It's hard to imagine now, but 20 years ago major television events were not ever more contrived and absurd "reality" shows, but lavish mini-series, usually based on best-selling novels, the '1970's and '80's equivalent of the sweeping cinema epics of the '50's and '60's. What these productions lost in widescreen spectacle and sheer budget they made up in length, appealing to those very same audiences from the '50's and '60's, who by now rarely went to the cinema, with often the very same stars and behind the screen talent. The mini-series genre revolutionised television with the huge successes of Roots (1977) and Holocaust (1980), while actor Richard Chamberlain, starring in Centennial (1978) and Shogun (1980) soon became the undisputed star actor of the format. Thus when Roots producer David L. Wolper brought Colleen CMcCullough's hugely popular novel The Thorn Birds to the small screen Chamberlain was the obvious leading man. The rest is television history… (and the second most watched mini-series after Roots) though one might argue the choice of Henry Mancini, most associated with light dramas and comedy was not the composer one might have expected. Whatever the case, and astonishingly given the popularity of the series, there was never an official soundtrack album.
Now Varèse Sarabande have released a 2CD set to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Henry Mancini's death, on June 14, 1994. Making up for the lack of an album 20 years ago is a set containing virtually two hours of music, packaged in a slim-line jewelcase with a well produced booklet containing a brief recollection of the composer by Robert Townson, a note by David L. Wolper and a substantial essay on The Thorn Birds, series and score, by Jerry McCulley. The 20 page booklet is well illustrated with full colour stills.
The Thorn Birds is an epic melodrama, some might say soap opera, television's equivalent of Gone With The Wind (1939) by way of David Lean's Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Ryan's Daughter (1970) – the sprawling story spanning 60 years telling the "tortured, forbidden" love story of Meggie (Rachel Ward) and the Catholic priest Father Ralph de Bricassart (Chamberlain). As conceived for 1980's American television the drama inevitably pulled its punches and was beset by that bland, glossy look which blighted virtually all US TV between The Twilight Zone (1959-65) and Twin Peaks (1990). As such Mancini's score had not only to accommodate such mini-series blandness – there is little of the dramatic weight John Williams brought to his score for the similarly themed Monsignor the previous year – but take into consideration the fact that at the time television sound was inevitably heard in low-fi mono. Thus The Thorn Birds does not have the sweeping orchestral scale of scoring the project might have enjoyed had it been produced for the cinema. For all Mancini's fine qualities as a composer his score is all too often undeniably light-weight and tending to the middle of the road. In addition to which, there is certainly not the variety of music, either in mood, orchestral colour, tempo or melodic invention, to warrant a two hour album. This is perhaps the ultimate case where much less would have been much more.
The album opens with a lone dulcimer leading into the 'Main Title', an irrepressibly jaunty and optimistic dance like piece, which is followed by the delightfully playful 'Go!'. 'It's Shearing You're Hearing' is equally upbeat and delightful with it's Irish tinged folk sensibility. The famous love theme is first introduced with a tender portrait, woodwinds to the fore, of 'Young Meggie'. The theme is then developed in 'Ralph, Meggie and Mary', just the first of many (and I do mean many) tracks to work variations on the melody amid more routine atmospheric underscore.
'Stuie Grows Up' is an intense suspense cue which would not be out of place in a powerful thriller, while 'Paddy and Fiona' introduces a secondary love theme more in keeping with the warm sentimentality of 1940's or '50's Hollywood, complete with simple yet affecting folk-like guitar part. 'Passion Play' is a slow building, darkly intense excursion for strings, an interlude before the very understated 'The Story of the Thorn Birds' and a setting of the love theme for dulcimer and recorder, 'Meggie Grows Up'. 'Parting' resets the theme with a yearning power which effectively brings the first half of the album to a climax, just as if it were an LP. The next track being 'The Thorn Birds Theme', playing like a concert setting of the same jaunty material as the 'Main Title'.
Cues such as 'Baby Hal Dies', 'The Rams and the Ewes', 'Search for Paddy', Meggie's Heartbreak' are so generally self-effacing as to pass un-noticed, while 'Father Ralph Returns and Funeral Procession' is simply yet more of the love theme… further variations being spun in 'Luke and Meggie'…
At least 'Arrival at the Vatican' stirs the torpor, though as the second disc begins 'Meggie Leaves Drogheda' offers nothing but variations on what we have already heard, and 'Arrival at Queensland' continues a thread of MOR lightweight writing which by the mid-point is rapidly outstaying its welcome. Further examples of MOR banality include 'Matlock Island' and 'Marry Me Meggin' (sic), while the love theme is given further spins in cues such as 'Beach Walk', 'Ralph and Meggie', 'Paradise Lost', 'Vacation's End'… to the point where one may begin to consider the combination of MOR and endless variations on the same material akin to Chinese water torture.
'The Greek Tragedy' offers some Greek instrumental colouring, but is musically negligible, while 'Bye, Bye Dane' does offer some striking new material and a sprightly pace leading to a dramatic conclusion, elevating the score above the mid-tempo mundanity into which it has long since settled. 'Meggie Reveals The Truth' offers more variations, but is a longer, darker, more substantial setting to material already over worn. The mood darkens through 'Be Happy', leading to the tender, delicate and finally tear-jerking 'Ralph Dies', before a typically brief and in context laughably upbeat 1980's TV style end title. A bonus track is an MOR ballad setting of the love theme.
Yes, the themes are attractive, and the central love theme is memorable and touching – even if this is not in the timeless class of Mancini at his best – but enough is enough. So much so that in the booklet Jerry McCulley almost unbelievably writes "the two discs of music here seem downright sparing…" Most will probably find there's a perfectly good LP's worth of music struggling to get out from two hours of repetition and MOR banality. A shame there couldn't have been just such an LP 20 years ago. If the tracks had been well chosen it would have rendered this massively over inflated package completely redundant.