“Vale Robert Caswell” said an email in my inbox last week – the postmodern way by which you find that your world has changed. Caswell, a screenwriter, died in October – he will be best known to Australian viewers as the writer of Scales of Justice, the extraordinary miniseries a clef of Sydney crime and corruption in the 70s and 80s.
No-one who’s seen it easily forgets the scene in which the crooked cop forces the crim “Nipper” Jackson to blow his brains out or die by having his bits bolt-cuttered off.
Caswell also wrote A Cry In the Dark, a bunch of great TV plays and a steady stream of TV good and bad from the 70s through to 1988, at which point he left for Los Angeles.
And at that point according to the IMDB (international movie database) is where it pretty much stopped – with four credits up to 1993, and then nothing for ten years until 2004’s very fine TV movie Something The Lord Made.
So what happened? I presume Caswell made a living in the usual LA way – unproduced screenplays, script polishes, rewrites, TV episodes and so on, all uncredited. It’s a pretty sad latter half of a brilliant career.
But what’s even sadder is that there’s no way Australia could have offered him much better. Caswell was a natural TV writer, the sort of person who would have produced a string of works mixing crime and politics in the UK. The government’s slow strangulation of the ABC made that impossible – making it choose between having a reasonable amount of (cheap) Australian-made product on TV, or a Scales of Justice, but not both. Politics, yes – but since the political target of Scales of Justice was the Wran government, it should be clear there was a deeper target.
For all its trumpeting of Australian values, the Howard government has no interest in building a genuine Australian culture. They’re happy to have wall-to-wall American TV if that’s the price of silencing socially critical voices. Caswell’s invidious choice, and the empty years in his credit roll, is his loss, our loss.