The Seven Network‘s bold — and third — attempt to produce a daytime soap opera was met with comparisons to popular overseas dramas Peyton Place and Coronation Street.
With a generous budget and a cast list of 16, Motel was a serious attempt to crack the daytime market as an alternative to cheaper game and chat shows. It came some years after Seven’s earlier attempts at producing a daytime serial — the short-lived Autumn Affair (1958-59) and The Story Of Peter Grey (1961) — and only months after ABC had settled in with its rural drama Bellbird.
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Motel was a half-hour weekday series produced at the studios of ATN7 in Sydney. It told the story of the comings and goings of the Greenfields Motel, a fictional motel located somewhere between Sydney and Canberra. Despite the country location, the proximity to the two cities gave the show some licence to pursue characters in politics and to reveal some scandal. TV Week‘s preview of the series promised “scorching stuff” and “scenes guaranteed to rattle the censor and shock the viewers”. Columnist Ann Gillison summed it up: “All in, Motel caters, as every serial should, for our delight in gossip and scandal and our fascination with how “the others” live and, as any serial must, provide regular escapist distraction.”
In light of what was to come with sexy prime time soaps in the 1970s, Motel was probably quite tame although at the time the benchmark for Aussie serials had been set with Bellbird, so the bar for controversy was pretty low.
The motel in the series was run by middle-aged couple Hal and Mary Gillian (Walter Sullivan and Brenda Senders). Their eldest son Rod (New Zealand actor Noel Trevarthen) ran an advertising agency but was somewhat dependent on his wife, Gaye (Jill Forster), the daughter of a wealthy businessman (Tony Bazell). Gaye was the typical soapie schemer who was frequently unfaithful to her husband.
The Gillians’ eldest daughter Liz (Gae Anderson) was secretary to a government minister, Paul Drennan (Brian James), and was also his mistress.
The younger Gillian son, Chris (Gregory Ross), was the rebellious teenager, mixing with the local gang led by Bruce Jackson (Harold Hopkins). Somewhat more stable was the second Gillian daughter, Sue (Janne Walmsley), married to the local chemist (played by Jack Thompson in his first TV acting role).
Other characters were motel employees Maria (Margot Reid) and Janie (Maggie Gray), motel owner Alec Evans (John Faasen) and church minister Reverend Larcombe (Ross Higgins).
But the show’s stand out was the local matriarch Bunty Creighton, played by 80-year Enid Lorimer, making her Australian TV debut. English-born Lorimer was an actress in Australian radio serials as far back as the 1920s. In the early 1950s, with television soon to come to Australia, she went back to her native England to learn television and stayed for over 10 years before returning to Australia in time for her 80th birthday.
Bunty was described as “acid-tongued, straight-shooting, opinionated, nosy and everything that goes to make up a character we will love, dislike and respect”. She was wealthy, sharp-witted and manipulative. Very much the typical soap opera nasty and in some respects compared to cantankerous Ena Sharples (Violet Carson) from Coronation Street.
Despite production being based in Sydney, Motel had its debut in Melbourne — appearing first on HSV7 on 13 May 1968 in tandem with another new Australian show, Marriage Confidential, which presented re-enactments of marriage counselling sessions loosely based on real-life cases. Motel was scheduled for 12.30pm to avoid any clash with Nine’s US soapie Days Of Our Lives. Motel then debuted in Sydney two weeks later and Brisbane in June. It was also picked up by some regional stations but despite its growing coverage it never really caught on with the viewers and was quietly dropped after 132 episodes.
Some of the actors certainly went on to greater things. Jack Thompson went on to a hugely successful career, particularly in movies, both in Australia and overseas.
Noel Trevarthen, Jill Forster, Greg Ross, Brian James, Enid Lorimer, Ross Higgins and Harold Hopkins all continued to appear in later TV series and productions.
The Seven Network had two other attempts to have an Australian-made daytime drama series. Until Tomorrow, starring Hazel Phillips, Babette Stephens and Barry Otto, was produced in Brisbane for the Reg Grundy Organisation but had only a short life in 1975, and The Power The Passion was produced at HSV7 in Melbourne for a brief run in 1989.
It seems Seven finally got the hint and has not pursued the ambition of a daytime series ever since.
Source: TV Week, 1 June 1968, 8 June 1968, 15 June 1968, 22 June 1968. Super Aussie Soaps