The words “cult Australian TV show” are normally associated with dramas on the campier side of the spectrum: Prisoner, of course, but also Number 96, Return to Eden, E Street during the Mr Bad years, and Chances. But cuddlier programs have their die-hard supporters, too. One of the most devoted fan bases has formed around an Australian mini-series lacking a single serial killer, insatiable omnisexual or cast-minimising explosion… Pastures of the Blue Crane.
This was a 1969 ABC adaptation of the 1965 novel by Hesba Brinsmead, spread out over five 30-minute episodes. I don’t know why the ABC decided to adapt that particular book; if I had to guess, the national broadcaster probably figured there was a lot of stuff about youth in the media at the time (you know, The Graduate, Paris riots, all that) and figured they should do something for youth. The ABC did have a Children’s Department, which made TV dramas in the 1960s like The Stranger, Wandjina and The Intrepretaris, but they were more in the sci-fi/fantastical realm; Pastures of the Blue Crane skewed older and dealt with adult themes.
It told the story of Ryl (Jeanie Drynan), who is in her last year of (city Catholic all-girls) high school when told her father has died and she is to inherit a farm in north-eastern New South Wales… which these days would make her a multi-millionaire, but the late 1960s was a more dairy-farmers-moving-out-hippies-coming-in time. Ryl moves there with Dusty (Harry Lawrence), the grandfather she has never met, and makes friends with young hot spunkrats, Perry (Harold Hopkins), a “quarter-caste” as they were known then, and Greg (Peter McPhie), a blonde rich brat. Other characters include a friendly exposition-spouting neighbour (Sheila Kennedy), Perry’s “coloured” grandad (Authur Toar), Greg’s dad (Robert Bruning) and some babes on the beach, one played by “Judith Morris” aka Judy Morris.
There’s small town atmosphere, flirting, fighting, racism, home renovations and a Family Secret as Ryl transforms from lonely snob to beloved member of the community… it’s really good, solid, emotional storytelling, the sort of stuff that has powered our serial dramas for decades. The adaptation was by Eleanor Witcombe, who wrote a lot of Number 96, and the script editor was Barbara Vernon, the first story editor on Bellbird; both wrote plenty of other things too, being among our top writers at the time. The Family Secret involves race, which perhaps seems quaint now, but not in 1969 when the White Australia policy had just ended. There’s a fair bit of groovy dancing, including a version of The Doors’ “The End” played at a party by a band called Oakapple Day (I think that’s Rory O’Donaghue, later of Aunty Jack, as the singer).
Pastures of the Blue Crane was shot on film, with location work in north-eastern New South Wales and Brisbane (including scenes at the University of Queensland, which I got a special kick out of, having studied there). It has some stunning scenery, yet the budget didn’t extend to colour – that’s probably the most frustrating thing about the production; if any mini-series could have used colour, it was this one. (It’s a shame some enterprising producer didn’t reshoot the whole thing as a feature film in colour like they did for You Can’t See Round Corners… probably too scary for the ABC. The novel would still make a good movie, btw – you’d have to make it period, I think, but it would not be exorbitantly expensive, as most of it takes place either in the bush, beach or in a ramshackle farm house.)
The director was Tom Jeffrey, who went on to make perhaps Australia’s best film on the Vietnam War, The Odd Angry Shot (1979). A lot of other soon-to-be-notables worked behind the scenes, including John Seale (camera operator), Ian Barry (sound editor), and Sue Milliken (continuity). Drynan is a terrific lead – vulnerable, bright, sparky, gorgeous (even if it is a little weird seeing Muriel’s mum running around in a swimsuit looking like a magazine covergirl) – and she’s well matched by Harold Hopkins, brown skin make-up notwithstanding.
Researching this, I came across some contemporary reviews that were, amazingly, sniffy (such as this one). I think they totally missed the point (as was often the case with TV critics). With its sense of rebirth, romance and community, it’s not hard to see why Pastures of the Blue Crane was so beloved. The fans don’t have midnight screenings throwing props at the screen, at least not to my knowledge, but they were keen enough to get together, form a Facebook group and pushed until the series was available via ABC Commercial. You can get copies here, apparently.
Pastures of the Blue Crane serves as yet another reminder that while the ABC always seems to have a middle-aged soul, when it does things for teens it can do them very well (Sweet and Sour, JJJ, Recovery).
The author would like to thank Chris Keating for his help with this article. All opinions are my own.
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