Eleanor Witcombe, who died in October at the venerable age of 95, is not exactly a household name in Australia – but some of her work is, because she’s associated with the renaissance of Australian film in the late 1970s. She wrote the screenplays for The getting of wisdom and My brilliant career. However, her writing career long preceded that work.
Eleanor Witcombe, then, was a playwright and screenwriter. She was born in 1923 in Yorketown, South Australia, where she went to Yorketown Higher Primary School until 1939 when her family moved to Brisbane. There she attended Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School. I was entertained to find, via Trove, all sorts of references to her schooldays because in those days, particularly in country towns, the papers reported on school doings. Yorketown’s The Pioneer regularly included “Honor Lists” in which the young Eleanor would appear, such as in 1931 for “Arithmetic” and “Mental”, or, in 1935, as winning a prize for “Schoolwork” in the Yorketown Show. In 1932 the paper reported on the formation of Yorketown’s first Brownie pack, and listed Eleanor and her sister among its first members, and in 1938, it reported that she had earned Honours in her Grade VI Music Theory exam. She was clearly a diligent girl …
… and she liked writing. The Sydney Morning Herald, in its obituary, says that her English teachers at Brisbane Grammar School encouraged her talent. She wrote her first play, “Omlet”, a skit on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for a school concert.
Early working years
In 1941, the family moved to Sydney, and by mid-20s, she was living in Cremorne, Sydney. She went to art school where she knew Margaret Olley (also born in 1923.) This connection also popped up in Trove, this time in The Daily Telegraph of 23 January 1949 which reports on William Dobell controversially winning the Archibald Prize with his portrait of Olley. The report writes that of the 50 people viewing the portrait only two recognised “buxom, attractive 25-year-old Miss Olley”, and one of these was Witcombe. The report continues that:
Miss Witcombe attended East Sydney Technical College art school with Miss Olley. She said: “From some angles the portrait resembles Margaret. “There is a certain something about the whole thing that is Margaret. “I think it is glorious. I think it glows. It jumps out of the wall and really gets you. “But no one who does not ‘know’ Margaret would recognise it as a portrait of her.”
However, by this time, Witcombe had moved from art to writing and the theatre. In 1945, her short story “The Knife” was one of 43 out of over 2000 entries chosen for publication by the Sunday Telegraph in its short story competition, though I suspect she wasn’t among the final winners. Her story is available on-line.
It was drama though that captured her interest. Her biography at AustLit records that she enrolled in Peter Finch’s Mercury Theatre School, and that between 1948 and 1950 she was commissioned by the Mosman Children’s Theatre Club to write three plays for children: Pirates at the Barn, The Bushranger, and Smugglers Beware. Searches on Trove find many, many references to these plays – over a long period of time, and in England as well as Australia. According to AustLit, Smugglers, Beware became the first Australian children’s play professionally produced in London.
In 1950, The Australian Women’s Weekly included her in an article on Interesting People. She was 27, and had written and had performed those three children’s plays. The article concludes with
Miss Witcombe has been writing plays since she was seven, likes action and says “fairies are only for adults.”
Throughout the early 1950s, she appears frequently in the newspapers, with her plays being performed all over Australia – in remote places like Bourke as well as the cities. She started writing for radio, and talks in interviews about original versus adapted works.
However, she also spent part of the 1950s abroad, going to London in 1952 where she worked and studied for 5 years, not returning to Sydney until 1957.
Television years, and beyond
On her return, she wrote for the ABC and commercial radio – including many one-hour drama adaptations of plays, books, and stories – as well as for the theatre. She initiated the Australian Theatre for Young People in 1963, and was a foundation member, in 1962, of the Australian Writers Guild. We have a picture, in fact, of an active successful writer – of both original and adapted works.
When television appeared on the scene, Witcombe turned her hand to that medium too, writing for sketch comedy series The Mavis Bramston Show and, for three years, for the television soap opera Number 96, both of which, for different reasons, are important parts of Australian television history. She adapted children’s novels for television: Pastures of the blue crane (1969), which is one of the first miniseries I recollect seeing, and Seven little Australians (1973).
And, just to show her complete versatility, she adapted Norman Lindsay’s The magic pudding for the Marionette Theatre of Australia, a show that was performed at Expo 70 in Japan. When this show was revised in 1980 for new puppets, the Australian Women’s Weekly reported that
The script for the new production is by screen writer Eleanor Witcombe. Richard [the Theatre’s artistic director Richard Bradshaw] believes she’s the best.
“Eleanor used great huge chunks of the original book but we had to develop Pudding’s part. Her additional dialogue is perfectly in character.”
Meanwhile, of course, there were those films, The getting of wisdom (1977) and My brilliant career (1979). Both were adaptations of Australian classics, and both earned Witcombe AFI Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay.
I found a lot more in my research that I’d love to share, but will just tell this, before concluding. Around 1976, Witcombe was invited by Sir Robert Helpmann to research Daisy Bates for a film in which Katharine Hepburn wanted to star! Who knew! It was Witcombe, apparently, who uncovered that Bates had once been married to “Breaker” Morant.
After her death, the National Film and Sound Archive posted an excerpt from a 1998 oral history interview with her by Stuart Glover. In the excerpt she discusses writing adaptations, and the need to find the wood amongst the trees, the essence of the story. The excerpt ends with Glover suggesting she’d had a good career and asking her whether she’d enjoyed it. She replied:
No, I’m disappointed in myself. Because I don’t think I’ve – I haven’t adapted myself well. [Laughs] I haven’t found my centre enough and quickly and solidly and surely enough, to be able to go for that centre, y’know? I haven’t looked at me like a book and said, ‘This is what this book is about, and that is where the centre is.’
Sounds to me like an artist – never happy with her work – because, if you ask me, she had a brilliant career.
Have you heard of Eleanor Witcombe, or seen any of her plays or films?