Veteran Australian performance writer, ELEANOR WITCOMBE, was an early member of the Australian Writers’ Guild. In the 2014 Queen’s Birthday Honours, Eleanor was made a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to the arts as a writer for radio, film, television and theatre. She died on 21 October 2018 (aged 95) in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. See below for tributes by ANGELA WALES KIRGO, former Executive Director of the Australian Writers' Guild, and film director GILLIAN ARMSTRONG. (Photo of Eleanor Witcombe on her 94th birthday in 2017 courtesy of New Theatre History: modified by L.J. May)
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PLAYWRIGHT, SCREENWRITER, LIFE MEMBER OF THE AWG
BY ANGELA WALES KIRGO AND GILLIAN ARMSTRONG
ELEANOR WITCOMBE was born in Yorketown, South Australia, but left in 1939 to live first in Brisbane and
then in Sydney.
She studied at the National Art School, and then joined the Mercury Theatre School when it was founded in 1946. She began writing plays
for children in 1948, and was writing for radio at the time of her departure to England in 1952 where she studied youth theatre and worked for the BBC.
Eleanor’s return to Sydney in 1957, she wrote for radio, co-wrote two stage shows, and in 1963 adapted Smugglers Beware (1963) for television. This was followed by a long spell with The Mavis Bramston Show and its sequels. Other television credits include her adaptation of Seven Little Australians (1973) and writing for Number 96.
One of her first film scripts was The Getting of Wisdom (1977), followed by the
adaptation of My Brilliant Career (1979).
TRIBUTES FOR ELEANOR
Angela Wales Kirgo, former Executive Director of the Australian Writers' Guild
Witcombe’s place in the history of Australian screenwriting is assured not just by her wonderful screen adaptations of a series of Australian iconic classics, but by her outsize personality and fierce passion for the rights of writers. And she knew whereof
she spoke, since aside from the prestigious adaptations, she worked right across the spectrum – radio plays, children's theatre, The Mavis Bramston Show and Number 96,
Whether she actually was a founding member of the AWG or not I'm not sure, but she was certainly a very early member and she had a full
proprietary interest in it. She was a feisty and outspoken member and a character to be reckoned with. Whenever she appeared at the door of my office, I knew we were in for a wild ride. I loved her and loved her company.
Gillian Armstrong, Director
Recently I stood up the back of a screening of the NFSA’s restored print of My Brilliant Career, enjoying the audience laughter at Frank Hawdon (Robert Grubb) and at the McSwats (Carol Skinner and Max Cullen). I had
forgotten how funny those scenes were.
I always thought the character Eleanor most identified with was the unmarried and acerbic Aunt Gussie. Her scenes with Sybylla sparkled with a lovely dry wit and finally, at the climax, Gussie is heartfelt and wise, yet still dry. The dialogue is both moving
and wonderfully unsentimental. It was a key part of the story and a great part for Patricia Kennedy.
But of course, Sybylla – the square peg, the feisty, too smart, young woman who fought against society’s stifling narrowness and barriers, with her big dreams and big talents – would
have been very close to Eleanor’s own life. There was much truth in her writing.
Eleanor was not a self-promoter. She was proud and passionate and dedicated, and truly a great writer. She should feel proud that her much-reworked work on the typewriter in Hunters Hill, where she wrote My Brilliant
Career, influenced so many women everywhere. Particularly women writers! I have been approached over the years by so many who, because of seeing My Brilliant Career, followed their own heart.
Meeting Eleanor was rather overwhelming for this twenty-seven-year-old director from the outer
suburbs of Melbourne. She was very British-sounding, wore shirts and trousers and was breathy and quite abrupt. Enormous original Norman Lindsay paintings of writhing, muscular, large-breasted women and satyrs lined the hallway which led to Eleanor’s
book-stuffed study. She lived in the house with Norman Lindsay’s daughter Jane and family and two Scotties. It had a beautiful leafy garden, wrap-around verandahs, sparkling water glimpses and many, many paintings.
When I think about it now, Eleanor was very patient and never patronising with
this young, first-time director, nearly half her age. We were both delighted and excited by the challenge of adapting Miles Franklin’s iconic book. We, an odd duo, warmed up and I loved working with her. She was very passionate and opinionated, could
be prickly and, yes, frustratingly slow at times, but was smart and witty with a chortling asthmatic laugh and twinkling eyes. And, of course, I admired her talent: she was a natural storyteller, a perfectionist and real believer in human justice and fairness.
We were aware of the uniqueness in 1977 of our all-female
creative team (led by producer Margaret Fink) and the importance of telling this still very relevant young woman’s story. There were the usual huge adapting challenges of reducing a novel and bringing the main character’s internal thoughts alive,
but I think the three of us all enjoyed the shorthand and passion of our all-female script discussions.
Jane kindly took me aside early on and advised
me that it would be best if I could find a reason to be around dear Eleanor more than is usual, as she was the world’s greatest procrastinator and had a long history of going to great lengths to avoid that typewriter. We came up with a plan that I would
come over most days to do my historical research in the adjoining study to Eleanor’s.
This worked well for the first few weeks and I loved the family,
the sound of typing, the Scotties and the 5 pm-on-the-dot, knock-off gin and tonics. But by week three, I would glance up to an empty writer’s desk before spotting, through the French windows and greenery, a distant figure calmly wandering around, moving
the sprinkler or talking to a Scotty.
But we got there, many drafts later, with a few breaks over the years when financing, as per usual, was on and off
Eleanor, the writer of the much-heralded
Seven Little Australians and The Getting of Wisdom (1977 AFI Best Adapted Screenplay), had a label that I too was soon to possess: the ‘Period film’ expert. Yes, she did have a huge knowledge and love of Australian history and
social mores but, like all wonderful writers, she had an even stronger knowledge of character and story structure and also a great instinct for humour. Sadly, she was never really acknowledged for that wit and humour. (She was actually part of the original
The Mavis Bramston Show team.)
Eleanor and My Brilliant Career won accolades and audiences worldwide (1979 AFI Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film). And there is no great film without a great script. She succeeded in that delicate balance of a story of a young woman’s journey,
her first love and finally her empowerment as writer, without hitting audiences over the head.
I will always be grateful and thankful to have had that wonderful script which launched my own brilliant career. And also that time and fun in Hunters Hill with the Lindsays and the Scotties and the importance
of 5 o’clock G&Ts.’
(Thank you to the AWG for this information and tributes)
AN EVENING WITH LYNDA LA PLANTE
LYNDA LA PLANTE was born in Liverpool, England. She trained for the stage at RADA and worked with the National Theatre and RSC before becoming a television actress. She then turned to writing,
and made her breakthrough with the TV show Widows. Now you have the opportunity
to join British Crime Queen Lynda La Plante for an exclusive evening of hilarious tales and insights into the mind that writes from the dark side!
Emmy and BAFTA-winning creator of the acclaimed Prime Suspect television
crime series, starring Helen Mirren, Lynda also crafted the phenomenally successful series Widows (recently adapted into a film by Steve McQueen). In Australia to launch her new book, Widows’ Revenge, don’t miss this best-selling author in her only Queensland appearance.
In 2008, Lynda was
made a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to Literature, Drama and Charity. She is a member of The Crime Thriller Awards Hall of Fame and is the only lay person to be made a fellow of The Forensic Science Society.
The Library Shop will have a selection of Lynda La Plante’s books available for sale at the event, including Widows' Revenge and you are
invited to meet her post-event to get your book signed.
Book in now for AN EVENING WITH LYNDA LA PLANTE to be held in Auditorium 1, Level 2, at
the State Library of Queensland, South Bank, Brisbane, on Wednesday, 13 February, 2019. Prices are: Full $42, Concession $37, Groups 6+ $37, Full plus book $67.50, and Concession plus book $62.50 (concessions are available for pensioners, seniors and students). To BUY TICKETS,
go to this link at https://www.qtix.com.au/event_dates/slq_talking_lynda_19.aspx.