This apron has significance in relation to the acting career of Gwen Plumb and the rise of Australian TV soaps in the 1970s, exemplified by Grundy's 'The Young Doctors'. In this series, Plumb played the apron-wearing character Ada Simmonds, perhaps her most famous role.
Before television, daytime radio drama serials were dubbed 'soap operas' or soaps because they were sponsored by the makers of laundry detergent. A soap is a serial drama, a story that never ends. A typical TV soap has continuous open-ended storylines with no point of conclusion, although there are moments of plot resolution. The narrative cuts between multiple storylines, often revolving around family affairs and relationships. Soaps often have familiar interior settings, a minimum of physical action and frequent close-ups. Often screened daily rather than weekly, soaps have a demanding production schedule and, usually, a large cast.
A boom in Australian TV soaps began in 1972 when Channel Ten launched 'Number 96'. The first Australian serial to screen on prime-time five nights a week, 'Number 96' ushered in a new era in which daily soaps became part of everyday life.
In 1973 a points system was added to the federal government's local content quota, in which drama scored higher than quiz shows or variety. Together with the success of 'Number 96', this brought a deluge of locally made soaps to commercial TV. By the end of the decade 13 hours of new serial drama were being broadcast each week.
Reg Grundy had developed and packaged a string of hit game shows before turning to drama serials with 'Class of 74', Australia's first teen soap and the first of many hit dramas for Grundy. With its attractive young cast supported by experienced actors, 'Class of 74' was a forerunner to 'Neighbours'. It was followed by 'The Young Doctors' (1976-83), 'The Restless Years' (1977-81) and 'Sons and Daughters' (1982-87), which helped make Grundy Australia's most successful television producer. 'Prisoner' (1979-1986) was more coarse but highly innovative in content. Internationally, Grundy also had success creating local versions of Australian soaps in several countries.
Reg Grundy's right-hand man Reg Watson conceived 'The Young Doctors' and developed the storylines, while Alan Coleman was the producer. Produced on a low budget for the Nine Network, it lasted for 1396 episodes -- clear evidence of its popularity -- and was screened in the UK, Canada, France and other countries. Although it was Australia's first medical series and set in a hospital, 'The Young Doctors' focused not on gritty medical matters but on romance, often ill-fated, and usually between female nurses and male interns. This was early evening family viewing, with sex often implied but rarely explicit. The 1978 wedding of the show's heart-throb, Dr Tony Garcia (played by Tony Alvarez) and Nurse Tania Livingstone (Judy McBurney) was a major media event. Nine toured the happy couple around Australia and fans showered the actors with wedding presents.
The Albert Memorial Hospital's kiosk attendant, Ada Simmonds, was one of the most memorable characters in Australian soaps. Gwen Plumb portrayed Ada as a gossip and a busybody, but brought to the role the redeeming qualities of care and compassion. In 1980 a cookbook titled 'What's Cooking with Ada?' was published, purporting to be the work of Ada Simmonds and including a short biography of its fictitious author!
Gwen Plumb (1912-2002) was a versatile comic and dramatic actor who enjoyed a long career in Australian radio, vaudeville and theatre. She played Emmie in the ABC radio serial 'Blue Hills' before spending five years on the London stage and with the BBC. She returned to Australia to resume her career as a radio host on 2GB, while continuing to work in theatre and television. Her autobiography 'Plumb Crazy' was published in 1994.
Peter Cox, Curator, March 2008