1 9 8 3 (USA/Australia)
5 x 75/90 minute episodes
The visual equivalent of munching through a 50kg box of soft centres, The Thorn Birds was an unholy mix of forbidden love and pathos-filled revelations.
Hollywood’s version of Colleen McCullough’s 1977 bestseller, the 10 hour star-packed melodrama, was overblown, overwritten and a classic guilty pleasure.
The ‘God versus Rachel Ward’s 23-year-old cheekbones’ dilemma collected six Emmy Awards and made it a touchstone for the sweeping romantic saga’s that followed.
Set primarily on Drogheda, a fictional sheep station in the Australian outback, the melodrama focused on the multi-generational Cleary family and spanned the years 1920-1962.
At the outset, the family – patriarch Paddy Cleary, his wife, Fiona, and children – moved from New Zealand to Australia to help run Drogheda, owned by Paddy’s wealthy sister, Mary Carson.
Over the years, numerous deaths and disasters (fire, a drowning, a goring by a wild boar) were to befall the family.
While the saga recounted the story of the entire Cleary clan, it focused primarily on the lone Cleary daughter, Meggie and her relationship with Father Ralph de Bricassart.
Although they met when she was just a child, Meggie grew up to fall in love with the handsome, young Catholic priest who had been banished to the outback for a previous disobedience.
Spurred on by the spiteful Mary Carson – who was herself attracted to the priest – Father Ralph was forced to choose between his own advancement in the church and his love for Meggie. He chose the former, and soon found himself at the Vatican.
As Father Ralph rose quickly through the hierarchy of the Catholic church (eventually becoming a Cardinal), Meggie married a sheep shearer named Luke O’Neill, bore a daughter and ended up working as a maid in Queensland.
Years later, de Bricassart returned to Australia and to Meggie, who eventually left her husband. In the controversial third episode, the two consummated their relationship in what Newsweek called “the most erotic love scene ever to ignite the home screen,” but de Bricassart still was unable to give up the church.
Unbeknownst to him, Meggie gave birth to his son, who in an ironic twist of fate himself became a priest before dying in a drowning accident.
Richard Chamberlain got by as the priest – even under a white wig and with, at one point, jodhpurs under his cassock – while Barbara Stanwyck put her years of experience behind the old girl and concentrated on her fee.
But Rachel Ward’s playing of Meggie was quite outstandingly terrible.
If she’d Sellotaped her mouth shut and merely shaken her pretty hair and pointed her pretty body at us, it might not have been so bad. But she would talk – each time in a monotone and in a different accent: English deb, strained Strine and cute Californian.
As in McCullough’s novel, the key underlying message of this miniseries was that each generation is doomed to repeat the missteps and failures of the previous generation.
While winning the 1983 Golden Globe award for Best Mini-Series, The Thorn Birds was not without its controversy.
The subject matter – a priest breaking his vow of celibacy – was contestable enough, but the fact that the US ABC network chose to broadcast the programme beginning on Palm Sunday and running through Holy Week, raised the ire of the United States Catholic Conference.
In response, McDonald’s initially requested that its franchisees not advertise during the broadcasts. In the end, however, the company simply advised its franchisees to advertise only before Father Ralph and Meggie consummated their relationship.
Produced for an estimated $21 million, The Thorn Birds appeared during the heyday of the network television miniseries, from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, when the form was seen as “the salvation of commercial television.”
In this context, The Thorn Birds stood out for both its controversial qualities and its success.
Like Roots and The Winds of War before it, Thorn Birds exemplified the miniseries genre – family sagas spanning multiple generations, featuring large, big-name casts, and laden with tales of love, sex, tragedy, and transcendence that kept the audience coming back night after night.
In 1996 a sequel mini-series (The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years) was broadcast in which Father Ralph and Meggie (now played by Amanda Donohoe) are again united, and again struggle with their passion and their consciences.
Though widely promoted, the programme received far less attention from both critics and audiences.
Fr. Ralph de Bricassart
Meggie Cleary (girl)
Meggie Cleary (adult)
Stuart Cleary (boy)
Stuart Cleary (adult)
John de Lancie
Allyn Ann McLerie