Harp in the South: A surprise visit
Sister Theopilus (Kirrily Nolan) and Sister Beatrix (Dinah Shearing), two of the teaching nuns from Roie’s old school have come on a surprise visit to see Roie. As they leave, Grandma (Gwen Plumb) appears in her Sunday best, and charms the nuns with her slyly conceived Irish reminiscences. Summary by Janet Bell.
The women in this dirt-poor Irish Catholic family have a huge regard for the church of their forebears. Mumma (Anne Phelan) is deeply embarrassed not to be better prepared for the visit. The middle-class teaching nuns have no idea of the turmoil the family has been put through as a result of their impromptu call on Roie (Anna Hruby).
The scene shows that Grandma still has her marbles, enough to bring a little happiness into the lives of these educated but lonely nuns. There’s a gentle humour in the sequence too, after the sadness and tragedy of Roie’s miscarriage and near death.
Harp in the South synopsis
A two-part miniseries following the life and times of the Darcys – an Irish-Australian family – in the aftermath of the Second World War. The impoverished Darcy family, exiles from the bush, live in Surry Hills, a housing commission enclave in inner-city Sydney. It’s a world of sly grog shops, prostitutes and pimps and the sort of boarding houses that attract lonely misfits.
Hughie Darcy (Martyn Sanderson) had been a shearer’s cook until the grog got to him. He somehow manages to hold down a job, but his pay is often docked because he’s recovering from a hangover. His wife, Mumma Darcy (Anne Phelan), is the lynch pin of the household. She’s ignorant and uneducated but has a big heart. The terrible tragedy of her life is the loss of her son, who disappeared from outside the Darcy’s house many years ago, when he was only a child.
They have two other children, Dolour – called Dola – (Kaarin Fairfax) who is still at school, and Rowena – called Roie – (Anna Hruby) who works in a local factory. To make ends meet, the family take in boarders, some odd and lonely souls.
Harp in the South Curator's notes
This top-rating miniseries, based on the Ruth Park book of the same name, was adapted by Eleanor Whitcombe and the director George Whaley. 'The harp in the south’ refers to Irish immigrants in Australia. The Darcy family are part of the working-class community with predominantly Irish origins that once inhabited the inner-city slums of Surry Hills in Sydney. It’s a world that has largely disappeared as the area has become gentrified.
Producer Tony Buckley had been talking to Ruth Park about a feature film based on her book, but when the television miniseries became a popular genre in the early 1980s, he saw this as an ideal vehicle for the story and Valerie Harding, then head of drama at Network Ten, agreed. Tony Buckley had met the director George Whaley at the Australian Film Television and Radio School where the latter was one of a group of theatre directors retraining as film and television directors. Ruth Park loved the idea of a theatre director for the series. Eleanor Whitcombe was Ruth Park’s choice to adapt the novel, with input from George Whaley, who went on to adapt and direct the second series, Poor Man’s Orange.
Notes by Janet Bell
This clip shows Grandma Kilker (Gwen Plumb) charming two visiting nuns with her reminiscences of Ireland as her more reticent daughter Mumma Darcy (Anne Phelan) and granddaughter Dolour (Kaarin Fairfax) look on. After the nuns have left Mumma reprimands her mother for her ‘forward’ conversation. However, the scene ends with them sharing a laugh at Grandma’s playful irreverence.
Educational value points
- This clip works dramatically on several levels, with the tensions and differences between the characters providing both the backdrop and the impetus for the drama. The dim interior of the Darcys’ home contrasts with the nuns’ gleaming scapulars and their piety, and while Grandma’s charm embarrasses her daughter it humanises the nuns. Humour prevails and draws the viewer into identifying with the family as Grandma’s guile is revealed.
- The characters, costumes and interiors in this clip portray a proud but poor inner-city household in the late 1940s. Grandma, dressed in her ‘Sunday best’, captivates the nuns with her exaggerations while Mumma Darcy is quietly respectful in her modest everyday dress. The lighting highlights Grandma’s sharp features and lively eyes, and provides contrast by also illuminating the whiteness of the nun’s scapulars, accentuating their formality and propriety.
- The clip displays both the embarrassment and the sense of being honoured that a visit by a religious person to a home at the time could evoke. Nuns and priests were held in high regard by Catholic families; to have a family member take the orders gave the family high status. At the same time jokes and irreverence about the clergy behind their backs, as displayed by Grandma, were also common.
- The Irish came to Australia as convicts and immigrants and arrived in great numbers during the gold rush of the 1850s and 60s. These people and their descendants have had a lasting influence in many areas of Australian life, most notably in politics, the trade unions and the churches.
- This clip is from the television miniseries The Harp in the South (1986), based on Ruth Park’s novel of the same name. Originally serialised in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1947, it was published as a novel in 1948. The novel has been translated into 37 languages and has never been out of print. A sequel, Poor Man’s Orange, was published in 1949 and a prequel, Missus, in 1985.
- When Ruth Park won The Sydney Morning Herald’s Literary Competition for The Harp in the South in 1947 her win polarised the Australian community, attracting both hostility and praise. The hostility may have been because she was a young woman from NZ who had portrayed life in inner-city Sydney realistically and written about subjects generally deemed shameful such as poverty, abortion, prostitution and alcoholism.
- Ruth Park (1923–) was born in NZ, moved to Australia in 1942 and married writer D’Arcy Niland with whom she collaborated on many projects. She has written books for children and adults, scripts for film, television and radio, articles for journals and newspapers, plays, short stories and three volumes of her autobiography.
- The Harp in the South was adapted from the novel for the television series by Eleanor Whitcombe (1923–). Whitcombe has adapted several well-known Australian novels for the screen. In 1978 she won an Australian Film Institute (AFI) award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Getting of Wisdom and in 1979 she won the same award for My Brilliant Career.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia