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Braddon, Russell Reading (1921–1995)

by Nigel Starck

This article was published online in 2019

Russell Braddon, by Paul Fitzgerald, 1953

Russell Braddon, by Paul Fitzgerald, 1953

National Library of Australia, 26428018

Russell Reading Braddon (1921–1995), author and broadcaster, was born on 25 January 1921 in North Sydney, elder child of Henry Russell Braddon, barrister, and his wife Thelma Doris, née Reading, both Sydney-born. His great-grandfather Sir Edward Nicholas Coventry Braddon had been a premier of Tasmania and a member of the first Commonwealth parliament. In 1932 his father died. Russell attended (1933–37) Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). Although representing the school at tennis and embracing written English expression ‘with a passion’ (Braddon 1984–85), he was unhappy there. Shore’s ‘hearty, rugger-playing atmosphere’ (Starck 2011, 147) was not to his liking, particularly when he realised his homosexual orientation. ‘It wasn’t easy for him, being gay in a straight world,’ David Healy, his companion for the last twenty years of his life, would later recall (Starck 2011, 147).

On progressing to the University of Sydney (BA, 1941) in 1938, Braddon began to question an earlier decision to study law. The lecturers, he maintained, possessed an unfailing talent to ‘bore the arse off me’ (Braddon 1984–85). In any case, studies were interrupted by World War II. After being awarded his bachelor’s degree (having completed two years of arts and first-year law), he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 7 May 1941 and was posted to the 2/15th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, which, in August, disembarked at Singapore. He recorded his military experiences in The Naked Island. First published in 1951 and followed by multiple editions and translations over six decades, it positioned him as an author of international repute.

Its title was inspired by Singapore’s vulnerability to Japanese invasion. Captured in the battle of Muar (15–22 January 1942), on the Malay Peninsula, Braddon was held initially in Kuala Lumpur, transferred to Changi prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore, and despatched in May 1943 as a slave labourer to the Burma-Thailand Railway. He remained a prisoner until the end of hostilities in August 1945. Arriving back in Australia in October, he was discharged from the AIF on 24 January 1946. His book recounted the disease, starvation, and physical abuse of that period in a restrained, surprisingly humorous, manner.

Returning to university in 1946, Braddon failed his law finals and, by his own account, ‘disintegrated as a person’ (1958, 62). He tried to take his life through an overdose of a sedative prescribed for ameliorating persistent nightmares. Discovered comatose by a fellow student, he was confined to the psychiatric ward of the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord, for five months, an experience that gave rise to his 1958 novel Gabriel Comes to 24. He had achieved a remarkable return to health in 1949 by taking a first-class sea passage to England (having saved his army pay), where he joined forces with an old comrade from Changi, Sydney Piddington. While prisoners, they had devised a ‘mind-reading’ act. Now, with Piddington’s wife, Lesley, as the recipient of supposedly transmitted thoughts, they developed it for professional engagements. Through Braddon’s ingenious scripts and promotional inventiveness, the Piddingtons attained nationwide fame on British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio, topped the bill at the London Palladium, and undertook overseas tours. Their story, and the act’s origins, was described in Braddon’s first book, The Piddingtons (1950). The narrative’s potent depiction of battle and imprisonment had persuaded the publisher, T. Werner Laurie Ltd, to commission The Naked Island, which won such critical acclaim that he was named ‘1952 Author of the Year’ by the British Daily Express.

Braddon’s subsequent professional career was diverse and productive: authorship of a further twenty-seven books; frequent appearances on broadcast panel shows (notably the BBC’s Any Questions?); lucrative public speaking engagements; journalism, as a columnist for British newspapers; and television documentary presentation. From 1957 to 1981 he was the chair of the Society of Australian Writers in London. Among his television appearances was ‘Russell Braddon—Epitaph to a Friendship’ (1974), made by Tom Haydon. His biographies of the Royal Air Force pilot Leonard Cheshire VC (1954), the World War II resistance leader Nancy Wake (1956), and the opera singer (Dame) Joan Sutherland (1962) figured prominently in best-seller lists. He wrote fifteen novels, the best-selling of which was End Play, his 1972 début in the medium of crime fiction. It was adapted for both stage and film, and appeared in condensed form in a Reader’s Digest compilation.

Earlier, though, Braddon had displayed dexterity as a novelist with The Proud American Boy. Its plot was inspired by press reports in 1958 of two black American boys, aged ten and nine (other reports offered minor age variants), sentenced to indefinite confinement in a North Carolina reformatory after being kissed by a white girl of similar age. Braddon, ever the crusader, travelled to their home town, mixed openly with the black populace for the book’s research, and received anonymous threats from—so he surmised—the Ku Klux Klan. The resultant book presented an adroit study of a divided society. The date of its release, though, was disastrous: it appeared at the same time in 1960 as the United Kingdom publication of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, regarded as the seminal literary condemnation of racial prejudice.

In similar vein, Braddon’s 1959 stage version of The Naked Island failed to attract the attention it perhaps deserved. The play enjoyed warm notices following two seasons at the Arts Theatre in London and a healthy provincial run. From this, he developed a film treatment. The subject matter, however, had already been satisfied by The Bridge on the River Kwai (winner of seven 1958 Academy awards); potential producers shied away.

Remaining in London for more than forty years, Braddon was often castigated in the Australian press for self-interested expatriation. By nature a combative individual, in response he accused his homeland of adopting a blinkered outlook that made it ‘reek of a banana republic’ (Roberts 1973, 3). Having visited regularly, he returned permanently to Australia in 1993, on being diagnosed with cancer, to share a rural retreat in northern New South Wales with David Healy. Braddon had met Healy, who worked in theatre management and administration, at a 1975 Christmas dinner in London, when he was approaching fifty-five, and Healy was twenty-six. Their attraction was immediate and mutual, and lasted for the remainder of Braddon’s life.

A man of athletic physique, Braddon possessed a sonorous voice and a chiselled countenance that attracted both sexes. In addition to bridge and tennis, he enjoyed surfing, which, back in Australia, he remained well enough for some months to pursue. He died on 20 March 1995 at Coffs Harbour. His prolific output as an author, although of uneven quality, generated considerable reflection on the obituary pages of British newspapers. The Times called him a novelist of ‘ingenuity and efficiency’ and ‘a darling of the provincial luncheon clubs’ (1995, 21). The Daily Telegraph referred to his own lamentation that, while he had always regarded himself as Australian, ‘when he visited his native country he was called a Pom and a scab’ (1995, 23).

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Braddon, Russell. End of a Hate. London: Cassell and Company Ltd, 1958
  • Braddon, Russell. Interview by Vivienne Rae-Ellis, 1984–85. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Daily Telegraph (London). ‘Russell Braddon.’ 25 March 1995, 23
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX8190
  • Roberts, Mike. ‘New Nationalism Makes Us “Reek of a Banana Republic”.’ Australian, 19 September 1973, 3
  • Starck, Nigel. ‘The Mind of Russell Braddon.’ National Library Magazine 1, no. 3 (September 2009): 12–15
  • Starck, Nigel. Proud Australian Boy: A Biography of Russell Braddon. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011
  • Times (London). ‘Russell Braddon.’ 27 March 1995, 21

Additional Resources

Citation details

Nigel Starck, 'Braddon, Russell Reading (1921–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/braddon-russell-reading-19108/text30681, published online 2019, accessed online 18 August 2019.

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