The Young Doctors was destined to be one of Australia’s shortest lived serial dramas but in an ironic twist became the longest-running of its time..
Created by the Reg Watson for the Reg Grundy Organisation, The Young Doctors began as the story of five medical interns who had started at the fictional Alfred Memorial Hospital. Playing the five young doctors were John Dommett, John Walton, Tim Page, Peta Toppano and pop star turned actor Mark Holden (pictured). The hospital’s nursing staff were played by former model and weather girl Delvene Delaney (The Paul Hogan Show), Margaret Nelson, Joanne Samuel (Class Of ’74) and Cornelia Frances as the officious Sister Grace Scott.
Filling out the rest of the cast were Gwen Plumb as kiosk proprietor Ada Simmonds, Ugly Dave Gray, Lyn James, Vivienne Benson-Young, Chris King, Michael Beecher and Alfred Sandor.
The role of bar owner Bunny Howard marked English-born comedian Gray’s first serious acting role, starting on The Young Doctors fresh from the axed game show Celebrity Squares and having previously hosted variety shows In Melbourne Tonight and Ugly Dave Gray Tonight.
Another unusual signing for the series was that of journalist and former This Day Tonight host Iain Finlay (pictured, far right with Gray), making his acting debut, playing the part of resident ‘nasty’ Frank Curtis in the show’s initial 13-week run.
Grundy’s had been producing episodes of The Young Doctors for two months before the show made its debut as a one-hour episode on the Nine Network in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane on Monday, 8 November 1976. (Adelaide followed the next night)
“We follow their romances, conflicts and heartbreaks from the tension of the operating theatre to the relaxed atmosphere of the nearby disco and restaurant,” said a Nine Network spokesperson at the time of the show’s launch.
Nine had decided to run the Sydney-based The Young Doctors back-to-back with Melbourne-based The Sullivans, which launched the following week, over the summer months presumably to give both titles a run before deciding which would be renewed going into the 1977 season. Nine opted to put the axe to The Young Doctors before it reached the end of its 13-week contract. It was only once the show’s growing following was known that Nine decided to give the series a last-minute reprieve. Nine’s change of heart turned out to be for the better — as both The Young Doctors and The Sullivans became key successes for the network.
Once the summer run was over, The Young Doctors settled into its regular timeslot leading in to the news with its saucy, lightweight soapie fare. Despite the hospital setting which included a casualty ward and operating theatre, there was not much actual medical drama to be seen, with much of the show’s storylines focused on the interactions between the staff and their domestic and social lives.
Award-winning writer Tony Morphett, whose previous credits included the ABC series Certain Women, was one of three scriptwriters to launch the show. “It’s technically interesting to write for a serial running five nights a week,” he told TV Times in 1976. “I’ve done numerous half-hour drama series, one-hour specials and serials, but this is a different ball game. This is a very commercial, well-laid format. If you look at the shows that have succeeded, they’re doctors and cop shows — simplifying good and evil. And with hospitals the normal turnover of patients is good reason to have characters coming and going… a natural flow… bit like a hotel.”
For Cornelia Frances, the role of Sister Grace Scott (pictured) came after producers had been impressed by her portrayal of a bitchy character in a Grundy pilot called Two-Way Mirror — and the role of Sister Scott was to become one to define her career, although behind Sister Scott’s tough exterior there was some tragedy. Within the show’s first few months it was revealed that Sister Scott had been raped twice, once as a young nurse, and was left at the altar by a fleeing bridegroom. “It seems that every time she takes off her white uniform and gets dressed up, she either gets raped or left at the altar,” Frances told TV Times in 1977. She also defended her character’s gruff attitude. “Sister Scott is no bitch. She’s quite humane but is frightened to show warmth.”
One of the show’s most famous cliff-hangers was when Sister Scott accidentally stepped into an open lift shaft after giving a stern lecture to one of the young nurses. The character survived the accident with little more than a broken leg, but Frances was soon to leave the series after that storyline. She worked for Grundy’s again a few years later in Prisoner and Sons And Daughters and then took on the recurring role of Morag Bellingham in the long-running Seven Network series Home And Away.
Other cast members to come through Alfred Memorial Hospital over the years included Kim Wran, a weathergirl at TCN9 and daughter of NSW Premier Neville Wran, Karen Pini, Paula Duncan, Lynda Stoner, Tony Alvarez (pictured), Alan Dale, Bartholomew John, Eric Oldfield, John Hamblin, Noel Trevarthen, Judy McBurney, Diana McLean, Ros Wood, Judy Lynne, Joe Hasham, Abigail, Bunney Brooke, Mike Dorsey and Ron Shand.
It was big news in June 1982 when The Young Doctors reached episode 1219 — breaking the record set by former hit series Number 96 for Australia’s longest running serial drama. But despite the record breaking milestone, The Young Doctors‘ days were soon numbered as long-serving cast members had made way for newer, fresher faces. Production wound up later in the year and the 1396th and final episode aired in March 1983 — coincidentally just weeks after The Sullivans had also wound up from its successful run.
It was left to Ada Simmonds to play The Young Doctors‘ final scene by shutting off the lights as she exited the now-closed Alfred Memorial for the last time.
The Young Doctors continued in re-runs on Nine during the 1980s and found international success, particularly in the United Kingdom where it aired across the ITV network.
Nine’s replacement for The Young Doctors was also to have a medical theme. Starting Out, also from Grundy’s, focused on the lives of medical students at a Melbourne university. The series debuted a week after The Young Doctors finished but was short lived.