Australian author – Walter Mason’s talk on Sumner Locke Elliott

On Saturday, 27th June 2015, I attended the most fascinating talk given by Australian author, Walter Mason, about Sumner Locke Elliott.

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Walter Mason

The room was packed and the audience was captivated by Walter Mason’s passionate talk about Sumner Locke Elliott’s classic, Careful, He Might Hear You.

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Background

Sumner Locke Elliott was born in Sydney to the writer Helena Sumner Locke (1881–1917) and journalist Henry Logan Elliott.

His mother died of eclampsia a day after his birth and he was raised by his aunts, who had a fierce custody battle over him. His mother was a published author and Elliott only remembered, at the age of three, seeing his alcoholic father Logan Elliott once before leaving for Victoria. He abandoned his son to Aunt Lily, who brought him up in Carlton, a working-class suburb of Sydney, where they were always broke.

His early life was also shared with the dreaded Aunt Jessie in Vaucluse, where he had riding and music lessons and was later sent to Cranbrook School in Bellevue Hill for two years, as a boarder, which he recalled “with loathing, as a place of misery.”

He seemed fated to be a writer. “You must finish what your mother left unfinished”, people said to him as a child, and he “grew up shouldering the burden of his mother’s death.” By the age of 12 he had written a dozen plays and had his own puppet theatre. He was a loner, and his puppets became his friends.

He later became an actor and writer with the Doris Fitton‘s Independent Theatre and was drafted into the Australian Army in 1940’s, but instead of being posted overseas, he worked as a clerk in Australia. He wrote the play Rusty Bugles based on these experiences. The play toured extensively throughout Australia.

Later in his life he wrote to his father who wrote to him when he worked at a radio station and urged him to come and meet him. His father never did. It wasn’t until his father’s death when he was given his suitcase of belongings that he saw the letter he once wrote to him. From that moment onwards he forgave his father because he then knew his letter meant a lot to him.

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Elliott moved to the United States in 1948 and was noted as one of the leading playwrights during the Golden Age of live television dramas, writing more than 30 original plays and numerous adaptations for such shows such as Philco-Goodyear Playhouse and also wrote a play Buy Me Blue Ribbons, which had a short run on Broadway.

Elliott was a gay man and experienced many incidences of prejudice. He was once bashed at a train station. He was very uncomfortable with his sexuality and kept it secret until nearly the end of his life before coming out in his book Fairyland . His publishers were very apprehensive releasing his book and so the release date wasn’t until 1990.

In his later years, the happiness he always yearned for was with his partner, Whitfield Cook. Elliott died of cancer on 24 June 1991 in New York.

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CAREFUL HE MIGHT HEAR YOU

In 1963 Elliott wrote, Careful, He Might Hear You, which was successful in Britain, Europe and the US, but not in Australia. It won the Miles Franklin Award.

There had long been interest in making a film out of the novel. In the 1960’s it was announced that Elizabeth Taylor would star in the film, but this did not eventuate. The film rights to the novel were bought by Jill Robb. She hired Mike Jenkins to adapt the screenplay and Carl Schultz to direct. Funding was obtained from the New South Wales Film Corporation and others.

The film stars Wendy Hughes and Robyn Nevin as two sisters who are locked in a custody battle over their young nephew, PS, played by Nicholas Gledhill. PS was raised by his aunt Lila (Nevin) and her husband George since his mother died soon after his birth. When Lila’s richer sister Vanessa returns from overseas, she seeks custody of PS, giving him many opportunities. The film was shot in in Neutral Bay and Elizabeth Bay, New South Wales.

Careful, He Might Hear You grossed $2,431,126 at the Australian box office.

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This was one of Walter Mason’s best lectures. He’s such a talented and passionate author and public speaker, I strongly suggest anyone who loves books and films to go along to his next event. His blog is on http://www.waltermason.com/

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