Monday musings on Australian literature: Grace Gibson

Today’s post was inspired by a tweet, yesterday, from the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). Using the hashtag #OTD (On This Day), they promoted their entry on Grace Gibson who was born on 17 June (in 1905.) Not only was that tweet a blast from my working-life past, but it also introduced an aspect of Australian literature that I haven’t really talked about here before, radio serials.

I am using “literature” here, of course, in its widest, or most generic, sense which, according to Wikipedia, includes “any body of written works.” Radio serials, of course, start with written scripts.

A brief bio

Zenith Console Radio, 1941

Zenith Console Radio, c. 1941, By Joe Haupt, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

So, Grace Gibson, for those of you who haven’t heard of her, was a radio executive producer, who was born in El Paso, Texas. While still young, she became a successful salesperson for the Radio Transcription Co. of America, and was noticed, in the early 1930s, by Sydney radio-station 2GB’s general manager, Alfred Bennett, who was visiting the USA. He invited her to help him establish and manage the company that later became Artransa Pty Ltd. They sold American recorded radio programs throughout Australia. However, in 1941, Gibson, on a buying trip to the USA, became stranded there when the country World War II.

She returned to Australia about  1944, and established her own company, Grace Gibson productions. Lynne Murphy, writing for the ADB, says

The ban on the importation of non-essential goods during the war was a boon for Australian-made products including radio programs, which were now locally produced and increasingly locally written.

So what Gibson did was to make her own productions using American scripts “with local actors as compères or narrators.” She sold these programs to radio stations around Australia. Gradually, the productions became more and more Australian. Here’s Murphy again:

Gibson was astute in her choice of drama directors who, in turn, cast good actors, resulting in high-quality, successful productions. Talented writers adapted the American scripts to local conditions and created original material when the American scripts ran out. They were encouraged to write their own serials—with some outstanding results such as Lindsay Hardy’s spy thrillers Dossier on Dumetrius, Deadly Nightshade and Twenty Six Hours.

By the mid 1950s, says Murphy, the company was producing thirty-two programs per week, and they were broadcast not only in Australia, but in New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong and Canada. The programs included evening programs,, Night Beat, and her “two flagship productions”, the daytime soap operas, Dr Paul (which ran from 1949 to 1971) and Portia Faces Life, about lawyer Portia Manning (which ran from 1954 to 1970.) Television eventually saw the end of the radio serial heyday, though Gibson claimed to be the last survivor among of the commercial studios. She wasn’t described as the “human dynamo” for nothing.

Maryanne Doyle, writing on the NFSA’s website, says:

Though Gibson concentrated on the sales side of the business, she could recognise a good script and was noted for her skill at spotting talent.

So, why have I included her here? She wasn’t a writer. However, her programs – together with programs from other studios and production companies – were important providers of stories to people before the days of television, and not just to housewives during the day, but to families at night, to shift workers, and so on.

Stories for Australians?

The question is, though, what stories? To answer this, I went to the National Film and Sound Archive website and, of course, to Trove’s digitised newspapers – and found an interesting story, that took us from the importation of American serials on physical discs, to the production of American scripts here using Australian cast and crew, to the production of scripts written by Australians.

There were various reasons behind this trajectory:

  • legislation: importation of transcriptions from the USA was banned in 1939.
  • political action: an article in The Mail in 1951, for example, notes that although there was no evidence of the importation ban being lifted, such programs were starting to come in again, perhaps via England. Actors’ Equity, the article said, was hostile and passing resolutions against the practice. The article says, though, that opinion was divided. Grace Gibson, it says, seemed to sympathise with the actors, but warned that “if the imports don’t stop soon she’ll be forced to join in the game, too, to protect her business.” On the other hand, the article reports that C.G. Scrymgeour, rep for Towers of London*, argued that “the influx of shows by people like Gracie Fields, Clive Brook, and Donald Peers, made and sold by his organisation, have raised the standard of Australian radio programs.”  The article writer concluded that “the policy of nothing but the best, irrespective of country of origin, sounds good to radio listeners. And an occasional English or American shows adds a welcome variety to our programs.” However, s/he realises that “some form of a quota does seem indicated — that is, if we want our actors to eat.”
  • popularity: some American serials were so popular that when the American scripts ran out – meaning I think that the serial in question had done its dash in the US – the stories were continued by Australian scriptwriters!

Interestingly, in all I read on this issue, the main concern seemed to be supporting the Australian industry – the writers, technicians, producers, and musicians who made their livings out of radio – rather than telling Australian stories for Australians. It confirms that old “cultural cringe” attitude in Australia. Who wanted our stories when you could have overseas ones!

Oh, and it sounds like Grace Gibson may have felt “forced to join in the game” because a 1954 Sydney Morning Herald report says that Grace Gibson Radio Productions was fined £200 for importing prohibited goods, though the Department of Trade and Customs “refused to reveal what the goods were or what their value was.”

Anyhow, Grace Gibson did also produce original Australian scripts, some even telling Australian stories (unlike the afore-mentioned Dossier on Dumetrius, which was an MI5 spy story.) One example is Cattleman which comprises 208 x 12-minute episodes:

He [the character Ben] is a kind of ideal Australian in his generosity, and his contempt for authority and affectation. Even his cattle duffing seems to be more an endearing failing than a serious crime. His life history, covering pioneering, marriage and wartime service is also true to the prototype of the ideal Australian. (Grace Gibson Productions website)

See, real Australian!

Are any of you old enough – or prepared to admit you are – to remember listening to radio serials?

* An independent, British radio production company.

32 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Grace Gibson

  1. We are lucky enough here in the UK to still be able to here radio drama – of very variable quality it must be admitted. We seem to here fewer classic serials these days which is a bit of a shame. I don’t know if our modern radio drama has quite the vitality of your Grace Gibson era!

    • Thanks Ian. We were still getting some radio drama, though not serials, a few years ago, but I think that’s stopped. We also had serialised book readings, but they’ve gone too. I’m glad you still have something!

  2. What an interesting post. My parents were World War II generalation and would tell me about the radio serials. I have heard segments of them. The fact that Folks in Australia were trying to push Australian serials is so interesting. I thought that resistance to creeping American culture was a more recent development.

    • Thanks Brian … I’m not sure how much, though, it was resisting culture and how much it was about protecting jobs! I need to research that more. Imma baby boomer and I do just remember radio serials … particularly a very famous daytime one here, not Grace Gibson’s though, that went until the mid 1970s. It was called Blue Hills.

  3. I have clear memories of listening, as a child, to the radio serial, “The Cat Scratches”, a drama of Cold War Britain. Was it an import? Probably. But today I can download it from it seems.

  4. Hi Sue, I have never heard of Grace Gibson until now. I remember listening to the radio, It was always on at our house. I remember listening to Blue Hills, and that was because of my Mum. And also because of Mum, Graham Kennedy and Nicky. I also recall the names Bob Dyer and Jack Davey. There were kids quiz programs, and we must have listened to Davy Crockett, because my brothers had the hats and guns. We used to traipse around the back yard playing and singing the song!.

    • Being of a similar age to you, Meg, I have those memories too, though I think Davy Crockett was TV … Day-vee, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier!! We played and sang it too, though being girls, my sister’s and my dress-ups came from Annie Oakley!

  5. I’d never heard of her either. I landed here in the early 1960s long after the heyday, but I know my family listened to radio serials in the UK because I am named after a character in a series called ‘Listen with Mother’!
    I think there will always be a tension between the local product and the imported, and not necessarily because of a cultural cringe. Without strong local support from consumers or government, it’s not commercially viable to produce a great deal of local product, which will inevitably be variable. But we still want it. We want our own stories, even though of course we want to be able to access the best of overseas product too. What annoys me is that these days much of the imported product is cheap rubbish, stuff that they can’t sell and so they offload it cheaply here.
    I really miss the great days of Australian drama on the ABC…

    • Well you learn something new every day. Love that you were named for a Radio Serial character.

      It’s interesting, I think, that the drivers for Australian content do change a little in emphasis in different periods. But, I think the writer has a point when s/he says “the policy of nothing but the best, irrespective of country of origin, sounds good to radio listeners”. Consumers primarily want quality – the source is, in a way, secondary. But, or course, definitions of “quality”, of what we like, can vary hugely.

      • Yes, I think that’s right: we wouldn’t have wanted to forego shows like The Goon Show and My Word, still going strong until quite recently.
        The balance is the tricky part. If we don’t have our own industry, then ours can never be among the ‘best’, and that would be a shame. I want the best of both, of course!

        • Of course, Lisa!

          (I assume you meant The Goon Show? I’ve changed it on that assumption – presuming autocorrect had had its way with your comment!)

  6. Ah Sue, you jolted my memory and I just found my book, The Magic Spark, 50 years of radio in R R Walker. (1973). There is a page and half reference to Grace Gibson: “The name that has endured longest however, in the transcription business, and almost as a lone standard- bearer today, is Grace Gibson……….One of her chief script-writers, Kathleen Carroll, tells of the tests Grace applied in script evaluation. She read most of them in bed. “If she fell asleep before page three, my scripts had no chance of being accepted. If she got a little further, then, maybe, I could get by with a re-write…
    Davy Crockett.was on the radio 3UZ at 7.45 am. The following interesting website lists the programs:

    • Thanks Meg. Certainly Grace Gibson was the doyenne of commercial radio serials in Australia. I don’t recollect that book. I had books by Richard Lane and Jacqueline Kent but not Walker’s. However, one of the articles on Trove about Gibson called her a “human dynamo”. That story about her reading in bed would support that description I’d day.

      Thanks for that link. I have a few links for radio serials, but haven’t seen that one. There are a lot of radio serial aficionados out there it seems.

  7. Grace Gibson Productions! “Dossier on Dumetrius” (I never realised it was that strange spelling), “Portia Faces Life” and “Dr Paul”! Oh, and maybe not Grace Gibson – but “White Coolies” Betty Jeffries tale of Australian nurses as prisoners of the Imperial Japanese in/ on Sumatra- vague memories of all these I recall as a boy on our wireless at home – an HMV cabinet radio – and later, too – an AWA shelf-radio – tuned to 2TM (the base station of a six-member network across the north and north-west of NSW: 2TM 2MO 2VM 2QN 2AD and 2RE (Tamworth, Gunnedah Moree Inverell Armidale and Taree – respectively. My mother was employed by the radio pioneer and managing director Ernest HIGGINBOTHAM – hence loyal to his commercial radio. >

    • No, that spelling surprised me too Jim. And of course those of us of a certain age all remember Portia and Dr Paul, even if we didn’t necessarily listen to them. They were part of the culture the way, say, shows like the Voice etc are now?

      I’ve never heard of White Coolies, but I notice that they were accessioned as part of a big backlog project I ran at the NFSA to get the huge collection of radio serial scripts listed and properly stored. I need to research more. It says the Production Company was Australasian Radio Productions (though White Coolies also appear in a Grace Gibson sampler. That latter is a bit mystifying.) However the lovely thing is that the cast of White Coolies including June Salter and Ruth Cracknell! How good is that?

  8. My brothers and I were addicted to “action” radio serials that featured super heroes such as Superman (Up, Up & Away). There was also a Biggles serial (Chocks away Ginger!), Tarzan and one about Hop Harrigan whoever he was.

    We also listened to the Goon Show and the fabulous My Word and I do recall Blue Hills a long running Australian drama.

  9. There were still radio serials when I started driving and I would listen to bits and pieces of story while I was in range. (Curtin radio in Perth still has a serial at 10.30am daily but I always switch away). We were an ABC family. Granddad, a farmer, would stop what he was doing at 12.00 to catch Blue Hills. Mum would listen to Sunday playbill – drama (BBC from memory), I was an Argonaut but also listened to a lot of Dad and Dave on commercial 3UL.

  10. Xenophon 50 five zero (the repeat was to avoid confusion with 15). My sister was Golden Fleece and Bar Dodona 42. No big surprise, we heard her call name a lot more than mine! (I don’t recall appearing at all. Lol.)

  11. I wrote three shows for Grace Gibson in the 1970s. She was an amazing lady with a Texan drawl. I was also an Argonaut which got me interested in writing in the first place. If anyone’s interested, I wrote Grace’s biography with Reg James, titled YES, MISS GIBSON (it’s available from the Grace Gibson Shop, which sells CDs of her shows). Radio serials were the main staple of entertainment in the 1930s-1960s. By the time the industry went into decline, Grace sharply bought up the distribution rights for her rivals’ work. That’s why the Grace Gibson Shop sells Address Unknown and White Coolies, which were produced by other organisations. Radio drama was an art unto itself, and now of course is a lost art.
    Jim Aitchison.

  12. Another fact about Grace: she was a pioneering woman in a man’s world. And she championed women writers. Lynn Foster and Kathleen Carroll wrote serials for many years for Grace. Lynn Foster wrote and directed her first shows (decades later, Foster would write Mavis Bramston scripts.). Another woman writer Grace hired was Malcolm Turnbull’s mother, the scriptwriter Coral Lansbury (daughter of 2GB sound effects guru Oscar Lansbury).
    Jim Aitchison

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