1 9 7 7 – 1 9 8 2 (Australia)
781 x 60 minute episodes
The Restless Years was a Cinderella of a series in that its subject and location today seem hard to recall and yet the Australian soap managed to stay on air from 1977 to 1982. The series should have been the teen version of Number 96, but it was never as pacey or popular and forgot to be funny.
The “restless” years of the title were the formative ones between teenagehood and adulthood and the show followed a series of school friends into adult life.
In particular, the series focused on young blonde spunk-rat Peter Beckett (Nick Hedstrom) who was raised by foster parents and was seeking the identity of his real parents (while winning the prize for most rebellious student).
He resented his former teacher, middle-aged spinster, Miss Elizabeth McKenzie (June Salter) because she refused him a reference although he saved her life when she tried to commit suicide (she believed she was terminally ill).
She eventually turned out to be his missing mother (coincidence hey?).
John Hamblin played a friendly advertising executive who gave an ambitious school-leaver (played by Graham Thorburn) a start in the industry. An early prototype for Wayne Hamilton in Sons and Daughters and Paul Robinson in Neighbours, this youngster quickly developed into a mercenary upstart who alienated both friends and work colleagues with his desire to get ahead at any cost.
After finally failing in business and being dumped by the girl he loved, the character committed suicide.
The girl in question was pretty young model Penny Russell, played by Deborah Coulls.
Penny’s protective older brother was Dr Bruce Russell, a dashing and decent medical man played by Malcolm Thompson. A British-born RADA-trained actor who appeared in Coronation Street before moving to Australia and playing a brief stint during the later stages of Number 96, Thompson would ultimately become the show’s longest-serving actor.
Bruce’s parents had died in a car accident and Miss MacKenzie had raised him and his sister. Bruce also loved nice-girl Alison Clarke (Julieanne Newbould) but the romance faced insurmountable obstacles.
At one point Bruce was washed away in the surf and feared drowned. After some episodes, however, it was revealed that he had in fact been washed up on an isolated beach some distance away, and, suffering amnesia, was nursed back to health by friendly strangers.
Finally reunited with Alison he failed to recognise her, though his memory would return after a drive through his home town.
No sooner was this crisis in hand when photographer Alison was sent on assignment to a war-torn foreign land, where she was inevitably kidnapped and feared dead.
Though Bruce, ably assisted by Miss MacKenzie, would conduct a prolonged search for his missing love, it was finally discovered that poor Alison had indeed been killed.
Bruce would later turn to Olivia (Zoe Bertram) for comfort and eventually marry her. Olivia began as a minor player during the show’s early episodes, a prostitute working for Rita Merrick, but her popularity led to the character becoming a permanent lead.
As was the case when actress Julieanne Newbould adamantly refused to continue with the show, this second relationship would fizzle when Zoe Bertram finally left the series after more than three years in the role.
Bubbly barmaid Charmaine (Mary-Lou Stewart) would eventually become engaged to Bruce as the series reached its conclusion after about four years on the air.
A later storyline had Miss MacKenzie a terrified prisoner in her own home after embarking on a relationship with a man revealed as a cruel sadist who totally dominated her. During his stay in the show, Anna Hruby also appeared as a scheming young blackmailer who, in a shock cliffhanger, was discovered strangled to death in a park.
As each suspect was investigated and cleared in turn, it seemed Miss MacKenzie’s suitor was the killer. The suspense was heightened when other murders occurred, while a blind, wheelchair-bound young woman reported that a prowler was regularly creeping around the house she shared with other characters in the show.
The shy and reclusive girl (who had been blinded and paralysed in a road accident) suffered from low self-esteem and had recently moved into the shared household where she befriended her housemates. She stayed in most nights and was never seen without her big dark glasses. The prowler soon had her fearing for her life, while Miss MacKenzie was still a terrified captive.
The storyline reached a startling climax after one of the blind girl’s housemates, a pretty young girl who had been given false directions to an after-hours job interview, was cornered in a dark and deserted warehouse by the strangler . . . who was, of course, revealed to be the wheelchair-bound girl all along.
Though the accident and the blindness parts were true, she was not really paralysed and harboured a deep-seated hatred of pretty and popular young girls with careers and boyfriends.
Around the same time as Olivia’s departure, Miss MacKenzie also left when actress June Salter was allowed an extended leave of absence to take a stage role, and Nick Hedstrom also left the series.
These departures left Malcolm Thompson as the show’s only remaining original cast member, though Salter and Hedstrom would return for the show’s concluding episodes where Peter finally learned that he was, in fact, Miss MacKenzie’s illegitimate son who had been fostered out as a baby.
On paper, The Restless Years should not have worked because the central idea of a group of teenagers and adults variously involved with a child’s refuge was not a particularly strong or appealing one.
Nevertheless, the series did click with audiences and the show built up a solid following who tuned in every evening to watch this tale of lost, confused teenagers and adults.
By 1980 there seemed to be more getting off of gear on the beach. Lifeguard Peter Phelps joined the cast, as did Penny Cook (later to become a star in A Country Practice) who played the bed-hopping Suzy Denning.
The only real piece of miscasting seemed to be a Labrador called King brought in to be a guide dog for blind Tim Watson (Jamie Gleeson).
King let stardom go to his head and barked and was boisterous. He had to go, so Tim had to regain his sight . . .
At various times during its run, it had been run in the 7.00 pm timeslot or screened as two one-hour episodes a week at 7.30 pm.
Declining audience figures resulted in the show’s eventual demise, and the final episode aired (in Sydney) on 12 February 1982.
Grundy’s recycled the original concept of The Restless Years, and in conjunction with RTL4 in Holland, it produced a revamped version, Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden (Good Times, Bad Times) which screened successfully on Dutch TV.
Launched in 1990, Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden was Europe’s first daily drama serial, and in 1992 its German counterpart Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten was launched.
In both cases, the shows were initially based on Reg Watson’s original scripts written for The Restless Years with slight alterations to bring the show up-to-date and to match local conditions. After the first year or so the scripts increasingly diverged from their source, partly because of unpredictable cast changes, and the differing popularity of certain actors
Olivia Baxter Russell
Miss Elizabeth McKenzie
Deborah Coulls (1)
Sue Smithers (2)
Sonny (Jon) Blake
Dr Bruce Russell
Mary Lou Stewart
Sir Ross Lindsay
John Meillon Jnr
Vivian ‘Hodgo’ Hodges