Production Company: CEL Film Distribution, SAFC Productions Ltd. present; tail copyright credit to S.A.F.C. Productions Ltd; made with the assistance of the Australian Film Commission.
Budget: $4.4 million (SAFC) (According to The Canberra Times and other sources, $400,000 of this went to the large recreation of a period version of Sydney's Rocks area in Adelaide; in Cinema Papers, May 1985, producer Jock Blair estimated the film saved $350,000 by building the Rocks at Hendon rather than attempting a location shoot in Sydney).
Locations: Sydney, Rocks area and Sydney Harbour bridge; Hendon, Adelaide for period sets and street scenes. Abby's apartment is situated in the Rocks in the brutalist Sirius public housing building, a Sydney landmark. (Wiki here).
Filmed: The Canberra Times reported that the film was on schedule, only a day or two behind, and with only a week of shooting to run, as of late May 1985. The film is listed as being in production in the May and July 1985 editions of the Cinema Papers' production survey, and in post-production in the September edition.
Australian Distributor: CEL
Theatrical Release: the film opened in the eastern states on 7th August, 1986 in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.
Video Release: CEL/Australian Video. The film was released on tape in February 1987, and then went through a number of editions
35mm Kodak Eastmancolor
Lens and Panaflex Camera by Panavision ®
Dolby Stereo ® In Selected Theatres
Running Time: 93 mins (Murray's Australian Film; 89 mins (Stratton's The Avocado Plantation)
DVD time: 1'27"41
No matter how it's cut, the film was a major flop, especially relative to budget, and the Film Victoria report on Australian box office records returns of only $97,306, equivalent to $212,127 in A$ 2009.
One of the problems was that all the mainstream distributors turned their backs on the show, and when it launched in the eastern states to exploit the school holiday season, it opened in independent cinemas outside the GU/Hoyts/Village chains. Distributor CEL had made its name and its money in VHS, and wasn't experienced in selling theatrical features, let alone the even tricker business of selling product for children.
Playing Beatie Bow also didn't travel well internationally, though it picked up an audience award at the Moscow Film Festival.
However it did enjoy a second life on tape, helped by the source novel being a set text in many Australian schools.
The film picked up one deserved win at the 1986 AFI Awards:
Winner, Best Achievement in Production Design (George Liddle)
Nominated, Best Screenplay Adapted from Another Source (Peter Gawler) (Bruce and Rhoisin Beresford won for The Fringe Dwellers).
Nominated, Best Achievement in Editing (Andrew Prowse, credited in the film as A. J. Prowse) (Ken Sallows won for Malcolm)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Sound (Rob Cutcher, Frank Lipson, Glenn Newnham, James Currie, Peter Smith, David Harrison (Roger Savage, Craig Carter, Dean Gawn and Paul Clark won for Malcolm).
Nominated, Best Achievement in Costume Design (George Liddle) (Terry Ryan won for Kangaroo)
Geoff Simpson was named Australian Cinematographer of the Year (Milli) in 1986 by the Australian Cinematographers' Society, with Playing Beatie Bow his calling card. Simpson also picked up a Golden Tripod that year specifically for his work on the film.
The film was also voted "Most Fascinating Film" by a jury of eight schoolchildren after a screening to more than 1,000 of their peers at the 1987 Moscow Film Festival (Sydney Morning Herald, 29th July 1987).
The film was released on tape and enjoyed a long life in that format.
It was subsequently released in several editions on DVD, by Reel and Hopscotch/Roadshow.
The digital releases aren't that good, being in 4:3 - this was a film shot in Panavision, and Geoff Simpson's award-winning cinematography and framing is one casualty, even if the transfers look as if they're open matte.
At least the colours are good, and the low level lighting used by Simpson in some places holds up, and the sound is clear (clear enough for many of the awkward bits of ADR to be very noticeable).
The SAFC has never much looked after its archival material or helped give them a decent digital release and they pay so little attention that at time of writing a copy of the film could be found on YouTube here, and had been up for a couple of years. It's clearly taken from one of the releases, and is also in ugly 4:3 format.
For those who want a taster by way of three clips, the ASO has them here, but these are also in 4:3, with bonus bug in the bottom right hand corner, so why not just watch the full movie instead?
There are any number of things that are problematic about the film - including some of the performances, and the strange mixing of mood and action, from mawkish romance and sentimentality through to brothel slapstick, though that means that the film stays true to a florid, Dickensian Victorian world.
Not the least of the problems is the assorted attempts by the cast to present an Orkney islands accent which some reviewers persistently but understandably confused with an Irish accent.
At the same time, there are many engaging elements, not least the work of the technical departments and the cast, all of whom pitch in with vigour, energy, charm and various levels of skills.
It's easy to see why producer Jock Blair (and director Crombie) cast Imogen Annesley, as a way to appeal to the male demographic of all ages. The camera loves her and director Crombie indulges the camera's love.
While her lack of experience shows, she and the feisty Mouche Phillips handle their assignments in a way that keeps the movie flowing and engaging to the end.
(a) The novel:
Ruth Park's award-winning novel is too well known to detail at length here, as is Park herself.
Born in New Zealand, Ruth Park came to Australia in 1942 to continue her career as a journalist. She married the writer D'Arcy Niland and travelled with him through the north-west of New South Wales before settling in Sydney where she became a full-time writer.
She has written over fifty books, and her many awards include the prestigious Miles Franklin Award for Swords and Crowns and Rings; the Australian Children's Book of the Year Award and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (USA) for Playing Beatie Bow and The Age Book of the Year Award for A Fence Around the Cuckoo.
She was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1987 and in 1994 was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of New South Wales. Ruth Park passed away in December 2010.
Park was initially consulted regarding adapting her novel to film.
Some adjustments were made in the transfer, as director Donald Crombie explained in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6th August 1985 (after writer Martin Portus had made a joke about the SAFC being known as 19th Century Fox).
"One of dangers was that the audience might forget that it's about a girl whose out of her time and think it's just another Australian movie, a sort of My Brilliant Career on the Rocks. That's why we had Abigail trying to get back all the time; and why we use our visual imagination in making a fantasy out of the old Rocks area. I'm very familiar with the strictures that historical naturalism puts on you. At least here people can't scream like pigs if you get it historically wrong."
At their Hendon studios in Adelaide, the SAFC built this Rocks fantasy world and created Australia's largest movie set. But, with a $4 million budget, Crombie made no attempt to compete with those expensive special effects so much featured in American fantasy films. Rather, he relied on the simple details described by Park to show time travel: a helicopter glimpse, a Hansom cab, the Harbour Bridge fading in and out of the vision.
He also had to do something with Abigail, portrayed in the book as a sulky and defiant 14-year-old, but with a sympathetic introspection which film couldn't reach.
"The sexuality was in the book but very much as the inner thoughts of a young girl who wants to, but is terrified of being kissed," says Crombie. "There was also the problem of the girl being molested on the beach by a 19-year-old, so we made her older."
Crombie was also aware of the burden of the cult following Park's novel had quickly developed in teen readers:
At the Australia-wide auditions for the part of Abigail and the other children, Crombie saw the real cult following behind Park's novel, published in 1970 (sic, 1980). He was besieged by 12-year-old Abigails begging for a party, any part.
"The most terrifying thing was to realise that you had a responsibility to a very loyal readership," he says. "But I think we did the right thing by making Abigail older and broadening the experience".
Writer Peter Gawler much later experienced a revival in his career courtesy of the Underbelly TV series, made for the Nine network. There was a short CV for him here:
Peter Gawler is a Melbourne-born graduate of the Swinburne Film & Television school. In a career spanning 30 years he has worked as a script editor, script producer, writer and most recently producer on many series, mini-series and telemovies, plus several feature films. His credits include Water Rats, Halifax FP and the telemovies The Postcard Bandit, Little Oberon and A Model Daughter: The Killing of Caroline Byrne.
Peter wrote 6 episodes of the first Underbelly series, and together with co-writers Felicity Packard and Greg Haddrick won the Mini-Series (Adaptation) Award and the Major Award at the 2008 AWGIES. He has also contributed scripts toUnderbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, for which he won his eighth AWGIE, and Underbelly: The Golden Mile, his first credit as producer.
Currently he is supervising script development on the next Underbelly series and is in post-production on The Underbelly Files, a package of true crime telemovies. The first of these,Tell Them Lucifer Was Here, the story of the Silk-Miller murders, was produced from his screenplay.
Gawler was listed on LinkedIn here.
(c) Film Tie-in:
The book is now recognised as something of an Australian classic for children, and there are many easily googled reviews of it available on the internet by devotees. It has been the subject of audio recordings, as well as a number of editions. For more details on these, see Trove here.
In the usual way at the time a film tie-in was released, but is now relatively rare up against the many other editions of the book.
(Below: the Puffin film tie-in)
The adult cast for the film was relatively familiar, including Peter Phelps (who had made his name in Sons and Daughters); character actor Moya O'Sullivan as Granny, and former Crawfords actor, later Adelaide based Don Barker as Beatie's crazy, Light Horse sword-wielding father.
Singer Su Cruikshank does a cameo as the brothel madam, while stage and comedy actor Barbara Stephens is on hand as Natalie's mum.
Then Adelaide-based Ted Hodgeman (Dr Dealgood in Mad Max 3) also has a cameo as a decadent preening Sir, while Adelaide-trained Jo England does a turn as a prostitute dreaming of a prince. There are other Adelaide-based actors in minor roles, such as Henry Salter as a rat-catcher.
However the main focus in the casting was on who might play Abigail, as recorded in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6th August 1986. The Australia-wide auditions turned up 16 year old Imogen Annesley:
A film novice, Imogen was given 12 weeks of preproduction coaching in drama, voice and movement.
In casting the other children Crombie also discovered that few so-called child actors can really do it.
"Most kids you see don't do anything but be themselves, but with Beatie Bow's family we had to find children who could play in another century, do a Scottish accent and play something quite different from themselves." (Sydney Morning Herald, 6th August 1986).
Annesley would prove herself a sport by lining up for Mora's Howling III, and much later she would appear in the 2002 Queen of the Damned. She has a token public Facebook page here.
Mouche Phillips, at the age of 13 had already some experienced in performing, and after playing Beatie, she would go on to a long career, mainly in television drama.
But the other children in the film had limited careers - 9 year old Damian Janko made his only screen appearance as Gibbie, and Phoebe Salter, playing Natalie, would only add Captain Johnno to her screen acting CV.
The film was notable for the epic build by George Liddle and his art department team on industrial land next to the SAFC's Hendon Studios, which then was located, with a small, ill-functioning studio incapable of handling a proper lighting grid, in the Adelaide, SA, suburb of Hendon:
At its centre is the sweet shop owned by the Bow family, which has to be burned out at the film's climax. Though a glass shot will be necessary for establishing the Sydney Harbour background - behind the set at present, all there is to see is Adelaide's seemingly endless coastal plan - the sight-lines are such, says Liddle, that "even on the highest spot where the shop is, looking back down the street, we're preety well in the clear." The site, however, has not been custom-designed for filming. "You can be sure as hell," says Blair (producer Jock Blair), "that if we laid in a flat area to use as a camera position, that would be the one spot the director would never choose." (Cinema Papers, May 1985).
The big build became a big selling point in publicity for the film, as in a story by Joan Morris for The Canberra Times on 15th June 1985 (see this site's photo gallery for the full piece):
Most of the garbage had gone from the streets of old Sydney town, but the smells remained.
The amazingly authentic recreation of The Rocks area of Sydney in 1873, built in Adelaide at a cost of $400,000, had been made even more authentic by the dumping of three-quarters of a tonne of rotting garbage from the Victoria markets into the streets for the shooting of several scenes of 'Playing Beatie Bow', a South Australian Film Corporation movie.
A massive effort by a skilled team turned a level, grassed segment of an industrial site in Hendon into an astonishing reproduction of The Rocks, with deep cuttings, narrow alleyways and cobblestones, poky little houses jammed in among factories, ships' chandlers and shops. It is the most extensive and finely detailed backlot built in Australia, it took 10 weeks, and its creator, George Liddle, is justifiably proud of his handiwork.
He is also proud of his construction crew, most of whom he calls artists, who have made styrofoam look exactly like the granite and sandstone from which The Rocks obviously took its name. There is living - or dying - grass in some of the pocket-handkerchief front gardens, and there is living moss and ivy trailing down "brick" and "stonework" in the alleyways. There is also plastic ivy, artfully blended, and, as mentioned, "living" garbage, although fast dying when I was there in late May.
Much of the modelling of the set was taken from "The Plague', a book about the outbreak of bubonic plague in colonial Sydney, during which The Rocks was in quarantine. An official photographer went around the area at the time, taking pictures that have been reproduced in the book and found to be invaluable for George Liddle's purpose.
He and his team built the houses, warehouses, the indoor sets for close-up shots, the fire-proof interiors of shops that had to "go up in flames", a magnificently decadent brothel, and about 300 individual costumes for the principal cast and featured extras. He was full of admiration for his team, most of whom have "learned on the job", since he says there is no school in Australia for training craftspeople in set-building, film dressmaking, scenic art and the like.
He has created a wonderful little lollyshop for the film, and much of the sweet-making machinery is genuine, on loan from the Darrell Lea organisation's historical museum in Sydney. A representative was to visit the set the following week to demonstrate the workings of the machines - most of which were moulds for shaping various lollies. There were chocolate-making moulds, too, and a wonderful big iron wheel on which to pull taffy.
The script for my day on the set called for special effects of "smoke, spiders, webs, dogs, snakes, plus rats as required".
A wrangler, the film world's term for the supplier and trainer of animals, supplied 30 rats for the film, to scavenge among the garbage, to terrify the heroine in an attic, and to be caught in the ratcatcher. The dogs including terriers for the city's ratcatcher to take about with him, and a couple of enormous Irish wolfhounds.
There was quite a bit of excitement at one stage during the filming when some of the rats escaped from their cages into the set. "Twenty of them got out," I was told. "We got 19 back. Lord knows where the last one got to." (It should be noted this was a standard art department routine with journalists visiting any film set featuring rats, mice, cockroaches, etc.). There was little danger though. The rats were laboratory beasties; not your common or garden type.
They were not the only animal characters to create complications during the making of 'Beatie'. There was a pig that had to be filmed on the roof of one of the houses, cats to slink about the streets, and even a monkey.
The wrangler also supplied a brace of snakes to "decorate" the brothel, and the massive Irish wolfhounds had to saunter about, paying as little attention to the directions of the filmmakers as did the snakes. The snakes, at least, got agitated when someone tapped the glass of their box.
This box is in a "brothel", inside a barn-like structure at one end of the three-acre lot. The 16-year-old heroine of the film, Abigail (who is whisked through time from 1985 to find herself in The Rocks of the 1800s), is caught by a couple of bully boys and taken to the brothel for sale, and she is being terrified into submission by the brothel madam. The scene being filmed had not been fully rehearsed, and the girl's genuinely terrified screams as her face was pushed against the glass of the snake cage drew me - and most other outsiders on the lot - to the set.
Abigail, played by newcomer Imogen Annesley, hadn't seen the snakes move, and had thought they were fakes. When she came within millimetres of their beady eyes even though they were on the other side of the glass, she didn't need to act her terror …
Director Crombie later confirmed this in an interview with Peter Malone at Malone's invaluable site here :
...I always remember the snakes. That's one thing Imogen didn't have to act about; she was terrified of snakes. And when that woman pushed her into the - and the snake struck the glass, Imogen wasn't acting. That was for real.
(Below: production designer George Liddle and his design).
Producer Jock Blair thought he had a good idea of the demographic:
"The film's prime target ... is in the thirteen-to-fifteen age group, but we hope it will fall out past that to all those kids who still enjoy romance rather than sex." (Cinema Papers, May 1985).
When he was first out promoting the film, director Donald Crombie held out high hopes that the film would do well. He was bolstered by test screening results:
Crombie's first teenage reaction to his work came when there was enough of the budget left to stage a preview in Adelaide - and consider any changes. A cinema was filled with a large teenage cross-section.
"It was like going into the lion's den," says Crombie. "We had sedate young missies nick in with truckloads of Getts Cross (sic, Gepps Cross?) lads, all stomping in with food in their hand to see this rather delicate movie."
But their reaction was positive, albeit riotous, and Crombie decided to leave Playing Beatie Bow just as he had visualised it. (Sydney Morning Herald, 6th August 1986).
But unfortunately, no matter how it's cut, the film was a major flop, especially relative to budget, and the Film Victoria report on Australian box office records returns of only $97,306, equivalent to $212,127 in A$ 2009.
One of the problems was that all the mainstream distributors turned their backs on the show, and when it launched in the eastern states to exploit the school holiday season, it opened in independent cinemas outside the GU/Hoyts/Village chains.
Distributor CEL had made its name and its money in VHS, and wasn't experienced in selling theatrical features, let alone the even tricker business of selling product for children.
The film was judged a children's, rather than a break-out family show, and as a result it mainly screened in daytime slots, with lower ticket prices for child viewers. The size of the budget represented a failure to understand the market dynamics for this sort of expensive period-based show, a kind of family version of Burstall's Eliza Fraser.
David Stratton in The Avocado Plantation offered a number of reasons for the film's failure:
… director Donald Crombie seems uncertain at to what age-group he is aiming at: scenes in a brothel are a bit strong for the younger ones. (This might be better sheeted home to the SAFC's production team rather than their hired director). Also, some of the supporting actors and the extras are noticeably poorly directed. But the relatively poor performance of the film can probably be put down to the fact that it was made in the same year as Back to the Future which is, in some ways, the archetypal time-travel film.
Additionally, it might be noted that some of the more erotic and explicit elements - not just the prostitutes, but the eroticised role given to Imogen Annesley - sat oddly with a G audience, as did the more realistic elements derived from Parks' novel. While true to period, rats, typhoid, beggars, cripples, snakes, white slavery and eccentric child molesters like Sir give the film a slightly harder edge than more Disney-like efforts at period recreation in other children's films.
Playing Beatie Bow also didn't travel well internationally, though it picked up an audience award at the Moscow Film Festival. It was culturally specific, a homage to old Sydney Town, which failed to engage international viewers, though it's surprising it also lacked appeal for Sydney-siders, with its endearing celebration of the charms of the Rocks area.
Following hard on the heels of the matching commercial disaster of Robbery Under Arms, which did poorly in its feature film version and in ratings as a miniseries, Playing Beatie Bow would effectively signal the end of the SAFC as an in-house feature film production unit, an activity which had started off in such a promising fashion with Sunday Too Far Away and such shows as Storm Boy.
Thereafter the SAFC would confine itself to television and to sound post-production, and in due course, after its mountain of debt had beenwritten off, it would be restructured to invest in the development and production of third party productions. Wags at the time made cruel jokes about the SAFC lacking the gift and ending up with strangers in their midst.
All this said, many of those who saw the film at the right impressionable age retain fond memories of it; the irony is that few saw it on the big screen.
However it was partially redeemed by its release on tape, a much more natural activity for distributor CEL, as noted by director Crombie in his interview with Peter Malone here:
I think that worked all right. I'm amazed now, when I'm still working and I meet young actors and actresses who were all brought up on it. I mean, they have never heard of Caddie, but if you say Playing Beatty Bow (sic), "Oh, yes, we saw that when we were in year - whatever." So I think they would have made quite a lot of money out of that, the producers, because the cassette runs were huge. It was helped by being in the curriculum too, which is a great start for a film. It was a fun thing to make.
Nonetheless, it would be a long time before Beatie Bow moved in to the black and Philippa Hawker told the tale of the lack of a good total on the SAFC tape in Cinema Papers in January 1987, the result of clunkers ranging from Dawn!, through The Money Movers, The Fourth Wish, Weekend of Shadows to Freedom:
… the SAFC posted its first and only profit in 1983-84. In the 1984-85 financial year the State Government gave the corporation a grant of $550,000 for basic administrative costs and assistance with project development, and is committed to providing the grant until the end of the 1986-87 financial year. It also relieved the company of its debenture loan debt, capitalising an amount of $6 million.
But then the failures of Robbery Under Arms and Playing Beatie Bow followed (the SAFC admitted, according to Hawker, that doing both a feature and a miniseries of Robbery had been a disastrous approach), and Hawker quotes Jock Blair as saying he felt the corporation "could have done more to foster local writers."
CEO John Morris, who had guided the Corporation into the debt morass, spelled the death knell to in-house features to Hawker, saying he …
...firmly believes that for this organisation we should concentrate on TV; feature films should be left to independents. They are a high risk, and they don't offer the sort of relative certainty that we need to get work going through the studio…
The film is frequently dated to 1986, but the film was shot and completed in 1985, and carries a copyright notice for 1985 in its tail credits. The film was slow to be distributed - and even then outside mainstream distributors - and this site dates films by the year of production, and not by the time they sat on the shelf awaiting school holidays and distribution.
A number of databases record that the film was given a PG, rather than a family friendly G, because Abigail says "oh shit," when she jumps off the roof of a burning building into a fireman's safety net below.
However there might have been other factors that influenced the censor - not least the frankly erotic eye with which the camera observes young star Imogen Annesley, and the way she is put into relatively adult situations - such as a bout of bondage in a high class brothel (there's even a naked breast in this scene, along with jokes about desperate dreaming prostitutes, molesting white slaver Sirs and fat Madams).
No doubt some would think it over-sensitive to worry about Annesley flashing a leg at hero Jonah on the beach - a joke about Victorian sensibilities - but as noted by David Stratton, the film itself seems uncertain about its demographics and its target audience. It's clear enough that the creative team were hoping that Annesley's erotic appeal would broaden the demographic to include teenage boys, and that the slapstick elements would satisfy a family audience.
The creative team likely expected to score a PG rating - "oh shit" could easily have been taken out, and been no worse than some of the other dubious quality ADR which can be heard throughout. In any case the rating in itself was not the reason for the film's commercial failure - an M would have been a real killer.
The film opens with a children's choir singing/chanting a rhyme (it also recurs within the film):
Oh mother, oh mother, what's that, what's that?
A dog at the door, a dog at the door.
Oh mother, oh mother, what's that, what's that?
The wind in the chimney, that's all.
Oh mother, oh mother, what's that, what's that?
The cow in the bye, the horse in the stall
Oh mother, oh mother, what's that, what's that?
It's Beatie Bow, risen from the dead.
There is an 1980s style pop song running over the end titles, with percussive and synth features typical of the times. Singer Karen Boddington was a well known session singer of the time, and by dint of her vocal duet with NZ pop singer Mark Williams performing the original theme tune for the long-running TV soap, Home and Away, has a brief wiki listing here.
Lyrics for the song:
Words won't tell me what's in your heart
I can't believe what you say.
Eyes can't see what thoughts you hide
You feel so far away
Compliments that you give to me
Don't reveal that much it seems
All the love that you offer me
Only fuels my silent scream
But when you're near me
I hear my heart
Beating out the words so rare
Something changes each time we touch
The hesitation disappears
Heart to heart
Face to face
Heart to heart to heart
Heart to heart
Face to face
Heart to heart to heart
Lies aren't worth the breath they take
Don't fool the lucky few
Nights can't hide the doubts they bring
'Til I'm alone with you
Day by day it's a compromise
Never read between the lines
Night by night it's a waiting game
Don't ignore the warning signs
But when you're near me I hear my heart
Beating out the words so clear
Something changes each time we touch
The hesitation disappears
Heart to heart
Face to face
Heart to heart to heart
Heart to heart
Oh, ohh, face to face
Heart to heart to heart (song fades out on this line)
There is also a supposedly period friendly folk song, sung by Judah (Peter Phelps), which isn't credited in the film.
However it was covered by Suzanne Clachair in the 1990 album Serenade, where it is called Song Of The Gift and is attributed to Garry McDonald and Laurie Stone, see Clachair's website here. (It runs 3'31" on the recording).
Lyrics for the song as recorded by Clachair, with the lines in English heard in the film highlighted in bold:
O sibh ris a chrann is am
Monadh is gleann,
O sibh bho'n a mhachair tha mo
Shoraidh oirbh fhéin,
Air mhuir againn is lear theid mi
Ri mo chailin,
Cuir ise agair orm, mo chridh' is
Cuir an tabhartas oirbh an
Tabhartas dearbh tìme,
Fiòr is dìleas tha e, cum sibh
Na d' chuimhne mi fhéin,
Cha dhèanam riamh dearmad theid
Mi sgrìob ma-ta mór,
Tha tabhartas ma oirbh togail
Mi rìbh taigh fhéin.
Oh ye of the harrow the glen and the dell
Oh ye of the meadow I bid thee farewell
I go to my bonnie with heart gold and fair
O'er the sea to my lassie. She beckons me there ('laddie' for Clachair)
So this gift I leave thee to hold dear and true
The sweet gift of morning that ever we knew
So ye'll nay forget me though far I may roam
For this gift I leave thee to carry me home … ('Tis this gift' for Clachair)
(The song continues in the film in instrumental form over Dovey sobbing)
The mist o'er the heather shall nay bring him near
The lock whispers gently though none but I hear
Then seize now the flower that yet blooms so sweet
True pleasures of auld lie beneath waters deep
So this gift I leave thee to hold dear and true
The sweet gift of morning that ever we knew
So ye'll nay forget me though far I may roam
'Tis this gift I leave thee to carry me home
(For more on the film's music, see this site's pdf of music credits)
8. Detailed synopsis, with cast details and spoilers:
Sydney Harbour bridge, and beneath it, children led by Natalie (Phoebe Salter) chant a song about Beatie Bow being risen from the dead, as a smiling young girl in period dress (Beatie, Mouche Phillips) picks up a battered can of Coke and watches the children at play.
After the main titles, a schoolgirl Abigail (Imogen Ann) says farewell to friends at Circular Quay, and at home as a pop song plays, eats an apple, fiddles with a cassette, tosses aside a book of the collected poems of Wilfred Owen, and goes into her dance-obsessed bedroom to look at a coy period style white dress.
At the roller skating rink in the dress, a boy Pino (Grant Piro) skates up to chat up Abigail and take her for a whirl.
The forward lad strokes her hair and tells her he hasn't had any complaints. But she flinches, saying "this is your first", and skating off. "White dress, significant is it?" he shouts after her.
Abby ends up in the park under the bridge where Natalie and others are still playing the Beatie Bow game.
But when Nat starts to talk about the 'funny furry girl' and Beatie Bow, the dead lady in the photograph, Abby pauses, startled, and then we see the little furry girl on the steps leading up to the bridge.
Nat points to the girl and says she's unhappy because she's lost, but Abby says Nat's just imagining it.
At Nat's home, scatty Justine (Barbara Stephens) is trying to prepare the evening meal - Abby's mother is eating out - and making a mess of it. It turns out it's the second time Abby's mum's seen her separated dad in a fortnight. Justine notes he's not exactly top of the charts with Abby … while outside Beatie looks up at the aggregation of modern flats, only to be scared off by a ghetto blaster-wielding boy.
Justine wonders why Abby isn't out hitting the town with some gorgeous seventeen year old spunk, but Abby dismisses them out of hand as so boring - only for Justine to warn her that one day "he will walk through your door, and voila, game, set and match. Goodbye Abigail Kirk."
When Nat knocks over a basket of clothes, Abby discovers a period collar that belonged to Justine's grandma. Nat gives it to her and Abby puts it on.
Back at home, Abby stitches the collar on to her white dress, and suddenly sees in her mind a red-saturated image of a cloaked figure looking down from a cliff to the waves below.
Abby's mum returns home carrying a red rose. Abby thinks she's a little tense and asks her about dinner, and her mum says her dad wants her back, wants them to be a family again. But Abby wants to know about 'Miss Thingo' and whether she's going to join the party.
"We'll need a big bed," says Abby, but her mum tells her not to be vulgar and that's very important to her. But Abby's still bitter about what her dad did six years ago, leaving for some scheming little creep… she says her mum has no self-respect. There's no way she's ever going to let her dad dump her again like he did when she was ten.
Cut to an antique store and Abby's mum dropping a vase as Abby comes through the door to apologise. Her mum tells her to take her stupid dress off, it's much too cold for it, and Abby storms out.
Back at the park, Abby's alone in a swing when she turns to see the strange period girl standing on the steps to the bridge. When she asks the little furry girl what's wrong, the girl replies that she can't get home.
From her flat's balcony, Nat urges Abby to follow and help the girl, but when Abigail catches the girl, they touch hands and suddenly Abigail is transported back in time to colonial Sydney, and, amongst other sights, to a colonial church which was still standing in the Rocks in later harbour bridge days.
Again Abby must pursue the girl, and gets amongst rough types and is knocked over by a crazed Samuel (Don Barker).
When Abby opens her eyes, she's looking up at the worried-looking Judah (Peter Phelps), and then she's in bed being tended by Dovey (Nikki Coghill), who's admiring her hands and fingernails, pink and clean as the Queen's own. Dovey and Granny (Moya O'Sullivan) look at Abby's clothes and they think that it's a sign that at last the stranger has come….
The two plot to keep Abby there like a prisoner, and when Abby wakes the next morning, Beatie urges her to be silent about where she's from, because otherwise her folks will say she's got the gift …
Beatie reveals it's Sydney town on the first day of September 1873 … and Abby's in the best bedroom above Samuel, her dad's, confectionary shop … and Abby has a splint on her leg because of her fall …
Abby tries to imagine herself back at home, but instead when she hops out of bed, there's Samuel apologising, mortified for the damage he caused her, from the bottom of his heart …
Samuel reveals he has seizures, imagining he's as tall as he once was with the Light Brigade, "tall as thunder we were… at Balaclava… charging into the slaughterhouse."
The startled Abby falls to the floor, and fortunately Jonah arrives to remove the bottle of grog from Samuel's apron, and sends him off to sleep. Apologising for his dad, Jonah sweeps Abby up into his arms and introduces himself.
Abby asks him to take her to the window so she can see where she is … and we see an old Sydney town street scene …
But when Jonah interrogates her about what she was doing in Argyle street, Beatie turns up, and Abby says she can't remember.
Jonah leaves her with a humming bird from the Orinoco river he got from a deep water man for a florin, to cheer her up.
After he's left, Abby says she won't tell, so long as Beatie helps her get home again.
Later, as Beatie tries to learn her Latin, Abby tries to explain that the future she saw isn't pixie land, but Beatie knows she's telling lies and calls her an elf. Abby tries to explain progress and the bridge, the Opera House and skyscrapers, but Beatie says the things she saw aren't possible … except in elf land.
Abby's scathing about where she is - it's filthy and stinks like a pig pen and people die of things like typhoid (as Beatie's mum did this winter just gone).
Next day while Beatie tries to milk a difficult goat, Granny stuffs Abby into a corset, and then we learn Jonah's young brother Gibbie (Damian Janko) is poorly, that Abby has trouble eating the porridge, that Beatie refuses to help her get back to her own time, that Granny told Samuel that Abby wasn't to leave the house, and that Samuel is still in mourning for the wife he was wed to for 20 years.
Then Abby breaks open the window to the malingering, bible and angel-obsessed young brother's upstairs bedroom, clambers out and tumbles down into a large laundry basket.
Abby races through the streets until she looks in a school window and is spotted by Beatie, and Beatie sets off after her… until Abby ends up outside the church…
Abby tries to wish herself back to the future, but it doesn't work and Beatie says she can't help.
Abby tells her she's going to try and instructs her to "do it" and Beatie begins to pray. Suddenly Granny has dropped a cup of tea and a chopper is flying overhead … and the bridge slowly appears behind the church, but then disappears …
Abby is shattered: "damn you, Beatie Bow," as she hears children chanting the nursery rhyme that began the film, only this time it's ragamuffins in the streets of old Sydney town.
In despair, Abby races down dank rat-laden back alleys, only to have a couple of villains throw a chaff bag over her head. Following, Beatie picks up the humming bird that fell to the ground …
The villains take the chaff-bagged Abby to a plush brothel.
When the gagged girl is de-bagged, she rushes around the brothel, making a mess, but is quickly caught and her hands tied behind her back. Abby knees one villain in the groin, but the other grabs her and asks prostitute Effiie what she thinks, but Effie is unimpressed.
The madam (Su Cruickshank) tells Effie to shut up - she has something special in mind for this one - and tells Abby she's what's called Madam, but Abby cheekily retorts that she's what's called fat.
Madam grabs her and throws the kicking screaming girl over her shoulder in a fireman's lift, then holds her face up against a glass cage as a snake repeatedly strikes at the thin strip of glass that keeps Abby from harm.
Judah, Beatie and others search the streets, as the Madam consoles herself with an enormous meal, while a prostitute sings a mournful song of love in French.
Abby finds herself in bed with another prostitute in training, Doll (Jo England), but Madam soon sends Doll scuttling, and the bound girl is presented to Sir (Edwin Hodgeman), who exclaims "Oh, isn't it a peach?", and runs a nail over her breast.
Abby tackles him and falls to the floor and in a fit of temper Sir says "It's to be locked upstairs out of harm's way," pointing to Doll to watch over it. "No one else will touch it, am I understood? I shall return this evening with the prospective buyers ..."
The chained Abby is in the attic with the rats and a melancholy drunken Doll, as Granny and Dovey worry about her fate.
While Doll sleeps, Abby frees herself of her ankle chains, and walks out on a balcony, only to have her cry for help stilled by cutpurses mugging a citizen in the street below.
Instead she tries to use a rope to climb up to the roof, but the rope breaks and she almost tumbles down to the ground, to the consternation of Granny, who seems to have a mystical awareness of what's happening.
Jonah and the lads race over the rooftops to the rescue, while Abby begs Doll to come with her instead of dying in the brothel, but Doll has a fantasy about being fitted up with a handsome princely suitor.
The noises attract Madam to the attic, and Jonah and his stuntmen sidekicks (Glenn Boswell as Parrot, Richar Boue as Fidge) have a rumble with the brothel's heavies.
Extended comical brawl over, Doll is left in the attic waiting for her prince to kiss her hand, as Parrot moves downstairs to swing from the chandelier and Madam rolls down the stairs and then Parrot lands on top of the snake cage and the snakes slither free …
As Abby and her rescuers leave, Sir arrives to shout for silence, demand an explanation and step on a snake, writhing and gyrating as one of the creatures ends up in his pants.
In the dawn light, Jonah escorts Abby home, then smashes the locks off her steel cuffs.
Meanwhile, Granny's in bed, weak with a fever - Dovey explains that the effort of (psychic) searching for Abby cost her dearly.
Abby realises that Granny has got a "gift" and asks Dovey why they called her the stranger.
With Jonah's approval, Dovey tells the story:
"We hail from the Orkney Isle. A queer old place where dwarves and painted men lived long ago, and built rings of stone, where a shepherd might wander and never be seen again … There's a place of auld magic, there are trolls and spells to be said against them …"
Abby: "Oh come on."
Dovey: "Hold your tongue and listen. It was Granny's seventh grandmother Osla who was elf taken while she was watching sheep… Aye, the elves beckoned her, led her away from the land of the living. She returned from elf-land heavy with child, and with that child came a precious legacy … The gift. 'Tis the gift of seeing the future, of secret wisdom, of healing. Granny was the greatest healer of them all, but as she grows older, her power is leaving her. You see Abby, the gift can be handed down by the men folk of Granny's town, but never possessed by her … but as for Beatie and myself, we do not have the power, so in our time the gift grows weak, we fear it's dying out…"
Jonah: "With the gift, Osla's child brought a prophecy. Whenever it grows weak, a stranger comes and makes it strong again for the generations that follow…"
Granny: "You're the one Abby."
Dovey: "These are the words Abby. A stranger shall arrive bearing a family talisman."
Abby: "But I haven't got anything that belongs to you. I wasn't even wearing anything unusual. Just my dress."
Granny: "Aye …"
Abby: "Not the dress, the collar, the crocheted collar …"
(We see in misty dissolve Abby with the collar, and then she's reading from a letter, which we hear in voice over, about the collar being used in a bridal dress, and Abby realises she is indeed the stranger).
For her to get home, Granny says she'll need her dress and all of Granny's power, but they can't let her go until she's done whatever it is the stranger must do …
But Abby says she must get back to her mum - she'll be frantic - and lets slip Beatie's got the gift, and Beatie attacks her, but Granny says she only had enough of the gift to bring the stranger to them.
Abby asks Granny what she must do, and Granny says that for it to work, her grandchildren must pay the price. One to be barren, and one to die young, explains Dovey.
As Jonah sings a mournful Celtic-inflected song about a gift and being carried home, we see a tearful Dovey being comforted by Granny, saying that it's for the best, then.
The next day, as they work making boiled lollies, Beatie asks about the British empire - Abby explains it more or less disintegrated - and when Beatie asks who's looking after the black men then, Samuel laughs at the notion that black people could look after themselves.
Abby says she'll miss Jonah, and he presents her with the re-discovered humming bird, and tells her she makes him want to jump over the moon, but then remembers himself, and says he'd best wash up for supper.
That night Abby whispers to herself "I love you."
The next day in the boisterous market-filled street, Beatie notices that Abby is looking yearningly at Jonah, and reprimands her - Jonah will marry Dovey as soon as she's twenty one, and she's not to come between them.
Granny comforts Abby on the matter of love and age, in love at 14, married at 15, and a son by Abby's age, and at 18, the news of her husband's death … and the mysterious cloaked figure looking out to the orange and purple tinted sea seems to look suspiciously like Abby … and she tells Granny that was her dream:
"That was my dream, I was you," she says, and Granny nods knowingly, "aye".
"You were ready to jump."
"The grief was deep. I wanted to die, but I had the children to care for…. if you love truly, you'll learn to live without your beloved, no matter whether you lose him to death, or some other ..."
Boating on the harbour, Abby attempts to explain television to Jonah, and men landing on the moon, but Jonah's unimpressed. He is however startled when, hunting for cockles on the beach Abby shows her leg to him … and to Beatie's chagrin they begin to indulge in chasies horseplay, which on a sheltered beach turns to caressing and kissing, until Beatie arrives, and interrupts proceedings by taking the row boat herself out into the harbour.
"I'm going home, I don't care what you do anymore," she shouts back at them, as Jonah shouts at her to bring the boat back, right now! Jonah strips down and swims after her …
Back in the street, Beatie tells Abby they should have left her with the painted lady …"it would have suited you grand" ... but Abby and Jonah have another chance to kiss…
Meanwhile, back in the confectionary shop, Samuel has gone full Light Horse uniformed mad, flourishing his sword and talking to ghosts of soldiers past, and despite a sharp word from Granny to bring him to his senses, Samuel flings a bottle of grog into the fire and sets the shop alight, then runs amok down the street, slashing at everything in sight, including a set of bagpipes.
Beatie's still insisting to Abby that Dovey must be told, when she sees Samuel, intercepts him, and as he goes to behead her as the face of Russia, he recognises her, drops his sword and slumps to the ground. She comforts him with a "hush dada."
Meanwhile, as a chain of people with buckets tries to put out the fire, Dovey rushes back into the flames to rescue Gibbie, slips on spilled lollies, knocks herself out on a door, but as the flames draw near, the stunt men arrive to save her, and it's left to Abby to get the help of the Chinese laundrymen and clamber through the first floor to Gibbie, as Gran realises that Gibbie is the one.
The angel of death, thinks the religion-obsessed Gibbie on Abby's arrival, and when he resists, Abby threatens him with a punch in the face, and he throws out his very large bible, then jumps into the laundry basket below.
Abby appears at the first floor window of the building as the fire devours it. She throws out a box of memorabilia and a stray chook, races back up to the attic and clambers on to the roof, where she balances precariously, slides down, and then, with an "Oh shit", jumps into the fire safety net being held by the firemen below ...
Abby stands up safe, only to see Jonah rush past her to hug Dovey … as the crowd sings "for she's a jolly good fellow" to the tearful Abby.
As work rebuilding begins, Abby and the others have ended up sharing lodgings with the peculiar, dog-loving rat catcher Mr Swanston (Henry Salter).
Granny comes in to tell the still tearful girl she's ready and Abby thinks it's strange - she doesn't want to go, though she knows she must, "and I must learn to live without my beloved. I'm not sure I'm good enough for that yet Granny."
"You'll do pet," says Granny, explaining that with Gibbie, Abby's done what she was sent to do, and in her own time she'll find her reward.
Abby wishes Jonah good bye and good luck, and then more tears as it's a farewell and a hug and a wish for happiness for Dovey.
Abby assures Beatie that it's for real possible for her to become a scholar and gives her a hug, Granny says it's time, and that she'll soon know their future, and then asking for Beatie's help, the three join hands in the Rocks, and Abby returns to her present time and the church doing a wedding.
Abby races under the bridge, past cheerleaders and bikies, and as she hops into her apartment block's lift thinks she sees a familiar figure walk past outside. She still has the humming bird in hand …
In her flat, Abby immediately switches on the television and an ad featuring a giant inflatable Coke can comes on …
Abby sings along and heads to the shower, where she's discovered by her mother, and after a hug, her mother says she looks different and asks if she's lost weight. Her face looks slimmer.
Then after talk of their respective day's, mum gets serious by saying she's not sure she's doing the right thing with her father - if getting him back means losing - but Abby interrupts to say that if she loves him, and if he feels the same for you, then go for it … "I'll cope, don't worry, I love you, I really do. Take the risk mum!"
Later Abby hears Natalie playing on the piano and goes to see and Justine's saying she can't figure it out. "I'd have never said she was gifted."
Abby bends over beside Nat, who says that the little fairy girl isn't coming back anymore, is she Abby?, and then Abby asks Justine her maiden name … it's Bow?!
Yes, says Justine, "how did you know that?"
Justine gets down a weighty family bible - the one Gibbie threw out the window - and Abby tells her to look up Gibbie, Gilbert Samuel Bow, who would have been Justine's great uncle.
No, great grandfather, says Justine, noting he died in 1940 when he was 76.
76, wonders Abby, as Justine says he made a fortune. Married an undertaker's daughter.
Abby asks about Beatie, Beatrice May, and Justine shows a photo saying she looks a proper old Tartar.
Nat grabs the photo, and shows it to Abby, as Justine explains she was headmistress at Fort Street school for years and years. A spinster who died in the '20s.
Justine asks what this is all about, but Abby asks about Dovey Tallisker.
Justine suggests she read it for herself, but Abby listens as Justine recites that Dovey married Judah Bow in 1874, had a baby Susannah, the poor little thing didn't make it to her first birthday, but Dovey died in 1919, another good innings.
Who's next?, Justine asks, but Abby says it doesn't matter, it really doesn't matter, and leaves a bemused Justine behind to walk out on the balcony.
Nat comes out to tell Abby that Judah Bow drowned in a storm off Hobart town .. Abby sobs and hugs her, and as they come back inside the flat, who should turn up but Uncle Robbie, a dead ringer for Judah (also played by Peter Phelps).
Abby and Robert are startled, and Nat's all smiles, and then the pair smile and there's a slow dissolve to the couple walking along a harbour beach, and she shows Robbie how to dig out pipis (cockles) from the sand … and then, standing in the water, they kiss, and as the camera pulls back to show them in the harbour, the image fades to black, a pulsating 1980s synth pop song begins and end credits roll ...