“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 the Australian 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.
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 the TV 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.
“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” when Reunion 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, reunionday.eventbrite.com.au