Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Turner, Alexander Frederick (Tony) (1907–1993)

by Gail Phillips

This article was published online in 2019

Alexander Frederick Turner (1907–1993), poet, playwright, and theatre and radio producer, was born on 7 August 1907 in London, younger son of English-born Frederick Charles Abbott Turner, tailor’s clerk, and his Maltese-born wife Grace Ann, née Bradbury. His parents separated when he was five and, in 1913, his father took him and his brother to live in Quebec, Canada. In 1919 Frederick migrated to Western Australia with his older son, while Alexander (known to his friends as Tony), having gained a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital School, Horsham, continued his education in England (1919–24). He later described his childhood as ‘rather sombre … generally hungry and almost entirely loveless’ (Turner 1977). Recognising an aptitude for creative writing, a schoolmaster encouraged him to contribute essays and poetry to school literary magazines which, Turner recalled, gave him a ‘sense of richness and wellbeing’ (Turner 1977) that had previously been absent from his life.

With no family remaining in England, Turner moved to Western Australia in 1925. He briefly worked as a science teaching assistant at Guildford Grammar School before becoming a clerk at the Bank of New South Wales, St George’s Terrace, Perth, which gave him a regular income as well as allowing him time to write. He began submitting poems to the Western Mail newspaper, receiving advice and encouragement from its editor, Ivor Birtwistle. After three years in Perth he was transferred by the bank to the regional centre of Geraldton, where he participated in local music and theatre groups, producing plays, musical pieces, and operettas. He then had successive three-year stints in the country towns of Meekatharra, Pingelly, and Carnamah. Throughout this period he continued his dramatic and literary activities. Taking up the editorship of a regional theatre magazine, Music and the Drama, he also wrote reviews under the noms de plume ‘John Shapcott’ and ‘James Archer.’

While in Geraldton, Turner met Beryl Mary Youard Pond, a trained singer, and they worked on productions together. They married at St Oswald’s Church of England, Meekatharra, on 1 April 1933. He became aware of radio as a medium for the creative arts during his posting at Meekatharra. To convey the full range of human emotion, he began writing plays for broadcast in which he sought to exploit the power of the voice and the use of sound to create images in the listener’s mind. Western Australia was often the setting, presenting his local audience with works that had an immediacy for them that they could not find in the usual broadcast diet of theatrical classics. Encouraged by the author and the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) producer Leslie Rees, Turner was productive during the 1930s. Many of his plays won prizes, for both theatre (The Black Cloak, 1932; Not the Six Hundred, 1933; The Centurion and One Hundred Guineas, 1935; The Old Allegiance, 1936; Royal Mail, 1939) and radio productions (All Stations, 1936; Hester Siding, 1937). He came to be widely considered one of Australia’s chief writers in radio in the 1930s. Hester Siding has been described as the ‘first Australian play which is generally regarded as radio literature’ (Thompson 1966, 94).

Mobilised in the Citizen Military Forces on 2 June 1942 for full-time duty in World War II, Turner was posted to 6th Brigade headquarters at Geraldton. He transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in December and was commissioned in March 1943 as a lieutenant in what became the Australian Army Education Service. Having spent considerable periods in hospital himself, in December he was appointed as education officer of the 109th Convalescent Depot, Northam (later Fremantle), a position he held until he was placed on the Retired List on 15 May 1946. His output at this time reflected his wartime preoccupations and experiences. He also experimented with verse plays, one of the first playwrights in Australia to do so. For example, the autobiographical Australian Stages (1944) described the journey of a soldier travelling from Geraldton to Perth to enlist. It is noteworthy for the way he structured the verse as an ‘ingenious onomatopoeic device’ (Thompson 1966, 96) to replicate the rhythm of the train.

In 1946 Turner left the bank and joined the ABC in Perth as producer of drama, where he continued to blend voice, words, and music to take full advantage of the power of radio as a sound medium, often recording the plays before a live audience. His standing as a significant radio playwright went beyond Australia; Hester Siding was sold to the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, and Coat of Arms (1937) to the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

Retiring in 1972, Turner continued to produce radio plays on contract for the ABC. Described as a ‘great tall thin bloke; mad about music’ (Lane 1994, 112), he pursued his interests in gardening, bookbinding, and making and collecting toy soldiers. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he died on 12 April 1993 at Claremont, and was cremated. He had taken an active part in reviving theatre in regional Western Australia in the interwar years, but it was in radio that he made his reputation as a creative innovator of national stature.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘Australian Radio Plays: Success of A.B.C. Playwrights Abroad.’ 14 August 1939, 2
  • Hasluck, Paul. Foreword to Hester Siding and Other Plays and Verse, by Alexander Turner, 1–2. Perth: Patersons Printing Press Ltd, 1937
  • Lane, Richard. The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama 1923–1960: A History through Biography. Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1994
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, WX36274
  • Pybus, Rodney. ‘Radio Drama: The Australian Experience.’ In Radio Drama, edited by Peter Lewis, 244–59. London: Longman, 1981
  • State Library of Western Australia. MN2176, Papers of Alexander Frederick Turner
  • Thompson, John. ‘Broadcasting and Australian Literature.’ In Literary Australia, edited by Clement Semmler and Derek Whitelock, 89–116. Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire, 1966
  • Turner, Alexander. Interview by Chris Jeffrey, 1977. State Library of Western Australia
  • Turner, Alexander. Royal Mail and Other Plays. Perth: Patersons Printing Press Ltd, 1944

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Gail Phillips, 'Turner, Alexander Frederick (Tony) (1907–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/turner-alexander-frederick-tony-27727/text35405, published online 2019, accessed online 8 December 2019.

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