1983-1984 - 184 x 60 minute episodes -
Produced by Crawford Productions for Network Ten
Carson's Law was a period legal-drama designed as a vehicle for Lorraine Bayly, former star of The Sullivans. Carson's Law gave her a strong character with an important career, a large extended family of interesting characters, and an excellent co-star in Kevin Miles. The show gave Network Ten - best known for outwardly commercial fare targeting a young audience - a critically acclaimed, high quality production. It also gave it decent ratings in several cities for two years.
Created by Terry Stapleton, the show was produced by Crawford Productions which was mostly known for successful and well regarded police dramas. Crawford Productions had also previously created straight soap operas. Their first was the outwardly commercial The Box (1974-1977). This was followed by the critically acclaimed The Sullivans (1976-1982) which had also became a conspicuous popular success.
Carson's Law began production in June 1982. Its on screen debut came in January 1983, by which time a backlog of 35 episodes were in the can. [i] Through the six months prior to the show's debut, episodes had been produced at a rate of two one hour installments each week. At the time of the Carson's Law debut it had been announced that The Sullivans had been cancelled. The closing episodes of The Sullivans were still being screened on Channel Nine at the time Carson's Law started. [ii]
Carson's Law was set in Melbourne in the 1920s and there was great attention paid to the scripts and acting. The overall technical standard was excellent: the show boasted good sets and effective location work, and good attention to period detail. As was standard for Crawford Productions drama series, the interior scenes were shot in the studio on videotape while location footage was shot on 16 mm film. Spectacular Melbourne mansions were featured heavily, as were vintage cars, and there was always a stream of fancy ladies' hats, elegant dresses and authentic costumes for viewers to admire.
The biggest criticism of the original premise might be the scant regard paid to real life legal practice. The cases were all quick but interesting, often involving community outrage and newspaper headlines. Jennifer acted as a criminal solicitor doing the main interviewing and investigating work, before switching over to act as barrister, presenting the same case in court.
Bayly played Jennifer Carson, a modern-thinking mother of three children and a former lawyer. Jennifer was married to William Carson (Jon Sidney), the dashing oldest son of a wealthy family of lawyers, and had an uneasy relationship with William's bombastic and old-fashioned father Godfrey (Kevin Miles). She still called him Mr. Carson. He called her a menace and a nuisance. Godfrey ran his own legal practice, Carson and Carson, which employed his sons. Aside from William they were the phlegmatic Robert (Ross Thompson), married to snobbish social-climber Margery (Louise Pajo), and the raffish Thomas (Chris Orchard). Charming and lazy, Thomas was a womanising playboy, but found himself coerced by Godfrey into pursuing a political career. Thomas lacked the strength to resist this openly. Godfrey's youngest child was the free spirited Amy (Christine Harris), a flapper who snuck liquor and played modern music that irritated her father. Usually, however, he ignored her.
William and Jennifer's children are Billy (Greg Caves) who is studying at university, conscientious music student Sarah (Melanie Oppenheimer), and primary school aged Sam (Edward Upjohn). Gordon Glenwright played Jennifer's gruff father Vic Brown, a widowed police constable still living in the Collingwood family home.
In casting the roles producer John Barningham and casting director Bunney Brooke had seen about 350 actors in Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. The Ten Network accepted all their choices without exception. An early news report named the entire cast and listed their characters. Included in this list was actor Georgia Campbell in the role of Amy Carson. [iii] (When the program debuted, Christine Harris was in that role.)
John Barningham explained that one character was rewritten to fit a standout actor who tested for the part.
"Of all the people we saw, there was one actor - and I don't really want to say who it was - who was so different to the character we had scripted that we actually changed the role to suit him. His performance was the best. It was one of those interesting occasions where someone brought into play so much that we had not seen in the character. It was a case for the character to be arranged for the actor." [iv]
The character of Godfrey Carson had firm ideas on how women should behave, and disapproved of Jennifer's progressive ways. Dowdy Robert was bossed around by both his father and his wife Margery, and was rarely able to stand up for himself. Ironically Margery was always nagging him to stand up for himself within the family. Meanwhile the charismatic Thomas became a firm favourite with viewers.
Apart from the legal component there was also a heavy dash of Upstairs Downstairs, with various servants and legal staffers given prominent roles in the series. Godfrey's ever-faithful but rather sinister butler Gerard Kent was played by Noel Trevarthen while Irene Inescort shone in the role of Jennifer's garrulous and rather bossy Irish housekeeper Eileen Brennan. Carson and Carson's junior partner was Arthur Simpson (Patrick Dickson) and he boarded with Carson and Carson secretary, Esme Brooks (Marion Heathfield).
The story opened with Godfrey summoning the family to an elegant soirée at his Kew mansion. William and Jennifer arrive with a pressing matter to discuss with Godfrey. With her children all in school she would like to resume her legal career, and return to Carson and Carson. Decades before, Jennifer had risen above her working class roots and studied law, and was then appointed by Godfrey at Carson and Carson as a legal clerk. However her career was interrupted when she married oldest Carson son, work colleague William, and they soon started a family.
Now she wants to return, a request a pompous Godfrey gleefully rejects, however William is soon able to convince him otherwise. Back to the party and Godfrey puts the cat amongst the pigeons by suddenly announcing his engagement to the elegant Felicity (Christine Amor), a young widow and daughter of Godfrey's friend and wealthy business associate Sir Humphrey Moore (Kevin Healy). Amy is put out that she wasn't asked, Margery worries about the family inheritance and is put out that Robert wasn't consulted, while Tommy seems more than happy to welcome Felicity into the fold.
Despite Godfrey's dislike of Jennifer and his belief that a woman's place is in the home, he soon appoints her to Carson and Carson. Eventually, it is hoped, he will even find her a proper desk to sit at. However Godfrey is enraged by Jennifer's first forays into the world of law and justice when she becomes embroiled in the case of accused child murderer, saloon owner George Royston (Trevor Kent). Jennifer had begun to suspect that he had been framed by police under pressure to wrap up the case that had enraged the community, observing that he had no legal counsel or any supporters at all. Visiting him in remand Jennifer offered legal counsel - even though this was her first case since returning to the profession and despite the fact the Carson and Carson no longer handled criminal matters.
Jennifer eventually convinced William to take the case, further enraging Godfrey. However when William flew of to retrieve a witness for the defense it was the last time Jennifer saw him. On the return flight the plane crashed killing Bill and the witness. Jennifer herself took over the case, with Arthur Simpson defecting from Carson and Carson to assist her. The Royston case was well defended by Jennifer, although she frequently tried the patience of the Judge, played by Charles 'Bud' Tingwell. Unfortunately Royston was found guilty, and promptly hanged himself in prison, leaving Jennifer devastated and wondering if any of it had been worth it. Deciding against continuing her career Jennifer was visited by a distraught woman who had been turned down by a string of lawyers, begging that Jennifer represent her.
In other developments it is found that a large sum of money has mysteriously been embezzled from Carson and Carson. It is assumed Bill must have taken the money as he and Godfrey had the only keys to the safe. Though Jennifer is adamant that he couldn't have, until proof of this is uncovered she agrees she will pay back the money, necessitating her return to the work force. After several weeks it emerged that Tommy had stolen the money.
Episode two of the series had introduced a slick opening titles sequence in which the Carson family members were shown and Lorraine Bayly and Kevin Miles credited. The imagery followed a motif of the characters reflected in elaborate household mirrors or the chrome of elegant vintage cars. Jennifer is shown with her three children. Then Godfrey is seen raising a glass with Robert, Thomas and Amy. Other images emphasise Jennifer, including one shot of Jennifer and Bill. After Bill's death he was removed from the titles sequence and that image replaced by a shot of Jennifer with her father Vic.
The producers of the series had faced an early dilemma when William's death provoked a storm of protest from the show's shocked fans. The demise of the charming and easy-going oldest Carson son was designed as the catalyst for some of the show's main on-going storylines such as the difficult relationship between Godfrey and Jennifer, Jennifer's financial woes and her struggling to clear William's besmirched name, and Robert being unwillingly propelled into a more prominent position within the family and the family business.
Bill's early death eschewed the popular soap opera clauses such as missing bodies or unidentified remains; clearly William was meant to die. However the character had proved popular in his few episodes and the protest so strong that the writers were tempted to concoct a way of bringing Jon Sidney back somehow - a long-lost son perhaps? Certainly he couldn't return as William as he had been confirmed dead and this would have ruined the planned future storylines of the series.
Of course such far-fetched ideas were totally foreign to the Crawford's product and ultimately the writers had to face the fact that viewers would probably not have accepted the return, so William never was reincarnated. Jon Sidney, who had played assorted roles in Australian film and television drama prior to Carson's Law, seemingly missed his big break in showbiz by taking the role of the character destined to die. Though he would continue to take guest roles on TV programs such as Prisoner, the outpourings over his premature death in Carson's Law remained his closest brush with fame.
It does seem to have been a mistake to kill Bill. The opening scenes with Bill, Jennifer and Godfrey are brilliant and full of conflict. While Bill is somewhat a middle man in the drama, there is still plenty of drama there. With his absence something does seem to be missing.
Each week there would be a new legal drama with special guest stars - frequently well known Australian television actors. Responsible for the expert casting was former celebrity soap actor Bunney Brooke. The series frequently challenged accepted beliefs and explored social issues through the court cases it presented. Early in the show's run popular actress Julieanne Newbould guest starred as a single girl who fell pregnant. Because of the morals of the day unwed mothers were ostracised while abortions were illegal, forcing the girl to seek a highly dangerous backyard abortion.
Flamboyant American-born actor and entertainer John O'May later appeared in the prominent role of John Kendall, an up-and-coming solicitor at Carson and Carson whose career was ruined when proof emerged that he was a homosexual. This revelation led to his being disowned by his family, imprisoned, and subjected to a humiliating court battle.
A later case involved the rape of a naïve young girl whose prior sexual experiences were brought before the court, "proving" that she had invited the advances. Bunney Brooke herself was even a guest actor in one legal storyline where she played a woman accused of running an illegal betting ring. All these cases, while providing courtroom suspense, also allowed a thoughtful exploration of the issues involved. Jennifer generally remained forgiving and tolerant while Godfrey stuck steadfastly to the old-fashioned conservative view, with the other characters falling at various points between these two poles. While ostensibly a historical drama, the issues explored were frequently relevant to 1980s audiences too.
The series was certainly well written and somehow managed to mingle the large and disparate cast of regular characters with the week's guest characters and particular storyline quite successfully. There was certainly a wide range of stories explored by the series given that at any time we might be dealing with a school drama of Sarah's, a marital squabble between the childless Robert and Margery, a big legal case with Godfrey and Jennifer opposing one another in court, a romance with an "unsuitable" man for Amy, and tensions between Felicity and Thomas caused the illicit attraction he had for his new step-mother.
The first six episodes are in the form of a single miniseries essentially focused on the Royston trial. After that the series shifted to the regular format of stories self contained to the two one-hour episodes aired each week. In Melbourne the show screened at 7.30 pm Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and on both nights was followed by Prisoner at 8.30 pm.
The two episodes of any given week formed a self-contained narrative block; new guest characters and the week's particular storyline were introduced in the first episode of the week, things would be brought to a dramatic cliffhanger at the end of that episode, and the story would be resolved in the week's second episode.
Usually the story in hand was a legal drama or some sort, though this was not always the case, and there was also often a particular sub-plot introduced for the two episodes as well. Alongside the week's self-contained stories there would be assorted on-going story threads concerning the show's regular characters. In this way the series could be considered as a soap opera, and it was certainly not possible to screen the episodes out of order due the ongoing component of the script.
Carson's Law rated strongly in Melbourne - where it was produced. There it commonly achieved ratings of about 25 and was regularly among the 20 most popular shows of the week. However the series was less popular in Sydney, generally rating 15 or 16 there. [v]
In an attempt to attract more Sydney viewers the writers had added a major but somewhat incongruous Sydney-based storyline involving Robert, Margery and Amy. This had involved Robert sent north to open a Sydney branch of Carson and Carson, and he hires Phillip Garrick (Adrian Wright) to run the office. Robert was accompanied to Sydney by his wife Margery. Amy also manages an extended visit, where she gleefully mixed with the flappers and bohemians of swinging, cosmopolitan Sydney.
The 100th episode went to air January 1984 and featured Amy being caught by Robert in delicto flagrante with Philip. Also featured in this episode was former Number 96 regular Chard Hayward as artist Randolph Seaton, one of Amy's Sydney social set.
By March 1984 Godfrey had fired Gerard. Then, distracted, he accidentally started a waste paper basket fire at home. The flames spread, trapping Felicity and their new baby Edward, though they were quickly rescued in the following episode.
Sadly the show's Sydney shenanigans apparently failed to boost the ratings sufficiently. So, in episodes that went to air in mid 1984, more drastic changes occurred.
The show underwent a dramatic revamp with many subsidiary characters abruptly written out of the series and a new range of racy new plotlines introduced in an attempt to attract more viewers. This included an increased emphasis on Thomas, with storylines involving his gambling and mob connections, along with a long-running Jack the Ripper style serial killer storyline in which he was implicated. Tommy started Lucky's nightclub in partnership with journalist Russell Burns (Hu Pryce) who had initially been introduced as Jennifer's new love interest. Unfortunately Burns disappeared, only to later turn up dead, and Tommy was suspected of being involved in his demise.
The Sydney branch of Carson and Carson had been disbanded and Robert, Margery and Amy returned to Melbourne. Amy married Phillip Garrick however he was drowned after falling from their row boat on his and Amy's honeymoon. Sarah and Arthur had abruptly started a romance and were soon to be married. However their wedding was tainted by tragedy: as Amy and Tommy argued outside the reception Squizzy Taylor's henchmen drove by to assassinate Tommy. However it was Amy who was hit; she was shot in the back and lurched forward to die in Tommy's arms. (Amy Carson had been killed off as a result of Christine Harris's decision to leave the series.) Meanwhile Gerard had been implicated in the shooting of a police officer who had been badly injured, and was sent to prison.
At this point the show's storyline jumped forward 17 months. When things resumed Gerard had just been released from prison. Jennifer's three children, her father Vic, and her legal clerk Arthur had all disappeared. Marion Heathfield was written out of the series and her secretary character Esme, now retired, had been replaced by new secretary Julia, played by Constance Lansberg. Jennifer Carson now lived in a small art deco apartment. Jennifer's former housekeeper Eileen had moved across to work in Godfrey's mansion, and Gerard's replacement was fiery Spanish servant Carlos Sanchez (Tony Alvarez), who clashed frequently with Eileen. Later Kate (Rowena Mohr), an attractive young maid, joined the Carson household's staff and became a regular character for the show's final period. The main opening titles sequence continued to be used even though it featured several shots of departed cast members.
Unfortunately all these changes had been for nothing. Before these episodes had even gone to air in May 1984, Crawford's announced that production would end in July and the final episodes transmitted at the end of the year. [vi] According to Lorraine Bayly, she and Kevin Miles had told Hector Crawford that they would not continue with the series beyond their original two year contracts. Both actors had lead roles in the program's storylines, and both had long legal speeches to give in the show's courtroom dramas. The work load for the two was monumental, prompting their decisions to leave. In the end both actors agreed to work one extra week to tie up the storyline with a fitting conclusion. [vii]
The show's Melbourne ratings remained healthy enough and it remained in its usual 7.30 pm timeslot to play out the remaining episodes. The series ended after 184 one hour episodes, and the closing storylines, which screened at the end of 1984, brought the story to a dramatic conclusion. While purists who disliked the flashier revamped version of the show would have found little joy in the explosive finale, it at least brought all the disparate elements to a satisfactory conclusion.
The final episodes hurriedly tie up loose ends for the remaining characters, although none of Jennifer's departed family members make return appearances. Robert and Margery finally have a child when they take in a young girl abandoned by her mother (played by Jane Clifton in a cameo appearance). The redemption of the popular Gerard character is made complete and he is revealed to have been related to basically every other regular character in the show. Gerard had previously been revealed as the secret love child of Godfrey's deceased first wife. In the finale it is learned his father was the late Sir Humphrey, meaning that he was also the half-brother of Felicity. He gained a large inheritance, but it was immediately lost in the stock market crash.
Meanwhile Tommy's network of mob connections was closing in on him. In desperation he kidnapped baby Edward, the son of Godfrey and Felicity, but was arrested. Tommy soon escaped to confront Godfrey and Felicity, shooting himself in front of them. Amongst this turmoil Godfrey had allowed Carson and Carson to be swindled by a confidence trickster; his business and his fortune seemed lost.
In the end Jennifer called a gathering at the Kew mansion for the remaining family members and the Carson and Carson and household staff, triumphantly announcing her plans to rebuild the business from the ground. Felicity was pregnant again and Jennifer and Godfrey would work together to rebuild Carson and Carson. The final episode ends with the entire cast streaming out to the garden one by one each to receive one final close up. It was a triumphant and effective conclusion, even if in the show's last six months it had, rather unfortunately, strayed far from its solid original premise to become more a crime and scandal saga.
Page originally uploaded June 2000
Last updated 9 February 2013
[i] Wilmoth, Peter. "Birth of a Series." The Age Green Guide. 18 January 1983, page 1.
[ii] Wilmoth, Peter. "Birth of a Series." The Age Green Guide. 18 January 1983, page 1.
[iii] Courtis, Brian. "A Cast is Born"-In View column. The Age. 3 June 1982, page 2.
[iv] Courtis, Brian. "A Cast is Born"-In View column. The Age. 3 June 1982, page 2.
[v] Tabakoff, Jenny. "Your favourite show reveals your home town." The Sydney Morning Herald: The Guide. 14 November 1983, page 1.
[vi] Mercado, Andrew. Super Aussie Soaps. Pluto Press Australia: North Melbourne, 2004, page 195.
[vii] Mercado, Andrew. Super Aussie Soaps. Pluto Press Australia: North Melbourne, 2004, page 197.