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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Vernon, Barbara Mary (1916–1978)

by Jane Connors

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Barbara Mary Vernon (1916-1978), playwright, was born on 25 July 1916 at Inverell, New South Wales, fourth and youngest child of native-born parents Murray Menzies Vernon, medical practitioner, and his wife Constance Emma Elliott, née Barling. Barbara was educated at the New England Girls' School, Armidale. A 'voracious reader', she worked in the Inverell Municipal Library before joining the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force on 18 February 1943. She served in the Directorate of Training, Air Force Headquarters, Melbourne, and rose to temporary corporal before her discharge on 12 April 1946.

Returning to Inverell, Vernon became an announcer with Northern Broadcasters Ltd's radio station 2NZ. Her wish to broadcast local drama led her to form the 2NZ Dramatic Club. As the club could not afford to pay royalties to authors, necessity drove her to write plays herself. Her energy kept Inverell theatre vigorous for more than a decade, although she recorded, with mild exasperation, perennial artistic disputes among the company.

In September 1956 (Dame) Doris Fitton staged Vernon's play Naked Possum, set in the Malayan jungle, at the Independent Theatre, Sydney. Next year Vernon gained attention when The Multi-Coloured Umbrella won second prize in the Sydney Journalists' Club's competition for new Australian works. It was produced at the Little Theatre, Melbourne, and by J. C. Williamson Ltd at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, that year. The play explored tensions over money and sex within a happy-go-lucky family of bookmakers in the showy, robust suburbia of the nouveau riche. In January 1958 a member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly protested that its subject matter was unsuitable for general viewing after the Australian Broadcasting Commission had presented the play on television.

Publicity photographs from the late 1950s show Barbara Vernon with firm, even features below arched brows and a high forehead. In her notebooks she recorded sharp, satiric observations on people encountered by chance. Her formula for a successful play included a good title and 'an upper middle class country town setting'. Among her other works were The Passionate Pianist (Hobart, 1958) and the radio serial 'The Questing Heart'. For relaxation, she wrote 'swashbuckling plays with lots of action' for children: at least five were staged at the Independent.

In 1959 Barbara and her widowed mother moved to Cremorne, Sydney. After working as a freelance writer, in 1961 she gained employment with the A.B.C. as a play reader (script editor from 1965) with the drama and features department. In addition to duties as reader and editor, she wrote hundreds of scripts for both television and radio. She was script editor for the television serial (1973) of Ethel Turner's Seven Little Australians and she contributed to a television serial in the mid-1970s, 'Certain Women'.

Vernon achieved her greatest acclaim when she wrote the early scripts for 'Bellbird', a television serial about life in a rural community, which ran (1967-77) four nights per week, for fifteen minutes before the evening news. Described by one critic as 'not so much a drama as a reassuring habit', 'Bellbird' nonetheless had an audience of nearly two million by 1972. Vernon published two novels, Bellbird (1970) and A Big Day at Bellbird (1972). The film Country Town (1971) was based on Bellbird. Residents of Inverell assumed, with varying emotions, that their own lives and foibles could be found in the denizens of Bellbird, an accusation that she always denied.

Although she chronicled in her notes a series of passionate entanglements, Barbara Vernon never married. She retired from the A.B.C. in 1976 and purchased the Old Parsonage at Cassilis. While visiting Sydney she died of cardiomyopathy on 16 April 1978 at St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst. She was buried with Anglican rites in Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Rees, The Making of Australian Drama (Syd, 1973)
  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC (Melb, 1983)
  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • E. Wiedemann, Holding its Own (Inverell, NSW, 1998)
  • ABC Weekly, 13 Nov 1957
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Sept 1956, 19 Feb, 6, 11 Nov 1957, 31 Jan 1958, 2 Oct 1967
  • Sun (Sydney), 22 Nov 1967
  • Inverell Times, 18 Apr 1978
  • Vernon papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • staff record (ABC Archives, Sydney).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jane Connors, 'Vernon, Barbara Mary (1916–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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