Classic soap Flashback: Bellbird

Bellbird ABC AustraliaBritish television viewers have enjoyed a long love affair with Australian ‘soap operas’ but did you know that the very first Aussie serial to crack the UK market was the rural drama Bellbird?

The show revolved around the lives and loves of the residents of a small country town and was produced by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (now Corporation) in Melbourne who recorded 1697 episodes from 1967 until 1977.

Initially each show ran for 15 minutes with the programme airing four nights a week, cast members and viewers wanted it to remain this way but the broadcaster had other ideas and from episode 1509 the show would run for 60 minutes. 40,000 people had signed petitions against this change in format and many feared more sensational storylines would be introduced. The format would be changed once again with the programme running for thirty minutes from episode 1563 until its eventual conclusion.

David Phillips Bellbird - ABCA spin-off movie called Country Town featuring many of the cast from the TV series was released in 1971; this was directed by Peter Maxwell and was produced by cast members Terry McDermott who played horse trainer Max Pearson and Gary Gray who played David Emerson. The plot of the film focussed on a severe drought with the community suffering financially and a young reporter (Gerard Maguire) turning up and causing strife with the locals after writing about the impending death of the town.

The initial concept for the television series had come from Colin Free who had based the idea on a community in the Blue Mountains where he lived, apparently the inspiration for the title Bellbird came when he heard the birds calling. Script editor and playwright Barbara Vernon had lived in the country town of Inverell for years so drew on many of her own experiences and fleshed out what would become a hugely successful drama serial, she has been largely credited with the success of the show. To ensure the programme was both authentic and topical the writing team would often travel out to rural areas on weekends and speak to country folk about the problems and issues that were affecting their lives.

Brett Porter was to produce the new series and was a man with the ability and experience to make it work. He had originally been a feature film editor for the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, and had then directed military training films during the Second World War. On migrating to Australia in 1948 he had worked with the Commonwealth Film Unit, and in 1961 produced the soap opera The Story of Peter Grey for ATN7.

James Davern directed the very first episode of Bellbird and would have a seven year association with the production ending up as its executive producer. He would later go on to create and produce another highly successful serial about rural folk called A Country Practice.

Obviously the show featured many memorable characters and plotlines over the years but let’s take a look at just a few of them. The town’s librarian Lori Chandler (Elspeth Ballantyne) was local royalty, her family had been the original settlers in the district and the town had taken its name from her enormous home which was called Bellbird. Lori would eventually marry horse trainer Tom Grey (Tom Oliver), and in real life Elspeth would marry fellow cast member Dennis Miller who played local cop Des Davies. Bellbird really did become a family affair when Elspeth’s son Toby ended up playing her on screen child!

Bellbird BookDes Davies had his fair share of problems, he and his wife Fiona (Gerda Nicholson) found themselves struggling to conceive a baby, and he was forced to shoot a violent trouble making youth after the hoodlum took to him with a rock. The boy later died and Des left town, his off-sider Russell Ashwood (Ian Smith) took over as the senior law enforcer in the region.

Husband and wife team Raymond Westwell and Joan MacArthur were both hired to appear in the show, he played librarian Gregory Wrexwell, and she was given the role of town gossip Adeline Phillip who had plenty of scandal to keep her occupied. Teenager Rhoda Lang (Lynette Curran) set tongues wagging when she started a romance with crop dusting pilot Tony Buckland (Clive Winmill), that relationship hit the skids but a shot gun wedding was required when Ron Wilson (Sean Scully) got her in the family way. Poor Rhoda had a miscarriage, the newlyweds finally had a daughter together but the marriage was a disaster, Ron shot through and a divorce resulted. Rhoda did remarry after meeting Roger Green (Brian Hannan) who was the editor of the local Bellbird Clarion but happiness was not to be hers, she met a sticky end after being killed in a level crossing smash.

Although the show revolved around country folk and their problems, high drama was never far away. The town was threatened by bush fires which appeared to have been started deliberately, and solicitor Gilbert Lang (Keith Eden) died of pneumonia after being caught in a flood which engulfed the area. The nasty real estate agent Charlie Cousins (Robin Ramsay) died after falling off a wheat silo, the highly dramatic footage was directed by Oscar Whitbread and provoked a deluge of complaints. Oscar later became a producer of the series and the actor returned briefly in a different role to mark the shows 1000th episode.

Other memorable characters included the despised estate agent John Quinney (Maurie Fields) who suffered a heart-attack from which he survived, but viewers weren’t happy when the rather unlovable publican Jim Bacon (Peter Aanensen) was killed off in a car crash leaving his distraught wife Marge (Carmel Millhouse) to run the watering hole. Jim had been a copper but after winning the lottery he had purchased the pub, now it would seem his luck had well and truly run out! Stella Lamond played Molly Wilson; the popular secretary at the stock and station agency, and Moira Charleton starred as boarding house owner Olive Turner. Terry Norris played Olive’s husband Joe who was the local mechanic before leaving the series and then returning later as Kev the water diviner.

The show was certainly multicultural. Anne Lucas popped in as Chinese girl Glenda Chan and Bob Maza was cast in the ongoing role of the aboriginal article clerk Gerry Walters who had a white wife.

The guest cast was just as impressive. The 1964 Miss World winner Ann Sidney joined the show playing an English actress, and musical theatre star Jill Perryman moved to Bellbird for six weeks as a super bitch intent on causing trouble.

TV Times - BellbirdLong term script editor Barbara Vernon went on to write two spin-off novels based on the series called Bellbird and Big Day at Bellbird which sold well. She also devised a city version of the show for the ABC called Lane End which also focussed on ‘comedy drama’ and which revolved around a group of characters who lived in Paddington, Sydney. The show went to air in 1972 but unfortunately only lasted for seven episodes.

In 1972 Mr T.S. Duckmanton, the general manager of the ABC, announced that an initial 52 episodes of Bellbird had been sold to Thames Television for telecasting in Britain, these episodes had originally aired in Australia during 1971. Thames was the ITV commercial broadcaster in the London area and the show was also picked up by Southern Television, Yorkshire Television and Tyne Tees Television. The programme was scheduled to run five days a week and premiered on Thames first on Monday 26 June 1972, each 15 minute episode would air at 1.05pm in the London region with the other broadcasters selecting their own timeslots.

The show was billed as “an intimate study of the day-to-day lives of people in a small Australian town.” British viewers instantly warmed to the series and to the likeable characters. Things got off to a dramatic start when the new doctor Matthew Reed (Alan Hopgood) arrived in town, he spent the night on Anne Sinclair’s (Camilla Rountree) sofa but of course tongues started wagging.

The young police constable Steve Kowsowski (David Phillips) was wildly jealous of Anne’s relationship with Matthew but Matthew actually had feelings for Wendy Robinson (Anne Charleston). Incidentally David Phillips who played Steve, was amazed that he landed the role because in the audition he had tripped over a carpet, fortunately this was exactly the kind of character the producers were looking for!

The romantic twists and turns continued to enthral British audiences with Elaine (Julia Blake) finding herself attracted to Adam Lockhart (Byron Williams), and Ian Bennett (Brian James) was able to inform Rose (Dorothy Bradley) that his marriage was over so he would soon be free to pursue things with her! Meanwhile young dropout Marcus Lloyd (Christopher Pate) started to set a few pulses racing.

Audiences wondered how crusty farmer Colonel Jim Emerson (Carl Bleazby) had bagged his vivacious young wife Maggie (Gabrielle Hartley), and gasped when a group of bikies rolled into town. Sergeant Des Davies made himself known to the youths in question but when some of them turned up at the mobile blood bank a couple of locals began to view the hoons in a new light. At least they did until one of their number, Terry Hill (Ross Thompson); attempted to steal his own brother’s girlfriend.

Bellbird stars Christopher Pate (left) and David Phillips enjoy a night off from filming. Photo courtesy of Karen PetersenCast members were reportedly receiving an extra $2.50 per episode for the UK screenings of Bellbird but unfortunately things turned sour when Actors Equity demanded a steep increase in the residuals being paid. Regrettably Thames Television and the other ITV broadcasters were not prepared to wear the additional costs which meant that no further episodes would be sold to the UK. This left many loyal viewers disappointed. Thames were clearly not happy because they decided to play out the remainder of the episodes they had purchased in a morning time slot.

It has since been stated by several actors that the cast of Bellbird were totally unaware of the demands being made by Equity; the actors could see the value in overseas exposure for the serial and the work opportunities in England that this could create for them as individuals. If this is the case Equity really put the mockers on it for everyone concerned. It was a very sorry state of affairs, the quality of the serial had been recognised internationally, it had been given exposure on the world stage, and naturally this had given a boost to everyone associated with the production.

To make matters worse the ABC wiped nine years’ worth of Bellbird episodes as the broadcaster didn’t believe that any further opportunities existed to sell the show overseas and wrongly felt that Australian viewers would not be interested in a repeat run.

As several long lost UK shows have been re-discovered on home recordings maybe you should check what you have in your collection. If you have any episodes of Bellbird please let us know and we’ll pass your details onto the archives in Australia.

This unfortunate turn of events meant that British audiences were deprived of the pleasures of Australian soap operas for some years to come despite the efforts of producers and distributors.

One example is Cash-Harmon’s saucy Number 96 which followed the raunchy goings on in a block of Sydney flats. In 1972, the same year as the sale of Bellbird, Bill Harmon pitched the show to buyers from both ITV and the BBC but it was rejected. Maybe the rather uptight buyers felt that British audiences weren’t ready for the nudity, rapes, incest, and openly homosexual characters featured in the show.

One disgusted British sales executive was quoted as saying, “it’s a dirty show with sex from start to finish.” Certainly some viewers would have been shocked but they’d have lapped it up just as Australian audiences had done, the show would have rated through the roof. The buyers had obviously missed the fact that the show was extremely well written, the drama was balanced with plenty of comedy and that it was tackling issues which needed addressing.

Bellbird: In the pub are John Quinney (Maurie Fields, far left), Jim Bacon (Peter Aanensen), and Marge Bacon (Carmel Millhouse)Bill Harmon tried again in 1975 by attending the MIP TV festival in Cannes with the model Fabienne handing out sales brochures whilst topless on the promenade outside the convention centre. He and the series creator David Sale marketed Number 96 as ‘Crossroads with sex,’ in reference to ATV’s highly popular motel saga; unfortunately once again the show was rejected.

The Aussie soap didn’t return to British screens until 3.50pm on Tuesday 18th October 1977 when The Sullivans launched on ITV, the Australian soap invasion had truly begun but that is another story.

Bellbird did come back to life briefly in 2003 at the Kingston Arts Centre in Victoria when Alan Hopgood and Maggie Millar who played his crusading screen wife Georgia Moorhouse were reunited for the play Back to Bellbird. The plot involved the pair returning to Bellbird to sell their home, explored the changes they found and the fact that the community was suffering from the crisis which was hitting rural areas at the time. Georgia had her own ideas which were unknown to her husband, as usual, and planned to use the proceeds from the sale to help save the town she loved.

Pictured top: The cast of Bellbird, second photo: David Phillips as Steve in Bellbird. Photo courtesy of Karen Petersen, third image: One of the Bellbird novels written by Barbara Vernon, fourth photograph: Bellbird stars Camilla Rountree and David Phillips square up on the cover of TV Times. Photo courtesy of Karen Petersen, photo five, Bellbird stars Christopher Pate (left) and David Phillips enjoy a night off from filming. Photo courtesy of Karen Petersen and bottom image: In the pub are John Quinney (Maurie Fields, far left), Jim Bacon (Peter Aanensen), and Marge Bacon (Carmel Millhouse).

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