At 7 o’clock on the evening of 15 November 1976, the opening credits rolled for the ninety-minute premiere episode of an Australian-made drama, The Sullivans, on the Nine Network. Those credits and their opening tune would be calling Australian families to their television sets in prime time for the next seven years. With over 1100 thirty-minute episodes screened, The Sullivans would become entrenched as the flagship of Crawford Productions, the heavyweight production house of Australian-made television drama.
Long-running locally made television dramas have screened on Australian TV before and since, but perhaps no other series has so successfully brought to a mass audience some of the darkest days in the nation’s history. More recent successful television soap operas (Neighbours; Home and Away; McLeod’s Daughters; SeaChange) have consciously worked from positive stereotypes of Australian lifestyles in contemporary settings, but the storyline of The Sullivans inevitably brought viewers face-to-face with difficult issues from the country’s past.
The success of The Sullivans is intimately connected with the fortunes of Crawfords (as Crawford Productions became known), a company set up by brother and sister Hector and Dorothy Crawford to produce popular radio programming in the dying days of the second world war. With the coming of television in 1956, it was one of the few production companies to make the transition to the new medium successfully.
The initial decades of Australian television were tough going for Australian producers. The market was awash with big-budget American and British product and the local audience looked favourably on the imported shows. It was not, it seemed, a time when Australians wanted to be entertained on screen or stage by their own stories or idioms, although the success of Ray Lawler’s play The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955) was a harbinger of change.
Crawfords really hit its stride with a series of police dramas in the 1960s and 70s, in particular Homicide (1964–75), Division 4 (1969–75) and Matlock Police (1971–75), and it had turned its hand to television “soap” with the sex-based comedy The Box (1974–75). These shows nurtured a whole generation of talent – both in front of and behind the camera – that would participate in the renaissance of the Australian film industry in the mid 70s, and they also marked a watershed by generating consistently large, prime-time audiences for distinctively Australian television.
These series were set in cities, suburbs and country towns that were immediately recognisable to their Australian viewers – viewers who were able, for almost the first time, to hear their own voices, see their own homes, shops and cars, and identify with characters who might be their neighbours. When Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock Police were cancelled in rapid succession in 1975 – partly because of a dispute between the networks and government about the amount of local content on Australian television – Crawfords was left needing a major new production. The result was The Sullivans.
The title is derived from the name of the family that is the focus of the show. Commencing in 1939, the series traces the fortunes of the wartime equivalent of the nuclear family: father Dave, mother Grace and their children – three sons (John, Tom and Terry) and a daughter (Kitty) – living at 7 Gordon Street, Camberwell, in suburban Melbourne. Surrounding them is a cast of dozens of characters: neighbours, relatives and mates. With the benefit of hindsight, we might say that The Sullivans was a story that Australia was waiting to be told.
The war was the significant life event for a generation or more of Australians, both those who served and those who stayed at home. And yet, in the three decades since its end, no grand narrative form had been found to convey this monumental story in the nation’s life. Television, through a protracted drama series that very nearly tracked the duration of the war in real time, was uniquely able to do this. Parents could sit down with baby-boomer offspring – at a time when families typically had just the one television set – and share with them the experience that had shaped their own lives. “This,” they could say, “was what it was like.”
In large part, the effectiveness of The Sullivans in summoning up the wartime experience of so many Australians was the result of its high production values. Crawfords had honed its skills on the police dramas and brought to this new series a commitment to accuracy. An Edwardian house in suburban Canterbury was purchased and meticulously refitted with period detail, as were the other memorably created locations, including the local pub, the Great Southern, and a corner shop operated by the German-born Kaufmans and tellingly named the Universal Store.
The high production values evident in the series also included the handling of historical events relating to the war. Almost every theatre of the war is included in the series, with the direct involvement of one or other and sometimes several of the Sullivans’ sons, or uncles, or friends. Not only was great care taken to ensure that historical references were accurate, but episodes set in battle also made use of archival footage from the frontlines. Crawfords’ archives have in turn revealed several substantial volumes of production notes, containing news clippings of the war and photos of period houses, costumes and events, which were essential background reading for writers, actors and crew.
Why did a program focused on the second world war find a substantial Australian audience in 1976 and the years after? After all, this was a difficult time for the relationship between the public and the military. Australia’s participation in the Vietnam war was still fresh in viewers’ memories. Almost all of the troops had returned by the end of 1972 and the war finally ended with the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975.
Australia’s Vietnam war had been a political debacle if not, arguably, a military one. Whereas the entry into the war in 1962 had been supported by a majority of Australians, by the late 1960s opinion had shifted as the moral underpinnings of the war were undermined by a complex series of factors. In an unfortunate correlative, the public also turned against the soldiers who fought there. It was a low point for the Australian Defence Force and the ANZAC tradition, and servicemen and servicewomen felt betrayed.
Certainly the nostalgic appeal of The Sullivans was strong for many viewers, but that alone doesn’t explain its protracted success across a broad demographic – unless there was a quasi-nostalgic attraction even for that part of the audience who didn’t remember the 1940s. The mid to late 1970s was a difficult time in other respects, too. The socially adventurous years of Gough Whitlam’s government (1972–75) had disintegrated into economic and political chaos that shocked a nation coming off the back of three decades of economic growth and political stability. The optimism that had accompanied the election of the first Labor government in twenty-three years dissolved in a constitutional crisis and a damaged polity, leaving a bitter aftertaste and unrealised hopes of the benefits that would flow from the years of plenty. If part of Whitlam’s genius had been to put a new nationalism at the heart of his party’s electoral appeal, then the failure to deliver a stable and disciplined government left many asking hard questions about what lay ahead for Australia.
By contrast, the 1940s appealed as a simpler and less morally ambiguous time. With its meticulous documentation of wartime Australia, The Sullivans highlighted a period when every relationship, community concern, political event and individual struggle – be it at the battlefront or the home front – was rooted in the moral context of the second world war. It was a conflict and a morality that were still strong in the memory of many of the audience, and even baby boomers who embraced the counterculture of the 1960s had imbibed a value system in which that war was a morally straightforward conflict between good and evil.
Nostalgia, too, was powerfully present in the values evident in the Sullivan family unit. Many Australian families had been shaken by the international rise of alternative youth-based cultures in the 1960s and early 1970s, which gave real bite to the “generation gap.” For families that felt under assault as Australia drifted through a period of social, economic and political change, The Sullivans offered a solid foundation. In reliving the war almost battle by battle, and by refracting key wartime incidents back into family subjects and events, the series constructed a morality tale in which the values present in the war were conflated with those of the family.
This form of parallel plotting, whereby a plot line is effectively “doubled” by running at two levels (in this case at the warfront and within the family), is one of the most potent narrative devices used in television storytelling. The use of this device in The Sullivans resulted in a more satisfying narrative structure than the endless cliff-hanging climaxes of weddings, deaths, funerals and personal crises favoured by many soap operas. This is not to say that The Sullivans didn’t have its cliff-hanging moments, but generally it relied on a more sophisticated and nuanced means of telling stories that allowed the audience some agency in reading the story as corresponding with their own time and lives.
Indeed, despite the effective use of battlefront scenes, The Sullivans is probably best remembered for its depiction of the effects of war at home. Certainly the concept of the “family” and its associated values were central to The Sullivans, and much of the show’s appeal lay in the clever characterisation and casting of the core members of the Sullivan family. Crawfords was astute enough to realise that in the post-Vietnam era any unquestioning response to foreign military involvement – even in a second world war drama – would likely meet with audience resistance.
And so, while the Sullivan family was shown to be grounded in traditional values that would withstand the stresses of wartime (a strong extended family, community networks, hard work, good education, bonds of mateship, an occasional embrace of Aussie larrikinism), the drama within the family was built around conflicting attitudes to the war. The basis for this conflict was found in a familiar and longstanding threat to national cohesion: the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. It was a shrewd choice, as it was a conflict well-remembered from the period in which the show was set, but it was also largely confined to the past, with Australians of the 1970s far more focused on new threats to national stability.
Grace Sullivan (Lorraine Bayly) was depicted as a devout Catholic with strongly antiwar sentiments. The daughter of a doctor, she is an intelligent and independent woman, a very strong and reliable presence within her family and community – in some respects a 1970s woman back-located into the 1940s. Her husband Dave (Matlock Police star Paul Cronin) is a lapsed Anglican, a stoical man whose unbending support for the war brings him into intellectual and ethical disagreement with Grace, although the mutual respect that underpins their marriage and family life remains constant.
This ongoing disagreement about the war also plays out in the next generation, with each of the children confronting decisions about their own attitude towards the war. Eldest son John (Andrew McFarlane) is a medical student who is opposed to participating but eventually joins the service only to disappear into a little-known conflict in Yugoslavia. Second son Tom (Steven Tandy) shares his father’s support for the war and serves in various campaigns, eventually becoming an officer. Terry (Richard Morgan), the third son, is a school student at the beginning but later enters the army and serves overseas before returning with a post-traumatic stress disorder. Daughter Kitty (Susan Hannaford) develops from an emotionally fraught, war-affected young girl into a strong, independent nurse.
Despite their different responses, each member of the family demonstrates exemplary behaviour according to their own principles and the ethical values they have imbibed from the family, which functions with an almost gravitational force towards Grace as the moral focus. Grace indeed abounded.
The general air of The Sullivans is, however, antiwar. As the series evolved, it focused increasingly on the damage to individuals and the family. John is killed, and Tom and Terry both suffer battle-induced stress. Those who don’t serve are also traumatically affected; Kitty’s husband, traumatised by his own service, commits suicide and, most memorably, Grace herself is killed in London when she travels there to assist the wounded John. As a result, the social unit at the centre of the drama, the family, is irreparably fractured in multiple ways. Not only are Grace and Dave permanently separated by Grace’s death, but Tom and Terry both marry badly under the pressure of war. There is therefore no prospect that the stable, reliable family unit the Sullivans represented at the outset of the war can be reliably rebuilt in its aftermath.
For a program that is effectively a soap opera, The Sullivans was groundbreaking in terms of its portrayal of the extent to which fighting men return from war emotionally damaged. Little about the traumatic after-effects of war had found its way into the popular ANZAC legends before this time, with the reality of post-traumatic stress often suppressed within serving units and politely ignored by the community to which combatants returned. The Sullivans showed how even the “winners” in war are frequently damaged to the point of debilitation.
The appeal of The Sullivans was apparent not only in Australia but also abroad. While Australia was understandably its strongest market, the series had an extended run in Britain, and was eventually shown in some seventy countries. Part of the influence of the show can be seen in the talent it fostered. The show provided roles for established actors such as John Waters, Maurie Fields and Charles “Bud” Tingwell, but it also gave early screen time to unknowns Mel Gibson, Sam Neill, Kylie Minogue, Gary Sweet and Kerry Armstrong.
Although Crawfords had intended to continue The Sullivans into the postwar period, the series eventually folded when the cast began to pursue other career opportunities. When Bayly decided to ply her skills elsewhere – in Carson’s Law (1982–84), a Crawfords legal drama – the character of Grace was necessarily killed off. The series did not immediately end, but when Cronin decided to leave soon after, it lost further impetus and Crawfords chose to halt the show before its ratings declined.
In all likelihood, the decision to end the series was the right one. The war must end with victory, and that provides a point of meaning on which all the storytelling must converge. In some ways, the departure of the leading players showed they implicitly understood the teleological point of the story: it had to end. Our value system had been shaken and stirred, but ultimately vindicated, although to get there The Sullivans had to traverse the dark territories where art often does its finest work. It was popular art to be sure, but of the very best kind.
Crawford Productions (now Crawford Australia) continued in television production following the demise of The Sullivans, but despite some successes (notably The Flying Doctors, 1985–93, also starring Andrew McFarlane) their pre-eminent position in producing Australian television declined. Their studio in Box Hill, where many great Australian stories were crafted and prepared for Australian living rooms, was demolished and replaced by a Bunnings Warehouse. The Universal Store, it seems, eventually prevailed. •