Entertainment TV Best Australian miniseries of the 1980s from Return to Eden to Chances

Best Australian miniseries of the 1980s from Return to Eden to Chances

Bryan Brown Helen Morse
Bryan Brown and Helen Morse as lover surviving war, captivity and distance in 1981's A Town Like Alice. Photo: Crawford Productions
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Australian miniseries are having a purple patch: Foxtel’s compelling Lambs of God (akin to Misery meets The Name of the Rose) SBS’ excellent sexting drama The Hunting and, my favourite, ABC-TV’s Les Norton.

In the adaptation of Robert G Barrett’s novels, Alexander Bertrand stars as the eponymous Queenslander who takes a job as a Kings Cross bouncer in the 1980s.

Bertrand receives sterling support from David Wenham as oily casino kingpin Price Galese, but the real star is the soundtrack: The Divinyls, Pseudo Echo, Mental as Anything.

That’s just as it should be, because for those fortunate enough to have invested in VHS rather than Beta technology, the 1980s was the Golden Age of Australian television as this trip down memory lane attests.

The Last Outlaw (1980)

Between Mick Jagger (1970) and Heath Ledger (2003) there was John Jarratt. A straightforward retelling of the Kelly story with the central casting of Jarratt adding frisson from a 21st century perspective through imagining Australia’s greatest bushranger and Wolf Creek’s psychotic Mick Taylor as the same person.

Return to Eden (1983)

The baroque pinnacle of 1980s TV. What do you do when, as an indolent tennis pro, your dowdy heiress wife isn’t providing enough pocket money to support your lifestyle? What if further complications arise through your affair with your wife’s best friend?

Well, you take said wife on a holiday and toss her overboard into the jaws of a waiting crocodile. The highest of high-camp revenge sagas, Return to Eden saw heiress Stephanie Harper (Rebecca Gilling) survives the croc attack (unsurprisingly, given the beast looked like a theme park animatronic from the mid-1970s). After a plastic surgery makeover she returns as Vogue cover girl Tara Wells to wreak vengeance on husband Greg Marsden (Australian Crawl’s James Reyne, in an awful, mesmerising turn) and former gal-pal Jilly Stewart (Wendy Hughes) while romancing her smooth saviour medico.

In effect, this 3-parter (and subsequent series) can be summed up in the viral meme from American Horror Story where Emma Roberts says ‘Surprise, bitch. I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me.’ Australian Crawl lead vocalist James Reyne delivered a performance of sufficient wooden depth one wonders what Brian Mannix or Kids In the Kitchen’s Scott Carne could have made of the role.

Bodyline (1984)

An account of the infamous 1932-33 Ashes series where English captain Douglas Jardine applied his controversial ‘leg theory’ to curtail Don Bradman. This prestige miniseries came at a time when Australia was a tad sensitive on the subject of English Test cricket, frequently being outplayed over the preceding decade by squads wielding the hitting of Ian Botham and devious captaincy of Mike Brearley (who prompted protest signs decrying ‘Ayatollah Brearley’).

Accordingly, Jardine was played by Hugo Weaving as arch-villain Snidely Whiplash from the Dudley Do-Right cartoon series and Bradman by shiny (at that point) all Australian boy Gary Sweet. Bodyline elevated Pom-bashing to an art form and a remake could be timely given the appalling booing of Steve Smith during the Second Test at Lords.

Chances (1991-92)

A two-hour pilot for Channel Nine’s notorious soapy was made in 1989, but if took two years before Chances debuted as a bi-weekly series. Programmers originally pitched it as a family drama but saw a niche market and transformed Chances into skin-flick TV.

Audiences, however, had already basked generously in breasts-and-bums through Ten’s Number 96 and The Box during the 1970s, so Chances added another element: plot developments so ridiculous they defied description. The narrative Mariana Trench was reached through subplots involving Hong Kong gangster Bogart Lo, his perpetually unclad daughter Lilli and attempts by neo-Nazis to gain possession of a bewitched necklace, once belonging to Eva Braun, which transformed the wearer into an Egyptian Sun goddess.

The Dismissal (1983)

Australia’s version of House of Cards (the original, far superior UK version starring Ian Richardson), told the story of the dismissal of the Whitlam government as a morality play with all participants acting with varying degrees of amorality.

The landmark series provided a showcase for Australia’s leading thespians to glide throughout Old Parliament House scheming relentlessly, headlined by Max Phipps as a blustering Gough and John Stanton playing Malcolm Fraser as a cross between Brutus and Sir Humphrey Appleby. The formidable cast was a who’s who of Oz stage and screen, most notably Bill Hunter as Rex Connor, John Meillon as Sir John Kerr and John Hargreaves as Jim Cairns.

A Town Like Alice (1981)

For anyone growing up in 1970s Melbourne there were three constants – the rise of Hawthorn in the VFL, the appearance of cicadas before Christmas and the 1956 wartime romance A Town Like Alice being screened every third Saturday afternoon.

Those of us still teary at Peter Finch’s torture by Japanese prison guards waited for this opulent three-parter with bated breath. It didn’t disappoint. Helen Morse starred as Jean Paget, an Englishwoman taken prisoner in Japanese-occupied Malaya who develops a chaste romance with POW Australian sergeant Joe Harman (Bryan Brown).

The film ends with Jean and Joe’s postwar reunion in Alice Springs but the broader scope of the miniseries saw the action shift from occupied Malaya to the Australian outback. American audiences also lapped it up. It was a rare non-British production to make its way onto PBS Masterpiece Theatre.

Vietnam (1987)

Before a Cold Chisel ballad recorded in 1978 about a US engagement in Vietnam became Australia’s unofficial drinking national anthem, there was this blue ribbon 10-part miniseries.

Vietnam DVD box set
The Vietnam DVD box set. Photo: IMDB

Nicole Kidman still had her natural curls and Nicholas Eadie a promising future when they played Megan and Phil Goddard, siblings who find themselves on opposite sides of the Vietnam conflict when she joins the protest movement and his number comes up in the draft.

Powerful and involving, the third act where Phil channels Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter meanders a bit, but Phil’s final, bittersweet homecoming still delivers an emotional wallop. The emotive use of Pachelbel’s Canon in the final moments led to that piece becoming standard in wedding ceremonies (including my own) from that time on.

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