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Malcolm (Max) Afford (1906–1954)

by Michael J. Tolley

This article was published:

Malcolm (Max) Afford (1906-1954), playwright and novelist, was born on 8 April 1906 at Parkside, Adelaide, fifth surviving child of Robert Daniel Afford, grocer, and his second wife Mary Ann, née Crundell. Known as Max, he was educated at Parkside Public and Unley High schools, and held various jobs before working as a reporter at the News and Mail in 1926-31. Having published his first story in Smith's Weekly in 1928, he freelanced in the 'ear-phone and cat's whisker days' of wireless and mastered the new technology. His first play to be broadcast was macabre: it included a thunderstorm, a wronged mistress, a maniac who believed himself to be a cat, a number of slit throats and a suicide. In 1935 Afford joined radio 5DN as a producer and continuity writer. Next year he won the Advertiser's centenary play competition with William Light—The Founder (later Awake My Love). His Jeffery Blackburn novels, Blood On His Hands! (London, 1936) and Death's Mannikins (London, 1937), achieved several reprintings. By eventually writing more than sixty radio and stage plays and eight crime novels—usually employing English settings—Afford was to gain international repute.  

He moved to Sydney in 1936, on contract to the Australian Broadcasting Commission as a playwright and producer. A tall man, tanned from swimming, with penetrating blue eyes, a heavy jaw, and prematurely white hair, Afford was witty, ebullient and captivating. On 16 April 1938 at St Michael's Anglican Church, Vaucluse, he married Thelma May Thomas, a costume designer; they were to remain childless. Tired of churning out radio dialogue and thrillers, Afford stated in 1939 that he wanted to write a book expressing 'the helpless antagonism of the average person trapped in this sticky web of international affairs'; his wish was never realized. From 1941 he again freelanced, selling children's and adult serials like Hagen's Circus (800 episodes) to radio 2GB and 2UE. These programmes proved so popular that his name was emblazoned on roadside hoardings and city billboards.

Afford's comedy thriller Lady in Danger (published in Sydney, 1944; New York, 1945) was originally produced by (Dame) Doris Fitton for Sydney's Independent Theatre (March 1942); it was also staged (1944) by J. C. Williamson Ltd. Taken in 1945 to Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre, New York, the play closed after twelve performances and poor box office: 'wordy, dull, and gimcrack', wrote the New York Times. Afford enjoyed success with Mischief in the Air (Theatre Royal, Sydney, October 1944) and co-wrote with Ken G. Hall the story for the Columbia Film Corporation's film, Smithy, in 1944. Max was president of the Sydney P.E.N. Club in 1950. While his play, Dark Enchantment, toured England's provincial theatres that year, he studied television with the British Broadcasting Corporation in London.

Returning home, he used Australian settings and subjects in such radio plays as Lazy in the Sun and Out of This Nettle, and in the long-running 1951 A.B.C. serial, Stranger Come In, which explored the subject of immigration. Believing that radio was more personal than the stage and more manageable than the cinema, he rejoined the A.B.C. Survived by his wife, Afford died of cancer on 2 November 1954 at Mosman, Sydney, and was cremated. The A.B.C. continued to serialize his It Walks by Night and in 1959 televised Lady in Danger. Mischief in the Air, a selection of Afford's plays, was published in Brisbane in 1974. Ivor Hele's and Vincent Juradovitch's portraits of Afford are held by the State Library of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Rees, The Making of Australian Drama (Syd, 1973)
  • Listener In, 25 Feb-3 Mar 1939
  • Teleradio, 25 Jan 1941
  • ABC Weekly, 20 Nov 1954
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15, 28 July 1944, 31 Mar 1945
  • Herald (Melbourne), 31 Mar 1945
  • H. de Berg, interviews with Thelma Afford (transcripts, 1981 and 82, National Library of Australia)
  • Performing Arts Collection (University of Adelaide Library)
  • ABC Archives (Sydney)
  • Afford collections (University of Queensland Library and University of Adelaide Library)
  • PRG 689/1 (State Library of South Australia)
  • film scripts and home movies (National Film and Sound Archive)
  • private information.

Citation details

Michael J. Tolley, 'Afford, Malcolm (Max) (1906–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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