Mother and Son has long been regarded as one of Australia’s greatest sitcoms. First airing in 1984, the tale of the ageing Maggie Beare and her hapless son, Arthur, was not only very funny, but revealed the pain, frustration and love that underpinned their relationship.
For anyone who has cared for an ageing parent – or faced the diminution of their autonomy as they have aged – Mother and Son still strikes a nerve.
As Australia’s population ages, and more of us grapple with the challenges of caring for ageing relatives, it is unsurprising that Mother and Son has been revived by the ABC. As our media and entertainment industries churn out remakes, franchises and revivals, refashioning a beloved program like Mother and Son makes some sense: a large portion of the ABC’s ageing audience will tune in, if only to complain that the remake can’t hold a candle to the original.
However, the revival has some fresh things to say about the fraught but loving bonds between adult children and their ageing parents in the 21st century.
The original Mother and Son
Mother and Son premiered on the ABC in 1984 and ran for six seasons until 1994. Both critically acclaimed and widely loved by viewers, the series made Ruth Cracknell a beloved national treasure and allowed Garry McDonald, who became famous as Norman Gunston in the 1970s, to show a different set of comic skills.
The show’s premise was simple: 35-year-old journalist Arthur moves in with his mum, Maggie, who is showing signs of cognitive decline – or is she? Maggie’s absent-mindedness frustrates Arthur and generates much of the comedy, but her ability to emotionally blackmail her son and get her own way balances the power in their dynamic.
At the time Mother and Son was first broadcast, Australian sitcoms were thin on the ground. Australian television had long succeeded in the realm of topical, satirical sketch comedy, from The Mavis Bramston Show to The Gillies Report and Fast Forward. Mother and Son represented a significant departure from the sketch comedies, soaps and serial dramas that featured on 1980s television.
In many ways it resembled the British sitcoms that were a staple part of the ABC’s viewing schedule, with live audiences, a single set and multiple cameras.
Ageing parents and adult children
Re-watching Mother and Son, (currently available on iView), I was struck by how well it captures the complex emotions of both ageing parents and their adult children.
The series never shied away from Arthur’s guilt and frustration, or Maggie’s loneliness and feelings of loss. It is a resonant depiction of the often-messy emotions that come with being a carer, while not losing sight of the feelings of the person being cared for.
In spite of everything, Maggie and Arthur still love each other. In an early episode, after a fight, Maggie is caught shoplifting a bottle of oysters – one of Arthur’s favourite foods. She’s arrested and when Arthur arrives at the police station to take her home, he asks her why she stole the oysters. Maggie replies simply: “because I thought it would make you like me again”.
Cracknell’s subtle, dignified performance gave moments like these a genuine pathos. The series showcased both a complex portrayal of an older woman (a rare thing on television) and also a male carer. In a society where care of children and the elderly was (and still is) typically regarded as “women’s work”, this was significant.
A new mother and son
Where the original series featured a baby boomer looking after his mother, in the new series, it’s a millennial looking after his boomer mum – a story being played out in homes across the nation.
In the 2023 Mother and Son, Maggie (Denise Scott) is a free-spirited eccentric who almost burned down the family home while cooking dinner for her grandchildren. Childless, unmarried Arthur (Daniel Okine), meanwhile, is attempting to start a web business.
In both series, Arthur’s return to the family home is seen as a product of his failure to establish his own family. In the revival, Arthur wants a wife and family but has neither, and spends much of his day playing computer games. This Arthur is caught in perpetual adolescence, unlike McDonald’s original character. His mercenary sister, Robbie (a gender flip from the original) wants to move their mother into aged care so they can sell her home: a very 2020s tale.
Scott’s Maggie has a more anarchic energy than Cracknell’s character. She is uninhibited (making her first appearance on the show naked) and rebellious: when Arthur takes her on a tour of an assisted living facility, a resident waves at her and she flips the bird in response.
Scott conveys the frustration experienced by older people who can no longer live independently – she is resentful about not seeing her grandchildren and angry about the ways her life is “shrinking”. Her spiky portrayal gives Maggie more agency and a likely point of connection with an older viewing audience.
The new Mother and Son is likeable, gentle comedy. It has a diverse, multicultural cast and the writing is largely well-observed. Yet in remaking a much-loved classic comedy, the creators have set themselves an impossibly high bar: Scott and Okine, while charming, are no match for Cracknell and McDonald.
While it can’t hope to match the brilliance of the original, this reimagined Mother and Son offers an sympathetic, honest portrayal of ageing parents and their harried adult children – something we don’t see enough of on our television screens.
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Michelle Arrow, Macquarie University.
Michelle Arrow receives funding from The Australian Research Council.