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.