Bruce Stewart, by Paul Featherstone

I am very grateful to Paul Featherstone, who lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, for this article. Especially, as when I went to some of the databases I keep here, it was apparent that Stewart had written a substantial number of plays over a period of more than 35 years, and also acted in some of them. – R.B.

Paul writes:

This New Zealand-born actor and dramatist domiciled in England died last October, aged 80. For Australasians, it was his role as Major Gregory Keen of MI5 in a series of Lindsay Hardy suspense serials which lingers in the memory. Dossier on Dumetrius (1949), the first of these, had Keen tracking around London a gang of Nazi sympathisers who trade in forged passports and make a fortune to finance their cause. Its popularity in New Zealand alone can be measured by the fact that Members of Parliament rose early to be able to hear the final episode. He continued to play this part in two sequels to the Sydney-produced Grace Gibson series - Deadly Nightshade (1950) where Keen is in Sydney trying to trace an atomic scientist who has vanished, and 26 Hours (1952). Stewart was a soldier during World War Two, then freelanced throughout the later 1940s, acting and announcing for radio in Auckland, also appearing with Pacific Forces concert parties and in clubs as a singer, pianist and storyteller. He was Walter's father in the quarter-hour New Zealand Broadcasting Service comedy series Walter - The Boy Wonder (1948).

In 1947, he had settled in Sydney where he was better able to maintain a professional career, accepting Australian Broadcasting Company engagements and roles in commercial serials. For Grace Gibson Productions there, he was also in Night Beat and Doctor Paul (as Sam Greer) and oddly, portrayed William Brodie without the appropriate Scottish brogue in the studio's adaptation of The Strange Life of Deacon Brodie. Morris West's Australasian Radio Productions cast Stewart as Lieutenant Frank Crane in Headquarters Man and Fanshawe in The Great Escape, and he replaced Rod Taylor as Douglas Bader in A.R.P's Reach For The Sky (1954). A further high-profile role was one he had in 1955 in the Artransa children's adventure series Hop Harrigan. In commercial stations in Sydney, he was also heard in Mildred Pierce, Kitty Foyle and Saratoga Trunk as well as the plays Crisis (in 'Caltex Theatre') and The Truth About Blayds (in 'Lion Theatre'). He wrote the serial Peter & Paula.

By 1955, Stewart had left Australia for England where he would remain for the rest of his life, and where as colonial heritage and religious spirituality. For the BBC, he wrote The Devil Is Driving By (1956 - see list following this article), the African Interlude series (1957), Against The Wind and a serialisation of Fergus Hume's classic Victorian novel The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (Light Programme, 6 parts as from 2.11.1958). Shadow of a Pale Horse (which was also given an NZBS production in1960) was awarded the Silver Dagger prize by The Mystery Writers of America in 1962, and in the same year his Hot & Copper Sky, which delineated episodes in the career of Australian bushranger Ben Hall, was produced by the NZBC.

In all, he wrote over 200 plays and scripts. Among these were Moonfall (NZBS production in 1961), Blood On The Coral Sea, The Day Of The Galah (6-part serial, Light programme as from 30.7.1962), Omegapoint (1975), Hector's Fixed Idea (1977), The Tor Sands Experience (a science fiction drama for Hi-Fi Theatre in 1979), A Mind To Murder, There'll Almost Be An England (Radio New Zealand production in 1983), The Isidore Projection and The Culper Tapes. Another play The Gallows In My Garden (given a Radio New Zealand production in 1983) was an account of the relationship between four famous men of the literary world of the 1920s -Wells, Chesterton, Belloc and Shaw. Stewart's last play - for BBC Radio 4, Soeur Sourire - was about 'The Singing Nun' and it questioned the church's position on suicide.

He gave a Children's Hour talk in 1960, The Life of St. Vincent de Paul, read Henry Lawson's short story The Loaded Dog and was cast in Nevil Shute's play A Town Like Alice (Saturday Night Theatre, 1.6.1963). His output as a TV writer in Britain ranged from scripts for the series The Sullavan Brothers, This Man Craig, The Onedin Line, The Secret Army and Timeslip to his own plays for the medium - The Sin Sifter, Pictures Don't Lie In Search of St. Paul and A Laugh At The Dark Question. While visiting Australia in 1984, he was back on TV himself in the mini-series The Last Bastion and Bodyline and in an episode of the children's serial Five Mile Creek.

Stewart was a founder of Sydney's Genesian Theatre and appeared on stage in that city during the 1950s in The Lady's Not For Burning, The Cocktail Party and A Phoenix Too Frequent. As a Director at the time, he prepared stagings of Cockpit and Shadow of a Gunman. His stage play The Hallelujah Boy -which had a West End Season - focused on worker priests in France.

Stewart was a taxi driver's son from Mount Albert in Auckland, educated at Mount Albert Grammar and Mt. St. Mary's seminary, Napier1, where for 3 years he trained for the priesthood. Ultimately, though, he realised that this was not for him. His other early obsession had been the theatre, which was further encouraged by tutoring from J.W. Bailey and New Zealand Broadcasting Services staff member, Alec McDowell. He shared his life in England with his wife Helen in Chipstead, Surrey in a house which once belonged to Hugh Walpole. They raised 6 children.

Reproduced by permission of VRPCC, in whose newsletter this piece originally appeared.  N.D.

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(1) Correction sent by Eliz. Charlton, province Archivist, Society of Mary in New Zealand, who writes as follows (Jan 2017)..."I would appreciate it if you could correct the name of the seminary where he completed studies for the priesthood.

It should be “Mt St Mary’s Seminary” not St Augustine’s. St Augustine’s was the name of a secondary school founded and staffed by the Society of Mary (Marist Fathers and Brothers) in Wanganui."

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