Australia’s favourite TV show connects families separated by COVID with surprise virtual drop-ins

By Louise Talbot

With more than 15 million Australians enduring harsh lockdowns during the pandemic, celebrating major milestones like birthdays, births and anniversaries at the one house or pub has been impossible.

A recent study from Pureprofile commissioned by Amazon Prime Video for the return of family-friendly hit TV original series Back to the Rafters revealed an astonishing 62 per cent of Aussies – three in five – have missed a major milestone during the past 12 months.

Half the nation said it hadn’t been able to celebrate life’s achievements, or the pandemic presented new challenges for them and their family.

Relationships Australia NSW boss and clinical psychologist Elisabeth Shaw said quality relationships are more important now, with almost 80 per cent of people surveyed saying the pandemic has made them “rethink” their relationships and how connected they are with family and friends.

“It’s important to find new ways to celebrate milestones together, shake things up a bit,” Ms Shaw said.

And that’s exactly what Rebecca Gibney, Erik Thomson and George Houvardas did as the much-loved show launches its anticipated return to the screens this weekend.

For two competition winners, the McLeish and Denton families – celebrating a 30th birthday and a one-year anniversary respectively – it was a teary, welcome surprise leaving them lost for words as the celebrities dropped in on their Zoom chats with balloons and cupcakes.

Lifting spirits. ‘The Rafters’ drop in to celebrate fans’ birthdays. Photo: Amazon Prime Video

A year of challenges trying to stay connected

Gibney (Flying Doctors, Halifax FP), who has played Julie Rafter over six seasons on Packed to the Rafters knows how tough it is to mark important milestones as its reflected in the often-emotional storylines from the new series so many years later.

After a mad-dash recap in the trailer of the births, deaths and weddings living under the one roof for decades, we now see the Rafters return six years later.

Much-loved veteran actor Michael Caton reprises his role as Grandad.

There are new relationships, new babies and dreaded fears the whole family is drifting apart.

All too real is one shock moment when daughter Rachel (Georgina Haig) speaks to her parents Julie and Dave (Thomson) via Zoom from New York.

“What’s the deal with you guys? Are you splitting up?” she asks.

Award-winning Gibney said everyone from the show understands how tough it is for families to mark important milestones “so it was so lovely to spend time with the Denton family – even virtually – and lift their spirits”.

“This year has presented more challenges for Aussies trying to stay connected to their families than ever before, and we see this reflected in the new series with the Rafters family,” Gibney said.

“Whether they are crammed under the same roof or spread out across different cities, we see that, even as life moves on, family doesn’t.”

Adds Thomson: “A number of Australians are either dispersed, or everyone is living under one roof and completely packed to the Rafters! However, that doesn’t always mean connections are strong, so it’s important to take time to continue to spend quality time together.”

Kandis and Kelli Denton and Kerry Thorn got a welcome surprise during their Zoom family chat.  Photo: Denton family

The Denton family – Kandis, Lee, Kerry and Kelli – wanted to celebrate Kandis and Lee’s one-year wedding anniversary, which they had to spend at home due to the lockdowns.

Gibney and Thomson surprised the group with a love heart cupcakes and balloons, with the unexpected drop-in catching them completely off guard.

The McLeish family missed out on celebrating the 30th birthday of Greg.

Houvardas joined a Zoom call that Greg thought was a regular family meet, leaving him “lost for words”.

The group shared their stories about being separated during the pandemic and their memories of the original series.

‘Distance, silence’ have ‘eroding’ effect on relationships

Ms Shaw says that while we can’t use physical contact to reinforce relationships, people are tempted to put everything on hold and just sit it out until lockdown ends.

“However, distance and silence can have a negative and eroding effect on relationships. A non-negotiable recurring Zoom catch-up can keep everyone securely and predictably connected,” Ms Shaw said.

“Ring out of the blue, email, text, send amusing gifs, anything to say ‘I am thinking of you’. If everyone is Zoomed out, then these can all be valuable ways to feel held.

“Who cares who makes the contact? Try not to let this be an evaluation of the relationship. Whoever thinks of it first should be valued.

“Use your words. We can’t use physical contact to reinforce feelings at present, so speaking up more about the value of the relationship could be really important and heartwarming.”

So, go on! Say “I’ve missed you”, or “loved catching up today”!

As Caton remarks: “I call that “Bonza!”

Back to the Rafters launches on Amazon Prime Video on September 17


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