Neglected Australian mini-series about a young teacher in a small rural town in 1943
"Marion" is a prize-winning ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) TV mini-series broadcast in 1974. It consists of four self-contained but consecutive plays, each slightly less than an hour long, written by highly awarded screenwriter, Cliff Green. The episodes explore the experiences of a young school teacher – Marion (played by Helen Mirren, later famous as Miranda the lead school girl who disappears in "Picnic at Hanging Rock", also scripted by Cliff Green) in a small school in rural Australia during the Second World War.
Cliff Green devised and scripted the series. He had grown up as a school boy in small country schools during the 1940s. He had become a school teacher during the 1960s, working in similar small country schools. "Marion" is not Cliff Green's story, but it draws on aspects of his own life, and the rural communities he lived in.
"Marion" has never been converted to DVD. If it was ever released as a VHS video cassette, I have found no copies or record of it, and it would be long out of print. I do have a copy of the book of the four plays, "Marion", by Cliff Green (Heinemann Educational Australia, South Yarra, 1974), with Cast listings, and related production and background information – also, a book now long out of print!
The title and incidental music is by George Dreyfus, one of Australia's leading film composers of that era, and a German refugee and, now, grand old man of Australian music.
The cast (more than 40 speaking roles) includes Helen Morse, Terry McDermott, Frank Wilson, Graeme Blundell (who also contributed an Introduction to the book), Kerry Dwyer, Elspeth Ballantyne, Anne Pendlebury, Tony Bonner, Gus Mercurio, Maurie Fields, and Kerry Armstrong – all famous Australian stage and television actors of that time, and later.
The four stories are superficially simple. In the Australian autumn (or fall) of 1943, a young woman beginning teacher arrives in a small town, Clearwater Creek, in rural Victoria, ostensibly in the Gippsland region, but actually filmed on locations in other parts of Victoria (Strathewan, Kinglake, Yarra Glen, and Warrandyte, plus beautifully realised interior sets), with the set design by Lauri Johnston, and the technical supervision of an extremely experienced school teacher and educational historian, Os Green, who also created the classroom curriculum and blackboard lessons used by Marion – this is stunningly authentic!
(In his short essay, "How Marion Was Made", at the end of the book, Cliff Green mentions, "Talking to a Stranger", a comparable, and at the time, 1966, a ground-breaking set of four connected television plays by John Hopkins about the same characters and a shared weekend, a "Rashomon"-like exploration of relationships, individuals, and points of view. "Marion" also loosely resembles R.F. Delderfield's large 1972 novel, and large 1980 television mini-series about a man returning from the horrors of the Western Front and stumbling into a career as a school teacher in England. As a mini-series, Cliff Green's "Marion" is in good company. However, where Hopkins' plays cross-examine a dramatic and tragic weekend that focuses on the unexpected suicide of a mother, and Delderfield explores a generation and other social upheavals between wars, Green presents four brief "snap shots" in a teacher's early career, and independent adult life, within an insular male-dominated community, during a time of global conflict – powerful in its own understated way.)
In the first episode, "It's What You Make of It", Marion establishes herself in the multi-age school room, and then establishes herself with the local publican and his family (where Marion is boarding), and also with the local community. These are hard times. Australia had suffered greatly during the Great Depression, and with war-time rationing and many men, single and married, away at the war, life is still difficult. This is nicely captured by an exchange between Marion and one of her young students (from the end of the episode), a difficult boy who has come to respect Marion despite their angry teacher-and-student conflict.
RON (played by Martin Foot): I thought I'd better tell yer, miss. It's me birthday
MARION: Happy birthday.
RON: Thanks, miss. I won't be at school tomorrow.
MARION looks at him.
I turned fourteen today. I won't be at school tomorrow. I'll be helping Dad on the farm from now on.
In the second episode, "Time to Adjust", Marion must deal with a difficult seven-year-old boy who has not yet started school, and is being babied by his over-protective mother.
In the third episode, "Passing Through", Marion has to deal with a young illiterate girl who roams the countryside with her widower father, eking a living from shooting rabbits (a feral pest in Australia, often in plague proportions).
In the final episode, "There is a War On", Marion becomes interested in an Italian POW (Prisoner of War) who is working on a local farm. This angers some in the community, especially one angry man whose friend has been killed in the war. The local immigrant Italian family (who have assimilated into the community, despite the possible suspicion and prejudice directed at people from an enemy nation) are powerless to help, and have their own problems.
Seemingly, little happens across all the episodes. But, in fact, we learn a lot about Marion and the adults and children around her, and about the way people lived, at that challenging time, and in that kind of isolated inward-looking community. It is a story, and a collection of sometimes prickly and sometimes attractive characters, that we grow with, gaining deeper and deeper insight and affection – with the result that, despite appearances a great deal happens, in many interconnected little ways. It is a mini-series that seems to capture real life!
This series deserves to be digitised and issued as a DVD!!
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