When you think of educational television, you think of Sesame Street and Playschool, maybe Degrassi Junior High if you had baby boomer parents and didn’t have access to What’s Happening to Me books.
Allow me to introduce you to A Country Practice, which you may have watched but didn’t realize was brainwashing you with its benevolent, anti-war, pro-woman, leftist agenda. . Over 1,088 episodes from 1981 to 1993, it sucked you in to discover all sorts of health and social issues in our society, through the eyes of characters you could fall in love with, no matter what your age. Are you a 39-year-old stay-at-home mom? No worries, here comes Dr. Terence Elliott. Are you an 85-year-old retired bricklayer? Have fun dreaming about Esme Watson making you scones.
Government departments and non-profits pitched stories to the editorial team, who also spent much of their time searching newspapers for relevant stories to tell the nine million Australians who connected every week. In doing so, the show leaves us with an extraordinary historical record of Australia in the 80s, but it has also achieved substantial things, like teaching Australians about HIV/AIDS without a bowling ball in sight.
Country practice has made you who you are, and here’s how:
10. Frank Gilroy, Dream Copper
No leftist utopia is complete without a policeman who believes in the right to protest, community musical theater and the cultivation of award-winning roses. Frank Gilroy (Brian Wenzel) runs the local cop shop with a soft hand and an open mind. His go-to drink at the Club is orange juice and he only has eyes for Shirley, his provocative wife who is a smoking, meditative hippie when they meet. We rarely see him toss the book to anyone, and he’s always the first to intervene when a bride’s father is unable to walk her down the aisle. He could explain himself for Australia, but no ACP character is perfect. Distrusting no one, kind to everyone, Frank Gilroy 101 should be taught at the police academy.
9. Donna’s Death
Season seven, “Mozart Rules” parts one and two
These episodes have it all: Mozart, fatigue, young love, chemical danger, a cake that looks suspiciously like the Australian Women’s Weekly piano cake! It’s Mozart’s birthday, and nurse Donna (Caroline Johansson) is keen to throw a surprise party because she’s got the huge heat for vet Ben (Nicholas Bufalo), who’s got the huge heat for Mozart. At the same time, we have an overworked trucker hauling dangerous chemicals and a drunk driver who will – of course – collide at a crossroads and break every heart in Wandin Valley. It’s spectacular storytelling and essentially a two-hour commercial for all the things that can go wrong on the roads.
8. Gary Foley teaches millions of Australians about Indigenous land rights
Season nine, ‘On the Threshold’ parts one and two, ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ part two, ‘Birthright’ parts one and two
Over five episodes of season nine, Indigenous activist Gary Foley played Pastor Steve Murray, who comes to town to tend to his sick niece. He convinces Dr. Alex Fraser Elliott to leave Wandin Valley and work in his community, which desperately needs medical support.
Foley wrote on Facebook in 2020 that when ACP creator Jim Davern invited him on the show, “I told him that I would do it on the condition that I select the type of character that I would play and that I would expect to control the dialogue I would speak. He agreed.”
“An unexpected and ironic fringe benefit” of being Murray was that Foley “discovered that I had reached a much wider mainstream audience in Australia with my message about land rights and justice than I had ever had in all my previous political work.And the positive public response was such that it took almost two years before I could ride public transport in Melbourne without being harassed for an autograph or a political conversation.
7. When Esme Watson became a human being
Actress Joyce Jacobs was an extra in the first season of ACP, but she was so charming and funny that the writers started asking if they could give her a line or two. Esme Watson was born. In her early seasons, she is the old cliche of the nosy “bachelor” (interference, stubbornness, prejudice); at the end, if Esme Watson is single, sign us all up. She stands up against the women’s religious group that ousted a woman whose brother has AIDS. She takes care of a drug addict most of whom have turned their backs on. And she cooks just about every wedding luncheon — and there have been a lot of weddings. Her kindness, caring and community spirit knows no bounds. Name your child Esme without ever worrying about the name being undone because of something she did. Turns out Esme Watson is a huge goodie.
6. And the bride rode on a ute
Season three, ‘From That Day Forward’ parts one and two
There were a lot of women on the writing and production team of A Country Practice and it shows, consistently. Weddings are never without the bride somehow announcing herself as so much more than a bride, and that’s especially evident in ACP’s first big wedding, from vet Vicky Dean to doctor Simon Bowen. On the morning of the wedding, Vicky (Penny Cook) is called in to help a horse that has been gored by a bull; she ends up having to dress for her wedding in a shed, and arrives on the back of a ute just in time. It is an iconic image, and one that surely inspired The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert a few years later.
5. Gay people are people too!
Season two, ‘Mates’ parts one and two
In 1982, ACP was in its second season when it presented a script that would have been a first for many conservative Australians who were then watching the show in droves. He introduced us to the Abbot brothers, the local merchants. Abbots were much loved in the Wandin Valley – they coached tennis and greeted everyone who entered their store with a smile and a question about their lives. But when Doug falls ill and needs a transplant, it’s not long before the community realizes that he and Keith are not brothers, but partners. The episodes explore the couple’s lack of rights over each other’s medical decisions and prejudice in the small town. It ends tragically for the couple, but not before the series asks us some tough questions about Australia’s treatment of gay people in the early 1980s.
4. Addiction Strikes Anywhere
Season eight, ‘Sophie’ parts one through four
Growing up in the 80s and 90s was like being scared to death of heroin. Personally, I can attest that I didn’t even try marijuana until I entered college because of Go Ask Alice and those episodes of A Country Practice. The daughter of beloved Dr. Terence Elliott (Shane Porteous), Sophie (played by Katrina Sedgwick, now director of ACMI) is a beautiful and intelligent foreign correspondent, who became a heroin addict after experimenting with drugs abroad. No matter how hard you try, nothing is more powerful than heroin. Over the course of four episodes, we see her desperate father trying to save her, only seconds late as she overdoses in a barn. Sure, it was anti-drug propaganda, but the fine performances made it nothing short of devastating.
3. Molly’s Farewell
Season five, ‘Molly’ parts one and two
OK, OK, OK, so we all know that beautiful scene where Molly succumbs to the cancer that has been ravaging her for a 13-episode arc: her husband Brendan flies a kite with their daughter Chloe and, in a gorgeous film, the camera closes in on them and we know she’s dead. But I tell you that an equally beautiful moment occurs in the previous episode. Molly is locked in a hospital room because her leukemia makes her so vulnerable to infection that she can’t even cuddle her baby girl. Everyone is afflicted with it, until a cunning nurse realizes she can put it in the maternity ward, which has a large bay window. While Molly suffers, the whole of Wandin Valley comes to wave to her. It is more than beautiful.
(All seasons, except brown period 1991-1993)
Each week, the ACP’s costumers received a wad of money to buy costumes for the characters. And at the end of the shooting block, the clothes would be placed outside the CPA office and sold at a discount to any Channel 7 accountant who fancied a new Perri Cutten teal blazer. The Powerhouse Museum retrospective we could have had now would put any Romance Was Born exhibit to shame, if Channel 7 had only archived these incredible garments. The house flamboyance of Molly’s outfits, the doctor-chic of Alex Fraser, the glamor of Shirley Gilroy – any of these women could have stood alongside Princess Di.
1. The real prime minister is coming to town
Season six, “Listen to the Children” parts one and two
In 1986, real-life children and teenagers were terrified of nuclear war, as were the teenagers at Wandin Valley High. They were angry at what the adults were doing to them and how careless they seemed to be about their future. (Sound familiar?) Their teacher encourages them to protest and raise awareness and so… they organize a rock concert, inviting the Prime Minister. And, because the Prime Minister at the time was Bob Hawke, ACP approached him and he came on set, recording his “speech” in one take. If you can watch these episodes without getting goosebumps, you need to see your doctor.
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