1 9 8 2 (Australia)
7 x 50 minute episodes
On the eve of World War I in the small country town of Bindogundra (in the wheat belt of New South Wales), childhood friends Walter Gilchrist (Scott McGregor) – the quiet, intense, educated son of a successful grazier – and Billy Mackenzie (Scott Burgess) – the roguish but charming son of an alcoholic father and a cancer-stricken mother – have little idea of the impact that the world’s events will soon have upon their lives.
Billy, cocky and knowing, is “doing alright” with the attractive widow Mrs Scott (Arna-Maria Winchester). Walter, more sensitive and less sure of himself, has returned home from university to learn that his father can no longer afford to keep him there studying geology and he must come home and work on the land.
Billy’s convenient arrangement with Mrs Scott comes to an end when she agrees to marry her brother-in-law, while Walter makes hesitating progress with Ethel (Puberty Blues star Nell Schofield), despite confident assurances from Billy – whose attitude towards women, to be kind, needs improvement – that she would “go at a tree if it was wearing pants”.
Around these two lads, a picture of Australian country life features race meetings, the pub, school children saluting the Union Jack, and the closeness of an isolated community.
The two meet Frances Reilly (Sigrid Thornton), whose father runs a hotel while her mother teaches music in Sydney, and both of them fall for her. But when war breaks out, the lads enthusiastically answer Britain’s call for help and enlist with the elite Light Horse regiment, full of patriotic fervour and eager for adventure and a ticket out of Bindogundra – which is a prison for Walter and a dead-end for Billy.
While on leave in Sydney, Billy meets Frances’s less sophisticated (and more sexually active) best friend Diana Bendetto (Jackie Woodburne). Not unexpectedly, she becomes pregnant to him.
After a spell in Egypt, the lads are sent to Gallipoli as the war with the Turks escalates while, back home, Frances and a pregnant Diana flee to the elegant estate of Robert Gillen (Andrew McFarlane).
Combat’s grim realities soon burst their patriotic bubble as the two mates endure the onslaught of enemy gunfire, endless bloodshed and the horrors of trench warfare. As Billy dreams of his impending fatherhood and establishes his reputation as an expert sniper, Walter broods over Frances’s defection and muses about the war as he and his comrades experience a growing sense of futility and betrayal.
As the battle of Gallipoli ends, Walter is sent on a dangerous mission and is captured by the Turkish army.
Meanwhile, back home, dramatic developments continue for Frances and Diana, including dirty-old-man lechery and a death by drowning. Ultimately, some form of tragedy befalls all the main characters
Based on a book by Roger McDonald, this seven-part drama series from the ABC was undoubtedly one of the finest Australia has produced. Unlike Peter Weir’s award-winning film Gallipoli (1981), this series shares the focus between the two lads and the sweethearts they leave behind in Australia, Frances and Diana.
Scott Burgess is most convincing as the rough but likeable Billy, though Scott McGregor was less impressive as Walter. Supporting roles from Aussie television royalty such as Lorraine Bayly, Gerard Kennedy and Bill Hunter lifted the calibre of the production enormously and no doubt boosted the audience.
The entire series, including the Gallipoli battle scenes, was shot in Australia. With the cooperation of the people of West Wyalong, the face of the modern country town was lifted and transformed. A dirt road was built and an old steam train was brought back to life.
The scenes of the war were filmed at a disused mine in Fifield (west of Parkes in New South Wales) while the streets of Cairo were constructed in the back lot of the Princess Forest studios.
Best of Friends | The Girl on the Night Mail | The Day the Lights Went Out | Your Country Needs You | Soldiers of the King | Hands Across the Sea | The Last Day of the Year