Screenwriter and playwright Eleanor Witcombe, whose most enduring works were the adaptations of My Brilliant Career and The Getting of Wisdom, has died in Sydney. She was 95.
My Brilliant Career producer Margaret Fink, who hired Witcombe to adapt Miles Franklin’s 1901 novel, a coming-of-age story about a headstrong young woman played by Judy Davis, tells IF: “Her contribution to the film is incalculable.”
She began her professional career as a playwright in 1948 when the Mosman Children’s Theatre Club commissioned her to write three plays for children: Pirates at the Barn, The Bushranger and Smugglers Beware.
In 1952 she left for five years’ work and study in London. On her return she wrote one-hour adaptations of plays, books, and stories for ABC radio, the Lux Radio Theatre and the Macquarie Radio Theatre.
She also wrote the books for stage musicals A Ride on a Broomstick and Mistress Money for the Philllip Street Theatre.
Of her early career she once said: “There was no theatre then, none. Absolutely none. You just couldn’t write about any Australian subjects at all. There was no prestige about writing plays about Australia, and when we did start to do it, our writing was extremely tentative. The place was like a wilderness.”
In 1963 she adapted Smugglers Beware into a TV series for the ABC, starring Paddy Conroy, Jack Allen, Brendon Lunney, Ruth Cracknell, Noel Brophy and Nigel Lovell
She was a contributing writer to the 0/10 Network soap Number 96 and the Seven Network’s satire The Mavis Bramston Show. In 1973 she co-wrote the ABC series Seven Little Australians, directed by Ron Way and based on Ethel Turner’s novel about the adventures of the seven mischievous Woolcot children, their stern army father and flighty stepmother Esther in the 1880s.
In 1976 director Bruce Beresford and producer Phillip Adams hired her to adapt Henry Handel Richardson’s novel The Getting of Wisdom, which starred newcomer Susannah Fowle, Julia Blake, Sigrid Thornton and Barry Humphries.
Directed by Gillian Armstrong, My Brilliant Career won six AFI awards including best film, screenplay and achievement in direction in 1979. The director said on Twitter: “No movie without a brilliant script.”
In 1980 she co-wrote Water Under the Bridge, a miniseries for Ten based on the 1977 novel by Sumner Locke Elliott directed by Igor Auzins, which starred Robyn Nevin and Jacki Weaver.
One of her biggest successes was the theatrical adaptation for puppets of Norman Lindsay’s children’s book ‘The Magic Pudding’. Lindsay’s daughter Jane Glad was to become Eleanor’s long-term friend and soulmate.
She was a founding member of the Australian Writers’ Guild where she fought for writers’ rights, fees and royalties in the newly resurgent Australian film and TV industry, according to author, screenwriter and former ABC producer/director Anne Whitehead, who was akin to the daughter she never had for 50 years.
“Until Alzheimers encroached, Eleanor had always kept her zest for life, her capacity for friendship, her great generosity, her wickedness, her sassiness and her uproarious sense of humour,” Whitehead says.
Angela Wales Kirgo, former AWG CEO says: “Eleanor 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.
“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.”
In 2014 she was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her significant service to the arts.