Celebrating beloved small screen mums

BY MEL BONDFIELD

Throughout the years they’ve brought us joy, sadness, hope, comfort and a lot of laughs. We pay tribute to these three marvellous matriarchs of Australian television.

Grace Sullivan

The archetypal mother figure of classic Australian drama, Grace Sullivan, played by Lorraine Bayly from 1976 to 1979, walks the line between loving mum and authoritative parent in Crawfords' series The Sullivans (1976-1983).

For those too young to remember, The Sullivans is set against the backdrop of the Second World War, and tells the story of how a typical family adapts to life during wartime.

Grace forms the bedrock of the series. She is steadfast, courageous and virtuous – acting as the show’s moral compass. She is supportive and loyal to her husband, Dave (Paul Cronin), and firm but fair with each of her four children.

The following clip is the opening sequence of the first episode of The Sullivans. It establishes Grace as the quintessential mother character at the heart of the home:

Courtesy WIN Television Network Pty Ltd.

Despite being on the show for only a few seasons, Grace Sullivan is still a much-loved character and her tragic death in a London bombing raid remains one of the most shocking scenes in Australian television history. 

Maggie Beare

The ABC sitcom Mother and Son (1984-1993) centres on the lives of the lovable Maggie Beare (played by Ruth Cracknell), her 40-year-old son and caregiver, Arthur (Garry McDonald) and his scheming older brother, Robert (Henri Szeps).

Maggie is a unique character: funny and endearing with a quick wit, comical in her forgetfulness, yet manipulative and cunning when she wants to get her own way.

At its core Mother and Son is a situation comedy, but it does not shy away from tackling difficult and oftentimes confronting issues related to ageing, with both poignancy and tenderness. Maggie seemingly suffers from the early stages of dementia and while we can laugh at her antics with Arthur, we are also sensitive to her fear of the world and dependence on him.

In this clip from the first series of Mother and Son, Maggie is upset and confused about a letter from the government and is suspicious that they might stop her pension. It is up to Arthur to reason with her and convince her it is safe to deposit her pension cheques. We get an insight into Maggie and Arthur's relationship in this brief sequence - the parent-child role reversal is evident as Arthur takes charge and tries to allay Maggie's fears as her feelings of mistrust and paranoia rise to the surface.

There is nothing particularly sophisticated about the way the scene is shot, but it doesn't need to be. It actually feels more like a stage play than television because the show itself is character-driven. The camera simply has to follow two consummate actors who are performing from a script, deftly written by Geoffrey Atherden. The result is a scene that is funny but bittersweet at the same time.

Cracknell won two Logie awards for her portrayal of Maggie and the show won a Human Rights Commission Award in 1987 in the television drama category for its depiction of an elderly person with dementia – a path never before explored on Australian television.

Kath Day-Knight

Jane Turner’s Kath Day-Knight from Kath and Kim (2002-2007) is the unforgettable foxy lady from Fountain Lakes who introduced a generation of TV viewers to a panoply of priceless new catchphrases. 

Kath embodies everything we love in a modern Aussie mum. She is a strong, sassy, independent woman with a unique sense of style and a wry sense of humour. She is fiercely loyal to her 'hunk of spunk', Kel (Glenn Robbins), but at the same time she is completely in charge of her own life.  

She can take control of a situation and she's not afraid to speak a few home truths, especially when it comes to her self-obsessed and unsympathetic daughter, Kim (Gina Riley). The mother and daughter team hilariously trade barbs using gloriously mixed metaphors, malapropisms and mispronunciations that have found their way into the Australian vernacular.

In this brief clip we see Kim and her best friend Sharon (Magda Szubanski) squabbling like naughty children until Kath intervenes using that most famous catchphrase, 'Look at moi'.  While commanding respect, Kath is able to diffuse the situation, restore calm and move on.

Kath and Kim was heavily influenced by reality television which had gained considerable popularity on Australian television at this time We are made to feel like we are watching a real dynamic between the main characters, with Kath asserting parental authority over her spoiled, self-centred daughter and the downtrodden Sharon. This is simply, but effectively, conveyed through the use of hand-held cameras with little editing. The camera becomes our point of view as it switches between the protagonists and places the viewer in the scene itself, adding to the comedy.

We would love to know... who is your favourite Aussie TV Mum? Tell us on Facebook. You can watch more clips from The Sullivans, Mother and Son and Kath and Kim on australianscreen.

Main image: publicity photo for The Sullivans. L-R: Susan Hannaford (Kitty), Paul Cronin (Dave), Lorraine Bayly (Grace), Andrew McFarlane (John), Steven Tandy (Tom). Courtesy WIN Television Network Pty Ltd.