Alan Seymour obituary


The dramatist Alan Seymour, who has died aged 87, made his name both in his native Australia and in Britain with his play The One Day of the Year, which examined the myths celebrated on Anzac Day. The play provoked death threats and a bomb hoax in 1961, but the controversy sparked interest at home and abroad, allowing the play to move to London, where it was well received. As a result, Seymour went on to become one of the busiest contributors to British television drama during the next three decades, writing, producing and script-editing a string of plays and dramatisations.

The One Day of the Year, written when he was 31, featured a young couple denouncing Australia’s hallowed Anzac day as “one long grog-up”. It was picked as the best of a number of plays submitted to the Adelaide festival in 1960, but the governors of the festival refused to sanction a production for fear of offending former forces personnel. Seymour remarked that this “did the play nothing but good” and indeed it had its professional premiere at the Palace theatre in Sydney the following year, attracting wide publicity.

Seymour came to London for the Theatre Royal Stratford East production, directed by Raymond Menmuir, then was drawn into further confrontation in Australia as ABC television turned down a play it had commissioned from him, Lean Liberty, “on the grounds that I had made communism seem acceptable”. However, in Britain, Associated-Rediffusion picked the play up for ITV (Menmuir again directing) and in 1961 Seymour moved to London to work for the BBC.



One of Alan Seymour’s most popular TV dramatisations was The Chronicles of Narnia in the 1980s. Photograph: BFI

So it came about that one of the leading lights in the explosion of British television drama in the 1960s was an Australian. Two of his original plays, The Trial and Torture of Sir John Rampayne, with Jack Hawkins and Ian McKellen, and Auto Stop, starring David Hemmings, were screened on television as Wednesday Plays in 1965, and his dramatisations of CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and John Masefield’s The Box of Delights became family favourites. Simultaneously, Seymour picked up reviewing work, serving as a theatre critic for London Magazine and as a contributor to the Observer. Pointedly, when reviewing John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence, he noted that “our great playwrights could do with the tough professional services of those maligned story editors of television”.

Born in Fremantle, Western Australia, “an afterthought” after five girls, Seymour lost both parents when he was nine. His father, Herbert, still working as a merchant seaman at 72, was killed in an accident; his mother Louise (nee Warren), a London-born dancer, died soon after of a blood clot. Alan was taken in by his eldest sister, May. He left Perth Modern school at 15, later hinting at abuse by a cleric.

Blessed with a mature voice, he found work as a radio announcer and soon established himself as an efficient turner-out of live radio plays. After a stint as an advertising copywriter in Sydney, he returned to Perth radio as an on-air film critic.

He next spent four years as an in-house director for Sydney Opera Group, moving on when his first stage play, a nuclear war fable called Swamp Creatures, was mounted in Canberra in 1957. The following year he wrote The One Day of the Year, and everything changed.

In the late 60s Seymour took four years off from television to teach in Turkey, then returned to the BBC. Besides young people’s stories, there were dramatisations of the LP Hartley trilogy Eustace and Hilda (1977) and the four Antonia White novels under the title Frost in May (1982), along with episodes of The House of Eliott (1991) and Anglia’s Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88). But growing “sick of the UK”, he returned to Sydney in 1995.

Seymour wrote many more plays over the years – some, such as The Pope and the Pill, staged in London. But in his homeland few of them went into production. By contrast, The One Day of the Year became a school curriculum staple, and was revived by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2003. Another revival opens at the Finborough theatre in Earl’s Court, London, in May, to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign.

Seymour was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2007. In recent years Alzheimer’s confined him to a care home. His partner of nearly 55 years, the psychologist Ron Baddeley, died in 2003. Seymour is survived by three nephews and a niece.

Alan Seymour, dramatist, producer and script editor, born 6 June 1927; died 23 March 2015



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