Sean Scully has had one of the most unique careers of any Australian actor. The son of actor Margaret Christensen, he became a child star in England in the early 1960s, headlining TV series and several Disney movies such as The Prince and the Pauper, as well as appearing on Broadway in The Girl Who Came to Supper by Noel Coward. Scully returned to Australia in the late 1960s and became a familiar face on stage, TV and film, with such credits as Bellbird, Sons and Daughters, A City’s Child and Phobia.
Filmink’s Stephen Vagg recently talked to Mr Scully about one of the more obscure aspects of his oeuvre: his appearances in TV plays.
I think your first TV play was Boy on the Telephone (1960) in England. Could you tell me about that?
“Mum (actor Margaret Christensen) wasn’t a stage mother. She was a professional actor in her own right. But she did say to me once we moved to London (in October 1959) ‘why don’t you try to get work as an actor’. I’d done a bit in Australia, complete nepotism, silly things for the Woman’s Weekly (photographic jobs for articles like ‘what to do if your child is grazed’, that sort of thing) and she could see that I could do it. I made an appointment of my own volition aged 12 in London to see Liz Evert who was casting for ATV. I didn’t have any such thing as nerves in those days, and I’d been brought up in a showbiz-y kind of family, and as I left the office I turned around and said ‘don’t call us we’ll call you’ (laughs). Within the month I had the lead in serial Mill of Secrets playing an Australian. And it was popular and there was a sequel, and I was away.
“ATV commissioned Australian Michael Noonan to write a TV play with me in mind: The Boy on the Telephone. That was seen by director Don Chaffey who cast me in The Prince and the Pauper (1961) for Disney which led to two more movies for Disney.”
You were also in Goodbye Johnnie (1965), a British TV play about the withdrawal of Australian forces from Anzac Cove in World War One. It featured a number of other Australian actors based in London, such as John Meillon and Ken Wayne.
“That was made for Yorkshire Television. It was my first production with a heap of Australian actors in the cast. It starred Edward Judd and John Meillon – they were drinkers, I wasn’t. They would go out for drinks after I’d go back to digs.”
Did that play have any special resonance for you as an Australian or was it just another job?
“It was absolutely just another job. We weren’t going into scenes crossing ourselves (laughs). The sets were there, the guns were placed, the first AD was shifting us around and we just did it.”
What was the attitude towards Australians like in England in the 1960s?
“I didn’t experience what my mother experienced several times when she arrived in London. My mother was showing a book of press clippings about herself to this agent she had gone to see to get representation. He desultorily flicked through it and said, ‘We don’t employ amateurs in this country.’ (I later told this story to Mr (Noel) Coward who laughed and said ‘I’ve got news for them.’).
“I do remember a couple of times doing interviews with various people and they would ask ‘where are you from?’ I’d say ‘Australia’ and both times they would say ‘I thought I could hear an accent.’”
When you returned to Australia you appeared in the TV play A Phoenix Too Frequent (1966) on the ABC with Fay Kelton and Lynette Curran. Any memories of that?
“Very dim memories. It was a three hander. I just learned the lines and there was no furniture to bump into (laughs). It was directed by Oscar Whitbread for whom I did Romeo and Juliet. Oscar was a lovely guy. I wouldn’t have any sort of black mark against Oscar, he was lovely.
“I thought Fay was very good, very nice. Lyn was very nice and very pretty and good.”
Also for the ABC Sgt Musgrave’s Dance (1967), based on a play by George Bernard Shaw.
“That was directed by John Croyston who used to direct a lot of good stuff. They got Wynn Roberts up from Melbourne to appear in it. He used to live in Montsalvat, the artists’ colony. He worked rarely and I don’t blame him. He was very good.
“It also starred Neva Carr Flynn. The only fan letter I’ve ever written was to Neva Carr Glynn. She was in the James Mason film Age of Consent (a 1969 Australian film) and the critics were really vile to her saying she was over the top. I thought it was a wonderful performance and wrote her a letter bewailing the critics.”
You then played Romeo in Romeo and Juliet (1967) with Liza Goddard.
“That was done in the midst of Bellbird (in which Scully appeared for several years). I think I had a few weeks off to make it. It’s dreadful. I don’t think it really works.”
It’s interesting that you appeared in three Australian TV plays all written by foreign writers.
“The 1960s was a fabulous time for English theatre, I think that infected the local scene in Australia: there was some sort of prestige in it, and we felt connected to this wonderful thing that was happening. Then local producers started making local stories… Some of those are very good, but I think it’s a bit of a regret that they don’t do more international stuff.”
Thanks to Sean Scully for talking to us.
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