Something Funny Down Under

John Richards explores the very 1970s phenomenon of English sitcoms decamping to Australia. Contains double-entende and cat jokes.

As you’re probably aware, English comedian Ben Elton recently had a high-profile variety show crash and burn on Channel 9. While I do feel people may have taken a little too much glee in its downfall, it’s true Elton made it hard for people to sympathise with him. With his endless tirades about the young people – with their interwebs and the twitter and the hopping and the bopping – he mostly came across as a 24-hour audition for Grumpy Old Men.

And the show itself was fairly dire – horrendously unfunny pieces like Fat Chef competed with the seemingly endless Girl Flat sketches to see which could reach the antithesis of comedy first. It was almost like a mathematical exercise. But as a friend remarked, it would be awful if this show ended up clouding people’s appreciation of Elton‘s bona fide achievements, as a co-writer of The Young Ones and the notably better series of Blackadder.

Elton has always had a love of Australia (and Australians, or at least one of them) and word was that he had moved to Western Australia and was making this show as “a local”. But I’ll admit that when I first heard of Live From Planet Earth I wondered if this was a return to the days where we would seemingly let any famous person with an English accent have a TV show simply because they were from “over there”. I’m talking, of course, of the 1970s, when Australian television was awash with English shows in Antipodean clothing.

To be clear, I’m not talking about what we now know as “format rights”, in which a new show is based on the template for another (so The Kumars At Number 42 becomes Greeks On The Roof, for example). And I’m not talking a Very Special Episode in which the cast travel Down Under for a one-off adventure with as many koalas as the budget can manage (such as The Love Boat‘s 1981 feature-length special, “Julie’s Wedding”).

No, these are shows which directly continued the British original, in which the lead character has spontaneously moved to Sydney or Melbourne. It’s effectively the inverse of Neighbours characters moving to Queensland.

Let’s have a look at a few examples, shall we?

Father, Dear Father in Australia (1978)

The first of these was the much-forgotten series Father, Dear Father, which followed author Patrick Glover (played by Patrick Cargill) who has to bring up his daughters without a single wife in the house! Hilarity apparently ensued. The original series ran from 1968 to 1973 (including a spin-off movie). Five years later Glover moves to Australia where he ends up looking after an absent friend’s daughters instead – honestly, what were the chances of that?

The series was named – imaginatively – Father, Dear Father in Australia.

Incidentally, Donald Sinden had a supporting role in the original, while Sigrid Thornton appeared in the new series – proving once and for all that Sigrid Thornton is the Aussie Donald Sinden.

Love Thy Neighbour in Australia (1979)

Love Thy Neighbour was a perplexing sitcom about racial intolerance, in which a black man and a white man lived next door to each other. No, that’s it. That’s the premise. At least Heil Honey, I’m Home had the decency to be about Hitler.

The sequel saw Eddie – the white one – emigrating to Australia and meeting his Anglo-Australian neighbours. Yes, it’s now a show about white people living next door to each other. It’s hard to work out which is the more racist concept – the black man living next door, or the black man being completely absent. Love Thy Neighbour in Australia – as it was obviously going to be called – also starred That Guy From Hey Dad, although back then he was just known as That Guy.

Incidentally, in the clip above Jack Smethurst (as Eddie) is alarmingly similar to Ricky-Gervais-playing-Andy-Millman-playing-Ray-Stokes-in-When-The-Whistle-Blows-in-Extras. If you can follow that sentence.

Doctor Down Under (1979)

In 1979 Doctor Down Under continued the seemingly endless Doctor series, based on a set of books by Richard Gordon about – um – a Doctor. Hence the name. Well, it was more than one Doctor, really, but then it would be “the Doctors series” and that sounds odd.  The series included Doctor in the House, Doctor at Large, Doctor in Charge and Doctor at Sea. The series was based around “the misadventures of a group of Doctors” but these days is probably more famous for giving early writing work to Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie, Barry Cryer and Douglas Adams.

Doctor Down Under followed directly from its 1975 predecessor Doctor at the Top, and saw actors Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davies reprising their roles, as well as writer Bernard McKenna.

Are You Being Served? aka Are You Being Served Down Under? (1980 – 1981)

The most bewildering of the shows on this list, the antipodean Are You Being Served? would be classed as a “format” remake if not for the presence of John Inman as Mr Humphries. The concept is that Mr Humphries has moved from the UK to work at an eerily identical store in Melbourne (one would’ve thought Mr Humphries would prefer Sydney, but then he always was a bit closeted). The set-design is nearly identical to the original series, but then so are the characters – June Bronhill plays a cat-loving pseudo-posh hair-dye-abusing Mrs Crawford, and a highly unexpected Shane Bourne appears as a Mr Lucas stand-in. In fact, the similarity was such that Josh Kinal of the Boxcutters podcast claimed that as a child he couldn’t tell the shows apart and was bewildered why they kept replacing the cast. Even the title was the same, with the more commonly used “Down Under” suffix not appearing on the show itself.

Various people have claimed that he local Are You Being Served? can’t be released on DVD because the master tapes are missing, which apparently isn’t true. While John Inman was here he also did a variety special, although that may have been a legal requirement at the time.

But wait! There’s more!

The Two Ronnies did two series here, in 1979 and 1986; nine-fingered Irish comedian Dave Allen presented The Dave Allen Show in Australia from 1975 – 1977 (and it’s nice to see he resisted calling it Dave Allen Down Under); and as anyone who has seen Frost/Nixon knows, David Frost was presenting an Australian show in the early 1970s, while US President Richard Nixon presented a Channel 9 variety special with Abigail and Jeannie Little. One of those isn’t really a fact. Frost Over Australia consisted of 20 hour long episodes running from 1972 to 1974, a fact strangely absent on IMDB.

Incidentally, the UK’s Dave Allen At Large has a seriously groovy theme tune:

I had always assumed these shows were examples of the cultural cringe – that stations were showering foreign producers with television contracts, so pleased that anyone from the outside world was even noticing us. When I started researching these shows for Boxcutters, however, I discovered that was not entirely true.

Father, Dear Father and Love Thy Neighbour may have run their course at home, but The Two Ronnies were still producing their BBC show when they made the Australian series – in fact in 1979 they would have been near the height of their fame. David Frost was making shows simultaneously in Australia and the UK; Are You Being Served? was still to run for another five years in Britain when Mr Humphries was working at “Bone Brothers”; and Dave Allen actually started his TV career in Australia, hosting a tonight show on channel 9 before returning to the UK to debut on TV there. At the time of his later Australian series he was massively popular at home.

So were we actually a more international country – television production-wise – back in the 1970s than we are now? Did international performers and writers see us not as an embarrassing last chance but a valid production base? Was the cultural cringe not then, but now, where we assume these people must have been on hard times to have come knocking on our door?

It’s hard to know. The technical quality of these shows is comparable to their parent productions, but since comedy is in the ear of the beholder it’s hard to tell June Bronhill‘s Melbourne “pussy” is any better or worse than Molly Sugden‘s London one. It’s also worth considering that there was no home video or DVD at the time and repeats were rare in the UK, so the creators of these shows wouldn’t be living off residuals. Spending three months in Australia making a spin-off show could have been a much-appreciated financial bonus, if not necessary a creative pinnacle.

As the 1970s turned into the 1980s these off-shore continuations finished, and it’s hard to imagine anyone trying something similar these days. We now make co-productions (like Tripping Over or Supernova), or we sell our formats overseas (Sit Down Shut Up, Kath & Kim), but it’s unlikely the cast of Shameless would suddenly move to Newcastle, or David Brent would get transferred to Geelong. Worzel Gummidge may have spent a couple of years in New Zealand at the height of Madchester, and The Royle Family‘s Caroline Aherne created the surprisingly Aussie Dossa & Joe in 2002, but from now on we’re probably going to create our own shows at home. And that’s not a bad thing.

And Ben Elton? Well, he’s always got that vast pile of We Will Rock You money to comfort him. I reckon that wouldn’t be too bad either.

John Richards is a presenter on the Boxcutters podcast and co-creator of the ABC1 comedy series Outland. You can hear much of the above writing out loud in Bocutters episode 258.

5 Responses to Something Funny Down Under

  1. Tim Cavanagh says:

    What??? Not one reference to “Baywatch Downunder!!” Great article John!!

  2. Matthew Bateman-Graham says:

    The Dave Allen theme is “Blarney’s Stoned” by Alan Hawkshaw and is availble on a lounge CD “The Sound Gallery Vol. 1” from EMI. Dave Allen worked in Australian TV in the 60’s

    • Matthew Bateman-Graham says:

      Oh yes and Tony Hancock came to Australia to do a “Hancock Down Under” in 1968 but committed suicide instead. The three (colour) episodes he made have been shown as a special on 7.

  3. There’s something very charming about the idea of British comedy stars shipping out to Australia for an exotic “working holiday” – akin to the annual exodus of Aussie soap stars to work the pantomime circuit in the UK?

    I was born in the late 70’s so completely missed this phenomenon – thanks to my English Mum I was raised on the British comedies, even those that had become quite obscure by the time I came along (I watched Father Dear Father on VHS, for example) but completely missed the Aussie versions.

    I was quite startled one daytime in my student years to come across a weird sequel show to Are You Being Served when almost the entire cast are running a B&B together in their dotage, but sadly it wasn’t in Queensland!

    I do, however, remember Worzel Gummidge Down Under. It was the first time I had ever seen a TV show set in New Zealand! Which is, when you think about it, a bit sad. I grew up knowing far more about British culture (well okay a skewed sitcom version of it, but STILL) than I did about a country which is incredibly close to us.

  4. outlandinstitute says:

    Matthew: I had no idea Hancock filmed here. Also, that would easily be Australia’s first colour TV show, no? I read that it’s a very depressing viewing experience and based on the few minutes I’ve watched so far that’s probably right.

    I’m also horrified to discover that I a) had no idea that Hancock had killed himself and b) had confused his death with Sid James. So I had for years throught that Hancock died on a stage in Sydney and Sid James was presumably living forever somewhere in England.

    Tansy: I too only knew these shows through “repute” rather than experience, and they were always used as examples of the cultural cringe, perhaps erroneously. Incidentally, “Grace And Favour” was the B&B series you mentioned!

    Weirdly, I also remember the first time I heard a kiwi accent! It was a period children’s drama on the ABC with a lead character named “Kitty” and as a child I was confused as to where it was from – the accents were ALMOST the same as ours, but not quite.

    Tim: You made me watch some of Baywatch: Down Under. I’m not sure I will ever forgive you.

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