Comedian Harry Secombe Down Under in Sunstruck

*contains spoilers

When I read a recent article on the internet about the film Sunstruck (1972), I had a vague memory of seeing it as a child on television. And it was a fond memory.

DVD cover

This Australian-British co-production was unavailable on DVD in Oz, so I had to order a copy from the United Kingdom. The results were pleasantly surprising and after several viewings of this family movie, I can report it has cult possibilities.

Starring rotund Welsh comedian, actor and singer Harry Secombe (1921-2001 prostate cancer), the film was inspired by a poster in Britain which urged teachers to migrate to Australia and enjoy a life of sunshine as they taught the local students.

Secombe, who is choirmaster at the local Welsh high school, has recently been humiliated for his unrequited love for the female physical education teacher. He imagines teaching his own choir of bikini clad and budgie smuggler wearing bronzed Aussies on a sunny beach… So he chooses to migrate!

Harry’s fantasy of what an Aussie choir might look like

However, he ends up in what appears to be a one-horse bush town with a pub or hotel as its main building and a one-room schoolhouse just down the road. It’s lucky he brought his tape recorder with the sounds of his former choir for company as Secombe may be in for a lonely time in this tiny hamlet.

The choir music is central to Sunstruck and Wales is noted for its choirs. The sound of the choir recorded on the tape and, indeed, the sound of the choir when it is formed locally in the town, were all recorded in Wales. But you wouldn’t know that from watching the movie.

“We haven’t had a teacher for some months,” says the local publican, played by celebrated Australian actor and alcoholic John Meillon (1934-89 cirrhosis).

The original poster which inspired the movie

Secombe has arrived at the local airstrip via light aircraft carrying his golf clubs, despite there being no golf course, let alone any tennis court.

“What we’ll do is go inside and have a few schooners,” says Meillon in consolation for the heat and possibly the flies, although they appear to be missing from this film, something surprising for the Australian outback. There must have been an awful lot of Aerogard used in this movie!

Secombe (left) meets John Meillon and Dawn Lake who run the hotel

It’s the era where beer drinking and pom bashing seemed to be the national pastime and the film is a time capsule in that respect. Perhaps there are still Australian characters like that in the outback. Or once was.

By the time Secombe is downing or sipping his first beer at the pub where he will also live upstairs, the landlord’s son Stevie has already cooked up his first prank for this latest “nong” to come and teach at the local school. He cuts open the fly-screen on the window in Secombe’s bedroom and Secombe comes down the next morning covered in mozzie bites.

Disney’s Australian made Ride a Wild Pony (1976) trailer

“You looked like an old sheila at a tea party,” says Meillon about Secombe’s drinking the previous evening. Yes, the film has what is purported to be the country idiom in spades.

Actor Meillon is a part of an interesting cast. I met the actor as a nine-year-old boy with an autograph book when I went to what was possibly our state’s premiere of the locally filmed Disney movie Ride a Wild Pony (1976). His drinking was prodigious and it’s what killed him, but on that occasion, he seemed totally sober in the lobby of the theatre and I dug out my old autograph book and it read with a steady hand: “To Jason Thank You John Meillon”.

John Meillon and Paul Hogan on the set of “Crocodile” Dundee (1986)

The rest of the cast were other Australian variety stars of the era which included husband and wife team Bobby Limb (1924-99 cancer) and Dawn Lake (1927-2006). They had been popular throughout the 1960s. And let’s not forget Australian Maggie Fitzgibbon (1929-2020) who had worked mainly in Britain previous to the making of Sunstruck.

Performers Limb and Lake in the 1960s were popular

The film, while using monies from England, was also the second feature film partially funded by the Australian Film Development Corporation, which became the Australian Film Commission and then Screen Australia. The first film which was produced is the generally forgotten and not very good in comparison Private Collection (1972). I’ve seen it and practically forgotten it, which is not a good sign. That film was probably not even released theatrically and was the first film for New Zealand born comedienne Pamela Stephenson (1949-) who ended up marrying Billy Connolly (1942-).

Anyway, Sunstruck is the more polished product and it features an overseas star in the form of Secombe. The actor was well known for his work on radio’s The Goon Show (1951-60) with other comedians Peter Sellers (1925-80 heart attack) and Spike Milligan (1918-2002 kidney failure). Secombe’s most famous character on the show was Neddie Seagoon.

From left: Sellers, Secombe and Milligan as the Goons

Some may possibly remember the actor as Mr Bumble in the film version of Oliver (1968). He had his own tv show which ran from 1968 until 1973, so Sunstruck was made around the end of this peak period in Secombe’s popularity. It would, however, turn out to be his last film role although he would continue on tv until a few years before his death.

When Secombe died, fellow Goon Spike Milligan said he was saddened he was dead but he was glad that he died as then couldn’t sing at Spike’s own funeral. The joke was on Spike because at his funeral, they played a recording of Secombe singing anyway.

Young Stevie (Dennis Jordan) uses the local wildlife to scare his teacher

It’s Secombe’s personality and the fish out of water script which pokes fun at the “pom” as well as the town’s inhabitants which makes the film work. That and a nice romantic subplot concerning Secombe and Fitzgibbon who had heard he was “a fat, little pom”. It’s gentle in some respects. But did I say gentle? There’s a scene where Maggie Fitzgibbon breaks out her pump action shotgun and takes aim at her brother – well, almost – calling out: “You great, hairy maggot!” after he chases off Secombe who has come visiting at their property.

The main kid in the film called Stevie and played by Dennis Jordan (1959-) is a kind of freckle faced clone of child actor Garry Pankhurst (1957-) from the local tv series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1967-69) which had proved profitable for its producers.

Garry Pankhurst in Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo

What is also interesting about the film is that most of the schoolchildren who appear in the movie are locals from the town of Parkes and its surrounds who were chosen after auditioning.

Parkes is a town in central west New South Wales and for some reason was chosen for the location of the movie. An old homestead in a nearby town was used as the hotel in the movie while a schoolhouse was relocated especially for the movie to just down the road. The combination of location shooting plus the real country kids adds to the film’s charm.

Sir Henry Parkes. Good politicians are hard to come by nowadays.

The town of Parkes, by the way, is named after one of the Premiers of New South Wales (1815-96) who was instrumental in setting up conferences which ended up in the formation of Australia as a federation and not just a bunch of rag-tag states. His name was Sir Henry Parkes (1815-96 in poverty) and he is often cited in Australia as the “Father of Federation” which happened after his death in 1901.

The subplot of Secombe’s romance happens after he recovers from his initial homesickness, a time when he was driving the patrons of the downstairs bar mad as he interminably played his choir music upstairs on his tape recorder. Meillon then secretly enters the local kids as a choir for a competition in Sydney…

How Green Was My Valley (1941) featured The Ash Grove. Trailer.

“But they can’t sing,” says Meillon’s wife and yet Secombe is suddenly inspired to teach these kids, who can barely string together Baa Baa Black Sheep, to perform on the national stage… all in a matter of weeks. Can they do it?

The song that Secombe chooses for the choir to sing is The Ash Grove. It is a traditional Welsh folk song which has had different lyrics over the years. You can hear it being sung by the Welsh miners in John Ford’s How Green was My Valley (1941). It’s a beautiful song.

Sir Harry Secombe as he appeared in the musical Oliver! (1968)

Sunstruck appears to have been cooked up by Secombe’s tv show writer Stan Mars (no info) and his tv show producer Jimmy Grafton (1916-86). It was also directed by a tv director by the name of James Gilbert (1923-2017). So, it was a family affair in terms of Secombe who had already visited Australia a couple of times previously with his wife and children.

Secombe and the rest of the cast and crew, the star especially, bonded with the locals and he even performed a charity night at the Parkes services club with Limb and Lake. The locals still have fond memories, especially the children who appeared in the movie. Even the world premiere was held in Parkes at the local picture theatre where it seemed that at least half the town turned out.

Sunstruck (1972) trailer

Sunstruck failed commercially and critically. One critic called the film “daft and dated” even for the time… but it won me over as a kid watching it one afternoon and to watch it again brought those innocent memories back to life. Australia may have long changed since this film was made but the basic characters are recognisable and not unbelievable. I think Sunstruck’s a bloody bonzer flick, good on ya, mate… you little ripper!

For an interview with Parkes historian Dan Fredericks about the making of Sunstruck PRESS HERE.

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