Thursday, 6 April 2017
651 The Thorn Birds
First viewed : 7 January 1984
BBC One's screening of this US miniseries was very controversial with many critics seeing it as a watershed cultural moment. Garbage like Triangle and The Borgias could be excused as not having turned out as well as hoped but in the case of The Thorn Birds , Michael Grade saw the finished product and purchased it as a ratings buster. The Beeb's reputation has never been quite the same since.
Colleen McCullough's novel is airport trash so at least you could say this was a faithful adaptation . It concerns a priest Ralph de Bricassart exiled to a remote parish in Australia ministering to a large Catholic family the Clearys. The father is only a blacksmith but he has a very wealthy sister Mary who wants to share her sins with Ralph but not in the confessional booth. For his part, Ralph is more interested in the Cleary's only daughter Meggie. Mary reacts to his spurning by making a huge bequest to the church which leads to Ralph becoming a cardinal but that doesn't stop him bonking Meggie.
The shortcomings of the plot were vastly exacerbated by the casting. Richard Chamberlain was nearly 50 and utterly unconvincing as the young priest. Venerable actress Barbara Stanwyck, who played Mary, was pushing 80 and her attempted seduction scenes with Ralph threatened to bring up your dinner. Jean Simmons as the Cleary mum was getting pregnant at 55. Rachel Ward was a suitable age for Meggie but a diabolical actress. There were one or two decent performances from Bryan Brown as Meggie's cuckolded husband and Christopher Plummer as Ralph's Vatican mentor but nothing could save this from being risible melodrama .
Unfortunately, it was very popular and, as we shall see, spawned a host of imitations for the rest of the decade.