A sense of wonder and a sinister undertone, Love Child is not your average Channel Nine drama.
It’s the best drama that Playmaker Media (House Husbands, Blood Brothers, SLiDE, Wicked Love) has ever made.
What’s so encouraging about this period piece is its sense of wonder, devoting plenty of affection for the 1960s, but it is delicately juxtaposed with a sinister undertone.
The year is 1969 and the location is Kings Cross General Hospital next door to Stanton House, a home for young unwed pregnant women.
Stepping into this world is country girl Viv Maguire (Sophie Hensser) who is drugged by her father and taken to Stanton House to hide her shame of being a young, unwed mother. As we watch on with contemporary eyes at this horror, it’s hard to conceive that parents actually thought they were doing something for the betterment of daughters.
But Stanton House, managed by Matron Bolton (Mandy McElhinney) is more akin to a prison for young women. She rules with stern hand and frowns upon the liberal enthusiasm of her charges. The girls are even prevented from leaving the building, a decree that will not fare well with the reckless spirit of Viv.
When midwife Joan Millar (Jessica Marais) arrives at the hospital to start a new job she is returning from time in London. Struggling to conform to Matron Bolton’s rule book, she questions the hospital’s treatment of the young women. While Joan embraces a more caring, modern nursing style, probably better suited to 2009, at least it facilitates conflict between principal characters.
She also speaks out to Dr. Patrick McNaughton (Jonathan LaPaglia) who has an abrasive manner with his patients and thinks little of having young women disrobe for trainees to gawk at. Joan stands her ground with the doctor, and immediately we sense some chemistry between them.
Other expectant young women at Stanton House include Annie (Gracie Gilbert) who is close to giving birth, ‘half-caste’ Martha (Miranda Tapsell) and the secretive Shirley (Ella Scott Lynch) who is dating 60s flower-child Johnny (Ryan Corr).
Surrounding Stanton House is all the excess of a liberated King’s Cross on the cusp of social change. There are gaudy fashions, coffee-houses, bars, anti-Vietnam protests and music. Production Designer Tim Ferrier and Costume Designer Xanthe Heubel deserve special mention for bringing it to life. Embracing a rather fabulous soundtrack of Australian and international songs, Love Child has meticulously recreated the swinging 60s. Anything that sets The Real Thing by Russell Morris to drama is ok by me.
In embracing nostalgia there are some lovely references to events of the time. The girls are giddy with excitement at the idea of Mick Jagger staying around the corner (I presume it’s the Sebel) and time stands still when Apollo 11 takes off for the moon. Director Shawn Seet weaves these seamlessly into the foreground.
Jessica Marais looks gorgeous as a street smart young woman in the Cross, with billowing hair that would rival Jane Fonda. While her character looks only a few years older than the women who are her patients, she adds gravitas to the screen. Mandy McElhinney revels in her authority role as Matron Bolton. I’ll be curious to see if we get more under her skin. Sophie Hensser also impresses as the wide-eyed but rebellious young spirit, struggling to believe her parents would sign her into Stanton House.
But for all the psychadelic colour and romance of the era, Stanton House is also home to much darker secrets that give the series more enduring prospects than simply serving as a living Polaroid snapshot.
Creator Sarah Lambert (Heartbreak High, A Country Practice, Police Rescue) has crafted a fictional tale, based on historic research. While these stories may not match the magnitude of a “stolen generation” it’s clear we have social chapters that are still long forgotten except by those who painfully experienced them first-hand.
Love Child echoes elements of Call the Midwife and taps into the kind of nostalgia you’ll find in Paper Giants and Puberty Blues. ABC may well look on with a bit of envy at missing out here. Looking around the local drama offerings right now, we’re really getting some gold lately.
This one has heart, spirit and Jessica Marais. What more do you want?
Love Child premieres 8:40pm Monday on Nine.