Molly’s death scene in A Country Practice is one of the famous scenes ever filmed in Australia (even with the questionable choice of carnival music). I don’t know why I was reminded of it, except it is near the end of the year and as everybody knows it is not called Deathcember for nothing. Anyway, here you go, my insights, such as they are, on ancient Australian TV.
A Country Practice (1981 – 1993) was a drama featuring the locals of the entirely mythical small country town of Wandin Valley, in somewhere rural, Australia. Most of the drama featured the general practitioners, and the staff of the town’s tiny hospital, but also the vet, and patrons of the only drinking establishment.
Everyone who ever watched ACP (as it was known) mourned the death of character Molly (Anne Tenney) in 1985. It was the biggest news in Australia. Molly was the most beloved character in a program almost everyone watched (there wasn’t a lot of choice). The writers gave Molly leukaemia. Then they killed her.
What I want to talk about is how Molly’s death was written and filmed. Molly is at home, outside, reclining on a couch so she can see her husband Brendan (Shane Withington) and child play with a kite in a paddock. The camera pans between Molly and her family, and up to the kite. She (and we) can see they are happy. We see Molly as she waves to them and Brendan as he waves back. Father and child continue to play, watching the kite. Then the camera moves from Molly’s face, turning so the scene is shot from Molly’s perspective: husband and child small in the distance. The screen goes darker and Brendan looks over, then begins to run towards the camera, towards Molly, towards us.
Just as the screen goes black, he shouts her name.
And that’s it. That’s the death of Molly and the end of the episode / era.
The most popular character on Australian TV dies and it’s a simple fade out. The writers and the director made these choices when other choices could have been made. Molly’s end could have focussed on Brendan’s reaction and CPR attempts as a nurse to increase the drama. Or the camera could have lingered on their child or on Molly’s body and reactions to her body, like The Body episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Molly’s death could have been in hospital, a sideshow to aid medical staff character development a la Grey’s Anatomy or ER. Instead, Molly got her moment to herself as herself, and we the viewers got to be Molly, seeing her family and life and death as she did. Her family was happy and their life was good. It was a goodbye and it was sad. And the perspective, Molly as us/viewers as Molly, was the point. In a way, as a viewer, it was easier to die than become the bereaved, even though of course the viewers were grieving too. That’s the thing: no one who ever saw this moment ever forgot. I certainly didn’t forget and I was a kid. The other thing is, I don’t remember the next episode, the aftermath, or even the eulogy read over the end credits. I was still in the moment, Molly’s moment.
It was a moment one minute and ten seconds long.
Anyway, decide for yourself if you want.
And yes the symbolism of the kite, tethered to Brendan, and how he let it go as she died. The music going silent. All good, or naff, or both.
What’s the point of all this?
Too often death on camera is a sideshow of body horror and gore, where a dying person becomes a thing, their body transformed into a locus of action of others, the camera inviting viewers to become voyeurs. The audience, given no time or space to be with the dying character, are instead observers of the observers of death. Viewers are carted off to feel whatever the medical staff are feeling, or to see how family members coping, and even with some programs, what the murderers or investigators are feeling.
As I’ve learned from a little thing called real life experienceTM, death is a shock to the system, no matter if it is sudden or long awaited. Death should be shocking, but for the shock to register it deserves time. We say ‘passes away’ for death because death passes like time can: slow and fast at once. (Side note setting up character deaths and then erasing them as Doctor Who does reduces the impact, because now we expect death is never final in this world.) Anyway, each passing deserves it’s moment. As John Donne wrote never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee – each mourning note is for all of us, but to realise this we should stop and take it in.
Thus, there’s something to be said for not increasing the tech, or going overboard on adrenaline, emotions, and pointless activity and verbiage around any BIG story telling moment but especially deaths. Sometimes stillness and simplicity are needed to let the moment happen, like Molly watching her family, so the audience can be there too. Like a bell’s toll we feel vibrate deep in our chests even after the noise of it fades. We don’t need a second chime to keep the feeling longer than it sounds. Sometimes it’s decades.