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,
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
"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).
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
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.”
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
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
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
and Crook admitted that the series is 'a gentle little comedy programme,
ideally suited to the undemanding 7 PM timeslot.'
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
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
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."
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."
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."
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."
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
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."
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
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."
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."
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'.
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."
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
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."
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
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."
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".
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
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,"
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."
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
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
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
A-Changing my world
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
A-Changing my world
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
GODFATHERS EPISODE DETAILS
PEOPLE NEXT DOOR EPISODE DETAILS
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
4. TV Week, May 1, 1971.
Times, May 20, 1972.
6. TV Week, June 19, 1971.
8. TV Times, July 14, 1971.
9. TV Week, June 5, 1971.
10. TV Times, March 17,
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.
Times, March 17, 1971.
15. Cinema Papers, Sept 1979.
16. TV Week, Oct 2, 1971.
17. Cinema Papers, Sept 1979.
19. Australian Women's Weekly, Nov 24, 1971.
21. Don Reid and Frank Bladwell, In Focus:
Scripts From Commercial Television's Second Decade (Macmilllan
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.
28. TV Times, Feb 24, 1973.