A Place to Call Home
I haven't been to the movies for some weeks – too many kids' movies, animated ones (also for youngsters), and endless, endless super-hero movies which bore me solid. I suppose that's where the money lies in moviemaking these days: children and testosterone-laden teenagers. Pity us poor adults seeking sensible cinema. Oh well, the drought must break sometime.
In the meantime, back to TV. These days grown-up (?) television seems to consist mainly of renovation shows, cooking shows, talent shows (often for those who don't have much of it), and assorted other sundry "reality" shows – which are hardly "reality", because they are usually scripted and controlled almost as tightly as any drama series. Boring, boring. (Oh, all right, I must confess to a soft spot for "The Farmer Wants a Wife". I sometimes wonder if commercial TV would ever agree to a show called "The Wheelie Wants a Wife"? Very alliterative and socially inclusive.) But, here and there, the occasional drama jewel shines out amidst the dross. One of these is the (formerly) Channel 7 show "A Place to Call Home".
Now, all you drama junkies probably remember the strange history of this high quality, greatly enjoyable Aussie soap opera. Shown on free-to-air TV for two seasons, then axed by Channel 7 because, so the rumour mill said, it appealed to the wrong demographic, then, after an outcry from its devoted legion of fans (including me), it was revived on pay TV – though still being produced by Channel 7. Season three finished showing not long ago on Foxtel, but, not having Foxtel, I had to wait until it was released on DVD. That's where I saw it very recently.
It is hard to describe this show as anything but classy, high-quality soap opera. Wealthy, upper-class, Australian country dynasty (the Blighs) on beautiful Ash Park estate not too far from Sydney, wealthy matriarch and head-of-the-family Elizabeth Bligh (Noni Hazlehurst) who rules everyone with a rod of iron, adult son George (Brett Climo), prim and stiff-upper-lip, destined to take over, grandson James (David Berry), a closet homosexual more or less shot-gunned into a marriage of convenience with beautiful, English rose Olivia (Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood), granddaughter Anna Bligh (now there's a name to awaken the memories of Queenslanders!), played by Abby Earle, who scandalously falls for a migrant, and Catholic, Italian farmer (a double disaster for this WASP family), and – the central character on whom the whole series hangs – Sarah Adams (the ubiquitous Marta Dusseldorp), the mysterious Jewish nurse with “A Past” and a traumatised French husband, who gets a job in the local hospital, falls for George, conceives a child by him … And so it goes. All this is set against the background of 1950s Australia, recently concluded World War II, local dislike of "reffos", Jews, communists, and anything different, and hatred of homosexuality (back then, it was a criminal offence).
Bevan Lee, who created the show, has done his homework on the social attitudes of the time fairly well. I grew up in an Australian country town in the 1950s and remember it clearly: the local Greek and Italian migrant families were often mistrusted, and definitely not regarded as "one of us". The Jewish family who lived just up the street from us was regarded as pushy, show-offs, and not fully accepted as part of polite, Anglo society. (Though I suspect much of this prejudice was caused by their wealth, and all the Gentiles were just jealous! They were also very nice to me, a young wheelie.) Roman Catholics were definitely "off-limits" to us Anglo Anglicans of the time. Aboriginal peoples were regarded as a different, lesser community, best avoided by polite society. (1950s attitudes to Aboriginals have not yet been touched on by the series.) As for homosexuality, it was so swept under the carpet, that I didn't know what it was, didn't even know the word, till I left my childhood country town and moved to the Big Smoke in the 1960s.
All the actors seem to enjoy their roles thoroughly. Marta Dusseldorp (she's in everything at the moment) plays Sarah the tragic nurse with sweet, whispered gentleness, requiring extreme provocation before she raises her voice to anyone. David Berry, as James the homosexual, inhabits the character with an air of resigned, tortured, tragic inevitability – you just know he will relapse and devastate poor Olivia; Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood is so loving and forgiving you know she is going to be let down badly – is the actress really English, or is that oh-so-Home Counties accent the result of a good elocution coach? Brett Climo, as George the estate's heir-apparent, does tragic, put-upon "noblesse oblige" with gusto; while Noni Hazlehurst, as Elisabeth, the arch-matriarch of the family, relishes the iron, uncompromising, class-ridden prejudices of her character – though in season 3, Elizabeth noticeably relaxes and becomes more human, doubtless the result of her new love interest.
The show, at its heart, is basically a "Downton Abbey" minus the Granthams, but with sheep and gum trees added. The British class structure of the early 20th century has echoes in 1950s Australian social attitudes, though the latter are probably based more on money than social birth. Also, Elizabeth Bligh is to Ash Park what the Dowager Countess is to Downton Abbey: both characters have the best one-liners in both shows.
I understand that Foxtel has committed to a fourth season of "APTCH", which I guess will show sometime later this year. Oh well, I suppose I can wait till the DVD appears. After all, I've got to find out whether the dastardly Regina succeeds in poisoning Sarah, whether Olivia gets it on again with the randy portrait painter, will George ever find True Love, will Anna and Gino's reconciliation last, will Elizabeth be rescued from her heart attack … All this crisis and suspense! How can I wait so long?
Seriously folks, if you like your soap classy and over-the-top, check out "APTCH". All three seasons are available on DVD. It's helped me get through many a sleepless night!