Avonlea: new stories, same quality

The road for The Beatles may have been long and winding, but for Toronto-based Sullivan Entertainment, it has been smooth and straight - and paved with national and international acclaim....

The road for The Beatles may have been long and winding, but for Toronto-based Sullivan Entertainment, it has been smooth and straight – and paved with national and international acclaim.

The numbers speak for themselves: on its television debut in January 1990, Road to Avonlea, Sullivan’s one-hour, 13-part, $15 million dramatic family series based on four lesser-known works by Lucy Maud Montgomery, drew an unprecedented 2.6 million viewers on cbc; Avonlea holds the Canadian record for most viewers of a series (2.5 million); has sold to more than 100 countries; and has a long list of Canadian and international awards including two Emmy Awards, four CableACE Awards, 10 Geminis and three New York International Film and Television Festival medals.

Following the success of the first season, the challenge for the writers and directors shifted from finding an identity and audience for the show, to that of consistently delivering quality stories, season after season – both engaging, challenging and involving its old viewers and attracting new ones.

And Road to Avonlea, with 12 Gemini nominations including best dramatic series, has been doing just that.

Produced in association with cbc and The Disney Channel, Road to Avonlea has commitments for a sixth and seventh season at a budget of $16.6 million per season. Earlier this month, Avonlea launched its sixth season by garnering preliminary A.C. Nielsen ratings of 1.724 million for the first episode and 1.825 million for the second.

The production value – high – has remained constant, says veteran Avonlea director Don McBrearty, nominated for best direction in a dramatic or comedy series. Producer Kevin Sullivan has maintained a ‘good reign’ over the show, he says.

‘Kevin is willing to pay the money and take the extra time to produce the caliber that Road to Avonlea is known for and is expected to deliver. But the real success of the series, the essential element, starts with a good script.’

The creative challenge for anyone writing for a continuing series is keeping it believable and real, says Marlene Matthews, who has been writing for Avonlea since its second season and story editing for season six and seven. With Avonlea, it is easy, she says.

‘After awhile, the stories come out of the characters.’

Which accounts for the more complex, layered storylines that will be featured in seasons six and seven.

Says Matthews: ‘The kids of Avonlea are growing up, and this should be reflected in the stories that are told. In the beginning of the series, it was cute to see Sarah (Polley) running around chasing a pig in the garden, but now Avonlea is on the verge of modern change.’

Look for ‘gothic’ undertones in the future. It is a natural progression for the series, and one that takes a step back into the original vein of the Montgomery writings.

The cast provides one of the essential elements of maintaining the delicate balance of a continuing series. Matthews believes that after a couple of seasons, the actor knows his or her character better than the writer.

Avonlea has the best of both worlds: a talented ensemble cast – Lally Cadeau (nominated in the best actress category), Gema Zamprogna (best supporting actress nominee), Cedric Smith, who has won a best actor Gemini for his portrayal as Alec King and is nominated again this year, and best actress nominee Jackie Burroughs, who has picked up three Geminis for her role as Hetty King – as well as a knack for attracting stellar guest performers.

Past participants include Colleen Dewhurst, W.O. Mitchell, Christopher Lloyd (who won a Emmy in 1992 for his portrayal of Allistair Dimple), Kate Nelligan, Bruce Greenwood (best guest actor nominee) and Linda Sorensen (best guest actress nominee).

The guest book for season six looks just as impressive, with Faye Dunaway, Frances Hyland and Maureen Stapleton expected to pay visits to Avonlea.

Guest directors also give a level of freshness to the show. Avonlea’s directors come from a variety of backgrounds and include the likes of Stuart Gillard, Kit Hood and Yan Moore, who has picked up a best writing nomination.

The challenges directors face when working on a continuing series are unique, explains McBrearty: ‘As a director, you are coming into a universe where everyone has a part and knows what they are doing very well. When the cast and crew are working together like a well-oiled piece of machinery, you must respect that. The challenge for the director, then, is to get the job done, without upsetting the delicate balance of the show.’

McBrearty, who has directed his share of period pieces, stresses the importance of working closely with wardrobe (Madeline Stewart is nominated for best costume design), art directors and props to create a believable piece. This along with casting, music (Don Gillis and John Welsman are each nominated for a best series music score) and dialogue can weave the tapestry of a successful continuing series.