Monday musings on Australian literature: Eleanor Witcombe

Eleanor Witcombe

Eleanor Witcombe, 1950 from Australian Women’s Weekly (Presumed Public Domain)

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 careerHowever, her writing career long preceded that work.

Growing up

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 BarnThe 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?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian writers and Hollywood

This will be my last Monday Musings posted from the USA, so I figure I should do at least one post inspired by where we’ve been. I’ve put it together pretty quickly though, as time for blogging is pretty limited, so please forgive all the gaps!

Since this is a litblog, my focus here is the relationship between Australian writers and Hollywood, and I’m narrowing it to the last couple of decades. (This connection, in fact, goes back to the silent movie days, but that would make for an essay rather than the brief post I have time for here.) I should also explain that I am using “Hollywood” to stand for America (a common synechdoche for which I should perhaps apologise, but it suits my California-holiday-post purpose, and is probably pretty accurate anyhow.)

I guess there are political issues that could be discussed here – brain drain, and all that – but I’m not going there. And, anyhow, besides the fact that obtaining enough work can be difficult in Australia, many Australians do seem to keep their feet in both hemispheres.

There are two angles from which this topic can be tackled – Aussie scriptwriters in Hollywood, and Australian writers whose stories have been optioned for film adaptation by Hollywood – and I plan to briefly do them both.

Aussie scriptwriters & Hollywood

Many scriptwriters well-known in Australia have also written for American productions – usually having been identified because of their Australian success. Laura Jones and Andrew Bovell are two such. Laura Jones, for example, worked on Portrait of lady (1996) and Possession (2002). She also wrote for Oscar and Lucinda (a 1997 British-American production of an, admittedly, Australian novel, directed by an Australian, so this is not particularly surprising!). These are all adaptations of novels, in fact, but only one is Australian.

Andrew Bovell, known in Australia for films like Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Lantana (2001), was also scriptwriter on the more recent American-British-German co-production of A Most Wanted Man (2014). Bovell said he was approached for about six or seven projects, via his American agent, after the American release of Lantana. He chose one, set to star Benicio de Toro, but, like many film projects, it doesn’t seem to have eventuated.

Less surprising in this group, perhaps, is Craig Pearce who has worked on many Baz Luhrmann films, including the recent Australian-American co-production, The Great Gatsby (2013). It is worth mentioning, nonetheless, because the film (obviously!) is an adaptation of a major American classic.

One of the most recent Australian writers to make his name as a scriptwriter in Hollywood is poet, novelist, scriptwriter Luke Davies. He was scriptwriter on the co-production, Life (2015), about a Life Magazine photographer and James Dean. He has really established himself, though, for his work on last year’s, Lion, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. (He won the BAFTA.) Sure, it’s a British-Australian-American co-production and is an Indian-Australian story, but this must put him on the map in Hollywood. And, in fact, he is now working on an American production, Beautiful boy, which is another adaptation of a memoir (two, in fact, one by a father and one by his son).

Another Australian making his mark in Hollywood – as an actor, director and writer – is Joel Edgerton who wrote and directed the critically-well-regarded film, The Gift (2015). He is now working on another film – as director and writer. It’s titled Boy Erased, and is due for release in 2018. His path is clearly different to that of the preceding names here, with his coming via his acting career rather than a writing background.

While researching this, I discovered an organisation called Australians in Film, which describes itself as “The Industry Association for Australian Filmmakers and Performers in the U.S.” It was founded in 2001, and says that it “supports and promotes Australian screen talent and culture in the United States.” One of its several programs is Gateway LA Script Development which was created in 2015 by its President. The aim is to give Australian screenwriters “the chance to have their script seen by top industry professionals” and it has apparently been successful in achieving that. There were 8 finalists this year, with the winners being a duo, Penelope Chai and Matteo R. Bernardini, whose script explores the Cinderalla myth/fantasy.

Australian novelists & Hollywood

I was going to head this section “Australian stories”, but decided that that’s not quite right, as you’ll see. Of course, Australian novels have been adapted for films in America for the longest time – like, to pick a quick obvious example, British-born Australian novelist Nevil Shute’s On the beach (1959) which was produced and directed by Stanley Kramer.

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites bookcover

Courtesy: Picador

Recently though, it seems that books by Aussie novelists are attracting a lot of attention. I’ll name just a few, which were discussed in The Australian:

  • Hannah Kent’s Burial rites, a debut novel (my review) which is currently “in development” with Jennifer Lawrence signed on to star. It’s set in Iceland, hence my qualification regarding “Australian stories”.
  • Liane Moriarty’s Truly, madly, guilty and The husband’s secret have been announced or are in pre-production. Her Big little lies has already been made into a mini-series in the USA (2017), starring, among others, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. A Los Angeles literary agent, quoted in The Australian (link above), says that “People are just so enamoured of the worlds she creates — she’s captured the zeitgeist of suburbia”.
  • Anna Snoekstra’s Only daughter, a debut novel just published last year and set in my home-city, has been optioned by Working Title, a partner of Universal Pictures.
  • ML Stedman’s The light between oceans was released in cinemas in 2016 (as British-New Zealand-American co-production).
  • Marcus Zusak’s The book thief (my review) was released in 2013 (as a German-American co-production).

Not a particularly original post, I’m afraid, but I didn’t want to miss a Monday Musings. I hope it’s been of some value, even if not particularly edifying.

I’d love to hear from readers here who can add names to this brief discussion!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Three Australian scriptwriters

In a tiny nod to Oscars week, I thought I’d introduce three Australian scriptwriters. I have written one Monday Musings on scriptwriters before in a post on the AWGIEs. There I named a few scriptwriters who also write novels, Luke Davies (who was, in fact, nominated for this year’s Oscars for his script of Lion), Helen Garner and Christos Tsiolkas. In this post, I’m going share three more, none of whom have written novels, but all of whom have written films* that I’ve seen and admired.

Rolf de Heer

Rolf de Heer, 2006 (By Whit (originally posted to Flickr as Rolf de Heer), CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Rolf de Heer, 2006 (By Whit (originally posted to Flickr as Rolf de Heer), CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dutch-born de Heer came to Australia when he was eight years old. He is a significant fixture on the Australian movie scene, with his screen-writing credits including Bad boy Bubby, Dance me to my song (co-written with others including 2017 Stella Prize longlister, Heather Rose), The tracker, Ten canoes, Charlie’s country. Four of these films have been nominated for and/or won national and international awards, and the other, Dance me to my song, about a woman with cerebral palsy, was a critical success.

The tracker, which deals with that complex situation in which indigenous people were used by police to track indigenous people, won an AWGIE award for Best Original Screenplay. It also introduced de Heer to indigenous actor David Gulpilil with whom he went on to make two feature films about indigenous life in Arnhem Land, Ten canoes and Charlie’s country. Ten canoes was the first movie to be filmed entirely in Australian Aboriginal languages. De Heer, as you have probably gathered, doesn’t shy from difficult or challenging subjects.

Andrew Knight

A longstanding, and versatile, player in Australia’s film and television industry, Knight is probably best known for the several highly popular (and well-regarded) TV series which he has created and/or written, such as the comedy-sketch shows, Fast-Forward and Full Frontal, and the dramas, SeaChange (the three series of which Daughter Gums and I have watched several times) and Rake (starring the inimitable Richard Roxburgh).

Knight has adapted several crime novels by Peter Temple for television, including the telemovie of The broken shore (which I read and enjoyed just before blogging). His films include Siam sunset and the more recent films, The water diviner and Hacksaw Ridge. He is clearly an example of someone who has made a living out of screenwriting. Two years ago he received the Longford Lyell Award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement, at our movie awards, the AACTAs.

Ivan Sen

Born to an indigenous Australian mother and a Croatian father, Sen belongs to that group of filmmakers who writes and directs his own films. He has made five feature films – most of which have been nominated and or won various film awards – starting with Beneath clouds which won the First Movie Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Made in 2002, it explores some of the challenges facing young indigenous people, through the story of two young people who hit the road, seeking, well, themselves, really. It’s a beautiful, albeit often confronting, film.

“It’s becoming more important for me to make films for Indigenous communities to see themselves on screen” (Sen)

The challenge of indigenous identity, features in many of his films, including in his most recent one, the 2016 Goldstone. It’s a crime thriller set in outback Australia, and features an indigenous detective. It deals with contemporary issues including industrial fraud, political corruption, indigenous land-rights, abuse of women immigrants. It was screened at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, competing in the Platform section for “artistically stimulating and thought-provoking” films. One of the things I love about Sen’s films is his use of landscape to underpin his themes – and Goldstone is a perfect example.

I could choose more writers, but I’m going to give you all an easy post this week and keep it short. There will be other opportunities to share more writers because, while Aussies always worry about the viability of our film industry, we do seem to have a great pool of exciting writers able to tell meaningful and powerful stories.

How much notice do you take of screenwriters when you watch films? Do you have any favourites?

* Note: I haven’t seen every film I’ve mentioned here, but I’ve seen most of them.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Some Australian screenwriters

Funny things sure do happen sometimes. I decided on the weekend that, with my comment about screenwriters in my post on Hail, Caesar and with the Oscars being screened today, Monday (downunder time), that I would devote this post to screenwriters. Then, I turned on the TV to look at the Oscars, and guess what? They changed the usual order of announcements and put the screenwriters first! A tribute to Trumbo perhaps? Whatever, the coincidence made me smile.

Now, I have written about screenwriters before in a post on Australia’s AWGIE awards, but in that post I focused on a few authors who had also written for screen or theatre. This time I’m going to focus on those for whom screenwriting is a major part of what they do. There are a lot of them, so all I can do is choose a few to represent the many. I’m not going to analyse their work – that would take too much time – but just introduce them, and identify some of their works because they are often just not known as the person behind these works. Here goes:

  • Stuart Beattie would be the least known to me of the writers I’m listing, even though he’s the most prolific. He writes, it seems, in genres I tend not to watch, like thrillers and adventure. However, he was a co-writer on Baz Luhrmann’s controversial film Australia, and he adapted John Marsden’s bestselling young adult novel Tomorrow, When the War Began to a film of the same name.
  • Andrew Bovell writes for theatre, movies and television, sometimes adapting his own work from one form to another, such as the films Lantana and Blessed which he adapted from his plays, Speaking in Tongues and Who’s afraid of the Working Class, respectively. Non-Australian moviegoers might know him for his adaptation of John Le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man.
  • Laura Jones is the daughter of Australian writer Jessica Anderson (whose The commandant and One of the wattle birds I’ve reviewed here.) Jones started her career with television teleplays for Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC. Her first screenplay, an original, was Hightide made by Gillian Armstrong, and her next was Angel at my table, made by Jane Campion and adapted from Janet Frame’s memoir. She has gone on to write many adapted screenplays, including Portrait of a Lady, Angela’s Ashes and Possession. Some great films there …
  • Jan Sardi has been nominated for an Oscar so, given today is Oscars day, I had to include him! The film was Shine. Sardi also adapted Nicholas Spark’s The Notebook and Li Cunxin’s Mao’s Last Dancer. He is apparently currently working on adaptations of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures (my review). He is also the current President of the Australian Writers Guild (AWG).
  • Eleanor Witcombe is the oldest of my group and is not, as far as I can see, still working. She was born in 1923, and is had to be in my list because she adapted two significant Australian women writers, Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom and Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career. Witcombe wrote for theatre and television, including the television miniseries adaptations of two more classic Australian women’s books, Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians and Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South.

Many of Australia’s successful directors have also written for some of their films, such as Gillian Armstrong, Jane Campion, Baz Luhrmann, George Miller, Rachel Perkins, and Peter Weir. Such creativity. I’m in awe.

Now, just in case you are interested in writing for film yourself, I came across in my research a document by ScreenAustralia, published just last year, titled I’ve got a great idea for a film. You can read it online. It mainly lists resources, both Australian and overseas, for all aspects of script development.

Do you tend to be aware of screenwriters, and do you have any favourites?