1 9 8 8 (Australia)
4 x 60 minute episodes
This four-part miniseries for children from Australia’s Channel Nine centred around the titular boy – a pudgy, freckle-faced 10-year-old orphan with a voice like a foghorn – who is torn between two families in an unnamed Australian country town in the 1930s (location shooting took place in Chiltern, Victoria).
Spit (played by unknown Albury lad Phillip Hancock) lives a free and happily undisciplined Bohemian lifestyle with his misanthropic, eccentric grandfather, Fyfe MacPhee (Sir John Mills) on the banks of the Murray River. They live simply but well in an exotic shanty on the river bank where grandfather grows vegetables and mends clocks while young Spit attends school, swims and catches fish to sell.
Although Fyfe is only 66, he is prone to severe headaches and fits and has enough health problems to cause two local families to be concerned over the welfare of the young lad.
They are the Catholic Tree family and the Presbyterian Arbuckles.
Interfering pious do-gooder Betty Arbuckle (Linda Cropper) is determined to take young Spit (who she regards as a barefoot, godless gypsy in need of a disciplinary hand and proper religious instruction) away from his grandfather and have him sent to a boys’ home in Bendigo. Motivated by peace at any price, Betty’s compliant husband Frank (Ray Meagher) supports her “cause”.
The compassionate and kindly Grace Tree (Elspeth Ballantyne) stands up for Spit when it appears his future will be decided on the basis of Betty’s well-meaning but self-righteous will, rather than what he really needs – a loving home.
Jack Tree (John Bach) is as adamantly opposed to his wife’s intervention as Frank Arbvuckle is in favour of Betty’s, and the town prepares for a right dust up.
When young Spit takes off into the bush, Grace’s young daughter Sadie (Rebecca Smart) smuggles him some bread and chops and turns out to be the sweetest little blue-eyed blonde cobber a boy could ever have.
The characters are a conventional mix of easily recognisable historical “types” and the story itself is transparently predictable. Authenticity is attempted with varied results: in a fairly accurate portrayal of early Australian dining, nobody ever seems to eat any fruit or vegetables, but Spit lives in the only 1930s town where nobody smokes – there’s not a Capstan or a pipe in sight!
There’s also a scene where old Fyfe is hospitalised and a grim nursing sister explains to Spit that his grandfather has been given something to make him sleep and he may not wake up again – which smacks of a somewhat more sophisticated attitude to euthanasia than actually existed at the time.
But the series didn’t try to be anything more than romanticised Australiana and, as far as that goes, it achieves that goal with flying colours.
Based on a novel by James Aldridge.
Angus “Spit” MacPhee
Sir John Mills
Sergeant Joe Collins