Once upon a time, a ‘mini-series' was a major event for TV audiences, and following in the success of “Shogun” and “Masada,” “The Thorn Birds” still ranks as one of the best, made before the genre became bloated, cost-prohibitive, and audiences tired of watching stories that sometimes went on way too long.
Ironically, where locations, casts, special effects, and increasingly longer ad breaks contributed to the genre's virtual disappearance from network TV, the genre has morphed into limited run series format on cable networks, with digital effects and less restrictive time slots more conducive to each installment's drama.
Much like the epic widescreen epics of the Fifties and Sixties, the mini-series of the Seventies and early Eighties are frequently (and not unjustly) put on such a high pedestal, because the best of the bunch forged new ground and set high standards in quality television programming. Using top-selling novels isn't a high science, but assembling the best talent, and making more than an effort to condense epic sagas into consistent levels of engrossing drama within the ad-break template ain't easy. The network knew it had plenty of ad time; the trick was to keep people glued to the boob tube for so many nights.
As the excellent documentary reveals, “The Thorn Birds” became a phenomenon – classic water cooler fodder in the workplace – that had more people tuning in each night, and kept them watching during repeated network re-broadcasts – quite rare, when you consider the massive length of Colleen McCullough's saga.
Gathering interviews from Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward, Bryan Brown, and executive producer David Wolper, excitement still glistens in the group's eyes from the experience. Chamberlain became the king of the mini-series, grabbing the attention of women viewers with his near-nude scene and the series' pivotal love scene (plus it helped he had done the same in “Shogun” a few years earlier); Ward began a new career in feature films soon after; and Brown became a new heartthrob for TV and film audiences.
Covering casting, the rehearsals, location shooting in California, onset romancing, sheep shearing, and director Daryl Duke, the efficiently edited documentary doesn't rush through subjects, and paints a fitting portrait of a landmark series.
The transfer is a step up from the old VHS tapes, and the original mono mix still reveals the elegant music by Henry Mancini, which perfectly captured the undercurrent of emotional and sexual hunger that permeated the entire saga. Each episode begins with the original narrative recap, and older viewers will probably get a slight rush as the cast is read off, rapid-fire, before the show begins.
Daryl Duke later re-teamed with Bryan Brown on the ill-fated “Tai-Pan,” and the director pretty much retired from filmmaking after 1992. Colleen McCullough's characters proved hard to resist, and the romance was revisited in “The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years” in 1996, with a returning Chamberlain, and Amanda Donohoe taking Ward's place.
That series is also availale, bundled with the original "Thorn Birds."
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan