It’s a small nation in one sense, a big nation in another.
Australia has only 24 million inhabitants, but it stretches for three million square
miles, from the tropical jungle of the Northern Territory to scorching desert
in the interior and the wind and rain of Victoria. Australia is big in another
sense: its fame and its cultural exports. Australian wildlife is instantly
recognizable, from kangaroos to platypuses, and Australian stars have been
entertaining the world for decades, from AC/DC to Nicole Kidman.
But has anything Australian been so successful so quickly in
so many places as an unassuming soap-opera set in the suburbs of Melbourne?
When Neighbours reached Britain in the late 1980s, it won an audience of
millions. It didn’t offer sun, sand or surf, because Melbourne can’t compete
with its more glamorous rival Sydney with any of those, but it made stars of
Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Guy Pearce. A less famous name may be even
more important: Reg Grundy, the producer behind the show, has just died at the
age of 92.
His career reads like a history of Australian television.
The Reg Grundy Organisation, the production company he founded in 1959, was
responsible for shows that dominated TV screens not just in Australia but right
around the world. Blankety Blank, Wheel of Fortune and Prisoner:
Cell Block H are names that will kick the nostalgia meter in the minds of
countless people. But the entertainment they brought might never have existed
without the business acumen and salesmanship of Reg Grundy.
He was born in Sydney in 1923, but grew up in Adelaide when
his family moved there during the Depression. After service in the war, he
began to climb the show-business ladder as a commentator and presenter on
radio. Then he entered the medium that would make his name: television. He
developed a show called Wheel of Fortune, which he presented and then
produced. It was a massive hit and the foundation for the decades of success
that followed. Some of the shows he created were sold overseas simply as
formats, being re-made with different actors and even in different languages,
but many other Reg Grundy productions were screened in their Australian
versions. Young Doctors and Prisoner: Cell Block H won dedicated
followings, but their success only hinted at what was to come with Neighbours.
But the soap-opera had a troubled start in its homeland. The
first run was axed after a few months on Australia’s Channel 7 and Grundy had
make big changes before he re-launched. He brought in three young and
little-known actors: Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Guy Pearce. They turned
the show into a hit, then went on to highly successful solo careers. Kylie and
Jason became king and queen of pop, while Guy found success in Hollywood. They
might be the biggest of the Australian performers helped to stardom by Reg
Grundy, but many others have reason to be grateful for his sure eye for a TV
His skills brought him a massive fortune, estimated as
Aus$760 million in 2013, but they also earnt him the title of “National
Treasure” in Australia. His shows were family entertainment: Neighbours
was resolutely wholesome compared to much else on offer at the time of its
first success in the UK. Even the would-be gritty Prisoner: Cell Block H
had a heart beneath the drama. Reg Grundy’s show reflected his own values and
his desire to make the world a better place. Smiles and laughs are simple
things, but it’s hard to supply so many for so long to so many people. Reg
Grundy did it.