Ten Female Drama Writers from the First Decade of Australian TV

February 21, 2021
As part of his series on forgotten Australian TV plays, Stephen Vagg drew inspiration from Susan Lever’s recent book Creating Australian Television Drama: A Screenwriting History to shine a light on female writers from the first decade of Australian TV drama.

Barbara Vernon

A country gal who got into playwriting for her local amateur dramatic society in Inverell. This led to a play, The Multi Coloured Umbrella, which was professionally produced in Sydney – no mean feat for an Australian work in the 1950s, and even rarer, it was adapted for TV in 1958.

The production was the first TV drama made at the ABC’s site at Gore Hill. It proved controversial, with some viewers upset at its depiction of Australians (the play showed characters, gasp, gambling and talking about sex… personally I feel the real issue was that it had a female lead clearly unhappy with her husband being a dud root). The moral panic prompted a drop off in production of local-written stories at the ABC for about 18 months. Vernon stayed the course and enjoyed great success later in her a career as a key writer on Bellbird.

Oriel Gray

I’ve written about Gray in my piece on Burst of Summer. She had a colourful life, so colourful it was dramatised in a play: communist party membership, ASIO surveillance, discrimination, divorce, all the good stuff. She had decent TV credits too, adapting her own plays (The Torrents, Burst of Summer) for the small screen as well as those from others (The Rivals), and like Vernon she had a long stint on Bellbird.

Noel Robinson

Bet you’ve never heard of her. I hadn’t, until I started researching this project. The ABC really liked Robinson – she was their in-house writer of choice for TV plays in the early ‘60s, adapting plays by others (The Tower, My Three Angels, A Man for All Seasons) as well as doing originals (Split Level, A Time to Speak). A standout was A Time to Speak, the gripping, spooky tale of a weak-spirited doctor battling a creepy leader of a religious commune in 1900. Robinson emigrated to the UK in the mid-1960s and enjoyed a lot of success writing TV plays over there (including a tale of Aussie expats in London, All Out for Kangaroo Valley, and one about a Japanese war bride in Australia, The Tilted Screen) and is really, really, not well known.

Chris Gardner

A British woman who emigrated to Australia in the 1950s, Gardner was motoring along as a housewife in Woody Point, Queensland, when she started writing and enjoyed decent success. Her plays include the ground-breaking Dark under the Sun (1960), a look at a romantic relationship between an Aboriginal man and a white woman. I have absolutely no idea what happened to her but for a few years at least, her work was regularly produced on Australian screens.

Pat Flower

One of the more famous writers on this list, mostly because she wrote a series of popular detective novels that are still well regarded. In the 1960s, she was also one of our busiest TV writers, pumping out a lot of material, particularly for the anthology series Australian Playhouse (so much that wags dubbed it “The Pat Flower Show”). Flower’s greatest small screen achievement is arguably a 30-minute one-person play, The Tape Recorder which is a masterpiece of the form and became a deserved international success, performed around the world. (Susan Lever’s appreciation for Flower’s career was the initial spark for Creating Australian Television Drama: A Screenwriting History.) Flower wound up taking her own life, like a distressingly large number of female writers of her generation (Charmain Clift, Lorna Bingham).

Pat Hooker

Another writer on this list who should be better known, Hooker was a typist who went to work in the ABC drama department as a script assistant, writing her own stuff on the side that was eventually produced for TV. Her small screenplays include light comedy, The Little Woman (1960) and the story of an ageing concert pianist, Concorde of Sweet Sounds (1963), which tackles what it’s like to be an artist in 1960s Australia. Hooker also wrote the remarkable, powerful A Season in Hell (1964), the first depiction of a gay romance in an Australian TV drama (Hooker got around the censor by dramatising a true life story: Rimbaud and Verlaine). She moved to England and had a long career writing TV plays over there, including writing a pioneering one about a lesbian relationship, The Golden Road (1973).

Kay Keavney

She wrote the first Australian TV series – which was so early, it was made before there was TV in this country: The Adventures of Long John Silver (1955), starring Robert Newton at his eye rolling peak in the title role. Keaveny was mostly a radio writer but did a bit of TV including the thriller Eye of the Night (1960) and Prelude to Harvest (1963), an account of the early days of European settlement in Australia.

Jean Allen

She was a housewife from Wolseley, South Australia, who submitted a TV play, The Valley of Water, to a competition in the Adelaide Festival of the Arts in 1962. It came second, and was filmed later that year – the first (I think) TV drama shot in South Australia. I have no idea what happened to Ms Allen after that – I’ve been unable to find any other credits – but I hope she had a long and productive life. Incidentally, the floor manager of The Valley of Water went on to have a decent career; his name was Dean Semler.

Sonia Borg

An actor who emigrated from Austria, found a home at Crawford Productions, where she moved into writing – notably on Homicide, the first real blockbuster success of Australian TV drama. Also, on the writing staff in the crucial early years of the show was another woman: Canadian expat Della Foss Paine. I would argue that a great deal of the success of Homicide came from the fact that, while ostensibly a blooey-bloke show, it had a lot of women on staff. Diversity is good business. Borg went on to pen a number of screenplays with an animal focus, including the classic Storm Boy (1976).

Joan Seppings

Also known as Joan Webster, she was a nurse turned writer, doing all sorts of stuff to earn a quid (journalism, novels, books on bushfire safety). She also made a significant contribution to Australian TV by co-writing the first TV revues for the ABC, Wild Live and Christmas Belles (1958), and Trip Tease and High Cs (1959), both of which starred a very young Barry Humphries as Edna Everage. He did his first TV here!

A special shout out goes to three Australian women who wrote plays considered good enough to be filmed for British TV in the 1950s and 1960s but not Australian TV: Betty Roland (Granite Peak, filmed in England in 1957), Dymphna Cusak (Stand Still There, shot in 1954) and Ruth Park (No Decision, 1961)

For more articles like this, read:

60 Australian TV Plays of the 1950s & ‘60s

Annette Andre: My Brilliant Early Australian Career

Barry Creyton Live

Forgotten Australian TV Plays – The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: A Tongue of Silver

The Flawed Landmark: Burst of Summer

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Grey Nurse Said Nothing

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: You Can’t Win ‘Em All

Forgotten Australian TV plays: Marriage Lines

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: The Merchant of Venice

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: Seagulls Over Sorrento

Forgotten Australian TV Plays: Noeline Brown

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