THE THORN BIRDS

U.S. Miniseries

The miniseries The Thorn Birds, based on Colleen McCullough's 1977 best selling novel, was broadcast on ABC for 10 hours between 27 and 30 March 1983. Set primarily on Drogheda, a fictional sheep station in the Australian outback, the melodrama focused on the multi-generational Cleary family, and spanned the years 1920-1962.

At the outset, the family--patriarch Paddy Cleary (Richard Kiley), his wife, Fiona (Jean Simmons), and children--moved from New Zealand to Australia to help run Drogheda, owned by Paddy's wealthy sister, Mary Carson (Barbara Stanwyck). Over the years, numerous deaths and disasters--fire, a drowning, a goring by a wild boar-- were to befall the family.

While the saga recounted the story of the entire Cleary clan, it focused primarily on the lone Cleary daughter, Meggie (Rachel Ward) and her relationship with Father Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain). Although they met when she was just a child, Meggie grew up to fall in love with the handsome, young Catholic priest who had been banished to the outback for a previous disobedience. Father Ralph was torn between his own love for Meggie, his love for God, and his ambition to rise in the Catholic hierarchy. Spurred on by the spiteful Mary Carson--who was herself attracted to the priest--Father Ralph was forced to choose between his own advancement in the church and his love for Meggie. He chose the former, and soon found himself at the Vatican. As Father Ralph rose quickly through the hierarchy of the Catholic church (eventually becoming a Cardinal), Meggie married a sheep shearer named Luke O'Neill (Bryan Brown), bore a daughter (played as an adult by Mare Winningham), and ended up working as a maid in Queensland.

Years later, de Bricassart returned to Australia and to Meggie, who eventually left her husband. In the controversial third episode, the two consummated their relationship in what Newsweek's Harry F. Waters called "the most erotic love scene ever to ignite the home screen," but de Bricassart still was unable to give up the church. Unbeknownst to him, Meggie gave birth to his son (played as an adult by Philip Anglim), who in an ironic twist of fate himself became a priest before dying in a drowning accident. As in McCullough's novel, the key underlying message of this miniseries was that each generation is doomed to repeat the missteps and failures of the previous generation.

While winning the 1983 Golden Globe award for Best MiniSeries, The Thorn Birds was not without its controversy. The subject matter--a priest breaking his vow of celibacy--was contestable enough, but the fact that ABC chose to broadcast the program beginning on Palm Sunday and running through Holy Week, raised the ire of the United States Catholic Conference. In response, McDonald's Corporation initially requested that its franchisees not advertise during the broadcasts. In the end, however, the company simply advised its franchisees to advertise only before Father Ralph and Meggie consummated their relationship.

Despite its controversial subject matter (or perhaps because of it), The Thorn Birds garnered an average 41 rating and 59 share over the course of its four-night run, making it then the second highest rated miniseries ever, second only to Roots (1977). Its controversial third episode, in which Meggie and Father Ralph consummated their relationship, was at the time the fourth highest rated network entertainment show of all time (preceded only by the final episode of M*A*S*H, the "Who Shot JR?" episode of Dallas, and the eighth episode of Roots.) In the end, an estimated 110 million-140 million viewers saw all or some of the miniseries. TV Guide, in fact, has listed The Thorn Birds as one of the top 20 programs of the 1980s.

Produced for an estimated $21 million, The Thorn Birds appeared during the heyday of the network television miniseries, from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, when the form was seen as "the salvation of commercial television." In this context The Thorn Birds stood out for both its controversial qualities and its success. Like Roots and The Winds of War before it, The Thorn Birds exemplified the miniseries genre--family sagas spanning multiple generations, featuring large, big-name casts, and laden with tales of love, sex, tragedy, and transcendence that kept the audience coming back night after night. In 1996 ABC broadcast a sequel to The Thorn Birds in which Father Ralph and Meggie are again untied, and again struggle with their passion and their consciences. Though widely promoted, the program received far less attention from both critics and audiences.

-Sharon A. Mazzarella

 


The Thorn Birds


The Thorn Birds

CAST

Father Ralph de Bricassart ..............Richard Chamberlain
Meggie Cleary (as a girl).......................... Sydney Penny
Meggie Cleary (adult)................................. Rachel Ward
Mary Carson ........................................Barbara Stanwyk
Fiona Cleary........................................... Jean Simmons
Archbishop Contini-Verchese ..........Christopher Plummer Rainer Hartheim ..........................................Ken Howard
Justine O'Neill................................... Mare Winningham
Anne Mueller ..............................................Piper Laurie
Paddy Cleary ............................................Richard Kiley
Luddie Mueller ..........................................Earl Holliman
Luke O'Neill.............................................. Bryan Brown
Sarah MacQueen .................................Antoinette Bower
Stuart Cleary ..............................................Dwier Brown
Alastair MacQueen................................. John de Lancie
Angus MacQueen.......................................... Bill Morey
Stuart Cleary (as a boy) ...........................Vidal Peterson
Miss Carmichael ......................................Holly Palance
Judy.................................................. Stephanie Faracy
Dane O'Neill ..............................................Philip Anglim
Frank Cleary............................................ John Friedrich
Mrs. Smith ........................................Allyn Ann McLerie
Harry Gough .........................................Richard Venture
Pete.......................................................... Barry Corbin
Jack Cleary............................................ Stephen Burns
Bob Cleary................................................. Brett Cullen
Annie........................................................... Meg Wylie
Sister Agatha............................................... Nan Martin
Barker at the fair....................................... Wally Dalton
Arne Swenson........................................ Chard Hayward
Doc Wilson .............................................Rance Howard
Martha ..................................................Lucinda Dooling
Phaedre............................................... Aspa Nakopolou

PRODUCERS David Wolper, Edward Lewis, Stan Margulies

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 4 Episodes

ABC
27 March-30 March 1983

FURTHER READING

Bawer, Bruce. "Grand Allusions Sacred and Profane." Emmy Magazine (Los Angeles), March/April 1982.

Morris, Gwen. "An Australian Ingredient in American Soaps: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough." Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), Spring 1991.

Waters, Harry F. "Sex and Sin in the Outback." Newsweek (New York), 28 March 1983.

 

See also Adaptations; Miniseries