National Archives of Australia

Issue 4 October 2011

Promoting history, culture and literature: ABC television and the creative writer

A camera used in an ABC television studio, 1966. NAA: A1501, A6330/2

When television broadcasting began in Australia in 1956, opportunities for local dramatists were scarce. Within a few years, however, television had swamped radio drama and writers could see that their best chance to reach an audience lay in this new technology. Dr Susan Lever, recipient of the Archives’ 2010 Frederick Watson Fellowship, looks at script holdings to assess the role of Australian creative writers in ABC television drama of the 1960s and 1970s.

The early years

By 1960 the ABC had begun to commission plays for television, initially following the model of the BBC’s commitment to serious playwriting and education. The first Australian ABC television drama was Rex Rienits’ historical series Stormy Petrel about William Bligh and the Rum Rebellion. Rienits had written a much longer historical drama about Bligh for ABC radio – but television required a more confined scripting and staging.

The minimal sets and relatively crude technology meant that Bligh was much more a man of the parlour and the office than the protagonist of mutinies and heroic journeys on the high seas. This was early evidence of television’s tendency to domesticate history.

Stormy Petrel in production, ABC studio, Gore Hill, Sydney, c.1960. NAA: B941, RADIO AND TELEVISION/STUDIOS/4

Within a few years, the ABC had begun to commission adaptations of Australian classic novels, such as Norman Lindsay’s Redheap (1972), George Johnston’s My Brother Jack (1965), Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1973) and Frank Hardy’s Power without Glory (1976).

The ABC was committed to presenting Australian history through drama, particularly its Behind the Legend series on famous Australians such as John Monash, Douglas Mawson and Henry Lawson. At a management level ABC drama heads, David Goddard and then John Cameron, saw television drama as part of the educational role of the ABC, entertaining Australians with their history and literary heritage.

A scene from Essington, an episode from the ABC’s Behind the Legend series, 1974. NAA: C612, BEHIND THE LEGEND SERIES 3 1974 PART 2

The role of the writer: Green and Witcombe

Writers also shared this commitment to popularising national history and literature. Cliff Green, one of the most prolific television writers in Australia, adapted some of Henry Lawson’s stories as Lawson’s Mates (1980) for the ABC, and was part of the writing team for Power without Glory.

Eleanor Witcombe adapted Redheap and Seven Little Australians for the ABC before writing the film adaptations of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career and Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom. Both Green and Witcombe saw themselves in the tradition of these classic writers of Australian literature; Witcombe knew Miles Franklin personally, and Green had helped Hardy publish the original clandestine edition of Power without Glory.

According to Witcombe, television networks found it easier to commission an adaptation of another work than to risk an original script. Nevertheless, the ABC did initiate anthologies of single plays to give writers the opportunity to present their own visions. Green’s original three-part series Marion (1974) turned many of the sentimental conventions of popular television into a more reflective and sophisticated work of art.

Blurred boundaries

Tony Morphett, 1974. Morphett’s career spans the history of Australian television drama. NAA: C612, TONY MORPHETT 1974

The lines between literary writing and popular television writing were not so clearly defined in the 1970s as they appear to be today. The ABC certainly favoured literary writing more than Australia’s commercial networks, but established novelists and playwrights worked alongside writers who made television their speciality.

Among the ABC scripts in the Archives’ holdings are television plays by novelists Hal Porter and Thomas Keneally. While Tony Morphett, best known for his television writing, had also written stage plays and a novel. In addition, David Williamson, one of Australia’s most successful contemporary stage playwrights, wrote a script for the first series of Morphett’s Certain Women.

The ABC script holdings in the Archives provide an avenue to understanding the work of Australian writers for the small screen. They also provide insight into the directions in which drama was developing, and contemporary comment on social issues.

Dr Susan Lever is an Honorary Associate, Department of English at the University of Sydney. Her interviews with Cliff Green, Eleanor Witcombe and Tony Morphett were among those filmed for the Australian Writers’ Foundation and are held at the National Film and Sound Archive.

Want more?

View Archives records relating to this article:

Fact sheet 115 – Introducing television to Australia, 1956

Watch Aunty Jack introduce colour on ABC television, 1975

Watch an excerpt from Six O’Clock Rock featuring Johnny O’Keefe, 1969

Read more about the Archives’ Frederick Watson Fellowship

2 comments on "Promoting history, culture and literature: ABC television and the creative writer"

  1. Do you remember any of the ABC television productions mentioned in this article?

  2. [...] Go here to see the original: National Archives of Australia | The creative writer and early ABC … [...]

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