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Australian TV drama has a rich history of live risk-taking, cultural cringe hurdles and shows 'for all'

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 30/06/2022 By Stephen Vagg and Anna Kelsey-Sugg for The History Listen
The 1959 ABC drama Ned Kelly marked a shift towards television shows that told Australian stories. (ABC) © Provided by ABC NEWS The 1959 ABC drama Ned Kelly marked a shift towards television shows that told Australian stories. (ABC)

We usually think of the golden age of live TV as 1950s America, when we were introduced to actors like Paul Newman, Grace Kelly and James Dean.

But Australia had its own TV golden era, the effects of which we still feel – and watch – today.

There was drama on the very first night the ABC broadcast television on November 5, 1956.

The Twelve Pound Look was a 30-minute production by J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, performed live in Sydney.

And in the decade that followed that broadcast, the ABC made over 500 TV plays.

"The ABC produced drama – and a lot of it – because it was understood to be integral to its role, part and parcel of a job as a national public broadcaster," director Storry Walton tells .

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images and names of people who have died.

But it was also because of a unique card the ABC had to play.

"Local drama was very expensive. Commercial television networks were obliged to produce material that would attract advertising revenue and that precluded a lot of work," Walton says.

"The ABC, on the other hand, was never shackled by profit obligation or any commercial considerations.

"That meant, marvellously, that the ABC could make drama for all Australians of all tastes."

From live disasters to fake British accents, battles against the cultural cringe and finding the confidence to tell Australian stories, the history of Australian TV drama was filled with, well, drama.

'A tremendously exciting time'

By the time television arrived in Australia in 1956, ABC radio had already been broadcasting drama for more than two decades.

Radio plays were so well regarded that many of its actors were household names, who then became well-known on TV, too. 

Stars included Ron Haddrick, Chips Rafferty, John Tate, Queenie Ashton, Ruth Cracknell, John Meillon and Helen Morse.

They performed live, as videotape technology was cumbersome and shooting films was expensive.

"It was a tremendously exciting time," late TV director Alan Burke said in a 1988 interview.

"We've never, in our selfish way, replaced the extraordinary joy of going to air live with a drama."

Annette Andre, an actress from the early years of television drama, remembers the joy – and some of the pitfalls – like the time she appeared in If it's a Rose, starring Andre and actor Don Pascoe in 1958.

"I had two changes within the recording," she recalls. "The first change went without incident. Then came the second change."

As Andre dashed off for a new dress, the costume assistant dressing her began to exclaim, "Oh gosh, oh gosh!".

The zip in the dress of Andre's dress had broken and with no time to do anything about it, Andre had to duck back on stage with the back of her dress undone down to her waist.

A surprised Pascoe, positioned behind Andre on stage, froze in response.

"My name in the [show] was Maria, but instead he came out with 'Annette'," she says.

He looked shocked, realising his mistake, and Andre – facing a camera – couldn't help but start to giggle. There was nothing to do but try to skirt around the camera until the two actors could compose themselves.

Cultural cringe all the rage

Early Australian TV drama was notably British.

Until the mid-1960s, most live plays consisted of local versions of British scripts.

"England was still regarded as home … the Queen was the Queen, and you tugged your forelock a lot," recalls actor and writer Barry Creyton.

"There was an embarrassment about the Australian accent.

"All of the announcers tried to have a British accent or, if they didn't, they tried – like people like Jack Davey – to have an American accent."

Many of the key people at the ABC were Englishmen who had worked at the BBC. This included the head of ABC radio and television drama, Neil Hutchison, who was not particularly enthusiastic about Australian writing.

"There is no doubt we have not yet reached the requisite standard in dramatic writing," he said in 1960.

"I think it is unlikely that we will ever supply all our dramatic needs here … If we are to keep our standards high, we must have the best importations.

"As yet, our Australian playwrights have not mastered the techniques of television," he said.

For a time, our cultural cringe was so strong it was easier to get Australian scripts on British TV rather than the local version.

In 1959, well-known author Ruth Park, best known for her novel The Harp in the South, and her husband D'Arcy Niland wrote a TV script for Channel Seven called No Decision.

The station rejected it, but not long after that, the script was filmed for British TV and broadcast to an audience of over 10 million people.

Late Perth writer Alan Seymour had a similar experience with the ABC, who commissioned a play from him, Lean Liberty.

When it emerged the protagonist was an "extreme left-wing man" who was "ex-Communist Party", the head of the ABC's drama department pulled it, Seymour told ABC RN in 2011.

"I wrote this play and they never paid me for it … and when I went to London [my agent] sold it to commercial television there within the first three weeks of my arriving and it was out on the screen six months later," he said.

Australians must have 'something of their own'

But as the 1950s were ending, sentiment was shifting.

Federal MP Les Haylen said in parliament at the time that, "While we must be prepared to have a certain amount of imported entertainment, there is no reason why we should regard ourselves as having this cursed colonial inferiority".

"We must go right to the people and tell them they can have something of their own," Haylen said.

In 1957 Arthur Calwell, deputy leader of the ALP, then in opposition, called the ABC the "anti-Australian Broadcasting Commission", taking exception with its employment of British people in key positions.

"I want an Australian in charge of this show, as I want Australians in every position of importance in this country," he said.

Charles Davidson, the federal minister responsible for the ABC, called it "an unwarranted attack" and defended the ABC's "highly cultured overseas sources".

But eventually, the ABC did start making more locally written drama.

That included the first-ever Australian mini-series, Stormy Petrel, which aired in 1960 and became the ABC's highest-rated drama at the time.

As we grew more confident telling our own stories on television, there were live plays about murders in Antarctica, convict uprisings, Russian invasion scares in colonial Adelaide, interracial marriage, the problems faced by migrants, and same-sex romance.

One chapter ends, another begins

By the late 1960s, the improved quality of videotape meant a reduction of costs; Australian drama no longer had to be done live.

And another big shift had taken place: all ABC drama was now written by Australians.

This meant more opportunities for local storytellers, like the late Barbara Vernon, who in 1967 became the head writer on the show Bellbird.

It was a huge success, paving the way for later Australian serial dramas like A Country Practice, Neighbours and Home and Away.

But the success of those shows had an unintended consequence: the demise of the television play.

Television plays in Australia never rated as well as the ongoing series, soaps and mini-series, even on the ABC. So the television play was replaced by shows like Rush, Certain Women and Brides of Christ.

For the national broadcaster, this had the advantage of building "audience loyalty", Storry Walton says.

"Audiences would come back, day after day or week after week to get the next in the series."

It also meant not needing so many new sets, costumes and props – another cost saving.

And as one era was ending, another was beginning. Those who'd worked on those early live TV dramas were key to the revival in the 1970s of Australian cinema, theatre and television.

Ken Hannam, for example, who directed many early TV plays, went on to make the critically acclaimed film Sunday Too Far Away in 1975.

His colleague, Henri Safran, directed Storm Boy in 1976.

And Alan Hopgood, who acted in a number of live dramas, wrote the 1973 blockbuster hit, Alvin Purple, marking drama's evolution into not only being confident enough to tell Australian stories, but just as confident to create raunchy sex comedies.

In a perfect full-circle moment, that film was so popular that in 1976 the ABC adapted it into a television series.

This year as Neighbours, one of Australia's most successful television dramas,  wraps up after 37 years, one of its stars Takaya Honda described its cultural impact as "massive".

"Not only in how it represents Australia and then Australians get to see themselves on screen, but also how the world views Australia," Honda said.

It's a statement that could be applied as far back as Bellbird. And it's true of so many of the Australian shows that continue to be produced and celebrated on our screens today.

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