement is even more impressive when you realise the initial broadcast was performed live. (Some trivia: Westcott’s audio was recorded by Ken Shadie, who later went into screenwriting and was Oscar nominated for his work on the script for Crocodile Dundee.)

Admittedly, the script feels as though it could have done with another draft just to tighten the subplots, but there is some lovely comedy, bright tunes, as well as thrilling high-octane dance numbers (with spectacular high kicks courtesy of ballerina Joy Hill, who plays Mog the Servant Girl).

Pardon Miss Westcott was well-received at the time: ratings were strong, and reviews positive; it was repeated in 1960, a year that saw the release of a cast album of the show. It doesn’t seem to have been adapted into a stage production, which is a surprise, as it seems ideal for schools and/or community theatre companies; maybe there was a rights issue.

Unfortunately, the success of Pardon Miss Westcott didn’t lead to a rash of original Australian TV musical comedies. On one hand I get it – musicals cost a lot of money to produce (Westcott was very expensive, the budget clocking in at five thousand pounds ). They also carry an extra element of risk… because when a musical sucks, people remember it (dodgy dramas tend to be forgotten, but misfiring musicals become legends – just ask Peter Bogdanovich).

Still, it was a shame. The ABC pumped out a lot of operas and ballets around this time, which was terrific, but only a few told Australian stories (eg G’day Digger (1958), Fisher’s Ghost (1963)). There were some small-screen musicals including a 1962 TV version of Lola Montez for the ABC, a number of musical pantomimes (Chips Rafferty was in a 1962 version of Alice in Wonderland!), and Perth’s WATV-7 adaptation of the stage musical The Good Oil in 1965.

But we never got to see, say, a TV version of Burke-Stannard-Benjamin’s musicalisation of Harp in the South (which they wrote in the 1960s), or adaptations of other popular Australian stage musicals like Reedy River. (If you’re interested in Oz musicals the definitive account is in the superb book The Australian Musical: From the Beginning by Peter Pinne and Peter Wyllie Johnston. Incidentally, they are currently working on a follow up, Australian Film, TV and Radio Musicals.)

Still, when it comes to old Australian TV you’ve got to be happy with what you can get, and Pardon Miss Westcott is a good “get”. It’s cheerful and energetic, made by people with talent who just want the audience to enjoy themselves. If you watch it in the right spirit you will have a lot of fun.

A copy of Pardon Miss Westcott exists at the National Film and Sound Archive and is easy to access if you can get to a viewing centre.

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