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THE GODFATHERS
THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR


Copyright © 2013 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


THE GODFATHERS
EPISODE DETAILS

 

THE PEOPLE
NEXT DOOR
EPISODE DETAILS

 

 

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The Godfathers was a successful series in the family/comedy/light-drama vein, created by Robert Bruning and Michael Laurence. The two actors met at an Adelaide Festival play in which they were both performing. "One night Michael and I were talking about our chances of becoming sustaining players in a TV series," said Bruning. "We decided the only real way of achieving this was to produce and write a series ourselves." 1  One year later, they had the idea of The Godfathers developed to a point where they had some scripts written, but there was no money.

Meanwhile, Bobby Limb, one of the principals of NLT Productions, 2 and Clyde Packer, managing director of TCN-9 Sydney, were involved in a public controversy. Limb had stated that television networks were not prepared to back small Australian packagers and, given an opportunity, he could produce a half-hour series for $5,000 an episode. Packer indicated that if such was the case, his station would buy it. Subsequently, Packer withdrew the offer because he could not accept the terms Limb imposed, and Limb admitted he could not produce a series at that price that met TCN-9's requirements.

"I just happened to run into Clyde at the time," said Bruning. "I offered to make a series for $5,600 an episode, and, as luck would have it, we made a good pilot and got the order." 3  The pilot was made in October 1970, and TCN were sufficiently impressed to order a 26-episode series. In fact, production of a comedy series titled Bachelor Gaye, written by Ralph Peterson and featuring John Meillon in the lead role, was cancelled in February 1971, after five episodes had been completed, so that production could start on The Godfathers. As one would expect with such a low budget, the series was produced in black and white using the film/video integration method (film for exterior location scenes, videotape for interior studio scenes).

The Godfathers centres on nine-year-old Mike Varga, who lives with his widowed Hungarian mother Maria on Sydney's north shore. Maria Varga is confined to a wheelchair, crippled by a car accident which killed her husband. To help financially, she takes in three boarders - Chris Johnson, a taxi driver in his 40s, Pete Fairhall, a 30-year-old commercial photographer, and 21-year-old Gary Peterson, a service station attendant who has just moved down from the country. Mike is an only child and a bit introspective, but the three boarders become fond of him and Mike adopts them as the 'godfathers' of the title, and under their influence Mike becomes a happy, outgoing kid. Into the mix is thrown Elizabeth Dent, a Child Welfare Officer whose main concern is to ensure Mike is being well cared for - at first she is considered a threat by the godfathers, but soon becomes a close friend of the household.

Robert Bruning, who had just completed a lead role in The Long Arm, was producer of the series, and Michael Laurence wrote every episode. They also played two of the principal roles: Bruning as Chris Johnson, and Laurence as Pete Fairhall. Anna Volska played the role of Maria, and Tina Grenville portrayed Miss Dent. Tina's son Ashley Grenville played the part of Mike.

The third godfather, Gary, was played by Brendan Lunney in the pilot, and Eric Oldfield in the series. "I knew when I did the pilot that I wouldn't be doing the series," said Lunney. "It's unfortunate in a way because it would have been so good to work with Bob Bruning - he financed and stars in The Godfathers - because it's not often that an actor can put his own money into television." 4  Oldfield had no acting experience whatsoever, The Godfathers being his first role. Bruning hired him on the understanding that he would be dropped after 10 episodes if his performance did not work out. “He works enormously hard on The Godfathers," said Bruning, "and his technique and understanding of his work have improved so much that we are now writing his character of Gary Peterson much more strongly. At first he was given fairly simple things to do but now we can confidently give him more complicated acting tasks.” 5

Two neighbours featured in support roles, Eve Wynne as the nosy and gossipy Mrs. Parsons from across the street, and Queenie Ashton as Mrs. Frenchman from next door. And from episode 3, a Pekingese dog joined the cast as Mike's pet, named 'Person'.

Anna Volska commented on the unusual situation of playing mother to a boy whose real mother was also a cast member: "It was a little strange at first for Ashley having me as a mother, but that soon wore off and things are fine now. He has two mothers. I'm his stage mother and Tina's his real mother and that's how we treat it."6 To make her portrayal of the crippled Maria as authentic as possible, Anna sought advice from a medical professional: "I explained to him how Maria was paralysed from the waist down and asked what would be the normal actions of a woman like this. There wasn't really all that much to it. All I do is wheel around in my wheelchair and forget all about my legs."7

The theme song for the series was specially written and performed by Michael Caulfield (who also later wrote and performed the theme for the 1976 serial The Lost Islands).

The pilot episode was never screened, and, due to the different cast member, could not be incorporated into the series. The Godfathers premiered in May 1971 in Melbourne and Sydney, although GTV-9 Melbourne almost showed it a month earlier, but a last minute decision saw the show held over until TCN-9 could fit it in to their schedule.

The series attracted a large audience from the outset, even though the critics lamented the show's sentimentality. F.C. Kennedy writing in TV Times called it an 'overdose of honey and muscat', and Frank Crook in TV Week said it was an 'overdose of sweetness and light'. Both qualified their remarks however, Kennedy saying 'there is a leavening of comedy in The Godfathers and some of it is more finely honed than most of the local product', 8 and Crook admitted that the series is 'a gentle little comedy programme, ideally suited to the undemanding 7 PM timeslot.' 9

Given the success of overseas shows of similar genre, such as Father Dear Father and Julia, a local variation seemed to be a safe bet. Although broadly categorised as a situation comedy, The Godfathers does not strictly fit the format, and could just as easily be classified as a light family drama. "They never strike me as the sort of series one can describe as comedies," said Bruning. "It worries me because viewers may be expecting a barrel of laughs in every programme. The Godfathers is more charming than funny." 10 Michael Laurence concurred: "People call The Godfathers a comedy. I wish they wouldn't. It's a middle-class family series that provides light viewing for the family. I don't write belly laughs. Sometimes the show is sad, sometimes it is funny." 11

The Godfathers went through a long gestation period before seeing the light of day. "I came to the conclusion that there had never been a light-hearted middle-class Australian comedy series set around a family," said Michael Laurence. "So that's what I went to work on. I began to write disjointed scenes from all over the place and the following morning I rang Robert Bruning, and asked him to come over to my home and see what he thought. He was really rapt, but just as the whole thing was beginning to get off the ground he got a part in The Long Arm, and I was tied up with a show, so the project was shelved for a year." 12  

The original concept had three bachelors adopting a young boy, but it was not feasible dramatically. The idea was re-worked so the boy's parents had been killed and his grandmother was raising him - she takes in boarders, and the Child Welfare Officer provides the romantic interest by becoming interested in one of the blokes. Audience research then indicated that a Child Welfare heroine and a grandmother would not work, and perhaps what was needed was a warm competent woman who could cope with the problems that beset her. It was then suggested to put the mother in a wheelchair and keep the Child Welfare lady as a threat. "It was on that basis that the early scripts were drawn," said Bruning. "We took all the old aphorisms - honesty is the best policy, look before you leap, a penny saved is a penny earned and so on. Then we went through all the things that one does - wagging school, taking up smoking behind the shed, falling in love at the age of ten with your teacher. All of them charming, all of them identifiable and almost nothing that the audience hadn't been through themselves. That was the formula and it was very successful." 13

Bruning was surprised at the ease with which he sold the series. "It's not easy to convince Australian TV executives that something that hasn't been done before can be good," he said. "It was so marvellous to be able to show a pilot to the Nine executives and, within 15 minutes of screening it, receive their backing. There was a hard tussle over prices but, apart from that, we've had great co-operation from Channel Nine." 14

Top-rating series such as Homicide were made on a budget that was a mere fraction of that enjoyed by overseas programmes. The Godfathers was made on a budget that was amazingly cheap by Australian standards, and it took some months before the series achieved a ten percent profit margin. "We knew how to work economically," said Bruning, "and, though we were not making a fortune, we did quite nicely. The margin was $400 an episode and I calculated on having to make 22 episodes to break even." 15 If the public didn't accept the series, Bruning would have been in dire straits financially. "I believe Australia was ripe for this sort of light entertainment," he said. "And Crawfords had proved that Australians wanted local products with their police dramas. It seemed to me that a show, perhaps not as slick as the imported products, could be made here at a fraction of the cost and at the same time make a profit from purely local sales." 16  

The low budget resulted in a hectic production schedule - ten hours rehearsal, seven hours filming, four hours editing, and two hours of dubbing music. There were five staff members involved in production: in addition to Laurence (who churned out a script a week, sometimes more) and Bruning, there were Directors Bill Hughes and Alister Smart and Production Manager David Hannay. The production company was called Bruning, Bell & Partners, and later Gemini Productions. "I was anxious to ensure that all of us were financially involved in the production," said Bruning, "but the others felt that a share of the profits wasn't as satisfactory as some equity in the company. I wasn't prepared to give them equity in my family company, so I set up Gemini Productions as a strictly package production company. It was called Gemini because there were many people in the group with that star sign." 17

The success of the series saw the initial 26 episode order extended to 39 episodes, and later further episodes were commissioned, bringing the total number to 72. "As it turned out," said Bruning, "the series was so successful that after 26 episodes Michael, who had written every episode, started to go round the twist." 18 Laurence didn't quite put it that way: "I decided to write myself out of the script because production meetings, rehearsals and writing were making life frantic. It was a seven-day week. I think I was the only person constantly writing and appearing in his own half-hour show." 19

The device chosen for Pete's departure was a wedding to his girlfriend Helen Fraser, played by Fay Kelton, in episode 26. "The episode is titled 'I Do, I Don't', which sort of speaks for itself," said Laurence. "The previous week's episode finds me suddenly engaged. I just wake up one morning and find that in a mad moment the night before I proposed." 20 Pete Fairhall did not lose his 'godfather' status altogether, as Laurence made guest appearances on a regular basis for the rest of the series. When the script was written for the wedding episode, a definite decision had not yet been made on whether Pete would be leaving, and an alternative ending was prepared allowing for a last-minute change of heart. The script was included in a textbook for students, 'In Focus'. 21  

 A new 'godfather' was introduced from ep. 27, David Milson, played by Harold Hopkins, who previously appeared as Steve Gabo in Barrier Reef. "He's a great actor," said Laurence, "and the part he will play is something away from his usual outdoor self and the roles he's taken before. David Milson is your 28-30-year-old white collar worker. His day-to-day life takes place in an office, but his real ambition is to be a writer." 22

At one stage, TCN-9 management imposed a ban on Eric Oldfield riding his motorbike, to protect their investment in the programme. "I suppose they are concerned that if I was injured this could delay shooting and, of course, delays cost money," said Oldfield. "I'll have to go along with the ban although I'm certainly not very happy about it." 23 The ban was soon lifted under condition that Oldfield wear a crash helmet at all times.

Contemporary pop singer Ronnie Burns made a guest appearance in ep. 38, 'Pop Goes Mike'. Burns made his acting debut in the episode, in which Burns plays himself and performs his hit song 'Smiley'. "When I first heard of the offer to make the guest appearance I was a little concerned as I'd never done anything like it before," said Burns. "But after reading the script and seeing the show a couple of times I became excited about the prospects." 24

When Tina Grenville became pregnant, it presented a problem that could be solved one of two ways - Elizabeth Dent could be written out, or she could also become pregnant. The latter course was chosen, and she was absent from the series for a few weeks while she was 'away getting married'. Upon her return in ep. 54, 'The New Addition', Elizabeth announced the glad tidings to the Varga household.

The Nine Network in conjunction with TV Times magazine ran a nationwide contest to find a look-alike of Ashley Grenville. The winner of the contest would win several prizes, as well as an opportunity to appear on The Godfathers. The contest was won by Peter Northcote, who made a guest appearance in ep. 66, 'Double Trouble'.

With an optimistic eye on foreign exports, the actors contracts stipulated that they would receive a percentage of the profit from any overseas sales. The Godfathers did achieve one overseas sale - to New Zealand, but the price was not fantastic. Bruning was unperturbed: "I don't care if I only made $250. It's $250 I didn't have before." 25

It was decided that production would cease in July 1972 when the contracted run of 72 episodes was completed. Although the programme was still enjoying peak popularity, a number of factors influenced the decision. A stockpile of episodes meant the series would be seen on air for the rest of the year; Ashley Grenville was growing up and would soon be too old for the part - and as he was starting high school it was felt to be in his best interests if he did not have the distraction of making a TV series; Anna Volska wanted to try other roles, particularly in theatre; Michael Laurence and Robert Bruning were both feeling the strain of their workload; and Tina Grenville had a new baby to care for.

The final episode featured another wedding - this time between Chris Johnson and Maria Varga, following Chris's proposal two episodes earlier. A fitting end to the series - Mike would now have a 'real' father, thus obviating the need for 'godfathers', and as the house would now function as a true family unit there was no longer any need for boarders.

Gemini Productions next venture was the crime series The Spoiler, also made for the Nine Network, which went to air in Sydney during the latter half of 1972, but failed to attract a significant audience. Meanwhile, The Godfathers was still on air, and Nine was interested in a suitable replacement for it. A spin-off from The Godfathers called The Family Next Door was proposed, and a pilot was made in December. The decision was then made to cancel The Spoiler and proceed with the spin-off, now re-titled The People Next Door

Like The Godfathers, The People Next Door was a half-hour black-and-white series produced using the film/video integration method. Producer was Robert Bruning, and the series was created by Michael Laurence, who once again wrote all the scripts. The format had similarities to its predecessor, and the Nine Network hoped the new series would achieve the same success.

Two characters from The Godfathers, Elizabeth Dent (Tina Grenville) and Dave Milson (Harold Hopkins) were transferred to the new series, and Michael Laurence made occasional guest appearances as Pete Fairhall. The first episode establishes that the now married Elizabeth and her husband Bill Dunstan, played by Alan Lander, have moved into a new house and taken in Dave Milson as a boarder.

The title refers to the household next door, headed by Daniel Penrose, an eccentric author in his 40s, played by Deryck Barnes. He has three children, 23-year-old Meg, played by Tina Bursill, 19-year-old Martin, played by Kevin Wilson, and 11-year-old B.J., played by John Stanwell. What B.J. stands for is not revealed - the only explanation that Laurence and Bruning gave for naming him as such was "because it sounded good". 26  

As Mike was central to The Godfathers, so too is B.J. pivotal to The People Next Door. It is mainly through his eyes that viewers observe the ridiculous situations that adults find themselves in.

A support role in the series is Daniel's publisher and manager, Joanna Church, who also has designs on becoming the next Mrs. Penrose. Joanna was played by Diana Davidson, whom Laurence had in mind for the role when he wrote the part.

Deryck Barnes was chosen to play Daniel because Bruning and Laurence were impressed by his acting, and Tina Bursill and Kevin Wilson were selected because they were well-suited to the requirement of nice but slightly unconventional kids. The role of Bill Dunstan was originally envisaged as a support role, but Bruning was sufficiently impressed by Lander's ability that the part was upgraded to a regular role.

The casting of B.J., however, was a daunting prospect, and the task was delegated to an agency, who presented Gemini with a shortlist of 30 kids. Bruning and Laurence narrowed it down to two, and finally chose John Stanwell. They had their reservations though as Stanwell had no acting experience, and he looked appealing which they did not want - they were seeking a complete contrast to Ashley Grenville. A rumpled hairdo and horn-rimmed glasses gave John his studious look, and he soon proved capable of handling the acting: "He is a very intelligent boy with a quick grasp of the role," said Bruning. 27 Stanwell worked under exactly the same conditions that Ashley Grenville had, missing only two-and-a-half hours of school per week for taping (on sports afternoon), with all rehearsals taking place after school.

The Nine Network commissioned 48 episodes, with an option to review the number after 16 episodes. The series premiered in Melbourne and Sydney in March 1973, and in Brisbane in May 1973. At the outset, all involved were optimistic that The People Next Door would be at least as popular as The Godfathers. "I think the format is great," said Deryck Barnes, "and Michael Laurence has done a great job with the first six scripts. It's as good as anything from overseas." 28  

Perhaps it was the timeslot. Perhaps it was the changing tastes of a fickle public. Perhaps the formula was not quite right. Whatever the reason, The People Next Door was nowhere near as successful as The Godfathers. Low ratings caused Nine to exercise their option to reduce the number of episodes, and production ceased after 20 episodes were made. GTV-9 Melbourne and TCN-9 Sydney continued to screen the series for the rest of 1973, but QTQ-9 Brisbane pulled it from the schedule after six episodes, not screening the rest of the series until the 1974/75 summer non-ratings period.

The Godfathers won one award: a 1972 Logie for Best Comedy Series. Gemini Productions went on to produce a number of successful tele-movies in the mid-1970s, before the company was sold to the Grundy Organisation.

 

The Godfathers theme song

Early morning, sleepy yawning
Wake up with the sun in my eyes
And face another day
Yesterday I thought the rain would
Tumble down and blot out the skies
But still it brought to me

The Godfathers
A-Changing my world
The Godfathers
Bringing me the, telling me the word
For such a good life

Everybody else has one
I tell my troubles to three
And nothing worries me
If I could I know I would
Not live naturally
I'd rather be with

The Godfathers
A-Changing my world
The Godfathers
Bringing me the, telling me the word
For such a good life

The Godfathers, do do do do do
The Godfathers, do do do do do do

 

THE GODFATHERS EPISODE DETAILS

 

THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR EPISODE DETAILS

 


1. TV Times, March 17, 1971.
2. NLT stands for Jack Neary, Bobby Limb and Les Tinker, the three principals of NLT Productions, makers of The Private World of Miss Prim, Woobinda (Animal Doctor) and The Rovers.
3. Cinema Papers, Sept 1979.
4. TV Week, May 1, 1971.
5. TV Times, May 20, 1972.
6. TV Week, June 19, 1971.
7. Ibid.
8. TV Times, July 14, 1971.
9. TV Week, June 5, 1971.
10. TV Times, March 17, 1971.
11. Australian Women's Weekly, Nov 24, 1971.
12. TV Times, Jan 20, 1973.
13. Interview with Robert Bruning in Dec. 1979, Albert Moran, Images and Industry (Currency Press, Sydney 1985), p. 125-126.
14. TV Times, March 17, 1971.
15. Cinema Papers, Sept 1979.
16. TV Week, Oct 2, 1971.
17. Cinema Papers, Sept 1979.
18. Ibid.
19. Australian Women's Weekly, Nov 24, 1971.
20. Ibid.
21. Don Reid and Frank Bladwell, In Focus: Scripts From Commercial Television's Second Decade (Macmilllan Australia, 1972).
22. TV Week, July 24, 1971.
23. TV Week, Sept 1971.
24. TV Week, Sept 25, 1971.
25. TV Week, Oct 2, 1971.
26. TV Week, March 31, 1973.
27. Ibid.
28. TV Times, Feb 24, 1973.



The original cast of The Godfathers: Robert Bruning, Ashley Grenville, Anna Volska, Michael Laurence, Tina Grenville and Eric Oldfield.


Ashley Grenville as Mike, Michael Laurence as Peter and Eric Oldfield as Gary.


Mike with his 'Godfathers' Gary, Peter and Chris.


Ashley Grenville as Mike Varga.


Robert Bruning as Chris Johnson with Tina Grenville as Child Welfare officer Elizabeth Dent.


Ashley Grenville as Mike with his dog 'Person'.


An advertisement for The Godfathers that appeared in some TV magazines.


Robert Bruning, Tina Grenville, her son Ashley Grenville, and 'Person'.


The Godfathers opening titles, after Harold Hopkins joined the cast.


Eric Oldfield as Gary with Harold Hopkins as David, who replaced Michael Laurence as Peter from episode 27.


During rehearsals, Director Alister Smart talks with Anna Volska, Eric Oldfield and Harold Hopkins.


A new cast member, and still one big happy family: Anna Volska, Ashley Grenville, Eric Oldfield, Harold Hpopkins, Tina Grenville and Robert Bruning.

 


Deryck Barnes as Daniel Penrose in The People Next Door.


Two of the Penrose children, John Stanwell as B.J. and Tina Bursill as Meg.


Alan Lander as Bill Dunstan and Tina Grenville as Elizabeth Dent (now Dunstan) in The People Next Door.


An advertisement for The People Next Door that appeared in some TV magazines.