Kath & Kim: articles

Michael and Gigi Edgley

SITTING PRETTY: Gina Riley and Jane Turner are the actors and inspiration behind Kim and Kath

Hornbags Inc.

“NO ONE wants to watch a mother and daughter screaming at each other for half an hour,” declared the ABC television executive on first reading the script of Kath and Kim back in early 2001.

It will go down as the definitive this-will-come-back-to-haunt-you statement in local TV history.

Not only is Kath and Kim the most successful local comedy in almost 50 years of Australian television, its two lead characters have become a multimillion-dollar business.

Three years later, Kath and Kim is a programming and merchandising bonanza for creators and stars Jane Turner (Kath) and Gina Riley (Kim), and the ABC.

The DVD of Series 3 is on sale, and walking out of stores around Australia.

There’s also the Kath and Kim clothing, aprons, tea towels, “hornbag” kits, oven mitts, toys, cosmetic kits and magnetic dress-up dolls.

Once the Christmas boom is over, it is estimated that DVD and video sales alone will have grossed between $15 million and $20 million over the past three years. Retail sources place other merchandising sales at over $5 million over the same period.

The ABC share of sales is substantial, yet in one of TV’s great ironies, back in early 2001, so sure was the national broadcaster that Kath and Kim would prove to be one of TV’s greatest turkeys, it went to extraordinary lengths to try to get out of its agreement with Riley and Turner.

Major overseas sales to America and Britain have added to the financial coffers, turning the Fountain Lakes hornbags into international celebrities.

Already seen on cable in the UK and US, Kath and Kim spreads its wings even further in Britain next month when it makes its debut on free-to-air BBC2, exposing Melbourne’s suburban sensibilities to an audience of 20 million.

American cable has re-licensed the second series and is in discussion to buy Series 3.

However, despite the success of their creation here and overseas, Riley and Turner are not sure of just what the future holds for two characters who threaten to become our most memorable comedy exports since Crocodile Dundee and Dame Edna.

Writing and performing in the third series and pushing to maintain the standard has taken its toll on the two real-life suburban mums. There is every chance a new Kath and Kim series will not be seen on TV in 2005.

More particularly, there is a chance we may have seen the last of Kath and Kim.

“Acting-wise and career-wise, I know I would like to do other things – other roles, explore different areas,” says Turner, a mother of three.

“I don’t want to play Kath Day-Knight for the rest of my life.

“It may be the end, it may not. You just have to read the lie of the land. It’s very much a case of can we keep going and keep it fresh, or do we go off and do something else?

“Maybe we’re better letting Kath and Kim rest after three seasons. Maybe taking an extended break is the answer. Right now – well, you finish up stuffed, and a long break would be nice.”

Riley, too, admits that a long break is top of her list of priorities, as she and Turner decide where they want to go in the future.

“We’ve got to take time out to think whether we’ve got anything more to say or not,” she says.

It’s no secret both the Seven and Nine networks have long been keen to woo Kath and Kim over to commercial television, but the sitcom is contracted to the ABC.

Sources at Nine in Sydney confirm Kerry Packer would love to poach the duo.

The Sunday Mail can reveal that a $5 million-plus movie offer from Nine’s cinema production arm has been sitting in a drawer in Sydney awaiting the women’s signature, should they ever decide film is the way they want to go.

Turner and Riley have nothing to say about any specific movie deal, but Turner concedes film is an option that has some appeal.

“It would be great to make a film – whether it was a Kath and Kim movie or some other film,” she says.

“Kath and Kim sit well as TV characters. Whether they’d transfer to the big screen, I’m not sure.

“We’d only do it if it felt right creatively.”

The ABC delights in its skill at having commissioned the hottest Aussie sitcom in our TV history back in December 2000.

It regularly trumpets with pride that the show attracts a weekly audience of two million Australians.

Extraordinarily, this year Kath and Kim was the third most watched regular series on Australian TV, surpassed only by commercial juggernauts Australian Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

What the ABC is not keen to recall is the lengths it went to following that December 2000 signing to get out of its commitment to the show.

Turner and Riley created Kath and Kim, with Magda Szubanski’s netball-loving Sharon, in 1994 as characters for their Channel 7 comedy series Big Girl’s Blouse.

In 2000 they took a Kath and Kim script, cast list, and Big Girl’s Blouse tape of the characters to the ABC.

No sooner had the deal been done in December 2000 than things turned sour, and a handful of ABC executives decided the show was about as funny as a kick in the leg.

It is no secret that the ABC’s then head of comedy, Geoff Portman, started having serious misgivings about the show.

He passed it on to other executives for their opinion. One was Valerie Hardy, former Network Ten head of drama, who had moved to the ABC.

“I agreed with Geoff. I didn’t think the script was at all funny,” she said last year.

A Melbourne ABC insider, now based in Sydney, recalls another ABC executive passing the “mother/daughter screaming” comment.

“To be fair, she wasn’t alone in her sentiments,” he says.

“But she said, ‘No one wants to watch a mother and daughter screaming at each other for half an hour’.

“If it was to work, she felt Kath and Kim had to kiss and make up at the end of each episode.”

For months the ABC tried to extricate itself from the deal, but realised it was legally bound to proceed.

“Sandra Levy is the one who today gets the credit for getting Kath and Kim to air, but the truth is her decision was based not so much because she liked the show, but because, having read the documents, she knew the ABC was stuck with the contract,” the ABC insider says. Levy is the ABC director of television.

Production of the first series proceeded, but it was very much a case of lawyers at 50 paces.

“While they will tell you differently today, the show sat on the shelf at the ABC for a few months, because they thought they had a bomb,” the Sydney insider says.

“When the first series took off and was a hit, you’ve never seen so much egg running down the faces of so many so-called ABC television experts.

“They couldn’t believe it, but of course immediately embraced it in public, and claimed all the glory.

“It is one of the most amazing stories in Australian television when you consider the unbelievable lengths the ABC went to to dump it before it ever screened.”

Turner and Riley have never commented, or even hinted, at problems with the ABC.

The mutual admiration society remains intact as the show breaks one record after another for Australian TV comedy.

Robert Fidgeon
December 26, 2004
The Sunday Mail