• July 19, 2024

Great dynasties of the world: The Waltons

The Barlows. The Cartwrights. The Cranes. The Ewings. The Huxtables. The Partridges. The Royles. The Trotters. The Brady Bunch. Dynasty. Little House on the Prairie. Roseanne. There are as many kinds of TV family as there are families in reality, including the clan who bid each other a cheery goodnight as they switch off the lights at night – you know who I’m talking about.

In 1961, Earl Hamner, a writer in his 30s, from Schuyler, Virginia, published his second novel, Spencer’s Mountain. The family story he told in the book, he later admitted, was basically about “my brothers and sisters, my mother and father, my grandparents, as we were during the Depression years of the 30s”. It’s a kind of upbeat Angela’s Ashes. The novel was made into a film in 1963, starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara, and then developed into a TV series.

The first episode was broadcast on September 14, 1972. The Waltons lasted nine seasons, and more than 200 episodes, with occasional TV specials. It’s a simple story about three generations of a family living together in Walton’s Mountain, a fictitious place in Virginia, based on Hamner’s home town of Schuyler. (The series was filmed at Warner Brothers in Hollywood, and in the Angeles National Forest). John Walton runs a sawmill while his wife Olivia raises their seven children – John-Boy, Jason, Mary Ellen, Ben, Erin, Jim-Bob and Elizabeth. John’s father and mother, Grandpa Zeb and Grandma Esther, live with them, along with a large cast of pets, including a dog called Restless.

In his book about the TV series, Goodnight John-Boy (2002), Hamner explains that he set out to portray an average, all-American family living in a small white clapboard house, just like his own family, except that every week the Waltons had Gypsies, and Jewish refugees, and circus performers, and wandering musicians, and actresses, and crash-landed pilots, and poor little orphans, and goodness knows who else, turning up on their doorstep and learning the true meaning of family life.

The highlight of every programme, apart from the hokey opening sequence in which John Walton arrived home like John Wayne in The Searchers, to be greeted by his joyous family, was the even hokier ending, in which the lights go out as the family would bid each other goodnight. “Goodnight, Ben”, “Goodnight, Mary Ellen”, “Goodnight, Jim-Bob”, “Goodnight, John-Boy” became a catchphrase. Richard Thomas, who played John-Boy, says: “I’ve been hearing it for 30 years. In the street, in restaurants, yelled by hard-hatted workers on New York City construction sites, even over the phone from telemarketers who recognised my voice.”

Hamner went on to write other books and is now 87. Olivia Walton – Ma, played by Michael Learned – appears in the TV series Scrubs. John Walton – Pa, played by Ralph Waite – stood for Congress as a Democrat. Grandpa and Grandma have long since died, and now John-Boy – Richard Thomas – is himself a grandfather. The first memoir written by one of the Walton children, Mary McDonough, who played Erin, Lessons From the Mountain (2011), has just been published. She has had problems with silicone breast implants.

In one episode, John-Boy borrows a typewriter and submits a story to a magazine. If any forty-plus writers or journalists deny that this episode was the inspiration for their future careers, they are lying.

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