John Cundill: ‘The Villagers’ scriptwriter who went on to enjoy a career encore in Australia
JOHN Cundill, who has died in Australia at the age of 79, wrote scripts for some of South Africa’s earliest and most popular TV dramas, including The Villagers, Westgate and 1922.
He was also the scriptwriter for Jock of the Bushveld, the highly successful film based on Percy FitzPatrick’s book about his experiences as an ox-wagon transport driver who crisscrossed the Transvaal bushveld with his Staffordshire bull terrier in the 19th century.
In 1987, Cundill emigrated to Australia where he made a name for himself as a writer of TV and film scripts, including Never Tell Me Never about would-be Olympic skier Janine Shepherd who was hit by a truck during a training ride on her bicycle and told she would never walk again.
After reading her book, Dare to Fly, Cundill became a regular visitor to her home where he spent countless hours quizzing her on every detail of her life before writing the script.
Although the writing came easily to him, he put an enormous amount of time and effort into research to ensure authenticity.
He also wrote Love in Limbo starring Russell Crowe, Mercury with Geoffrey Rush and the TV series Heartland (also known as Burned Bridge) starring Cate Blanchett, which deals with the mystery sur-
Although the writing came easily to him, he put an enormous amount of time and effort into research
SERIAL HITS: John Cundill was responsible for such local TV dramas as ’Westgate’, ’The Villagers’ and ’1922’ rounding the death of an Aboriginal girl and doubts about the guilt of her boyfriend who is arrested for her murder. This was successful in Australia and abroad.
Cundill was born in Germiston on May 30 1936. His father was the general manager of one of South Africa’s biggest gold mines, operated by Goldfields.
The family lived in a big house on top of a hill with workers’ accommodation and recreation club and canteen at the bottom. During his holidays from school and university Cundill spent many hours in the recreation club, listening to conversations about the miners’ lives and closely observing their mannerisms.
It was no accident that much of the action in The Villagers, which ran once a week for three years from 1976 to 1978, was set in a workers’ recreation club at a gold mine — and in the house of the general manager, Hilton McRae, played by Gordon Mulholland.
Mulholland, a veteran stage performer by the time TV arrived in South Africa in 1976, became a household name thanks to The Villagers, as did several others. illegally shipped to Austria for racial studies more than a century before.
The land restitution commission used Legassick’s research as reference material when processing land claims in the Northern Cape.
Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, a fellow history professor at UWC, described Legassick as “an incredible mentor who was always meticulously prepared and asked piercing questions that often made you reconsider your opinions and conclusions”.
In 2007, Legassick was famously involved in a public exchange of open letters with Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, over the N2 Gateway development project. After his arrest in May 2009 for supporting the occupation of vacant state-owned land in Macassar by the shack-dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, Legassick told the Cape Times newspaper: “If housing cannot be provided immediately for all, people must be allowed to find land on which to build shacks, whether that land is municipal, state, provincial or private.”
Legassick also demonstrated solidarity with the mineworkers’ protests in the aftermath of the Marikana massacre, and with the farmworker strikes during 2012-13, publishing articles locally and internationally to elicit support for the workers.
Last year he received the World Association for Political Economy distinguished achievement award in political economy, for his book Towards Social Democracy.
Despite prolonged ill-health, Legassick completed his final book, a magnum opus on land dispossession and resistance in the Northern Cape, which will be released by Wits University Press in May .
Legassick is survived by his partner Margie Struthers, his two children from a previous marriage — Rosa and Sean — and two granddaughters. — Ayesha Kajee
A memorial service will be held at 10am on Saturday March 12 at St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town
Cundill followed this hugely popular series with Westgate , about the boardroom and bedroom intrigues of a PR agency, which ran from 1981 to 1985 with Mulholland again, Eckard Rabe and Richard Haines.
This was followed by the TV series 1922 based on the miners’ strikes of that year in Joburg.
He also wrote Oh George, a 26episode family comedy with Clive Scott, Eddie Eckstein, Annabel Linder, James Borthwick and a guest performance by Anneline Kriel.
After matriculating at St John’s College in Houghton, Cundill wanted to study drama at the University of Cape Town, but his father, with whom he had a strained relationship, would not let him. He did a straight BA there instead but made it onto the stage in 1958 alongside Nigel Hawthorne of Yes Minister fame, who directed and acted in a Cape Town production of Doctor in the House.
In 1963, Cundill became a reporter on The Star and had stints as a foreign correspondent in London and New York.
In his spare time he tried his hand at writing plays. His first attempt in 1966 won him best English radio play of the year for To the End of the Road about a youngster who dreamt of becoming a star athlete but ended up in a wheelchair.
He left The Star to work for the PR company Group Editors before turning to scriptwriting full time.
He won several awards including the 1978 Olive Schreiner award for two short plays, Redundant and Waiting , which were televised under the title Duet. He won the SABC prize for English drama three times.
In Australia he worked in Perth and Sydney before quitting the big city life 2001 for an idyllic town called Maleny, Australia’s answer to Underberg.
Here he reinvented himself as an actor-playwright (the hardest part was trying to remember his lines, he said).
His plays included Unforced Errors, The Eulogy and Up the Tiber without a Toga. He expressed disappointment that reviewers and other playwrights did not take his stage work more seriously.
Cundill died of bladder cancer. He is survived by his second wife, Mirella, and three children. — Chris Barron