The Thorn Birds – starring Rachel Ward, Richard Chamberlain and Bryan Brown – was first broadcast in March 1983. More than 35 million viewers in the US alone tuned in to watch the ten-hour mini-series of Colleen McCullough’s 1977 bestselling Australian saga. The mini-series was such a sensation that one American airline screened in-flight episodes so that passengers wouldn’t miss out on the cultural zeitgeist.
To mark 35 years since the premiere, we take a look at the original costume design sketches in the NFSA collection and talk to Rachel Ward.
Travilla’s early designs for the Meggie Cleary character played by Rachel Ward feature the red-haired, blue-eyed girl as writer McCullough described her. Some of the later designs incorporate Rachel Ward's brown eyes, dark hair and high cheekbones. The gallery below also features sketches for costumes worn by Jean Simmons (as Fiona Cleary).
In a recent telephone interview, Rachel Ward told us about meeting with The Thorn Birds costume designer William Travilla:
American producer Stan Margulies discussed the difficult task of casting Meggie Cleary in an article in the Australian Womens Weekly in May 1982. From the set, he raved about Rachel Ward being perfect for the role: ‘She has to go from 18 to her early 50s. From a rather naïve, overly romantic young girl to a bitter woman in her 30s, to a woman who finally understands where she took the wrong turn when she reaches her 50s. There’s an enormous range of emotions and colours.'
Rachel Ward discusses the challenges of bridging the time periods for her character:
In one seminal scene described in innate detail in the book and enacted by Rachel Ward, Meggie descends a staircase in a soft pink ball gown. Father Ralph de Bricassart (played by Richard Chamberlain) stands in awe amongst a party of welcoming admirers. Subsequently the costume known as the 'Ashes of Roses' dress became iconic. The original dress was pale georgette silk but Travilla also made duplicates for action scenes. Scriptwriter Carmen Culver explained in an interview, ’If you remember, Meggie rides off on a horse and it was a rainy night scene. Bill Travilla was saying “What’s that going to do to the silk?”, so he made duplicates in polyester. What Bill came up with was so innocent and yet so sensual.'
Rachel Ward discusses the dress that became a cultural phenomenon at the time:
Over 200 women were considered, and more than 40 actresses auditioned, for the role of Meggie Cleary. In 1984, Rachel Ward was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television but lost to Ann-Margaret (in Who Will Love My Children?). The Thorn Birds did win four Golden Globes, including Best Miniseries, and six Emmy awards.
Rachel Ward reflects on her performance, 35 years later:
While The Thorn Birds focused on the love between Father Ralph de Bricassart and Meggie Cleary, it was on the set that Rachel Ward met and fell in love with co-star Bryan Brown.
The couple married within months of wrapping shooting and remain together as creative collaborators and partners in life to this day.
In a 1983 interview in People magazine, journalist Scott Haller wrote:
'Rachel and Bryan have their own outlook on The Thorn Birds. Despite the professional and personal boost the show has brought them, neither expects to watch it when it airs next week. "I’m at the stage of not wanting to see myself on screen", explains Bryan. "I hate my mug on film", chirps Rachel. Besides, they have written their own happy ending. As Rachel says, "We’re already walking together into the sunrise."'
American costume designer William Travilla was famed for dressing the stars. Designing Marilyn Monroe’s costumes for many years, including the iconic white dress from The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, USA, 1955), Monroe once left Travilla a note: ‘Dear Billy, please dress me forever. I love you, Marilyn.' In an interview with Kay Melaun for the Australian Womens Weekly in May 1969, Travilla confided, ‘No woman has a perfect face and figure but when a woman is well groomed and the line of her dress is in proportion to her figure and in tune with her personality, the effect is one of subtle beauty. If a dress doesn’t do this for her, it can cost thousands and be worthless.'
Nominated for an Oscar four times and winning once (for Adventures of Don Juan, 1948), Travilla moved into television work in the 1980s. He was Emmy-nominated for The Thorn Birds (1983), and indeed annually from 1980 through to 1986, winning Emmy awards for The Scarlett O'Hara War (1980) and Dallas (1985).