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Gwen Meredith - after 33 years, just 35 episodes to write.


? TV

Gwen with her husband, Ainsworth.

I Colour pictures by Kevin Brown

haven't made my decision



Gwen with her husband, Ainsworth.

Colour pictures by Kevin Brown ((I

pictures by Kevin Brown

"BLUE HILLS" is the serial that

nearly never was.

There's a sobering thought for the current half-million listeners still reeling from the announcement of its imminent


What might it have meant, in fact, to whole generations of Australians if the Lawsons, the Macarthurs, and all the others had never existed?

"They nearly didn't." said Gwen Meredith, who created them (or perhaps merely released them, full-grown, from her lively brain).

"The Lawsons.' which started it all,

only got on the air by a chapter of


That was 33 years ago, in the dogdays of war, when patriotism demanded that Australian farmers should grow more soya beans. The ABC came up with a clever idea to popularize the notion: a radio serial about a typical Australian country family. And young Gwen was first pick to write it.

She seemed an unlikely choice. She was

ci tv-bred, educated at Sydney High and Sydney University. She was an only child. She was married, and happily too. which created a problem: production was to be in Sydney, but Gwen was living in


Still, she had a good ear for dialogue, as she'd shown, and a way of creating real people. The ABC's drama heads Frank Clewlow and Leslie Rees decided to give it a try.

They shot off an urgent wire to


Said Gwen, "I shot off a wire right back. I said that much as Fd like to do it. I couldn't. It would mean separation from


Ainsworth Harrison, universally known as Ains. is Gwen's big, affable, engineer husband (now retired) and best friend. At the time, he was doing important war-work for the Ministry of Munitions, centred on


"Would you believe it?" said Gwen. "The very next morning he was notified of a transfer - to Brisbane. And in those days

of war. there was no accommodation for wives in Brisbane.

"Ains said. 'It mightn't be too late. Send

the ABC another wire'."

"And." cut in Ainsworth. "I stood over her till she sent it."

They smiled at each other at that picture. Gwen, small and neat as any bird, barely reaches to Ains's shoulder.

"So I did." said Gwen. "No answer to either wire.

"I followed up with a letter explaining

the second wire. Still no answer whatever.

Then I moved up to Sydney to stay near my parents, and - just on the offchance -

called in on Leslie Rees.

"And, do you know, he hadn't received a single word I'd sent him, not even the first wire? By the greatest of good luck, the job was still open . . .

"Just imagine," she said, "if he'd got the

first wire and not'the second. How much would have been different?"

How much indeed? But Gwen started

off the way she meant to go on. To write


Anderson (Rod Taylor) and Sally (June Salter) with Amelia (Therese Desmond). "Blue Hills" vintage 1953.


about something, she'd try to experience it. She went up to a friendly Gunnedah sheep station to learn about life with a country family. The Lawsons were born.

Almost still-born ...

"Those were the days of acetate recordings," said Gwen, "and the whole idea ofthat serial was pretty revolutionary.

"I'll never forget sitting down at home,

all of a twit, to listen to the first broadcast.

Halfway through it stopped dead. Then there was a frightful silence which seemed to last for years. Then, with a lurch, the episode started again, right from the beginning, and went on right to the end.

"Later I heard what happened. The operators, not being used to a show like that, thought it was all over when it was halfway through and just took off the needle. Then Frank Clewlow rang, shouting: 'It isn't finished, put it on again!'

"Oh. what a mess. After a start like that

I was sure the show would sink like a stone.

"I said, tearfully, to Frank. "Nobody will go back and listen again."

"Frank said, drily: 'What makes you think anyone was listening in the first place?'

"Which was fair enough comment." Gwen said, laughing. " 'The Lawsons' crept

on to the air."

Five long years later, Gwen fought to get it off.

"I was tired, I needed a rest," she said. "Ains and I had so much we wanted to do, the whole world to see. But everyone bore

on me so much, most of all the listeners.

We have always been close, the listeners

and I.

"When I pleaded, Frank Clewlow said: 'Perhaps if you took two months' rest . . .' Then: 'If you have a month's rest. . .' And finally, 'Now, Gwen, if you write far enough ahead, you won't need any rest at all'." In February. 1949. "Blue Hills" took

over where "The Lawsons" never really

left off.

"Once we changed the name." Gwen said, "it took a good year to build up the audience again. People felt, 'You got us in with the Lawsons, and we're not going to be got in again'."

Got in they were, of course, to a degree almost unprecedented in the world, by probably the world's longest-running


Everyone has his/her favourite story of "Blue Hills" addiction. How, up in the country around five minutes to one, the paddocks were empty - how addicts, going abroad, have demanded up-to-date reports from their families on pain of divorce or


And in many a city home. "Blue Hills" has helped to heal the schism, the lack of understanding, between city and country.

Over 33 years, along with "The Lawsons." it provides a fruitful field for

Queenie Ashton, who plays Granny Bishop.

sociologists, reflecting Australian life, attitudes, preoccupations.

Prevailing attitudes to sex?

Said Gwen. "Once, in the old days, Leslie Rees called me in and said, perfectly seriously: 'Gwen, the way things are going between Ted and Emmy, only one thing can happen. AND IT CANT HAPPEN


"I had to marry the two of them." Gwen said, laughing. "How things have changed today!"

Immigrants' problems? To study them, Gwen travelled home on a liner packed

with them.

Though an only child and reluctantly

childless. Gwen has a natural instinct for

the nuances of life in big families. Hers are totally believable.

And her cast-lists, over 33 years, read

like a roll call of Australia's actors. Some (like Maiva Drummond) have been with her since the first episode of "The

The late Nellie Lamport, unforgettable as Hilda.

Lawsons": some (like Queenie Ashton) since the first episode of "Blue Hills."

Some well-loved ones are dead: Nellie

Lamport. Winifred Green. Marshall Crosby, so many.

Some, like Rod Taylor. John Meillon. Madge Ryan, have gone on to

international fame.

"Any success we've had has been composite." Gwen said. "Actors, produc- tion, sound, and all the people who have tutored me and helped to make the serial authentic. That MBE of mine belongs to them all. And. of course, the listeners..."

For the first time, Gwen faltered. "Please be sure to put this bit in your story," she said. "Tell the listeners I haven't made my decision lightly. I'm receiving so many letters - just today, one came from a very old listener who said she'd always hoped 'Blue Hills' would go on till she


"I would have hoped so. too. But I

really do need to get away from deadlines.

And there's still so much for Ains and me

to do together."

They live in a beautiful old house in

Berrima, NSW.

Gwen still had 35 episodes to write. The last, No 5795 of "Blue Hills," will be broadcast across Australia and Papua New Guinea in September.

"1 still haven't worked out how to end."

said Gwen. "In any case, no matter how much I planned, my characters always did

take over.

"I'm drawing all the threads together. I'm determined on one thing: one of my

oldest characters will have the last word."

How did she feel about killing off her

own characters?

"I'm not killing them off," said Gwen. "1 hope they'll go on happily in people's memories, as they will in mine."