I had been doing some satirical writing and performing under the cover of news. I did passable impressions of the movie critic Bill Collins, Prime Minister Bob Hawke and the Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, though truth to be told, there were better exponents - Max Gillies and Gerry Connolly to name but two. Yet my talents were deemed sufficient for a move to writing, directing and overseeing a range of comedy slots for the ABC.
Three things stand out. One was the amount of bureaucracy we had to wade through in attempts to be funny. The ABC has two noble progenitors which to me were hospice workers to creativity – the Civil (Public in Australia) Service and the BBC. The culture was at times so stifling that a fellow producer, based a 1000 kilometres away, and I produced a T-shirt with the invented post of Programme Prevention Officer on its chest. On the back was a contorted list of excuses as to why a programme would be choked at birth. One excelled: ‘Let’s kill it – I’ll call Publicity.’
Second was the way the ABC viewed itself. I wrote, directed and ‘pushed upstairs’ a comic short series of a ‘book’ reading, Life On The Fast Plain. It was a send up in short takes of Australian rural misery memoirs. I remember the fun in the studio, not the least because of the laconic, skilful and efficient performance of the actor Timothy Elston, who read all the parts. The finished product was, I thought, gentle and amusing.
I was summoned to the Head of Drama (which oversaw Comedy) on the floor above our unit’s offices. I expected something akin to the reception of my first radio play, Verbal Assaults, when I was congratulated on the piece and told it was going into production. The interview was quickly focussed. What did I have against the department, especially its output of read texts? It would never be aired.
The third aspect of the job, but initially more immediate than any woes I had over Life On The Fast Plain, confronted me on the Producer’s desk. There was a pile of submissions which stacked almost to the ceiling. Some of the material, from sketches to full length comedies, had been there for years. Some had notes, from the tepid to the tormented, on them. Others had encouraging comments. Most had nothing. And all, it seemed, had been unacknowledged. As a fellow writer, I was appalled and resolved to tackle what is known uncomfortably as the Slush Pile.
Most of it was rubbish, unsuitable or, sadly, the product of people who had overvalued their talent. One script stood out. It was appended with up to half a dozen glowing reactions: ‘I laughed out loud’; ‘original, funny’; ‘best thing I have read in years’; comments that should have sent it straight to production. I read it and found it to be all and more that others adjudged it. It was a comic drama serial, ahead of its male-dominated time, about a working mother and the shenanigans of her precocious progeny at a nursery.
What scandalised me was the realisation that not only had this script gone unproduced but that no-one had ever communicated – not even to acknowledge receipt – with the author.
I called the writer and assumed the unfamiliar role, based on Helene Hanff’s dictum, ‘If they take you out to lunch, they can’t sell your book’. (see A Hunting Tale) I apologetically related the positive comments, my attempts with my seniors to secure production, and the call to meet which could only terminate in disappointment. It was, I believe, a failure of vision.
At the same time word in pre-‘social media’ had got round that scripts were being read, tapes were being listened to, and they were being assessed, rejected and, on occasion, being produced or leading to commissions for new work.
I was offered an extension to my secondment which, because of the increasing administration involved, a desire to write and produce more of my own work, and the now recognised burden of dealing with unsolicited submissions, I refused. I went back to 4AM starts in the news room, chasing ambulances, sitting in courts, sifting through overseas cables and despatches, or on the sub-editors’ desk.
The one fleeting satisfaction of my time in Radio Comedy – apart from working with great colleagues – was that I had, mid-term, reduced the Slush Pile to nothing. When I left it was heading back towards the ceiling again. The only solace I get from that is that I know scripts of mine have been, are, and will be somewhere in similar physical or virtual piles.