Banned 60 years ago,this ‘obscene’ Anzac play makes its Australian debut

Wouldn’t it be exquisite if the first Australian performance of Peter Yeldham’sReunion Day since it was written in 1961 was halted by a police raid?

Yeldham’s screenplay,commissioned and broadcast by the BBC to critical acclaim and starring some of Australian theatre’s greatest alumni in 1962,is still subject to the censor’s ban which stopped it appearing on Australian screens 60 years ago.

Ruth Caro and Brandon Burke will perform in a reading of Reunion Day.

Ruth Caro and Brandon Burke will perform in a reading of Reunion Day.Dylan Coker

Now 95 and in ill health,Yeldham hopes to attend the anniversary read-though at the Australian Film Television and Radio School this Sunday (June 26),along with daughter Lyn and son Perry.

Yeldham was an aspiring young playwright/scriptwriter living in London as part of the Australian artistic diaspora when he was contracted by the BBC to write a “TV play”.

The obscenity trial over DH Lawrence’sLady Chatterley’s Lover had been settled only two years beforeReunion Day appeared on black and white British screens.

How the banned play was covered in 1962.

How the banned play was covered in 1962.Supplied

Love Me Do,the first single by four mop-headed Liverpudlians,was released later that year. The times they were a’changing,and Yeldham,who had arrived in London in 1956 realising there would be few opportunities for a TV dramatist in his home country,had a chance to be part of it.

Though conceived in London,Reunion Day is set in Sydney. It follows one acrimonious Anzac Day,with former comrades and their partners fighting among themselves.

“It took a month to write,” Yeldham recalled in his preface to the published screenplay.

“As a boy in Sydney,I remembered Anzac reunions (as) emotional,excited days when old soldiers gathered together and drank far into the night. They lived in the past for one drunken day … when they got together,the past was all they had in common.”

Yeldham had originally pitched his play to the ABC,but it had been rejected.

So he revived it when the BBC came calling. Sadly,the BBC’s recording has been erased.

It featured a wealth of Australian and New Zealand expatriate acting talent - including Ray Barrett,Ron Haddrick and Nyree Dawn Porter.

Betty Best,of theAustralian Women’s Weekly,described how one of the BBC’s studios in “fog-blanketed Manchester” had been converted into a “private bar in a Sydney hotel,a North Shore home with a sun patio,a fibro bungalow and a bachelor flat”.

The BBC’s recording was due to be shown in Australia on the eve of Anzac Day 1962 in Sydney,Melbourne and Brisbane.

Then calamity struck. Australian censors,under the government of Australia’s longest-serving prime minister,Robert Menzies,insisted on drastic cuts to both the characters and the language.

Reunion Day,1962 BBC production,starring Ron Haddrick and Nyree Dawn Porter.

Reunion Day,1962 BBC production,starring Ron Haddrick and Nyree Dawn Porter.Supplied

Chief censor CJ Campbell ruled “the language used may be all right for a soldiers’ reunion but it is all wrong for a suburban sitting room.”

Frank Packer (father of Kerry,grandfather of James) agreed,according to Yeldham’s autobiography:“He refused to show it on his network because he decided it offended the RSL”.

An unnamed Packer executive told theTV Times:“Reunion Day depicts Anzac Day as just another excuse for a debauch. The action takes place almost entirely in a pub. The language goes from bad to worse.

“Every two or three minutes someone says,‘let’s have a drink’. The whole thing (is) blasphemous,obscene and thoroughly nasty.

The original BBC cast of Reunion Day in 1962,including Nyree Dawn Porter,Ray Barrett and Ron Haddrick plus author Peter Yeldham.

The original BBC cast of Reunion Day in 1962,including Nyree Dawn Porter,Ray Barrett and Ron Haddrick plus author Peter Yeldham.Supplied

“If we had shown it we would have had the RSL marching on us,not without justice.”

Haddrick,who had performed for five seasons at Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre alongside the likes of Laurence Olivier before returning to Australia,was “shocked and upset” whenReunion Day was banned:“There are only three bloody’s in it!”

Reunion Day might have remained forgotten,but in 2008,literary critic and former academic Susan Lever published a paper honouring the forgotten play as “an important part of our cultural history”.

She will host a discussion about the play’s relevance after the read-through. Writer and historian Stephen Vagg,prime mover behind this reading,saw Lever’s article and says:“The ban was absurd,even at the time. Australian officials were simply oversensitive at the play’s honest depiction of the issues faced by returned servicemen.”

The read-through features Brandon Burke and Ruth Caro among a host of well-known faces and is directed by Denny Lawrence who says “the issues faced by returned servicemen from Iraq and Afghanistan are not far removed from those of the returned servicemen in Reunion Day”.

Reunion Day:A Reading. AFTRS,Entertainment Quarter,Sydney,June 26,2pm,

Steve Meacham is a freelance writer.

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