The Flawed Landmark: Burst of Summer

November 15, 2020
Another in Stephen Vagg’s series on forgotten Australian TV plays, a special one for NAIDOC Week on the ABC’s 1961 production of Burst of Summer.

Warning: This article contains examples of historical racist language that some readers may find distressing. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island readers are also warned that the article features images and names of deceased individuals.

Burst of Summer is a genuine landmark of Australian television.

The first Australian TV drama with not one, not two, but three major Aboriginal characters. The first with a sizeable role for a male and female Aboriginal actor. The first in a modern setting to have a scene between two Aboriginal characters without any white people in it. The last dramatic appearance from the legendary actor Robert Tudawali. And the sole acting performance from singer Georgia Lee.

I won’t lie – it’s a very flawed production.  It didn’t need to be as flawed as it was, but it is. But that doesn’t make it any less important, either.

Burst of Summer was based on a stage play by Oriel Gray, a writer with quasi-legendary status within Australian theatre, in part because of her talent, which was considerable, but also due to her personal narrative containing one of the great “compare and contrast” moments in the history of female Australian playwriting: Gray’s play, The Torrents, tied for first place in a 1955 competition with Summer of the Seventeenth Doll… but while the Doll went on to receive a professional production, leading to it becoming an international blockbuster and Hollywood film and launching its writer, Ray Lawler, on an overseas career, Gray was left at home to toil in (comparative) obscurity. Like many a playwright before and since, Gray eventually gave up theatre for television, but not before she’d written her final stage work, Burst of Summer.

As a writer, Gray was long interested in social and political issues, including Australia’s treatment of Aboriginals. She penned Burst of Summer in the late 1950s, inspired by the real-life story of Ngarla Kunoth, the Aboriginal teenager thrust into national fame when cast in the title role of the feature film Jedda (1955). The play was originally produced by the Melbourne Little Theatre in 1960. It was rejected for a professional production by the Melbourne Theatre Company but was chosen by the ABC to be adapted for radio in 1960 and TV in 1961.

Early Australian TV drama did not often deal with Aboriginal issues. In fairness, it did not often deal with Australian issues full-stop: reproductions of TV plays from England were far more common than local stories.

However, around 1960-61 the ABC was going through what might be called a “race phase”. Race relations were very much in the news at the time, with newspapers full of events such as the Sharpeville massacre, the Greensboro Diner boycott and Sammy Davis Jr’s marriage to May Britt (I’m not being flippant about the last one – it took up a LOT of press space when it happened).

This seems to have bled through to our screens.

In 1960, the ABC produced the first (to my knowledge, anyway) Australian TV drama with a black actor in the lead: an adaptation of Eugene O’Neil’s The Emperor Jones starring American Joe Jenkins.

The same year saw the production of Dark Under the Sun by Queensland writer Chris Gardner, the story of a romance between a white woman and an Aboriginal man – although the man was specified as “half caste” in order (one assumes) to justify him being played on-screen by a white actor in blackface.

The following year saw Joe Jenkins star in The End Begins, a TV play with a post-apocalyptic setting (based on an English script); and Aboriginal actor/singer Candy Williams had a role in The Sergeant from Burralee, about the murder of an Aboriginal in 1830 New South Wales.

And there was Burst of Summer, broadcast live by the ABC in Melbourne on 9 August 1961, and taped and shown in other cities at a later date.

Burst of Summer tells the story of Peggy, an Aboriginal woman from a small country town, who has just played the lead role in an Australian film. Peggy was billed under her traditional name, Mayrah (she’s referred to as both “Peggy” and “Mayrah” in dialogue, but for ease of reference in this piece I will just call her “Peggy”, which is how the script does it). She returns home to visit the milk bar where she used to work as a waitress; it is run by an Italian immigrant, Joe, who employs an Aboriginal man, Charlie. Joe offers Peggy her old job back but instead she goes to work as a servant at the house of Sally Blake, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. Peggy is loved by Don, an Aboriginal childhood friend employed as a law clerk; Don is best mates with Clinton, a big-city journalist temporarily assigned to working in the town for sleeping with his old boss’s wife. Clinton is dating Sally but begins to spend time with Peggy, which makes Sally jealous; Sally inspires a very racist childhood friend, Merv, to do something about the growing presence of blacks in the town (there is a subplot about houses being built for Aboriginals in town, so they can move “off the flat”). Merv gets drunk and winds up glassing Charlie in the eye with a beer bottle, blinding him for life. Terrified of retaliation from Charlie’s friends, Merv turns himself in to the police. Don decides to stay in town and work for his people but Peggy elects to move to the city with Clinton.

The ABC-TV version was directed by William Sterling, one of the few experienced TV directors then working in Australia. The script was written by Oriel Gray herself, with reportedly some input from Rex Rienits.

The casting is particularly notable for its inclusion of three Aboriginal actors. It was common at the time to use white actors in black face to play POC characters on television – indeed, Sterling himself had recently cast white Edward Brayshaw as an Aboriginal in Dark Under the Sun. But it was not exclusively this way: Aboriginal actors such as Robert Tudawali and Henry Murdoch frequently guest starred on episodes of the TV series Whiplash (1960-61), singer Candy Williams was in The Sergeant from Burralee, and Joe Jenkins appeared in five TV plays between 1960-61.

The radio adaptation of Burst of Summer had been performed on ABC radio by an all-white cast but all the Aboriginal parts in the TV version were taken by black actors: Robert Tudawali was cast as Don, Georgia Lee [below] as Peggy, and Candy Williams as Charlie; there were also several Aboriginal extras, including Harry Williams. William Sterling said “apart from the fact that we had these excellent actors available, we felt it would destroy the whole social impact of the play if we cast white people in their roles.”

Tudawali was the most famous member of the cast due to his starring role in Jedda; indeed, posters advertising the production gave him top billing, even though Don isn’t the biggest part. At the time, Tudawali was a ward of the Aboriginal Welfare Department, who took £100 of his £160 fee.

Lee and Williams were both high-profile singers, especially Lee, who had an international reputation in the field of jazz. (Out of interest Ngarla Kunoth (pictured below in Jedda) seems not to have been an option to depict the character based on herself: she entered an Anglican convent in 1960). The white actors in the cast were all highly experienced, and included Wyn Roberts (who played Clinton), Edward Brayshaw (Merv), Ann Charleston (Sally) and Edward Howell (Joe); the one you’re mostly likely to recognise is Charleston, who would go on to cultural immortality as Madge on Neighbours. Some trivia: one of the white extras was Nancy Cato – not the Nancy Cato who wrote the novel of All the Rivers Run, but her cousin.

In preparing for this article, I read Oriel Gray’s original play (available via Australian Plays) and her screenplay (available online at the NAA), in addition to watching the TV play (available via the National Film and Sound Archive).

I stress that all my thoughts on this are just my opinion. I also point out that I am a white man and that a woman and/or Aboriginal person could have a very different reading of the film, script and play.

To start off, I think the original stage play of Burst of Summer is terrific. It boldly tackles not just Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal people, but also the relationship between the sexes, the plight of Italian immigrants, the peripheral nature of fame, and the role of women (black and white) in Australian society.

I don’t want to argue that it’s the great lost masterpiece of Australian theatre: it’s clearly a piece of its time, with all that that implies (some of the dialogue is very on the nose), but it’s also a work of strong drama with clearly defined characters who have definite motivations and rich emotional relationships, that tackles a vital social issue head-on. If adapted faithfully I think it would have been a fantastic TV play or feature film.

The TV play does not do it justice.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely fascinating and compelling to watch, a landmark in our cultural history…

But it’s not what it could have been.

I saw the TV play first and a lot of it confused me. Everything was completely cleared up when I read the play… but to me that is not the sign of a successful adaptation.

I felt that there are several main problems with the adaptation (and I stress again that this is all just my opinion and urge people to see it themselves to make up their own mind.)

The first is that it runs at under an hour, meaning cuts had to be made; and the cuts were not always judicious. Scenes which explain, clarify and enrich the drama have been excised or truncated, and not always with skill. (It didn’t have to run for an hour, incidentally – by 1960, the ABC routinely presented dramas that were 90 minutes or over.)

The greatest victims in the transfer from stage to screen are the characters of Don and Peggy.

For instance, in the original play, Don’s character is given a history of alcoholism, which not only gives him an extra dimension, it makes him more human and admirable because he has overcome a personal struggle. Furthermore, it provides Peggy with an extra layer of guilt in her relationship with him (he started drinking after he left her), and offers a sharp contrast to Clinton, who is clearly a practising alcoholic. The TV Don has no flaws and is far less interesting a role than his theatrical counterpart.

In the play, Don is given a moment of true heroism at the end: after blinding Charlie, Merv comes into the milk bar carrying a shot gun, threatening Clint, Pegg and Don, and it’s Don who talks him down. In the adaptation, Merv has no gun and it’s Clinton, not Don, who calms Merv. I assume the shot gun was removed for censorship reasons and that the big speech to Merv was given to Clinton rather than Don because the director had more confidence in Wyn Roberts’ ability to deliver than Robert Tudawali’s; however, it may simply have been bad decision-making.

Peggy’s character also suffers in the TV adaptation. In the stage play, she has a very clean “arc” and personality: it’s clear that she was plucked from a waitressing job to star in a movie and now isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life; she is a sexually liberated woman who enjoys flirting and is attracted to wayward Clinton, but is drawn to Don who she knows is a decent man; she is torn between pursuing fame/her dreams and living a more “sensible” life.

Now, admittedly, all that stuff is “kind of” there in the adaptation, but it’s not as clear as on stage; key lines and moments which would have clarified things have been removed. And unsympathetic direction doesn’t help: for instance, in the adaptation, Peggy refers to her hometown as a “dump”, which is a key thing to understanding her character… but the moment barely registers on screen.

The relationship between Don and Peggy is far clearer in the play – they were childhood sweethearts, she left to seek fame, she likes and admires him but doesn’t love him… Again, this is kind of there in the adaptation… but you have to squint to see it. Emphasis is muddied. Explanatory lines are missed.

I should add that the copy of the film I have seen, which one can access via the NFSA, doesn’t include some moments that were in the shooting script, which one can read through the NAA. These moments (coincidentally?) all seem to involve Peggy or Don: an exchange at Sally Blake’s house after a Clint/Merv clash where Peggy tells off Merv; a moment in the milk bar where Don pleads for tolerance to Clint after an encounter with Merv. I have no idea if these scenes were cut before filming, or were broadcast but simply removed from the NFSA copy. Either way, their absence only serves to further weaken the status of the Aboriginal characters.

I sense (I could be wrong) that Peggy and Don’s parts were truncated in part because of the inexperience of Georgia Lee and Robert Tudawali in acting for live TV. (The part of Charlie, played by Candy Williams, is relatively minor on both stage and screen.) If that was the case, it was a mistake. Yes, the actors are raw (in one scene it even seems Tudawali is searching for his mark), but they aren’t given screen time to flesh out their performances. A few extra lines of dialogue or even just judicious close ups would have helped them tremendously, but are not provided.

Still, when Tudawali and Lee are given a decent chance to act out a scene, they are very effective. And at least Lee and Tudawali (and Candy Williams) have tremendous authenticity, which is more than one can say for Edward Brayshaw’s scowling two-note performance as Merv. (Brayshaw was a fine actor but was allowed to go a little over the top here.)

You could maybe, possibly, justify reducing the size of Peggy and Don’s parts for the sake of having to trim a full stage play down to fifty minutes (as mentioned, plenty of Australian TV plays went up to ninety minutes… but I get that budgets are budgets). But there were a number of things removed from the play in the TV version which wouldn’t have taken that much time to retain, and would have added immensely to the piece.

For instance, in the stage play it’s clear that Peggy tried a few different options at finding new work before winding up as a maid at Sally’s, and that the bulk of her movie fee was taken by the Aboriginal Protection Board. That would have taken two lines of dialogue at most to convey and would have explained so much about what drives Peggy – the humiliation she must have felt after the high of starring in a movie, the way even one of the most famous Aboriginal people in the country had to hand over their wage to a paternalistic overlord. But they didn’t do it. Was this censorship, fear of censorship or just a bad decision?

In the stage play, it’s stated that Clinton is still traumatised after working as a correspondent in the Korean War, which, for me, explains everything about him: his drinking, his cynicism, his fear of commitment. That fact would have taken up just one line on screen, and made all the difference to his character, who instead comes across on TV as a smug know-it-all. Again, was this censorship or just a bad decision? I’d love to know. (An aside: Oriel Gray was a member of the Communist Party for a time, with her own ASIO file; the ABC may have been concerned that a character who suffers PTSD from covering the Korean War could be interpreted as commie propaganda.)

Oriel Gray

In the play, Clinton wants to write a piece about Peggy for the sake of his career, and Sally doesn’t want him to do it because it will embarrass the town. This grounds the conflict between the two in a specific way which humanises both (it makes him more ambitious, her more caring). This is cut in the adaptation.

In the play, it’s explained that Merv’s racism is powered by the fact that when he was younger, he was overlooked for selection in a football team in favour of an Aboriginal player. Sure, yes, maybe that’s a little pat, but it gives Merv’s racism a more personalised dimension that is missing in the adaptation, where he hates blacks “just ‘cause”.

In addition, some things were present in the script that were simply missed in the direction.

There’s a lovely moment in the stage play when a news crew doing a story on Peggy meets Don and are surprised by his colour; they try to cover their shock by awkwardly asking Don if he knows the Aboriginal boxer, Dave Sands, who they have met: it’s a subtle, skillful representation of the casual, everyday, thoughtless racism practised against Aboriginals (i.e. assuming they all know each other). The script in the TV adaptation specifically writes in that the news crew are surprised at Don being black – but this is missed in the filmed version. And the script replaces the Dave Sands reference to a cameraman drawing a parallel between doing a story on Peggy to doing one on miniature poodles… which actually would have served the same purpose as the stage original, so no harm… but again, this moment is missed under the direction.

On the basis of Burst in Summer, William Sterling seems to have been one of those directors more interested in moving the camera around than using close ups. This may be an unfair assumption on my part – this is the only TV play of Sterling’s that I have seen. But it is in sharp contrast to the work of someone like, say, David Cahill, who frequently used close ups to drive home emotional points in his productions.

Even the things I’ve listed so far aren’t in themselves fatal. Where the TV version of Burst of Summer goes really wrong is in completely downplaying the attraction that Clinton and Peggy have for each other.

Their romance is the DNA of the stage play. It ties everything together. Peggy’s love/lust for Clinton is what puts pressure on Clinton’s relationship with Don and Don’s relationship with Peggy; it’s what prompts a jealous Sally to whip up Merv into a violent frenzy, and causes Peggy to decide to leave Don. It gives emotional stakes to Peggy, and a moment of feminist independence at the end when Clinton tells her he won’t marry her and she says (to herself) “you will ask me to marry you, Clinton. You’ll get down on bended knee.” (It’s the last line of the play.)

Look, a Peggy/Clinton love story is kind of there in the adaptation… but, again, you really have to squint to see it. It’s a little more evident in the TV script but even there it’s muted. In the stage play, Clint likes Peggy from the start, but in the script, he only starts when they come back from a swim and it’s a blink-and-miss-it moment.

William Sterling could have fixed this with some directorial things – given a big close up to Peggy when she first meets Clinton, for instance – but he doesn’t – indicating it was a conscious choice to downplay any interracial romance, which is totally bizarre and does great damage to the drama.

You could view the TV version of Burst of Summer and think that Clinton has purely platonic feelings towards Peggy throughout the entire story (I know that’s what my take was when I first saw it). For instance, when Clinton first meets her, he seems more interested in Mrs Blyth, a PR person, and when he sees Peggy is working as a maid, he seems to barely register that she’s even in the scene. When Clinton confesses to Don that he went swimming with “Mayrah”, it has limited impact because Don and Peggy have spent little time together, Clinton has hardly noticed Peggy, and she’s been called Peggy more than Mayrah, so you assume (well, I did) that Mayrah was this other character. When Clinton warns Peggy/Mayrah about hanging out with other guys, in the play it’s clear that it comes from jealousy, but on TV it just seems like him being a patronising busy-body.

And this is damaging. If Clinton and Peggy don’t love each other, you could cut Clinton out of the whole story entirely, which is always a problem when talking about one of your leads (Sally whipping up Merv to violence could have been accomplished by the sub plot of Aboriginal families moving into town; everything heroic Merv does could be accomplished by Don).

In the stage play, Clinton’s love for Peggy gave him great emotional stakes for what was going on; in the screen version he just seems to be a boorish city liberal slumming it in a country town with a possible crush on his male friend.

Why did Oriel Gray make such a disastrous change to her own play? I have no idea; it may have been her own choice, but I’m inclined to guess it was a bad note from some executive.

When Burst of Summer aired, most critics gave it a hard time. I’ve been unable to find one positive review. To which you might say “so what?”, but critics matter when you make TV about an unpopular subject matter.

This didn’t affect the career of William Sterling, who turned out several more plays for the ABC before heading over to England, where he enjoyed more success as a TV director, and made a feature film of Alice in Wonderland (1972).

The white actors all kept working for the rest of their careers; Ann Charleston, as mentioned, became a legend on Neighbours.

Oriel Gray never had another new stage play produced, but had success in television, including a long stint as a writer on Bellbird, and saw The Torrents filmed by the ABC in 1969 (something that seemed forgotten in newspaper reports about the recent STC/Black Swan revival of that play).

Guess who did suffer, though? That’s right. The black actors.

After making Burst of Summer, the ABC shied away from racial dramas for the next few years; this timing was perhaps coincidental, perhaps not. The commercial networks did not pick up the slack and this was well before colour-blind casting came in: black actors only got parts in black stories… Burst of Summer was the last acting role for Georgia Lee and the last for a number of years for Candy Williams. Both continued their music careers, particularly Lee, but I don’t think it’s outlandish to presume both would have wanted to do more acting.

Burst of Summer also provided the last role for Robert Tudawali, one of the most charismatic Australian actors of the twentieth century. Every other part he played on screen was of a “primitive man” – Jedda, Whiplash, Dust in the Sun; this was his one chance to depict a character closer to the real Tudawali – educated, sophisticated, charming – which makes it all the more frustrating that his performance was hampered by script cuts and poor direction.

Things did pick up for black actors in the second half of the 1960s, where you could see Aboriginal performers on shows like Wandjina!, Woobinda Animal Hospital, The Battlers and Skippy (alongside, it must be admitted, a lot of white actors in blackface). Bob Maza had a regular role on Bellbird for a period; I like to think Oriel Gray had something to do with his casting. Robert Tudawali never got the chance to benefit from this revival; he died in 1967.

Over time, Burst of Summer became a forgotten work in the history of Australian screen studies. Which was unfair.

Yes, I have been critical of the adaptation. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t vitally important or shouldn’t be seen or that the TV executives who completely ignored Aboriginal people and/or Australian drama for so long have some sort of moral superiority. At least the makers of Burst of Summer had a go.

And even in its flawed state, Burst of Summer remains a fascinating piece of art.

It is packed full of striking images – striking in the fact that they were so rarely seen then and are not that common today: the opening shot of Peggy, a black woman, draped in furs; the Aboriginal men gathered outside the milk bar asking Charlie to come out for a drink; the depiction of an Aboriginal lawyer in collared shirt and pants; the sight of two educated Aboriginal people having a conversation over a kitchen table. This, on primetime Australian television in 1961.

It’s a work that retains its power to shock and confront. White characters use the word “b**ng”, both casually and malevolently, and its use is shown to definitely hurt Don (plenty of Australian shows have characters that say racist things; not many dramatise the impact on slur victims). We don’t just see the violent, harsh racism of Merv, but also the paternalistic racism of Sally, and the thoughtless-but-still-hurtful racism of Joe and Clinton.

The small town in which the action takes place is not an enclave of Blue Hills cuteness, but a place plagued by racial tension, violence and alcoholism. Merv discusses the brain capacity of Aboriginal people being affected in the construction of their foreheads. Sally thinks blacks were happier in a primitive state. And the moment where Merv blinds Charlie with a beer bottle remains shocking in its violence.

Furthermore, Burst of Summer is very adult in its treatment of sex – it is implied that Clint and Sally have a sexual relationship, and that Clint possibly sleeps with black women; it is stated outright that white men in the town regularly use Aboriginal girls for sex.

And it is feminist, in a way. Not as much as the play, but even in the adaptation Peggy isn’t punished for wanting a career and is allowed to walk off into the sunset with Clinton (although their relationship is vague and he clearly is an iffy prospect, but it’s what she wants).

Finally, Burst of Summer was our once chance to see Lee in a dramatic role, and the one time Tudawali played a part close to his real personality.

All these things individually justify the film’s existence; together, they make it a work of real import.

The TV play of Burst of Summer is not what it could have been, but it is a landmark, and we are a richer nation for its existence.

And we are lucky that we have an ABC that made it, a National Archives of Australia where you can read the script, and a National Film and Sound Archive where you can watch it.

If you are interested at all in representations of Aboriginal people on screen, I urge you to see it.

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

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