ROAD TO AVONLEA

Canadian Family Drama

Road to Avonlea, one of English Canada's most successful dramatic series, aired on CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation network) for seven seasons, 1989-95. In addition to this domestic success, the series has been among the most widely circulated Canadian series in international markets; it was sold in over 140 countries by the end of its domestic run. The series was both a popular and a critical success and is a singular example of the adaptation of "national" Canadian fiction for the generic constraints of both domestic and international televisual markets. This singularity is evident in both the production context of the series and in its narrative development across the seven seasons. The program was produced by Sullivan Entertainment in association with The Disney Channel in the U.S.; it was supported with the participation of Telefilm Canada. Thus, from the beginning of its production run, the series was developed in relation to both domestic and international markets. And, in addition, the series was plotted in relation to the considerations of both a national broadcasting service and a specialty cable service.

The narrative was developed from the novels of Lucy Maud Montgomery following the previous success of Sullivan entertainment's miniseries adaptation of Montgomery's best known novel, Anne of Green Gables. Set in the Atlantic province of Prince Edward Island in the first decades of the 20th century, Avonlea opens with the move of young Sara Stanley (Sarah Polley) from Montreal to the small P.E.I. town of Avonlea to live with two aunts, Hetty King (Jackie Burroughs) and Olivia King (Mag Ruffman). Over the seven seasons the narrative traces the coming of age of Sara and the other children of the town as well as the adjustments of the adults in the community to the increasing changes that 20th century modernisation bring to rural island life. Generically, then, the series is situated simultaneously within period costume drama and children's, or family, drama--on the CBC the series ran in the 7:00 P.M. "Family Hour."

The dramatic formula for the series was relatively stable. Episode plots built upon the development of the children's interrelationships and their increasing entrance into the "adult" world of family and community life. At the same time the shape of the community was developed through the interactions of series regulars with "outsiders" from away who instigated disruptions into both family and kinship ties, and who served as indices of the invasive modernity encroaching on town life. The dramatic formula therefore intertwined the coming of age incidents and the character development of children's' series with an idealised and nostalgic accounting of rural forms of community life. The fact that the series' narrative ends on the eve of World War I serves to reinforce this linking of childhood, family and community in an earlier, more innocent period.

The episodic use of outsider characters also integrated well with the series development in relation to both domestic and foreign markets. Over the years the producers succeeded in recruiting for these roles a number of internationally know Canadian guest stars (for example, Kate Nelligan, Colleen Dewhurst) and international guest stars (Michael York, Stockard Channing), a production decision which greatly aided in the international marketing of the series. Road to Avonlea therefore, is a prime example of the adaptation of a national popular culture narrative to the constraints of the international television culture of the 1990s. At the same time it demonstrates one possible strategy for series finance within relatively "small" national television industries.

-Martin Allor

 


Road to Avonlea
Photo courtesy of Sullivan Entertainment/ Marni Grossman

CAST

Sara Stanley (1990-94)................................. Sara Polley
Aunt Hetty King
................................... Jackie Burroughs
Janet King
................................................ Lally Cadeau
Alec King
.................................................. Cedric Smith
Olivia King Dale
........................................ Mag Ruffman
Jasper Dale
........................................... R.H. Thompson
Felicity King
........................................ Gema Zampogna
Felix King
............................................Zachary Bennett
Rachel Lynde
...................................... Patricia Hamilton

PRODUCERS Kevin Sullivan, Trudy Grant

PROGRAMMING HISTORY   91 Episodes

CBC
January 1990-March 1996                     Sunday 7:00-8:00

FURTHER READING

Miller, Mary Jane. "Will English Language Television Remain Distinctive? Probably." In, McRoberts, Kenneth, editor. Beyond Quebec: Taking Stock of Canada. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: McGill Queen's Press, 1995.

 

See also Canadian Programming in English