Woman Duncan, Catherine (1915 - 2006)

Launceston, Tasmania, Australia
Paris, France
Actor, Author, Filmmaker and Playwright

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Catherine Duncan was an actor, playwright, film-maker and author who became the first woman credited as director in an Australian film since the McDonagh sisters in the 1930s. She was the first woman employed by the Commonwealth government to make Australian sound films when she worked for the Australian National Film Board in the 1940s. She made many documentary films designed to showcase Australia to prospective immigrants to Australia, including Christmas Under the Sun (1946), This is the Life (1947) and The Meeting Place (1947). The more of these documentaries she made, the more she saw her approach to be at odds with her employer. What the Department of Immigration sought:

Were a selection of changing, and often misleading, facts really what immigrants wanted? Wasn't it more important to tell them something about our spiritual climate -- the free and easy friendliness of Australians, the possibilities in a country where everything is just starting and so many things have to be built from scratch? If immigrants simply hoped to change a hard life for an easy one by coming to Australia, they were in for a disappointment (Williams).

Duncan was not one for selling a company line with which she was uncomfortable.

Born in 1915 to a prominent Launceston family, Catherine Duncan inherited a love of the arts and literature through her mother's line and a need for adventure from her businessman father. She received most of her education at Broadland House Church of England Girls Grammar School in Launceston, where she won prizes for her writing, but was sent to Ruyton Girls' School in Kew, Melbourne as a boarder for her final two years. At age sixteen she enrolled for an arts degree at the University of Melbourne but did not really engage with the course. Life outside classes, however, was a different matter entirely and she became a leading actor in the University Repertory Society. Bored with study, 'the lure of the footlights proved to strong' for her (Keane). Acting did not provide her with a reliable source of income, however, until a friend working in radio cast her in a play. Then her career on stage and in radio blossomed, although she continued writing as well.

In 1933, she married her first husband, Roy Mitchell, who went on to become Programme Director of Radio Australia. Four years later they divorced and she married her second husband, New Zealand born journalist, Kim Keane. Already moving with a left leaning, bohemian crowd and in love with playing with ideas, Duncan was introduced to Engels by Keane. For a person of privilege, The Condition of the Working Class in England was a revelation and offered an entirely new view on life. She became an enthusiastic supporter of the Communist Movement, but not a member of the party, because she did not want to be restrained by the CPA code of conduct.

Duncan's new view on life gave her a new sense of what theatre should be. She got involved with the radical Workers Theatre Group (later the New Theatre) which evolved from the Pioneer Players set up by Louis and Hilda Esson with Vance and Nettie Palmer. Hilda Esson became an important mentor, critic and friend, with Duncan describing their association as 'a yeasty mixture of art and politics which burst the seams of prosaic living' (Keane). One of her proudest moments during this time was when she succeeded in producing and directing a performance of Clifford Odet's Play Till the Day I Die, an indictment of German Nazism, at the Brunswick Town Hall in 1937. Performances of the play had been banned in Sydney at the request of the German Consul-General, and subsequent attempts to perform it at the Collingwood Town Hall in Melbourne were thwarted. On the town hall steps she announced to the crowd 'The Collingwood Council, the government and the censors need not think for one moment that we are going to accept their dictum' (Keane). Her most acclaimed self-penned play, Sons of Morning, set in Crete during war time, was performed at the new theatre in 1941. As the war advanced, the New Theatre had no problems when it staged the translated works of Ernst Toller and Bertolt Brecht.

As well as directing and acting for the stage, Duncan wrote and acted for radio at an extraordinary rate. She adapted many scripts for radio from famous stage plays by such famous writers as Shaw, Chekhov and Ibsen and wrote her own programs, including Their Finest Hour about the lives of people in wartime England. Her career in the 1940s was described as 'the most exceptional career of any Australian woman in radio over the next decade and a half' (Keane). There were better actresses and writers 'but there was no one who combined the two skills of acting and writing with such verve, wit and lively intelligence' (Keane). It was a career for which she was recognised with an inaugural Macquarie Award in 1946 for best performance in a female leading role in Children in Uniform.

By 1945, Duncan had become a little bored by radio and was torn between the roles of writer and actor, feeling that one was compromising the other. She developed a passion for documentary film and when the Australian National Film Board was established at the end of the war, she became one of its earliest members. The Board's Commissioner, Canadian Ralph Foster, and its Producer-in-Chief, Englishman Stanley Hawes, were marvellous supporters and mentors. 'They were wonderfully generous in letting me learn by my own mistakes' (Keane).

In 1946, Duncan worked with radical film-makers, Joris Ivens and Marion Michelle, writing the commentary for the documentary Indonesia Calling, a record of Indonesian support for an independent republic. The experience, working with a Dutchman and an American woman, listening to other languages, 'opened a new world' for Duncan. In 1947, divorced from her second husband and feeling like everyone she knew was leaving for Europe, she decided to go as well. Her parents having agreed to look after her two children, in 1947 Duncan set sail to London, to take up a job with the BBC. On board, she met Roger Copillet, a Frenchman and First Officer with the ship. They married in 1954 and she settled in Paris. In the same year, Duncan became the Secretary of the International Federation of Film Archives and the International Secretary of Film Societies. She continued to write, contributing short stories to journals and radio scripts for the BBC and French Radio.

In 1957, she returned to Australia with Roger, where they lived variously in Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney. After two years, she returned to Paris where she witnessed some of the key events in post-war French history, such as the riots of May 1968. 'They happened right underneath my window,' she says. 'I stood, listening with the radio in one hand and throwing pot plants with the other' (ABC Radio Interview). Later in life, she found collage, another form of creative expression that enabled her to explore what she believed to be the key to understanding life - seeing it as a series of relationships. 'The only thing that is what happens in between' (ABC Radio Interview).

Catherine Duncan was once described as 'the happiest women anyone has ever met.' She was delighted by the description, agreeing that she was privileged to have the freedom to explore her creativity and 'always do what I wanted to do' (ABC Radio Interview). For the bulk of her life she did this in Paris, France, where she died in 2006.

Archival Resources

National Archives of Australia

National Film and Sound Archive

  • ABC Radio: Catherine Duncan, Interviewed By Michelle Rayner For The Radio National Hindsight Program 2000.09.29: Interview, 26 September 2000, 509421; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • Australia and Your Future No. 3, Christmas Under the Sun, 1947, 1089; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • The Meeting Place, c. 1947, 13959; National Film and Sound Archive. Details

State Library of Victoria

  • Papers of Catherine Duncan, 1934-2010 [manuscript]., 1934 - 2010, MS 13970; State Library of Victoria. Details

Published Resources


  • Keane, Michael, Views from the balcony: a Biography of Catherine Duncan, Macmillan, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011. Details

Journal Articles

  • Williams, Deane, 'Catherine Duncan: As others see us', Screening the past, no. 16, 2004. Details

Online Resources

See also