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australian television drama: the mini series

The mini-series is a distinctive televisual form, a hybrid of the serial, the series, the feature film (particularly the epic) and the nineteenth century `growth-to-maturity' novel.

While the term has often been used rather loosely by networks to appropriate its `special event' connotations for promotional purposes, the mini-series typically has a limited run, of two to four or five movie-length episodes rather than the 12 or 13 half or one hour episodes which most commonly constitutes a series' season. Some mini-series have run to a dozen or so episodes each of an hour although this was more likely in the early formative period when product differentiation had not been clearly established. What most distinguishes the mini-series from the series is the way narrative, like that of the classical feature film, moves towards a closure point. In contrast the series is usually open-ended and the serial, epitomised by the soap opera, is typically marked by an indefinite deferral of closure.

As indicated above, mini-series also have `special event' connotations which require that they be clearly distinguished from the staple forms of television drama--the series and the serial. Mini-series, particularly historical series, are `quality' television with bigger budgets and emphasis on the sense of verismilitude involving more location filming and attention to detail. Mini-series have also tended to be made on film rather than video stock (although this is less likely with some of the lower budget series in contemporary settings) adding further to their special event status invoking `cinema' rather than `television'.top

In place of the tight narrative structure of the classical feature film, the narrative of a mini-series is extended in a manner closer to that of the realist novel. Most successful mini-series have been adapted from popular contemporary or classic novels. A skeletal structure is padded out by episodic narrative incident consistent with television's requirement for segmentation.

Two out of every three Australian mini-series to date can be described as historical--they are set explicitly in the past invoking a specific historical context which may be as recent as the years of the Vietnam war or as far removed as the pre-colonial period (Captain James Cook).

The majority centre on fictional characters, commonly ordinary people, in a drama played out against the background of historical events, for example, Sara Dane, A Town Like Alice, All the Rivers Run, Waterfront, Harp of the South, Poor Man's Orange and The Dunera Boys.

Another strand are dramatised biographies of the famous and infamous (Ned Kelly in The Last Outlaw).

But the most distinctive mini-series have been those based, in varying degrees, directly on historical events. The Dismissal has been one of the most successful and controversial of this strand. The emphasis is not on the victims of history but on an account of historical events centred on the major players--men and women who contributed to the construction of the events in which they participated. Mini-series such as The Dismissal with their complex mixture of fictional and (predominantly) historical recreation represent a further development of the concept of documentary-drama in which political argument discursively shares centre stage with character-centred drama.

A third strand of the mini-series involves the scope provided by the extended form to present multiple perspectives and viewpoints, for example, on the symbiotic relationship between crime creation and law enforcement in Scales of Justice and on a middle class marriage in crisis in This Man - This Woman.


  • Boehringer, Kathe. Review of Scales and Justice, Filmnews, Nov.-Dec. 1983, p.13.
  • Burnett, Ewan. `Mini-series,' Cinema Papers, no. 44-45, Mar.-Apr. 1984, pp. 32-36.
  • Cunningham, Stuart. `Textual Innovation in the Australian Historical Mini-series,' in Australian Television: Programs, Pleasures and Politics, ed. John Tulloch and Graeme Turner (Australian Cultural Studies). Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989, pp. 39-51. This essay first appeared as `Style, Form and History in Australian Mini-series,' Filmviews, no. 136, winter 1988, pp. 30-36.
  • Ellis, John. `Broadcast TV Narration,' chapter 9 in his Visible Fictions. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, pp. 145-159.
  • Jones, Ian. `The Last Outlaw: A Sketch of the Making of the Pegasus-Seven Network Mini-series,' Cinema Papers, no. 29, Oct.-Nov. 1980, pp. 352-354.
  • Kitson, Jill. Review of The Last Outlaw, Cinema Papers, no. 31, Mar.-Apr. 1981, pp. 56-57.
  • ----. Review of A Town Like Alice, Cinema Papers, no. 32, May-June 1981, pp. 152-153.
  • Lawson, Sylvia. `The Dismissal--The Twilight of the Gods or History as Biopic,' Filmnews, Apr.-May 1983, pp. 12-13.
  • Mayer, Geoff. `Television Mini-series: Family Melodrama,' Filmnews, no. 137, spring 1988, pp. 40-43.
  • Martin, Adrian, John O'Hara, and Arnold Zable. `Three Mini-Series: Eureka Stockade, Waterfront and The Boy in the Bush,' Cinema Papers, no. 46, July 1984, pp. 130-137.
  • Moran, Albert. `Chronicles of Origin: The Mini-Series: Against the Wind and 1915,' chapter 11 in his Images & Industry: Television Drama Production in Australia. Sydney: Currency Press, 1985, pp. 206-218.
  • ----. Moran's Guide to Australian TV Series. North Ryde, N.S.W.: Australian Film, Television & Radio School, 1993.
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