Gwen Meredith was the writer of one of Australia’s best loved radio serials; The Lawsons. I had no idea there had been a propagandist element behind its creation.
In 1943 John Curtin’s Labor Government approached the ABC about highlighting the need to grow soya beans to help the war effort and, more generally, to encourage farmers in adopting modern agricultural methods. The ABC came up with the idea of a radio drama incorporating these issues, to be written by Gwen Meredith. The programme revolved around a rural family, and went to air on February 21, 1944. Episodes were short, lasting only 15 minutes.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR!
All went well until August 1946, when Labor MP Mr Leslie Haylen stood up in parliament and denounced the programme as being anti-Government. The problem was that one of the character’s had been forced to sell his business due to high taxes and industrial action.
CANBERRA, Friday – An ABC radio serial. “The Lawsons” was attacked by Mr Haylen (Lab. NSW) in the House of Representatives today.
It was, he said, the worst combination of “Oxford” and “adenoids” and it contained anti-Government propaganda. Last night’s episode, Mr Haylen said, dealt with high taxation and industrial unrest.’
“How much is paid the stooges who write these attacks on the Government?” he asked the Prime Minister (Mr Chifley) (Courier Mail, August 10 1946)
Naturally the Opposition had a bit to say, with the Country Party’s Larry Anderson leaping to Miss Meredith’s defense;
Mr Anthony:- It is one of the most popular serials. It’s written by a very charming woman, Miss Gwen Meredith. Does the Prime Minister condone these attacks made under privilege on persons employed by a Government instrumentality when they have no opportunity of protecting their reputation? Does he approve of the word “stooges” to employees of the ABC when they happen to write something which is not in line with the propaganda of the Labor Party?
The press leapt upon the comments with glee;
It put the Prime Minister in a difficult position. Mr Chifley didn’t want to condone ‘slander’, but neither did he want potentially damaging views being aired nationwide, especially, on such a popular serial. He said he would investigate, and request the station to refrain from doing things of that character.
GWEN MEREDITH A POLITICAL STOOGE? 😨
Meanwhile, Gwen Meredith was quick to respond, commenting. ‘The whole thing is too ridiculous”….”I was not even thinking of politics when I wrote that chapter …The Lawsons are supposed to be a typical Australian country family. [They] talk about anything and everything. Everyone gets a comment in these discussions – that is why the question of taxation and industrial unrest cropped up.‘ (The Sun, August 10 1946) She also thanked Mr Anthony for his support. Mind you, there may have been more political opportunism than gallantry in his remarks.
I can’t help wondering whether the controversy did cause Miss Meredith to more carefully consider the dialogue she wrote. It must have been very difficult in a programme meant to reflect the realities of daily life.
There was mention of the matter a few years later, in a piece on radio serials published in 1952;
Only once or twice have our serials been publicly questioned, and then on probably irrelevant grounds. In 1946, for instance, not until Gwen Meredith had successfully launched some hundreds of episodes of that radio saga of sagas, “The Lawsons”, was it discovered (at least by Mr Leslie Haylen, M.P.) to be politically subversive.
It seems that in a moment of aberration, Miss Meredith had allowed one of her characters to remark that he could not buy a business “because of high taxation and industrial unrest.”.
This phrase, which might have passed for normal conversation even in 1946, was regarded, coming from the microphone, as being only half a step behind blasphemy.‘ (Sydney Morning Herald, October 2 1952)
The Lawsons eventually ran its course, with the final episode airing on February 25 1949. The Sun published the following photo showing the cast rehearsing for the final time. On the far right is actress Gwen Plum. Her character Emmie also featured in the replacement serial by Gwen Meredith; Blue Hills.
Miss Meredith is uncertain whether she will have the stamina to keep “Blue Hills” going for as long as “The Lawsons”. ‘If anyone had told me at the beginning that “The Lawsons” would run for five years I would have had hysterics’, she said. (Sun Herald, January 30 1949)
The new serial was similar, but broader in scope. Despite Miss Meredith’s own, understandable doubts, it ran for an astonishing twenty seven years, until 1976.
Gwen Meredith died on October 3 2006. in Bowral. She was 98. Her husband, Ainsworth Harrison, had predeceased her in 1993.
What a lot of pleasure Miss Meredith gave to Australians, especially those in rural areas. I’m sure her adoring public would have agreed that the accusation of her being a political stooge was, as she herself, ‘too ridiculous‘. My parents were farmers in Tasmania, and lunch time episodes of Blue Hills were not to be missed. During school holidays my siblings and I knew that as soon as the well known theme music started we were to be quiet. By the way, British composer Ronald Hammer had no idea his orchestral piece was so famous in Australia until he visited in 1976.
To hear that nostalgic theme, CLICK HERE For me it’s up there with the introduction to Kindergarten of the Air.
NOTE – a novel The Lawsons, was published in 1948. There were also books by Miss Meredith based on Blue Hills.