1988 - 92 x 60 minute episodes - Produced by the Reg
Organisation for Network Ten
Many of Australia's big soap opera successes have struck out on their own and had their daring and originality repaid with notoriety and conspicuous commercial success. Number 96 busted out in 1972 with naughty neighbours, bed-hopping marrieds and nude glimpses while the just-as-naughty The Box was a cheeky satire set in a "fictional" television station. Prisoner had crime, drama, pathos and old lags inhabiting a women's prison. Sons and Daughters featured melodrama, devious schemes and heart rending tragedy, and a neurotic heroine Patricia "Pat the Rat" Hamilton, played by Rowena Wallace.
On the other hand thoughtful and conscientious dramas like A Country Practice have dished out social commentary in a rustic, rural setting and generated critical and ratings success. And Australia has always had a cop show of some sort, somewhere.
With this wealth of proven formulas Richmond Hill was not bereft of ideas. The Grundy's produced series was created by Reg "Prisoner" Watson for Channel Ten, and had its much hyped premiere on Wednesday 27 January 1988.
Clearly intended for an early evening timeslot this is the show that tried to be nice. Certainly it did not manage to be very original. Set in a quaint rural community somewhere outside Sydney the basically lightweight serial threw in a bit of everything: high drama and bedroom farce involving the slimy real estate agent Alderman Frank Hackett (Robert Alexander) and a lascivious barmaid Connie Ryan (Amanda Muggleton), an all-powerful female figure in the form of Frank's wife Ivy Hackett (Maggie Kirkpatrick), devious schemes devised by bitchy Anne Costello (Emily Symons), lashings of social commentary in the storylines of the crusty Mum Foote (Gwen Plumb) - an opinionated oldster in overalls whose farm provided a home for young runaways and assorted strays. Then there were several bubbling romances amongst the various youngsters that resided in the area.
However the most obvious borrowing was from Cop Shop. Though Richmond Hill may not have been, strictly speaking, a police drama, the local police station was the scene of much of the action, and the assorted cops took pride of place amongst the show's cast of characters. Former comedy star Ross Higgins was Dan Costello who took charge of the police station and was the show's main authority figure. Dan was kept busy dealing with local crime waves, the wayward younger cops, and his own wicked daughter Anne. He originally had a wife played by Rona Coleman, though she died shortly after the show began. Dan later embarked on a romance with a snippy police inspector played by Jan Kingsbury.
The storyline opens with authoritarian policeman Warren Bryant (Tim Elston) moving in with his earnest wife Janet (Paula Duncan), still battling the depression stemming from an earlier rape. Despite the presence of a hunky teenage son Marty (Ashley Paske), the Bryants and their endless family problems were Dull Dull Dull! Meanwhile Tim Shannon (Robert Sampson) and Susan Miller (Felicity Soper) were young cops who fought crime with aplomb and shared a flat where domestic squabbles and kitchen disasters provided endless merriment. Finally Jill Warner (Dina Panozzo) was an assertive young woman who had recently arrived to begin work as a real-estate agent. Jill enjoyed a romantic affair with Tim.
In evaluating Richmond Hill it must be remembered that it was coined as a companion piece to Neighbours during that show's early years when it was a massive ratings success in Australia. Though initially a flop on Channel Seven, Neighbours had been revamped when it was picked-up by Channel Ten. Several handsome youngsters were added to the cast, and by 1987 a series of major publicity drives had turned the show into a ratings winner.
The only thing that amazed Australian television critics more than Neighbours' high ratings in Australia was the show's incredible success in the UK. Clearly targeting this lucrative market the makers of Richmond Hill apparently attempted to expand on the successful Neighbours formula by taking bland and inoffensive comedy subplots and mixing them with slightly gritty police drama and social conscience style storylines reminiscent of the earlier Cop Shop, and the then still successful A Country Practice.
The most interesting storyline of Richmond Hill involved barmaid Connie Ryan, so well played by Amanda Muggleton, who was remembered for her portrayal of Chrissie Latham in Prisoner. Connie was a single woman who struggled to raise her teenage son Andrew (Marc Gray). Always on the lookout for a generous sugar daddy, Connie attempted to enhance her sexy image by wearing short skirts and subtracting several years from her age, while insisting that Andrew was in fact her younger brother. No one was very surprised when the facts of Andrew's true parentage came out after his first brush with the law. As anyone familiar with Amanda's Prisoner character would recognise, Connie could well have been taken as a continuation of that show's lascivious schemer Chrissie Latham. Both characters emerged as struggling single mothers willing to use their feminine charms to secure a better life for herself and child, sometimes employing underhanded methods. These methods might have attracted scorn from some quarters, but ultimately the motivations were sincere.
Connie's early assignation with Frank Hackett ended in disaster when the police comically burst in on one of their bedroom romps. She soon got over this embarrassment thanks to the support of Mum Foote and new friend Janet Bryant, though the relationship with Andrew remained rocky.
Frank Hackett died of poisoning 13 weeks into the show's run. Widow Ivy, played by Maggie Kirkpatrick, previously a huge star as the hated and corrupt prison officer Joan Ferguson in Prisoner, gleefully crowned herself queen of her mansion and took the reins of Frank's real estate business with relish, plotting out future devious schemes with her pal Mavis Roberts (Betty Lucas). Though neighbourhood gossips whispered that Ivy might have been the poisoner, nothing was ever proved and she emerged as the show's main heavy, though here her overbearing manner was played more for comedy than terror.
Though Australian soaps are notorious for the high rate of actor reuse amongst them, most begin life with a cast largely consisting of unknowns - it is after the show becomes a hit that the cast become stars who make guest appearances in subsequent soaps. This was not the case with Richmond Hill. This new show clearly tried to secure success by slotting several familiar faces into major roles. The move might not have drawn in the viewers as planned but the actors involved, who may well have feared that typecasting would prevent them from ever getting another acting job, were no doubt eternally grateful.
Ross Higgins was well known for comedies The Naked Vicar Show and Kingswood Country. Tim Elston had appeared in Prisoner as Dr Scott Collins, in Neighbours as ill-fated racing driver Jeremy Lord, and had taken a leading role as a policeman in failed 1981 Grundy drama Bellamy. Amanda Muggleton and Maggie Kirkpatrick were undoubtedly huge stars through their long running Prisoner roles.
Paula Duncan was known for several leading soap roles. She was Carol Finlayson in Number 96 in 1974, Lisa Brooks in The Young Doctors in 1977, and Lorelei Wilkinson in Prisoner in 1986. However it is for her portrayal of policewoman Danni Francis through Cop Shop's 1977-1984 run that she received in six acting awards and a taste of soap superstardom.
Meanwhile Gwen Plumb had played the iconic role of kiosk lady Ada Simmons in The Young Doctors for its entire 1976-1983 run.
Plumb had fought for that earlier soap, lobbying the boss of Channel Nine against cancelling The Young Doctors after it received initial low ratings and bad reviews. At the launch of Richmond Hill she told Sydney Morning Herald television journalist Lucy Clark she'd fight for this show too. "My word I'd fight for it. I had good vibes for The Young Doctors and I've got good vibes about this."
The role of Mum was created for Plumb after writer Reg Watson saw her play a similar character in a Neighbours guest role. Watson sent tapes to Reg Grundy, who said "get her". At the time Plumb had started work on another new serial, Home and Away, playing a local gossip. However when Watson explained he had written Richmond Hill's Mum character for her, she felt obligated to take that role instead. "John Holmes (Home and Away's line producer) who I had worked with on Neighbours was really sweet about it."
Plumb said she did not like to call Richmond Hill a "soap", just "commercial television,"
"Not everyone is going to like it. Not the blue stockings but the average people are going to like it and there are a lot of average people."
As journalist Lucy Clark observed, "average" is an apt word for Richmond Hill: "very average, very commercial formula television." [i]
Reviewer Paul Speelman reported that the series was explicitly designed to hold audiences after 7.30 pm. Though at the time Ten received strong ratings for its early evening programs - dating game show Perfect Match, its news service and Neighbours - ratings would be "lost come the 7.30 pm slot."
After a preview of the serial's first four hours, Speelman stated that while Richmond Hill was watchable and provoked some curiosity about possible future developments, overall it lacked that special quality that would grab and hold viewers.
"It's the important first episode that is the problem: it is overloaded with action - two rapes, a kidnapping, an illicit affair, a couple on the verge of a divorce, a falling out between mates over a girl - but short on most other prerequisites for such an important program: inspiration, originality, and more than just competent acting."
Nevertheless cast members Gwen Plumb and Marc Gray are named as exceptions in the acting department. Felicity Soper is said to be "pleasant" while Maggie Kirkpatrick "has her moments".
Ross Higgins as Sergeant Dan Costello is listed by Speelman as one of the show's "serious shortcomings". Speelman also judges confrontation scenes between Tim and Jill as a heavy-handed and obvious prelude to romance. Other scenes are said to be "badly staged and unconvincing", and "predictable". [ii]
With the possible exception of placing Ross Higgins - formerly blustering bigot Ted Bulpitt in comedy series Kingswood Country - in a straight role as the show's authority figure, Richmond Hill's major failing was that it was just too bland. It rated well enough to last out the year in its early evening timeslot, but when it came to the crunch the network failed to renew the show for a second year. (Richmond Hill had been rating in the high teens when it was cancelled. [iii]) Episodes continued screening unabated into the summer non ratings period where the stockpiled episodes played out, and there the show quietly died.
At the start of 1989 Network Ten launched E Street. This was a new, urban based serial focusing on a new, funkier, batch of policemen, lawyers and doctors, and a more rugged (and vibrant and colourful) community of wayward youngsters.
Newcomer Ashley Paske had a regular role in Neighbours after Richmond Hill's demise but did not enjoy lasting fame. Another youngster, Emily Symons, went straight into the long running role of bouncy Marilyn in Home and Away. Symons was then a regular in high rating United Kingdom serial Emmerdale from 2001 to 2008 before finally returning to the role of Marilyn in 2010.
Dina Panozzo, one of the more interesting cast members of Richmond Hill, made sporadic appearances in television guest roles and Australian feature films. Paula Duncan continued to play nice middle class soap heroines. The versatile Amanda Muggleton, possibly Richmond Hill's brightest talent, went on to become one of the biggest, and busiest, stars of the Australian stage.
Though never a big success in Australia Richmond Hill was successfully sold to the UK, a sale presumably helped by the presence of several former stars of Prisoner plus Neighbours' continued success there. As had been the case in Australia, the show's UK ratings remained only lukewarm.
Originally uploaded September 2000
Last updated 16 March 2013
[i] Clark, Lucy. "Gwen gets plum role in new series." The Sun Herald television liftout (The Sydney Morning Herald). 24 January 1988, page 59.