DVD Review: Golden Fiddles
“Must we sing for evermore
On the windless, glassy floor?
Take back your golden fiddles and we'll beat to open sea!”
- Rudyard Kipling, “The Last Chantey” (1893)
South Australia, the late 1920s. Anne (Kate Nelligan) and Walter Balfour (John Bach) live on a farm with their children Kitty (Rachel Friend), Norman (Cameron Daddo), Elsa (Pippa Grandison) and Bob (Hamish Fletcher). However, times are hard as the Great Depression begins to bite...
Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958) was a journalist and a popular author of children's books of the first half of the twentieth century. She was particularly known for her fifteen-book Billabong Series, published between 1910 and 1942, following the adventures of a family on a Victoria sheep station and in England and Ireland during World War I. While her novels remain in print in Australia, recent editions have been edited as Bruce was, let's say, somewhat of her time in her depiction of non-white characters. For more information about her, there is an official website here.
Golden Fiddles, a standalone novel first published in 1928, was written just before the Great Depression, the time in which the miniseries, written by Sheila Sibley, is set in. It's is a rags-to-riches story, with the turning point at the end of the first of its two parts, just under an hour and a half each. As far as the rags go, Walter is forced to sell the family pony, much to Bob's distress, and Kitty has to work in the kitchen of the Craig house, and gets on the wrong side of the bitchy Daphne (Mouche Phillips) while having eyes for the handsome Philippe (Charles Mayer). Come the halfway mark, and the family have had an unexpected inheritance, a large house just outside Adelaide. The riches dominate the second episode, but things soon come off the rails, not least with son Norman amassing gambling debts. The story leaves us with the message that money doesn't buy happiness. Although the title comes from a Kipling poem, there really is a golden fiddle in the story, one coveted by aspiring violinist Elsa.
Inevitably, what was at the time contemporary has now become period, indeed historical, and Golden Fiddles the miniseries certainly taps in to a strain of nostalgia often present in many Australian television and film products of its time. This is emphasised by the fact that, unlike many of today's children's and young-adult novels, we're not in the moment, but looking back on the events of the story, care of a voiceover narration by a much older Bob (voiced by Charles Tingwell). Such a looking back was also found in other countries too: the previous decade was after all the time of British heritage cinema, in the wake of Merchant Ivory's greatest successes. While the series doesn't hide the effects of the Depression, something which hit much of Australia hard – we see people living in tents on the outskirts of Adelaide – it's not a gritty slice of 20s life either.
The miniseries was an Australian/Canadian coproduction, the Australian part being the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC). This dual-nationality explains the presence of a Canadian director: Claude Fournier, who has spent most of his career in Canada, and Francophone Canada at that, though he had directed one episode of the British show The New Avengers set in his home country. Also Canadian was the lead actress, Kate Nelligan. John Bach was a Welsh-born New Zealander. The younger cast were Australian, but had mostly worked on television up to that point. Justine Clarke (who plays Liddy Powell) had been one of the feral children in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and had gone on to a long-running role in Home and Away, while Rachel Friend, Frog Dreaming notwithstanding, had had an equally lengthy stint in Neighbours.
Golden Fiddles was shot in Adelaide and the Barossa Valley of South Australia in what looks like quite a warm winter and spring (July to September 1990), and it aired on the Nine Network the following year, the first episode being broadcast on 18 August. In the UK, it was first broadcast on 6 and 8 April 1993, in an Easter-Holidays weekday (Tuesday and Thursday) afternoon slot on BBC1 and had a repeat showing in September 1996, again in a weekday daytime slot.
Golden Fiddles is released by Umbrella Entertainment as one of their releases from the SAFC catalogue, and is also part of their “Classic Australian Stories” line, with “by Mary Grant Bruce” in big letters on the cover. The release comprises two PAL-format all-regions DVDs, with Part One (88:47) on one and Part Two (88:45) on the other. That's all that's on the discs: there are no menus.
The aspect ratio is 1.33:1, as you would expect from a television production from this time. The two episodes begin with a caption advising that they have been mastered from archival materials so aren't perfect, but this shouldn't affect your enjoyment. I'd go along with that. The transfer is interlaced at 50 fps, so each frame is duplicated to enable the speed the series was shot at, 25 frames per second, to be respected. The series was shot on 16mm film but was presumably transferred to a PAL videotape for broadcast, or if not for broadcast this DVD, as Part One has occasional white horizontal lines that look like tape dropouts rather than film scratches. As this series was made for commercial television, there are fades to black at regular intervals for the commercial breaks (there would have been none on its BBC1 broadcasts), around every ten minutes in Part One, less often in the second part. We're clearly a few generations away from the original negative, as this is less grainy than you might expect from a film-shot production, but the results are quite acceptable. It should be borne in mind that we're watching this on much bigger and less forgiving screens than you would have done at the time.
If Golden Fiddles was made before the widescreen era, it was however made after television stereo sound had arrived. The sound mix is Dolby Digital 2.0, which plays in surround, though that's restricted to the music score as there are hardly any directional sound effects. It's clear and well-balanced though. There are no subtitles for the hard-of-hearing, regrettably. There are no extras either.