And now we have another review from Peter Philp, Broadcasting Historian and Author of Drama In Silent Rooms
In the unlikable theatres of war, we all have great admiration for those Australian soldiers who gave their lives and for those returned troops who were prepared to risk everything in the name of peace and liberty. One of the lesser-known campaigns involved the women of the 8th Division AIF in Malay, Australian nurses, who suffered unbearable pain and abuse at the hands of their Japanese masters in prisoner of war camps. They became known as The White Coolies.
Some of the most powerful images of those terrifying times has been reproduced by radio where the listener is always engaged as the cinematographer. As the listener to these disturbing moments, you experience the reality of what these Australian women suffered. However, White Coolies is more than a living experience. It is our history that every Australian should understand and appreciate. It remains a major chapter in Australia’s war story.
The script for White Coolies has been adapted from the diaries written secretly in these shocking camps by one of few survivors, Betty Jeffrey. Surprisingly, in an era when male performers dominated radio drama, the entire cast is female. The dairies were adapted by a woman, Sydney’s Gwen Friend and produced by one of Australia’s leading radio and theatrical women, Fiffi Banvard. The radio production is both a dramatic presentation and a powerful historical documentary.
In the starring role as Sister Betty Jeffrey is Ruth Cracknell, playing what I believe is her most celebrated radio performance. You will probably best remember Ruth for her stage and film work, however after hearing White Coolies, I’m sure you’ll list this role as one of Ruth’s most compelling performances. Not an easy part to play, a 26-hour production of vivid and intense action, yet Ruth never allows the dramatics to destroy this remarkable story. Even the seasoned producer, Fifi Banvard, admitted the re-creation of the dairies to radio was ‘very challenging’. Supporting Ruth is a cast of outstanding Australian actresses including June Salter, Queenie Ashton, Diana Perryman and Margo Lee.
Australian broadcasting is notable for a vast variety of outstanding shows and players. I would suggest that While Coolies is one of the finest pieces of Australian radio ever made. It is a listening must.