Here in the UK we have taken Australian television ‘soap operas’ to our hearts, but long before television launched Down Under radio ‘soaps’ ruled supreme.
Grace Gibson was at the forefront of Australian radio drama. Yes, Miss Gibson by James Aitchison and Reg James is the definitive biography of her remarkable life. The book can be ordered from Amazon if you are based in the UK or directly from the Grace Gibson Productions website if you are located in Australasia.
During the late 1940s there were one hundred commercial radio stations in Australia and between them they were playing 20,000 separate episodes of various serials each week. 2UW in Sydney had a solid block of twelve different weekday serials running from 9am until 12.30pm, with more ‘soaps’ hitting the airwaves in the late afternoon.
Radio drama was perhaps the world’s shortest lived art form. When television launched many radio stations which had been airing back to back ‘soaps’ simply dropped them overnight and opted for a mix of news, talkback and music instead.
At the forefront of Australian radio drama was the legendary Grace Gibson, an American who had settled in Sydney and who formed her own production company in 1944. By 1953 Grace was producing fifty quarter hour radio serials per week, and by her tenth year in business she had recorded 7000 editions of these shows. She became the largest commercial radio drama producer in the British Commonwealth, and was second only to the BBC Transcription Service in terms of output.
Bruce Ferrier (right) now owns Grace Gibson Productions; he is pictured here with Dr James Wright (aka The Merry Medic) as he records his 9000th good health radio segment.
Whilst television put Grace’s competitors out of business, she was determined to continue doing what she loved. She began buying up her rival’s archives, and ended up owning most of the radio drama which had ever been produced in Australia. Others thought that she was mad, but Grace set about selling these productions to territories where television had not yet launched, by the mid-1970s 60% of her revenue came from overseas sales. Her serials were heard all over the world, in Singapore the government even endorsed them as a good way for the natives to learn how to speak English properly!
And for Grace this was not the end of newly produced radio drama, she realised that the days of 15 minute daily serials were dead and gone, so she created the mini-drama. This new style of serial would air for four minutes each weekday, and proved to be an instant hit. By 1978 her company had produced 200 individual serials – 37 had been adapted from American scripts, and all of the others had been written by Australian’s. She had successfully extended the lifespan of the radio serial by several decades.
Today Grace Gibson Productions is owned by Bruce Ferrier and under his auspices the company continues to thrive. They continue to produce new work including the hilarious political satire, How Green Was My Cactus, which is now Australia’s longest running radio serial. Excitingly Grace Gibson Productions are also starting to free many classic radio serials from their archives, making them accessible on CD. This is the first time that many of these productions have been heard since their original transmission over sixty years ago!
Left: The political satire, How Green Was My Cactus, is now the longest running serial in Australian radio history and is available to order on CD. Right: The Bishop’s Mantle can now be heard for the first time in 67 years thanks to a new CD release. Fortunately all of the surviving episodes were safely stored at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.
I am personally delighted that The Bishop’s Mantle, adapted from the best-selling novel by Agnes Sligh Turnbull, has just been released because it stars my old friend Thelma Scott. When it hit the airwaves in 1950 this programme was billed as the most beautiful and inspiring story of the year, it is a lovely serial and will transport you back to the glory days of Australian radio drama.
We meet an idealistic young rector called Hilary Laurens (Michael Pate) who has just been appointed to the fashionable church of St Matthews, he will face many challenges and as the grandson of a much respected Bishop he has a lot to live up to. Hilary is far from a dreary do-gooder and soon puts more than a few backs up; many traditionalists will oppose his ideas and feel that the old ways are still the best. Fortunately for Hilary a voice will rise out of the past when it is most needed, a voice which gives constant guidance and counsel to the man who now wears the bishop’s mantle.
The young rector is a man who is torn; he is torn between his parish, and his love for the beautiful and wealthy Alexis (Sheila Sewell). Unfortunately Alexis is accustomed to a gay life of parties and fun, and despite her deep feelings for him cannot face the life he could offer her. In her confusion Alexis flees abroad and Hilary fears that she has taken up with an old flame on the Continent.
Meanwhile Hilary is determined to help the inmates of the nearby slums and wants to bring them into his church; he is surprised at the opposition he receives from senior wardens, wealthy and powerful men who don’t want penniless wasters in their vicinity. Do these men have something to hide in regards to their connections with the slum dwellings? Despite the barriers being placed in his way, Hilary will put his own job on the line to try and improve the lot which has been dealt to these helpless paupers.
The Bishop’s Mantle was billed as the show of the year in 1950, it was a hit with listeners as far afield as Fiji, and was enjoyed by those who tuned into 4BH Brisbane.
We follow him as he tries to tend to his flock, he encounters a grief stricken family whose son has committed suicide, and does what he can to assist a juvenile delinquent who could be facing a spell behind bars. Then when war flares up in Europe he is torn again, torn between his opposition to war and his need to be able to look his parishioners in the eye. This war will teach him the true meaning of grief when it brings tragedy to his very own doorstep.
Things will finally look up when Alexis returns from Europe and agrees to take his hand in marriage, but this will be far from a fairy tale ending with many opposed to the union.
Alexis is indeed a young woman who is used to a gay and frivolous lifestyle, she will resent having to give up dances and cocktail parties, and will soon set tongues wagging with her exploits. Matters are made much worse when a seductress called Diana Downs (Thelma Scott) sets her sights on the dashing and handsome young rector, Diana is determined to have him for herself!
The impressive cast list also includes Ruth Cracknell (from Mother & Son), Betty Lucas (from Richmond Hill), Hilda Scurr, Charles McCallum, Ethel Lang, Madge Ryan, Alan White, Kevin Brennan, and features John Saul as the narrator.
Inset left: Michael Pate as clergyman Hilary Laurens in The Bishop’s Mantle. When the seductress Diana Downs (Thelma Scott) made advances towards his character, Michael’s real-life mother telephone him and expressed her concern telling him to watch out for ‘that woman.’ Right: Michael Pate later starred as Detective Sergeant Vic Maddern in Matlock Police.
Michael Pate and Thelma Scott had worked together before of course, playing mother and son in the acclaimed 1949 movie Sons of Matthew (aka The Rugged O’Riordans). The film followed a family of battlers as they struggled to carve out an existence in a harsh land battling drought, bushfires and cyclones. I am pleased to report that the movie is now streaming on the Ozflix service.
Thelma had appeared in many of the early pioneering movies in Australia, and was one of the nation’s leading radio actresses. During the 1930s she had been given the unofficial title of ‘radios leading lady,’ and at the age of 22 she had played all of the leading female roles in Coronets of England including Mary Queen of Scots, Mary Tudor, Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves. In 1942 she had found herself as the most listened-to radio actress in the country when she was cast as Ruth Evans in Big Sister, this was the first daytime radio serial broadcast nationally, and after the programme ended five years later she was given another leading role in Crossroads of Life which replaced it. Her popularity on radio would continue and in 1947 she was bestowed with a coveted Macquarie Award for her performance in the radio play The Lake.
In later years Thelma found a whole new fan base on television with roles in programmes such as The Story of Peter Grey, Skippy, The Young Doctors, Richmond Hill, and perhaps most notably playing the Point Piper socialite Claire Houghton in the close to the bone Number 96.
Inset right: The award winning actress Thelma Scott is one of the stars of The Bishop’s Mantle. Left: Thelma Scott found a whole new fan base on television after the glory days of radio drama had ended. Here she is as Isabel Phelps in The Young Doctors with fellow cast members Adam Fernace and Gaye Poole (right).
As for Michael Pate, he moved to the USA shortly after recording The Bishop’s Mantle and forged a highly successful career over there appearing in more than fifty movies, and over 250 television shows. On returning to Australia he was cast as Detective Sergeant Vic Maddern in the much loved rural police drama Matlock Police.
There are plenty of other classic radio serials available from the Grace Gibson website which we’ll be introducing you to in the near future but if you feel like a taste of the Australian outback you might like to know that all 910 episodes of The Castlereagh Line are now available.
Opening in 1880 we meet the folk who run a stagecoach line in northern New South Wales. This is the tale of the ruthless and vicious Jack Seager (Ric Hutton) who is both a drunkard and a rapist. The hard done by Lottie Long (Wynne Nelson) will rue the day she ever met him, and in the opening instalments she kills a man in self-defence, steals a horse, is raped, and becomes embroiled in gang robbery.
We are taken into the murky world of politics; there is big business, treachery, double dealing, suicide, blackmail, and the threat of the hangman’s noose lurking over those who do the wrong thing in life. This serial was written and directed by Ross Napier who also wrote for television shows such as Skippy, Boney, Number 96 and Chopper Squad.
The complete series of the long running ‘soap’ The Castlereagh Line is now available on CD, the programme began in 1982 and soon established a firm following, it was very popular with listeners on the Isle of Man.
The impressive cast list includes Noel Trevarthen and Gordon Glenwright from Carson’s Law, Kit Taylor, Michael Long, Peter Gwynne, Brian Anderson, Richard Meikle, Les Foxcroft, James Condon, Diana Davidson, Lynne Murphy, Brenda Senders, Wendy Playfair, Rebecca Rigg, Georgie Sterling, Cecily Poulson, Russell Newman, John Bonney, Don Crosby, Sean Scully and Zoe Bertram. You’ll also hear Belinda Giblin who will be remembered by television viewers as the scheming Alison Carr in Sons & Daughters, and as the good time girl Kay Webster in the raunchy ‘soap opera’ The Box.
The Bishop’s Mantle, The Castlereagh Line, How Green Was My Cactus and many other classic Australian radio serials can be ordered by listeners worldwide from the Grace Gibson Productions website.
Meanwhile a wealth of Crawford television classics are also now available for you to own and enjoy including the first eight DVD volumes of Matlock Police (starring Michael Pate), the complete series of Carson’s Law, and the first four DVD volumes of The Box (starring Belinda Giblin). These television gems can be ordered exclusively from Eaton Films in the UK or from Crawford DVD if you are based in Australasia. Customers who are based in any other part of the world should email Eaton Films to place their orders.