From theatre and radio drama to sketch comedy and film, Eleanor Witcombe's career is characterised by her ability to adapt. According to 2023 National Library Fellow and biographer Eleanor Hogan, Witcombe’s career is the perfect means of ‘exploring the challenges of being a woman scriptwriter in the 20th-century’s ever-changing media landscape.’

Learn more from Hogan about Witcombe’s fascinating career in this blog and her fellowship presentation.

Smiling woman with short black hair and a fringe sitting at a table where several black and white photos of a woman are spread out

Finding her papers

It was while researching another biography, about Ernestine Hill and ethnologist Daisy Bates, that Hogan first encountered Witcombe and her papers at the Library. In the 1970s, Witcombe had been working on a screenplay about Bates for a biopic set to star Katherine Hepburn. Though the screenplay was never completed, Witcombe continued researching and ‘unravelling the myths about the desert eccentric’ until her death in 2018, and much of this work is held at the Library. 

‘Witcombe emerged from her papers as a sharp-witted, feisty iconoclast – not unlike the subject of her research. I became fascinated by her in turn, especially when I realised I’d grown up watching dramas she’d adapted for TV and film from Australian classics such as Seven Little Australians, The Getting of Wisdom and My Brilliant Career. Witcombe’s own brilliant career spanned what she called the ‘wilderness’ of post-war Australian theatre, and the transition from women writing in the traditionally feminine genres of children’s drama and daytime soaps to breakaway feminist portrayals of gutsy, smart young women in 1970s Australian new wave cinema.'

Kathryn Favelle: -of Reader Services here and it's a great privilege to be one of the team who manages our Fellowships program. As we begin, I acknowledge Australia's First Nations Peoples, their traditional owners and custodians of this land. And I give my respect to elders past and present and through them to all Australian, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  

Thank you for joining us for today's National Library Fellowship presentation by Dr Eleanor Hogan, one of our 2023 National Library of Australia Fellows. The Library's Fellowship program supports researchers to make intensive use of the National Library's rich collections, through residencies of up to three months. Our fellowships are made possible, only by the generous philanthropic support of donors across the country. And Eleanor's Fellowship has been supported by past and present members of our council, and I thank them for their generosity.  

Eleanor Hogan is a writer of literary nonfiction, an independent researcher with a PhD in a Australian literature from Melbourne University. Eleanor's writing draws on her experience of living and working in central Australia. She's the author of "Alice Springs" and "Into the Loneliness: The Unholy Alliance of Ernestine Hill and Daisy Bates," which was shortlisted for the National Biography Award in 2022. She's currently senior researcher on the Central Australian, Aboriginal Congress's 50-year History Project. But today Eleanor is here to share with us her research into the papers of another Eleanor, Eleanor Witcombe, the woman who wrote two of my favourite, Australian screen productions of the 1970s, "Seven Little Australians." Didn't we all cry when Judy died? And "My Brilliant Career," which I noticed you can still watch on SBS on-demand at the moment. And I've already been caught a couple of times, catching up on that old favourite. Please join me in welcoming Eleanor Hogan to tell us more about Eleanor Witcombe. 

Eleanor Hogan: Thanks Kathryn for that very warm welcome today. I'd like to start by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri Peoples as the custodians of the land that we are meeting on today. And to acknowledge their elders past and present and to say werte from Mparntwe, Alice Springs, the lands of the Arrernte People where I'm more usually based.  

On that note, I'm just going to give a cultural sensitivity warning, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People are advised that this presentation contains language, such as certain words or descriptions which reflect the author's attitude or that of the period in which the work was created and may now be considered inaccurate, inappropriate or offensive. And that may be in regard to some of the later content, regarding Daisy Bates in this presentation.  

I'd like to start by giving a few thank yous. Undertaking this fellowship over the last three months has been a great pleasure and a great privilege and certainly a great career highlight for me. And I'd really like to warmly thank the National Library and Council patrons for making this possible. Thanks also to the NLA staff, especially the fellowships team, Sharyn O'Brien, Simone Lark and all the crew and the Indigenous Engagement team, Rebecca Bateman, Robin Garcia and Jeremy Ambrum for their thoughtful and patient assistance. And I'd like to also thank the many other fellows, some of whom are here today for your creating such a collegiate and warm atmosphere. At one point for about a month, we had like a coven of lady biographers, Susan Windham over there, and Bernadette Brennan and Melanie Duckworth, were also working on biographies of women. And I'd like to thank the copyright holders who may be tuning in today for Eleanor Witcombe material, Lana Richards and Yvonne Nikelas and also to Eleanor's great friend Anne Whitehead, for the enthusiastic support of my research. And I'd also like to acknowledge the presence of some members of the Witcombe family here today. I'm really honoured that you would make the journey as I understand it from quite a distance today. And lastly, I'd just like to thank my employer, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress for allowing me to take leave to undertake this fellowship.  

Well, I'd like to take you back in time actually, just to a bit of a 50 years, as it turns out, to an evening, a Sunday evening in 1973, which I remember quite well. The family were gathered around the TV for what was promised to be a great television event. Indeed, it was a great television event for me. It was the first limited drama miniseries, which I saw. It was the adaptation of "Seven Little Australians" on ABC TV. And I remember this great sense of anticipation and what was particularly novel and compelling for me and I think for many other children, we are seeing a distinctively Australian childhood, presented on the screen. Not to mention it’s charismatic rebel, school girl hero who Kathryn's already mentioned, Judy, who's too smart, too independent, too resourceful for her own own good, only to be slain by a falling tree and trusting that that's not a spoiler for anyone who's who's present here today.  

The wholesome yet unruly escapades of the Woolcot family, became a staple of television viewing for Australian children being repeated during the 1970s, '80s, and I think also the '90s. And indeed I've seen a recent conversation on the Facebook page of "Chat 10 Looks 3" when people discuss these great historical period dramas they remember from the '70s and '80s, like "Against the Wind" and others, "Ben Hall" and other things, but "Seven Little Australians" and Judy's tragic death comes up again and again.  

And while I knew that "Seven Little Australians" was based on an 1894 novel by Ethel Turner, I didn't really give much thought at the time, of course being a child, to those responsible for transforming the book to screen. But decades later, while I was researching a book called "Into the Loneliness," which is a dual biography of Ernestine Hill, the journalist and her relationship with the self-taught anthropologist Daisy Bates, I kept coming across the name of Eleanor Witcombe, who was an amateur historian and a member of what was called the Daisy Chain, a group of writers and researchers who sought to unravel the mythology surrounding Daisy Bates, the controversial anthropologist. And this was occurring during the 1980s and there were some great finds, unveiling some of Daisy's lies, which I might get into a bit later.  

And reading Witcombe's research and also hearing her voice in oral histories, I was very impressed by her sharp wit and her great sense of humour and also her perspicacity in seeing, through some of Bates' delusions, just from reading some of her writing. And indeed, I wondered why I'd never heard of her before. And Witcombe was I discovered a script writer who as Kathryn's already alluded to, who'd adapted several women's novels for the screen, including "Seven Little Australians" in 1973, "The Getting of Wisdom" in 1977 and "My Brilliant Career." These were dramas which not only introduced Australian literary classics to me, but also projected a sense to me of what it meant to be historically as a young white settler woman growing up in Australia.  

Witcombe was in fact part of a cohort of screenwriters who scripted historical dramas during the '70s and early '80s when local television and film producers delved into Australian literature and history: the stories that would convey a distinctively national identity and experience. Witcombe participated in this identity-making project alongside better known male script writers, such as Tony Morphett and Peter Yeldham on minis, who were more responsible for series like, "Against the Wind" and the "Timeless Land."  

Still, you might ask why be interested in a script writer? And not only that, but one who often adapted other people's books for the screen rather than produce original work. And why indeed, as I began to look more at Witcombe's archive, be interested in a writer who somehow seemed to be both lazy and prolific at the same time, a chronic procrastinator who claimed that she became a writer, because it was one thing I could do in bed.  

Literary academic Susan Lever observes that Witcombe, along with other script writers of her generation are actually major figures in Australian culture. Their writing for television, deserves to be acknowledged in the panel play of Australian creative tele achievement. And I'd add writing for radio too.  

Witcombe's contribution is further significant, because she was also one of a handful of women's script writers, along with figures such as Sonya Berg and Barbara Vernon, when men dominated the writing rooms. And for me, in reflecting on her life from reading through her archive over the past few months, there's a narrative call that emerges from her professional life, it's what's often called the consular Roman, or the creative journey of how, in her case, an Australian woman survives as a script writer in the 20th century. And in Witcombe case, by adapting to each new medium as the demand for local drama shifted from what she called the wilderness of postwar theatre to radio than television, followed by the emergence of Australian new wave cinema in the 1970s.  

As a script writer and adapter, Witcombe present is felt in many ways I think, invisibly perhaps in people's lives in the mid 20th century. She wrote and adapted many books for children and adults, which were broadcast on ABC Radio, during the 1950s and '60s and '70s, as well as for TV. She also wrote dramatic serials for commercial radio companies such as a Transom, Macquarie Theatre and Lux Radio. She was a script writer on "The Mavis Bramston Show," which was her first TV gig and "Number 96."  

She also received several awards for her scripts, most notably the AFI Award for Best Adapted Screenplay twice once in 1978 and once in 1979. In 1999, she was the first screenwriter honoured with an emeritus award from the Australia Council. And in 2014 she was awarded an AM Member of the Order of Australia.  

As a young playwright, Witcombe wrote the first distinctively Australians, children's plays, starting with "Pirates at the Barn," which was first performed in 1948. She was also instrumental in the formation of the Children's National Theatre in 1950 and the Australian Theatre for Young People in 1963. One of her early career highlights, speaking of iconic works, was the first adaptation of Norman Lindsay's "The Magic Pudding" for radio in 1950. She also adapted "The Magic Pudding," about 10 times for radio and marionette theatre. In 1970, she met Jane Glad the daughter of Norman Lindsay, who was her close friend and companion until her death, until Jane's death I should say in 1999. Although hampered by chronic asthma all her life, Witcombe lived to the age of 95 and died in 2019.  

Now, in this presentation, I'm going to look mainly at Eleanor's and I'm afraid my family does pronounce Eleanor, as Eleanor rather than Eleanor. So, I hope that's not confusing for you. I'll look at mainly at Eleanor's professional life, because that's what the collection at the NLA encompasses. She was also hugely prolific in many ways. So, I'm not, in some ways I feel like I'm only gonna be going across the highlights of it and at another date I will look more at the personal aspect of her life and her family background. But I'll just begin by talking a bit about her family background.  

Eleanor Katrine Witcombe, or Ellie, as she was widely known, was the second of four children born in 1923 to a convivial farming family on the York Peninsula. Her maternal grandparents were Danish and Prussian immigrants who ran a large country store in Yorktown. Her father, Noel Witcombe was a return soldier who'd been convalescing after being gassed on the song. And he visited Yorktown with a friend where he fell in love with the Erickson's daughter, Bertha, and married her and lived in the Erickson home, which they inherited along with a farm out of town when Bertha's father died in 1920. Witcombe often spoke fondly of her parents, from what I've read, attributing to them a wonderfully secure life and a lot of fun, as well as having imagination and sensitivity and sharing a love of classical music, books and theatre, which they imparted to her. Eleanor maintained a lifelong interest in classical music, but she was a much greater reader in some ways, devouring Dickens at the age of nine. And she was always keenly interested in theatre, making her stage debut at the age of four as a bluebird in a play at Yorktown Town Hall, which was an interest her father encouraged by taking the family to see pantomimes and theatres in Adelaide once a year.  

And Noel Witcombe was also something of a free thinker. He was an atheist and a scientific rationalist, perhaps unusually amongst his cohort in Yorktown. And he was also an inventor and a tinkerer who Witcombe later used as the basis for the character of Les Whittaker in "Number 96." Noel tried his hand at farming on the Erickson's property. But this went bankrupt during the Depression and he began running the family store or a business from the family store in Yorktown, which he hated because according to Eleanor, he was a terrible snob. Seeking to put as much distance as possible between himself and his financial ruin, he consulted early school Atlas and decided to head for Cooktown as the furthest point away. And in 1939 the family headed off for new pastures. Noel and Bertha, Eric and Eleanor's older brother Eric, Eileen and Bob in the Buick towing a homemade caravan.  

They didn't get as far as Cooktown. Instead they settled in Brisbane. One of the reasons being that Bertha Witcombe was quite keen for the children to pursue an education. Eleanor went to Brisbane Girls Grammar School with her sister Aileen, and there actually the head mistress Floss, her nickname was later apparently the model for the head mistress in the script and "The Getting of Wisdom." During this time, Eleanor spent a lot of time reading and writing in bed: poetry, plays. She entered short stories in competitions and was shortlisted. However, she failed to matriculate from school. She did have chronic asthma, which also seemed at times to be an excuse to stay and write rather than do other things.  

During the Second World War, Noel Witcombe found work in Sydney as a munitions inspector. And Ellie went to attended originally a coaching college there in hope of qualifying for law. But when she realised that her families didn't have the connections that she as a woman would need to get into the law in Sydney, she abandoned this plan and instead she decided to become an artist. And her parents supported this goal and she enrolled in the National Art School at Eastern Sydney Technical College, where she fell under the spell of a sculptor by the name of Lyndon Dadswell. Well now, Lyndon Dadswell was probably about 15 years older than her and married. And according to Ellie, all the pottery ladies were in love with him and she had very many long conversations with him after class. The upshot of this was that he directed her and another student to become carving type sculptors with a lump of sandstone to an annex out of the way, referred to as the mall. And Eleanor kept on hoping that he would visit them, but he did not. So, after a while, she lost interest in sculpting. She felt that she was too asthmatic in any case, and she couldn't wait that long for Dadswell to take more of an interest. But later in life she accredited him with giving her essentially a very visual approach to writing from his teaching. And also that he introduced her to the notion of bisexuality as a lens for creative work. That meaning that you should look, be able to look at things from each sex's perspective, which she felt was gave her a lot of facility in being able to move between different viewpoints as a script writer. And I should say that Ellie, I think in many ways was fundamentally a humanist in our look. She was very interested in different aspects of the human condition. Sometimes she calls herself a feminist, other times she does not. But I think in general, she's in that sort of a ballpark.  

Now, round about the time of the abortive attempt at becoming an artist. And there's a lot more that can be said about that. She saw an advertisement for Peter. Oh, I've got actually the wrong ad there. I dunno how that happened. You'll just have to pretend. She saw actually an ad for Peter Finch's Mercury School, Mercury Theatre School, which was opening up, and she applied to attend this school as a playwright, rather than actress, because she didn't think that she looked like an actress. They were very keen to take her on, because not many women were applying as playwrights. She did learn the basics of theatre design and performance there, but a lot of the time her scholarship seems to have involved writing up scripts, typing up scripts as a way of subsidising her tuition.  

And during this time, Witcombe in effect, and she was in her early 20s, taught herself how to write a play. She observed if all is well with a play, the end should fall in place like a jigsaw for that is what it is. To be a playwright, you must have a mathematical mind, everything has to add up. And this was Ellie's approach to things very much as new mediums came up, she adapted to them and she taught herself how to write for them, making the transition into sound and television and film.  

In 1948, while she was still a student, someone at the Mossman Theatre Club contacted the Mercury Theatre School, asking if a woman student would write a play or would direct a play for the five women in their club. And Eleanor searched for a suitable dramatic vehicle and she read hundreds of them and she said they were a aboninable plays. So, she decided to write one herself, "A Terrible Thing Called Don't Tell Mother," but it's sort of caught on. And on the back of this success, she was invited by a theatrical couple at the Mossman Theatre Club by the name of Maj Laver. Maj actually had quite a lineage as a show person. Her father, she'd been brought up on some of the showgrounds in New South Wales. And her father had been a stunt writer, but that's a another story.  

And Eleanor was a bit disparaging of writing a children's play at the time, because she was heavily into Greek theatre. But they offered her a commission of nine guineas for three performances. And being a penniless student, she felt that was an offer that she couldn't pass up. And at the time they asked her if she would produce a specifically Australian play. And she was living in [unclear] near Mossman. And she thought that the Old Whaling Station, which was called the Old Barn and had been repurposed as a scout hall, would make fantastic material, because there were all sorts of stories about pirates and so forth associated with it. And she also wanted to write against what she saw as the Fairy Fair, which was being imported by other theatres from Britain to put on plays for children.  

And she thought, so what she did was she devised this historical drama as a farce, thinking ‘I thought something violent for kids, right?’ And the first performance of this play on the 14th of August, 1948, resulted in a near riot with children standing on chairs and a boy literally rolling in the aisles. It's rollicking reception was attributed to identifiable local content and Witcombe's use of humour to invite audience participation. Boyd by the success of "Pirates at the Barn," the Lavers commissioned Witcombe to write two further plays, "The Bush Ranger," which was first put on in 1949, and "Smugglers Beware" in 1950.  

The Mossman Children's Theatre Club, became the Children's National Theatre in 1950 with the aim of bringing theatre to Australian children. And the Lavers took plays on tours to greater Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle. And in 1951, they took "The Bush Ranger" on a six week tour of Midwest schools in New South Wales. And you can see in these pictures, the enthusiasm here for the play. This is a 1950s performance. And also this is the cast leaving or, leaving Central Rowan in 1950. I think that this chap here, second from the left is actually Bob Witcombe, who was Eleanor's younger teenage brother and was roped in to perform in the play when it went on tour. And there are actually many actors such as John Million and Reg Livermore, who were child actors in these plays. Other figures like Leonard Till, I think was the president of the Children's National Theatre. Ethel Turner herself, Mrs. Eco Lewis was the patron. And so there were all these Sydney connections, and you're often seeing names who appear in some of these early performances, are repeated later in some of the television adaptations that Eleanor was involved in.  

And at the time, Witcombe said she observed about her feat of writing the first distinctively Australian plays with Australian context, she observed in the late '40s and even '50s and '60s ‘you couldn't just write, about any Australian subjects at all. There was no, you couldn't write about any Australian subjects at all. There was no prestige about writing plays about Australia. The place was like a wilderness’.  

That said for Witcombe at the same time, she saw the postwar period, under Prime Minister Ben Chifley as a golden age, which was accompanied by resurgence of interest in the arts of which Peter Finch and his Mercury Theatre School were part of. He was seeking to encourage a national theatre, and Finch himself felt that the country was in danger of losing a generation of theatregoers and Eleanor saw her places addressing this need. Later reflecting, ‘this is why I believe so firmly in the basic importance of theatre for children. We are teaching children to help create the art of theatre’.  

And it's interesting also, I think to reflect that this development took place in children's rather than adult theatre in the late 1940s. It's not until 1955 that Ray Lawler's, "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll" was performed in 1958 that Alan Seymour's, "The One Day of the Year" were performed. Play by male playwrights, which focus on very male-oriented aspects of history and identity, which I was taught at school, ushered in the new era of very Australian defined drama in the '70s with David Williamson, Alex Bozo and so on.  

It has to be said that this golden age of theatre ended very abruptly for Witcombe and other Australians. She claims due to the election of Prime Minister Menzies in 1949 with what she saw as theatre funding drying up overnight. Witcombe left the London in 1952 with a lot of other out of work thespians and writers, where she joined the BBC's typing pool, ostensibly to learn her craft and to break into the new medium of television. But she later identified this diaspora of Australian intellectuals and artists overseas as being directly related to Menzies lack of support for the arts rather than a by-roduct of the cultural cringe reflecting, and I'll just go to my next slide. Oh, wrong slide. ‘In the 1950s, Mr. Menzies declared theatricals, “a lot of non-contributing poofters," I quote’. I haven't actually been able to find that quote, but I'm taking her word for it. ‘And soon all sources of funding dried up. The Children's National Theatre became in practise defunct. Many of us went to England’. And this is Eleanor with Fifi Banvard, a producer, director at the Minerva Theatre. I think this is on a jubilee performance of "The Bush Ranger." Yes, so to, suffice to say Eleanor later found out, she actually found out when she went to London that she had been subject to a ASIO surveillance, because of her association with the theatre, which was fairly common for theatrical people back in those days.  

Eleanor had performed and most of the theatre group circulated, between these different theatres, the Philip Street Theatre and Independent, the Minerva and the new theatre, which was associated with the Communist Party. And Eleanor had a big part in this play, "The Match Girls," you can see her with one of her best friends, Lenore or Lonnie Blackwood who had one of the, Eleanor's the young woman in the shawl on the left, I think. Yes and so it was well known that people were under surveillance and this has been quite well documented as well. And that there were "ASIO moles" on quote unquote who they knew by name, who were even observing and documenting people, leaving the cinema, not the cinema, the theatre, let alone performing in plays. And yes, the other connection that, oh, I'm going too far ahead. The other connection that Eleanor had was that she was on the committee of the Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1950. And one in her early days in London, she actually applied for a job at the Australian High Commission. And people said to her, ‘Oh, you'll be assured for this job.’ But when she rang back later, they said they weren't interested. And she had a friend who was sort of on the inside and she went to him for the background story. And he said that it was because she was on the ASIO list. So, that rating had the power to even affect her employment prospects when she was overseas.  

As it was, Eleanor was in and out of the typing pool in the BBC. She had about seven different appointments there. Part of the problem was that she was accused of having too much ambition as a typing temp and applying for seven other positions at the ABC, they told her to settle down and she was also criticised for being distracted by extracurricular activities. She banded together with some other Australian theatre expatriates to put on a production of "Smugglers Beware" at the Toynbee Hall, which became the first play to be professionally performed in London, Australian play, children's play to be professionally performed in London. And despite being advised to reset the play in Cornwell, which Witcombe refuse to do, "Smugglers Beware" was nevertheless a great success with children attending repeat performances. And it was also favourably reviewed in the "Times." And the other reason why she claimed on one occasion she was sacked from the BBC typing pool was that she was sacked for laughing uproariously with this fellow male typist in an annex. They thought she was having it off in the annex with this fellow. And she said later, well in fact she was probably a homosexual and he'd been telling her his formula for writing these pulp novels. They were called librarian lady novels. And he told her this formula for writing it. In any case, Eleanor had a crack at writing one of these novels and she showed it to one of her brothers. I think it might have been Eric, someone from the family can correct me if I'm wrong, when he was visiting her in London and he laughed uproariously about it. So, she put it to one side, but she pulled it out of mothballs when she returned to Australia.  

She returned to Australia in 1957, partly for health reasons. She had terrible problems with asthma, especially with the pea-souper fogs of the '50s in London. But also she says, because she found British culture to suffocating and conformist and originally she picked up work quickly from the ABC from Leslie Rees. Some of you might remember, people more my age might remember "Digit Dick." He's the writer of "Digit Dick," the unfortunately named miniature tourist of the Great Barrier Reef and other locations. He was also the ABC's first drama editor and he knew Eleanor from her children's play success and he set her to work in the early '50s, actually before she went away, adapting children's novels for broadcast. And this is how she learned to structure scripts. And it became a staple of her work when she returned to Australia.  

And she also began writing comfort for these morning dramatic serials for commercial radio, particularly for Grace Gibson's company, ARTRANSA. She put into work the "Secret Sorrows" formula, which she'd learned from her friend in the BBC annex. And she'd written this novel, about a tortured British widowed heiress on Capri. And yeah, she says that when she offered the story to 2GB back in Shakespeare, the producer saw its potential for soap opera and quote, ‘From then on I was treated like Shakespeare.’ So, she wrote 104 15-minute episodes, obviously two years worth of this soap opera, "Say Not Goodbye." And it had Ruth Cracknell in the lead and it was broadcast across Australia and elsewhere in the world. She did pitch several more of these. Another one was produced, "Tomorrow is Mine," also starring Ruth Cracknell. And indeed Eleanor actually wrote a few TV scripts for Ruth Cracknell which never went in production, some comedic ones. And Ruth Cracknell of course, is it Martha is the name of the housekeeper in "Seven Little Australians."  

However, in the early '60s, radio serials crashed virtually overnight when commercial stations, 2GB, 2UE and 2UW in Sydney decided to play music from the top 40 instead, which they got free from music providers instead of radio drama. Television drama was also increasing in popularity with much British and US content being imported. Along with many other radio script writers, Witcombe was out of work overnight, which galvanised her resolve for the need for writers to unionise and take industrial action. And at the time there was no Guild in Australia representing writers. There was Actors Equity, which I think script writers were sort of tag-ons, but there was no specific Guild representing their rights.  

In March, 1962, she answered a call out from fellow script writer Don Howton to meet with 17 other radio writers at the Australia Hotel in Sydney. From this meeting, the Australian Writers Guild was formed to advocate for issues for script writers, such as the absence of an award, low rates of pay, lack of recognition in screen credits and piracy of Australian content by overseas producers. And I've just got a quote there, which I won't read, but I think you've probably had time to read where she reflects on this situation.  

Witcombe was only out of work for six months. She made the transition to TV, after being invited to write sketches for "The Mavis Branston Show." She says ‘it was Mavis Branston that got me out of trouble’. She was actually invited by mistake. The producers confused her with Nan Witcombe, unfortunately for Eleanor, or maybe fortunately in this case her both her names could be misspelt in various ways, but this was a great opportunity for her. And she learned how to write, review comedy, review style writing.  

And once this finished, her next mainstay was writing during 1973, 1971 to 1973 for the television soap, "Number 96." And there's a list of some of the shows she worked on there. And "Number 96" was the brainchild of David Sales who'd also written for Mavis Branston. And 76 writers applied to work on this show. But Eleanor was one of the five quite serious writers who were chosen from these applicants. In other words, they were actually the cream of Australian script writers, including people like Michael Boddy, Ken Shadie and Bob Caswell. Eleanor didn't originally want to write for "Number 96," but she felt she couldn't turn down the money, because nothing else was on offer.  

And she recognised, as the other writers did, that the soap had potentials to offer progressive social commentary on diverse issues. It had one of the first, it had, well probably the first homosexual lead character on television. And they also discussed many broad issues such as housing, drug use, rape, breast cancer, old age. At the same time, there was an increasing imperative to have more tits and bums on the screen, which Eleanor was not so keen on, being more interested in the serious aspects in some ways.  

So Eleanor, as I said, she'd been an adapter of books for radio. She became an adapter of books of children's books for ABC TV originally with "Pastures of the Blue Crane" set up on the north coast of New South Wales and also others such as "Redheap," the Norman Lindsay book and "Seven Little Australians". Yeah, she actually was invited to adapt the whole trilogy of the Ethel Turner Wilcock books. And this was originally shelved for two years and then when it was green lit, Witcombe was asked to streamline her original seven to 13 episodes to 10. And she said that she spent three hectic haring months, revising the script while holding the fault for "Number 96" over Christmas, later joking that she offered wondered where the bits from "Number 96" were getting into "Seven Little Australians," but she didn't think so. 

I'm aware that time is moving on, so I'm gonna have to run rather quickly over some of this.  

Based on the popularity of TV adaptations, such as "Pastures of the Blue Crane" and "Seven Little Australians" highlighted an appetite for representations of Australian childhood and young womanhood on the screen. Eleanor's experience adapting these books paved the way for her to be recognised as the leading screen adapter in the mid '70s. In 1976, director Bruce Barford approach Witcombe to adapt Henry Handel Richardson's "The Getting of Wisdom" for cinema on the back of her success with "Seven Little Australians." And in 1977, Margaret Fink engaged her to write the screenplay for "My Brilliant Career" because of its thematic similarities to "The Getting of Wisdom," but also based on record on recommendations.  

Now, Witcombe's humble brag was that she was the best Australian adapter of bad books. She found these three books problematic for structural reasons, but moreover, because they were steeped in the values of the early 20th century, turn of the 20th century. And in adapting "Seven Little Australians," she observed that one had to keep the period, yet make it acceptable to modern kids. And she worked with Barbara Vernon, who was the script editor to bring aspects of the book in line with '70s sensibilities, such as toning down aspects of Captain Wilcox's relationship to his children and his use of corporal punishment by assuring any beatings occurred off camera. But I have to say in more recent conversations I've seen online, people still struggle with those aspects.  

In adapting a book, Witcombe's approach was to identify a unifying core, which provided the engine for generating the key narrative moments. And she also often saw this as a way of producing essentially a new work. She saw her adaptations as a translation of a text from book to screenplay, but also a new work. And this opinion actually brought her into conflict with Jillian Armstrong, who was the director of "My Brilliant Career." In the early stages, both sides of the group, of the party said that they got on famously, but when Eleanor gave Jillian Armstrong the script, it was actually 250 pages long. A script is meant to be about a page a minute. So, it was way too long and Jillian Armstrong handed it to a male script editor by the name of Ted Eldon. And Eleanor, when it came back found it greatly changed and she was very upset by this. She said that Sybylla had become a mere tomboy and worst of all, the ending had been changed. So, there was a happy ending to the film. So, where Sybylla actually marries, rather than pursuing her creative destiny as an artist. And Eleanor felt it was not true to the original work by Moles Franklin or to her adaptation. And there was a clause saying that she had to be, as a writer, consulted for any minor alterations. And she actually took this up with the principal funders and the manager of Greater Union, actually supported her original ending. So, there was a compromise situation reached on that film.  

In later life, Armstrong acknowledges in some interviews, which I've read this conflict and she said the problem was that she had to take the film off Eleanor, so that they would be able, 'cause they were going into production and make it in time. But this activity really aroused a level of activism in Eleanor, which is there with all her scripts. As she saw funding changes, as there were funding changes occurring to the film industry in the 1970s and '80s. She pointed to the lack of support which was going to the writers.  

Now in particular the head of the New South Wales Film Commission, Paul Riomfalvy published an article in an international film magazine where he asserted that Australian writers weren't actually a necessary element of Australian films and that overseas writers could be imported. And Eleanor was incensed by this comment. And she published, had this article published in the National Times, called "Don't Shoot the Writer" in response. And she pointed to the number of Australian scripts that had received international acclaim and she argued that films weren't popular, because of their quality, but also the Australian films were not so popular because of their quality, but because of the uniqueness and that this perspective could not be easily imported. And she drew attention to the ways in which Australian writers had been treated, going into exile and the lack of credit which was being given to writers, the fact that increasingly the credit for films was going to the director figure.  

Now, I can see, I'm afraid I'm running outta time here, so I'll just jump forward and say Eleanor's greatest career highlights were "The Getting of Wisdom" and "My Brilliant Career," the ones that she's best known for. And she was actually engaged internationally to work on some other projects. “The Irish Project”, which was an IRA film, sorry, not an IRA film, a film about the Women's Peace Movement in Northern Ireland. But there was actually some issues with the IRA around the time, so that didn't go ahead. There was another film, "Over the Hill," about a 60 something sort of grey liberationist and it was rested out of her hands and revisioned by Bob Caswell and that was the side of a dispute. And there was also another film, "The Ballad of Baby Doe."  

Now, I don't really have time to go into all the aspects around them, so I'm just going to briefly talk about her work on a film on the Daisy Bates biography. I've got a couple of images there. One is of Kathryn Hepburn's note to Eleanor Witcombe inviting to her to see her backstage and the other of is of Daisy Bates, who is this anthropological figure I mentioned earlier on who camped with Aboriginal people, across the southwest of Australia and annotated a lot of their practises, but at the same time had a quite controversial, relationship writing some quite salacious and inaccurate material later.  

And so Hepburn actually was very interested in making a biographical film about Daisy Bates. And this extended back to the mid 1950s when she was on tour with the Old Vic and Adelaide with Robert Helpmann. And Daisy Bates had only been dead for about five years and people still talked about her and she read the major book associated with Daisy Bates and she pursued, along with Helpmann, the idea of making this film. And Robert Helpmann actually engaged her to work on a script, during the process of which Eleanor became involved in this group called the Daisy Chain and started unravelling some of the myths around Bates. One of the big discoveries was that Bates was not only married once, but was actually married three times to different people within a 15-month period. Eleanor was responsible for the third of these husband findings, third of these husbands, Ernest Bagelhole and unfortunately named gentleman. And so as well as the more controversial stuff, which information which she wrote about and misleading information, about Aboriginal people's practises. Eleanor perhaps wrote a more hard hitting, difficult script than Hepburn was expecting. And Hepburn who sort of envisaged this white saviour film, which would actually interestingly climax with Bates, delivering her 99 folios to the National Library, took a step back from the project, because she wanted to be represented apparently in more idealistic terms.  

And Eleanor went on to work with Joan Long, who'd been the producer on "Caddie" on producing a more hard hitting biopic. She also wrote the pilot for a miniseries about Bates and then she branched out and she wrote a dual biography of Bates and The Breaker, Breaker Morant being the first husband of Daisy Bates. And the copies of this magnum mocha, extended to 250,000 words at one point in time.  

And she struggled to complete writing this work. One of the reasons was that as she got older, unfortunately she developed Alzheimer's disease and had problems I think with organising her thoughts. The other I think was really due to the difficulty of the material that she was realising that the opinions towards Australians First Nations people were changing and she was finding it difficult to write a book which would intersect, would sit with that.  

So, I can see it's now sort of, we've got 10 minutes to go, so I might just leave things there for you to ask questions, except I would just say that I think that Eleanor's career, which is massive but invisible in many ways is a great testimony to the difficulty of a writer and a woman writer, trying to survive to write during the 20th century as seen through her advocacy for script writer's rights. Aspects such as writing for children, have perhaps gone under the scanner in terms of their level of importance. And I would say arguably some of the principles that she fought for are still very relevant today in an era where we look at the erosion of writers' rights, particularly script writers' rights with producer guided improvisation of reality TV and AI generated scripts and so forth. And for these reasons, I think her brilliant career invites fresh attention.  

I'd like to thank you all and I'd like to also say I am in the early stages of this project and if there are people here who would like to talk to me more about Eleanor Witcombe who may have known her, I'm very interested to meet with you and talk to you. And I'm sorry I haven't gotten round to speaking to everyone yet. Thanks. 

Kathryn Favelle: Thank you Eleanor. And it's so lovely to see members of Eleanor Witcombe family here, and we also have [unclear] in the audience, I believe, who may have things to tell you about the making of "My Brilliant Career." Thanks to for leaving us for some time with questions. We've got microphones going around because we are recording today's event. So, if you have a question, would you pop your hand up, give a very big wave and Fran or Louise will bring a microphone to you. Don't be shy. There always has to be one person who comes first. Susan, thank you. 

Audience member 1: Sorry, thank you, that's better. Thank you very much Eleanor, just because she might have cut that short, I just wanted to ask, did Eleanor go on to make anything else or did her career really fizzle out at that point? 

Eleanor Hogan: It depends what you mean by, it depends what you mean by fizzling out. She worked on a number of scripts, but they did never come to or if they came to completion, they weren't necessarily produced. The other caveat, and she did, Daisy Bates became very much her focus and she did write endless draughts and do very comprehensive research. And one thing I should say is that, she was on the ground floor in some of those revelations. She was the person who discovered that Bates was for example, a Catholic and not a Protestant and member of the Gentry and so forth. But she never really received the acknowledgement for those discoveries, because she went into this endless rewriting and not delivering of material and other researchers went into the fold and published work and got the credit for those revelations.  

The other thing I would say around script writing is that, the majority of scripts do not actually go into production. So, she did generate a huge amount of material, but many script writers you know, for I've seen estimates of like one in a hundred original scripts, would actually get up. Yeah. But another factor here is that she was an adapter and adapters were, are often commissioned to produce work. So, an adapter has a bit more chance of it being made, but also adaptations when out of fashion, when period dramas began to go out of fashion in the 1980s, it was partly because they're very expensive to fund. It was partly because the 10 BA scheme, tended to favour genre films and so forth. So, in some ways I think Eleanor was sort of ahead of her time and a trailblazer, but in other ways she was sort of a bit unlucky in falling between stools or falling between different movements and regimes in some ways. 

Kathryn Favelle: Thanks, Susan. Any other questions today? Louise, could we get a microphone to the front row? 

Audience member 2: Yeah, thanks Eleanor. I was just gonna ask, having set up the Writer's Guild, did Eleanor end up getting royalties and is that how she sustained herself later in life in terms of her income? 

Eleanor Hogan: Yeah, she did receive royalties. She received some very low rates of payment for scripts originally. She was involved in a dispute around a script called “Jonah”, where I think she was only being paid $110 or something, an episode. This was during the '70s and '80s. But she was sort of involved in that push for writers to receive more payments and to receive more of the royalties and rights directed towards them. She was also quite an active member of the New South Wales Australian Writer's Guild too. I couldn't remember the exact details, off the top of my head, I'm afraid. 

Audience member 3: Thank you. Just as someone who's impressed by Kathryn Hepburn and she was a trailblazer herself in her own way, a feminist probably. Did anything come of that meeting? Was anything set up perhaps for Witcombe to write- 

Eleanor Hogan: Yeah, yeah. So, she did actually write a complete, she did actually write a screenplay. I've read it. And she had a huge research prospectus about Bates, which she gave to Helpmann and she wrote this screenplay for Hepburn. And it has a lot of difficult scenes where Bates is struggling with Aboriginal People suffering from the excesses of white civilization, sick and dying people and so forth. And apparently Hepburn read the script and was turned off by it.  

The other things which are mentioned about Hepburn was that she was in her early '70s and was saying that she was getting too old to go out and act in some arid area of Australia, but probably reading between the lines with a lot of the mixed messages coming from Hepburn, she was actually in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and Eleanor was quite shocked when she met, when she met Hepburn at the stage door. She 'cause she saw this performance and Hepburn invited her to come round to the stage afterwards and she said, she was this thin wispy, vulnerable old woman, and Eleanor had sort of, she was far from this ideal, she'd been one of Eleanor Witcombe's favourite actresses at the time. So, I do think that that probably paid a role in it.  

I mean, Hepburn, sorry. Helpmann had approached a number of other writers to work on it too, such as Ernestine Hill and he did have a kind of a history of courting people and then going cold on them as well too. So, the upshot of it was that the IFC originally put funding into it, but when they saw that nothing was coming out of the agreement, the funding agreement, they didn't take it any further beyond script development, which is why Eleanor actually set up her own company called Aldier Films with Joan Long to produce this film. 

Kathryn Favelle: Thank you. We might have time for one more question. Yes, also, in the front row, our front row are high performers today. 

Audience member 4: Yes, thank you for a brilliant exposition of the story of this wonderful woman. Can you just say a little bit about the source material that you access through the National Library and the challenges involved in going through that? And I'm also curious about the ASIO file. Have you been able to access that? 

Eleanor Hogan: Yeah, I'll just start with the a ASIO file. I was very curious about the ASIO file too, and I went over to the National Archives, while I was here and I had a look at it and it only has four pages within it, unless there's more material elsewhere, which hasn't been made available. And what it shows is her name and a list of committee members attending a meeting of the Fellowship of Australian Writers in May, 1950, which was enough to get her blacklisted. There are other people such as Eleanor Dark on the list too. The files surrounding the New Theatre League were much more comprehensive and there are many letters and material about, between ASIO officials commenting on public rallies and places where you can go and see, such and such a member talking about so and so and reports of people visiting the theatre and taking down people's number plates, after the performance and so on. It's quite a, yeah, an inglorious aspect of the history.  

Yes, in terms of accessing the material, it's been a wonderful treasure trove of Eleanor Witcombe's material, which is here. Most of the material at the moment is from her professional life. So, a lot of it is letters and different copies of scripts and correspondence between people, particularly in a professional capacity, such as her correspondence with Bruce Beresford and Jillian Armstrong around Margaret Fink and so forth around these productions. I guess, and there's also like often multiple drafts and this comes up for, looking at writers in particular, trying to work out which draft is which, like at least with script writing there's an idea of there's a first draft you're commissioned to then a second and a third. But working out the significance of the different drafs and how they relate to some of the broader issues, which I mentioned around payment of writer's rights and so forth is often quite tricky. And I'm sort of having to align up things with one box, which I'm reading in one month to later material, which I find in another period.  

But it has been quite fascinating. I didn't get into this and there could just be a whole presentation, around different aspects such as her advocacy or the children's theatre involvement or the Daisy Bates Kathryn Hepburn business. But she was a very disputatious person. She did seem to get into a lot of stoushes with people and a lot of it was around asserting the rights of script writers in particular who are often very invisible and don't get the credit for the films.  

A lot of it did, on the other hand, seem to relate to her being something of a perfectionist and a procrastinator like writing these very long draughts and taking a long time to deliver them andso forth. So, there was probably a bit of on both sides, but that's been a very interesting trajectory to follow for me. I hope I'm answering your question. There is more material which hasn't been processed, some of which I've been able to see, which is coming into the collection, which relates more to her family life and her friends and relationships and so forth. 

Kathryn Favelle: Thank you. I'm hoping that we'll see Eleanor back again very soon to start working on the next phase of the project. I think Eleanor Witcombe maybe deserves a miniseries of her own and I'd love to watch it. Thank you all for joining us today. Our next Fellowship talk is on the 26th of March, so you've got a little bit of time to prepare and I hope we'll see you back for that. But you can catch up with other Fellowship talks online, via the Library's website and our YouTube channel. But please join me in thanking Eleanor Hogan for a really extraordinary presentation. 

Eleanor Hogan: Thank you. 

In the collection

Deciding to start a new biography with Witcombe as the subject, Hogan thought ‘it was essential for me to research at the National Library because it holds the lion’s share of material from her professional life, including her published and unpublished scripts, research notes, correspondence and ephemera from theatre and screen productions.’

This material was perfect to help Hogan 'flesh out chapters of Witcombe’s biography relating to significant periods of her life and career such as her art and theatre training, her participation in children’s theatre, and her experience writing for radio, television and film, as well as her lifelong advocacy for writers’ rights.’

Hands holding up an A4 sized photo of a woman smiling. On the table below are smaller photographs of the same woman and behind is a trolley full of boxes

Time and space for inquiry

This wasn’t Hogan’s first venture into the Library, having previously made ‘short and sporadic research trips’, but she knew much more time would be needed for her biography.

‘It’s difficult to develop a long-form literary work, especially one involving research, without setting aside consolidated time and space. A National Library Fellowship provides exactly that – an opportunity to sit with archival material and pursue longer threads of inquiry, which is highly enriching for biographical research as you can follow psychological and professional developments over decades of your subject’s life. There’s also the potential for lateral walks – to investigate material in adjacent collections, of which you may not be aware before commencing your research at the Library.'

Smiling woman with short black hair and a fringe sitting at a table holding up a piece of paper

At the end of the day

Reflecting on her time at the Library, Hogan describes the collection as ‘nirvana for archive junkies like me, with helpful librarians wheeling out trolleys of archive boxes every day.’

The building itself was another plus during her fellowship.

‘The Library is a wonderfully serene location with opportunities for ‘pit stops’ along the way at Bookplate café with its stained-glass windows or sitting outside, gazing across Lake Burley Griffin.’

Learn more about the Library’s Fellowship and Scholarship program