1 9 6 7 – 1 9 7 7 (Australia)
1508 x 15 minute episodes
53 x 60 minute episodes
134 x 30 minute episodes
Bellbird followed the lives of a community of country folk for more than ten years and became Australia’s first successful soap opera.
Australian radio had a rural soap since 1944 (The Lawsons, later called Blue Hills), but Bellbird, made by the ABC, went to air in 1967 and built up a devoted following in country regions all over Australia
Like Britain’s radio serial The Archers (launched in 1950), Bellbird depicted the lives of simple country folk in the fictional town, located somewhere north of Melbourne in mixed grazing land, that gave the show its title and had an educational slant with mini-lectures on new farming techniques and such, slipped into the characters conversations.
Bellbird also reflected serious issues like racism, parental abuse, alcoholism, pernicious gossip, xenophobia and generational conflict. A second-generation Australian-Chinese character was among the original cast, and a later story introduced an Aboriginal man married to a white woman.
The town of Bellbird took its name from the original homestead in the area, owned by the Chandler family, the last surviving member of which is Lori Chandler (Elspeth Ballantyne, better known as Meg Morris in Prisoner).
The main couple, Olive and Joe Turner, ran the local boardinghouse and garage, respectively and were played by Moira Carleton and Terry Norris (who came to represent the average Australian bloke and turned to politics after stardom in Cop Shop).
Other popular characters included local policeman Constable Des Davies (Dennis Miller), his wife Fiona (Gerda Nicolson, pictured above left), publican’s wife-turned-town-councillor Marge Bacon (Carmel Millhouse), and nasty stock and station agent John Quinney (Maurie Fields), who would sell his own grandmother if he thought he could make a profit on the deal.
Bellbird originally screened for 15 minutes at tea time four nights a week, Monday through Thursday, as a lead-in to the 7.00 pm news.
Scenes were rehearsed in the church hall across the road from the ABC’s Elsternwick studios for the first three days of the week, with tape mapping out the layout of the real sets on the floor and the marks individual actors were required to hit.
On the fourth day, the crew came in for a technical rehearsal with the actors and on the fifth, the four episodes – comprising one hour of content per week – were taped in-studio with all scenes in chronological order and each episode shot in one continuous 15-minute sequence.
During the final stages of the programme, one 60-minute episode was screened each week (episodes 1509 through 1562) before the series finally switched to 30 minutes for the final 134 episodes.
Life was usually simple for the town’s residents, but Bellbird was not without incident. In May 1968, actor Robin Ramsay received a lucrative job offer in Japan and opted to leave the series.
Because of the various entanglements of the character, it was decided the only way to write out his character – the show’s nasty real estate agent, Charlie Cousens – at such short notice was to kill him off.
When Charlie fell from the top of a wheat silo, the TV Times letters page was busier than ever before.
This incident remains the show’s most famous moment, and the skilfully assembled sequence has been repeated many times over the years in various Australian television retrospectives.
Characters were not lightly killed off in Bellbird. Gil Lang’s lengthy, drawn-out demise from pneumonia and complications after being injured in a car accident and lost for many episodes was criticised by many viewers at the time. But the delay was because Keith Eden, the actor, wasn’t sure whether he was going to renew his contract or not.
Otherwise, characters were sent abroad, to Sydney, to Melbourne, to New Guinea, to another town, anywhere that would keep the options open in case the actors ever wanted to come back.
The series was taped in the ABC’s Melbourne studios in Elsternwick while the opening titles were shot in Daylesford, about 115 km north-east of Melbourne.
That was a little far to go every week, however, to shoot the six minutes or so of filmed exterior sequences that were inserted into each week’s episodes. Most of them were shot at Eltham, only 20 km away and in the then pastoral and market garden area of suburban Springvale.
James Davern, who was to become the creator of A Country Practice, directed the first episode and was closely involved as script editor and then executive producer for seven years after that.
A feature film version of the series was produced in 1971. Imaginatively titled Country Town, the film was the brainchild of two of the show’s stars, Terry McDermott and Gary Gray. The film had the town gripped by a severe drought when young reporter Philip Henderson (Gerard Maguire) arrived to stir up old tensions.
The town’s people eventually rallied together to hold a fund-raising gymkhana, and a pub gathering finally broke into celebrations as the much-needed rain arrived.
Less than 300 episodes of Bellbird still survive in the ABC archives.
Constable Des Davies
Colonel James Emerson
Dr Liz Sinclair