The Sullivans: the classic Australian television drama about a war torn family in Melbourne, during World War II
1976-1982, 1114 episodes/30 mins, Crawfords/Nine Network
SPOILER ALERT – may contain spoilers if you are watching the Crawfords DVDs!
When war broke out, life would never be the same again for the Sullivan family of Camberwell. Brothers Tom and Terry were keen to join up, while John’s communist views led to frequent clashes with his father, Dave. Even young Kitty, as she grew older, was not to be spared from knowing the tragedy of wartime. And through all this, matriarch Grace watched and fretted over her family, little expecting what fate had in store for her…
Of all the Aussie soaps, The Sullivans was the least sensational and most down to earth. Its portrayal of the Sullivan family and their neighbours during WWII was character driven and rarely fell into melodrama. Dave, Grace and their children were at the centre of the storylines, but supporting the characters was a large group of extended family, friends and neighbours. Most of the action took place in the Sullivan household, but other frequent locations were the Great Southern pub, run by Maggie Hayward; the general store (originally owned by a German family before being passed into the hands of Harry and Rose and then Alice and Jim Sullivan); and the home of gossipy neighbour Mrs Jessup and her succession of lodgers.
Not that the show was without excitement. Whilst most of the action centered around the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell, many plots followed the adventures of Norm Baker and young Tom Sullivan as they fought the war in Crete, Holland, Singapore and other far flung places (although all actually filmed in the countryside surrounding Melbourne!). These storylines were often the source of the show’s more tense cliffhangers.
The programme first aired on the Nine Network during the non-ratings period at the end of 1976. It began in the week that the TV station launched another soap, The Young Doctors. Both shows had been commissioned for an initial 13 week run, on the understanding that only the more successful soap would survive beyond that. Of course, what happened next became part of TV history. Although at first not as popular as the spicier medical soap, The Sullivans was a hit with critics from the outset. High production values sustained the show for six years, and in later years viewers were treated to stories of life in post-war Australia.
For added authenticity, the wardrobe mistress would visit jumble sales and charity shops, buying original wartime clothes for the actors to wear. WWII newsreel footage was slotted into some scenes, giving the show a distinctly 1940s feel.
When the soap began, the Sullivan children were quite young, and over the years, viewers were given the opportunity to see them grow. John Sullivan went from an idealistic conscientious objector to a brave war hero, while Tom and Terry spent time as prisoners of war in Changai. Little Kitty blossomed into a young woman, becoming a nurse and then wife and mother. The Sullivans gained another child when they adopted Geoff Johnson, the brother of a soldier killed while serving with Tom and Norm.
Geoff was an orphan in a children’s home, and his dying brother’s last wish was that he should be properly looked after.
But it was Dave and Grace Sullivan who formed the bedrock of the show. Paul Cronin and Lorraine Bayley were perfectly cast as the solid, dependable father and mother. Hard to believe then, that the role of Dave almost went to another Aussie soap veteran – Terrence Donovan. The show’s popularity was threatened when, after a few years, Lorraine Bayley decided to bow out. In her last storyline, Grace travelled to London to be with her eldest son, who was suffering from amnesia after returning from an important secret mission. Bayley filmed her “London” scenes in one go, and they were then spun out over a number of months, to delay Grace’s departure from the show. Andrew McFarlane, who had already left his role of John by this time, was brought back to film Grace’s last storyline.
Just as John had recovered and was ready to return to Australia with Grace, they were caught at the centre of a German bomb attack. John survived, but Grace was killed instantly.
The episodes that followed this tragedy , during which the family attempted to come to terms with her death, were among the most poignant and well-crafted in the show’s history.
The central female lead was left to Ilona Rodgers as Kate Meredith. Widow Kate and her daughter Sally (often away at boarding school) lodged with Mrs Jessup and was the Sullivan’s housekeeper while Grace was away. Wisely, scriptwriters made no attempt for Kate to take Grace’s place in the bedroom (only the kitchen!), and Dave remained unattached for the rest of the show’s run, except for a brief, aborted engagement to Elizabeth Bradley.
Despite the often gentle nature of the soap, it did not shy from big issues. However, rather than sensationalise, it handled these issues in a sensitive way. Problems that the characters had to face included death, divorce, miscarriage, adultery, alcoholism and gambling addiction (and that was just Alice Sullivan!). Dave Sullivan was not the only character to be widowed; Norm Baker’s Greek wife was executed by Nazi soldiers, Harry’s first wife Rose drowned, and Kitty’s husband Robbie committed suicide after witnessing the effects of the bombing of Hiroshima.
In the past thirty years, The Sullivans has been sold to over 30 countries, from India to the UK. In the UK it became the longest running and most successful overseas daytime serial, running at lunchtime on most ITV network stations for over a decade.
The show did struggle in its final years. With the war over, and many of the original cast gone, it was in danger of losing its focus. New additions to the Sullivan clan, in the form of Dave’s sister-in-law and her family, kept things going for a little longer, but the show had passed its peak. However, of all the classic Aussie soaps, this was probably the one that ended its run with its original themes and principles most intact.