Blasts from the past

Aus­tralian his­tor­i­cal dra­mas are tak­ing over the small screen, writes Colin Vick­ery

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AUS­TRALIA is go­ing through a retro drama re­nais­sance. The im­ported Down­ton Abbey may have proved a rat­ings hit for Chan­nel 7, but au­di­ences also can’t get enough of locally pro­duced his­tor­i­cal drama.

The two-part Howzat!, set in the late 1970s, turned into a multi-mil­lion dol­lar payday for Chan­nel 9, bowl­ing over three mil­lion view­ers na­tion­ally.

Pu­berty Blues, also set in the 1970s, is Chan­nel 10’s be­strat­ing new show. It comes af­ter the ex­tra­or­di­nary rat­ings for an­other retro drama, Pa­per Giants, last year.

Also on the way is a sec­ond sea­son of 1920s-themed crime hit Miss Fisher’s Murder Mys­ter­ies and Pa­per Giants: Mag­a­zine Wars (about the war waged be­tween women’s mag­a­zine ed­i­tors Dul­cie Bol­ing and Nene King). Then there’s Han­som Cab (a 19th cen­tury mys­tery star­ring John Wa­ters), Dan­ger­ous Rem­edy (a true story based on events be­gin­ning in 1969, when Dr Bert Wainer un­cov­ered an il­le­gal abor­tion racket), The Dr Blake Mys­ter­ies (Craig McLach­lan, pic­tured right, stars as a po­lice sur­geon in Bal­larat in 1959), and A Place

I won’t do any his­tory drama just for drama’s sake

to Call Home (a 1950s-era drama headed up by Noni Ha­zle­hurst and Brett Climo).

‘‘ These shows hark back to a more colourful era when there were big, bold char­ac­ters; that is en­ter­tain­ing,’’ me­dia an­a­lyst Steve Allen says of the retro hits.

For pro­ducer John Ed­wards, who over­saw Howzat!, Pu­berty Blues and Pa­per Giants, the 1970s is the key. It was a time of mas­sive po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and sex­ual up­heaval. ‘‘ That pe­riod was a turn­ing point in Aus­tralian his­tory,’’ he says.

The Sunbury Pop Fes­ti­val kicked things off. It was Aus­tralia’s an­swer to Woodstock and cloth­ing was def­i­nitely op­tional. The early 1970s was also a time of fierce protest against Aus­tralia’s in­volve­ment in the Viet­nam War.

The decade saw the rise of fem­i­nism — women burn­ing their bras and de­mand­ing equal rights.

The 1970s was when theWhite Aus­tralia Pol­icy was abol­ished, set­ting the scene for mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism.

Gough Whit­lam and La­bor swept to power af­ter 23 years of Lib­eral-Coun­try Party rule. In 1975, the coun­try erupted when Whit­lam was dis­missed and Op­po­si­tion Leader Mal­colm Fraser was in­stalled as care­taker Prime Min­is­ter.

‘‘ I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in the Whit­lam era,’’ Ed­wards says. ‘‘ I won’t do any his­tory drama just for drama’s sake.’’

Nine Mel­bourne pro­gram chief Len Downs says Howzat! suc­ceeded be­cause view­ers are fas­ci­nated by Kerry Packer. ‘‘ A lot of peo­ple didn’t know what he was re­ally like,’’ Mr Downs says.

‘‘ He was larger than life as a per­son. He didn’t make a lot of pub­lic ap­pear­ances or do a lot of in­ter­views.

‘‘ To be suc­cess­ful, they (his­tory-based TV shows) have got to be about peo­ple or events back in time that have no­to­ri­ety. World Se­ries Cricket cre­ated a lot of press at the time. View­ers are in­trigued about what re­ally did hap­pen.’’

A scan of the rat­ings shows Aussie TV view­ers are fas­ci­nated by much more than the 1970s.

Down­ton Abbey, set in the early 1900s, has been a mas­sive suc­cess for Chan­nel 7. The ABC struck gold with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mys­ter­ies, which is set in the 1920s.

Last year’s Un­der­belly: Ra­zor cen­tred on 1920s Sydney. The ABC’s lat­est hit drama, Call the Mid­wife, is set in Lon­don in the 1950s.

Miss Fisher pro­duc­ers Deb Cox and Fiona Eag­ger say that mak­ing his­tor­i­cal dra­mas is more af­ford­able than it used to be — and that makes them at­trac­tive to TV net­works. In the past, try­ing to repli­cate his­tor­i­cal pe­ri­ods was ex­pen­sive. The dig­i­tal ef­fects rev­o­lu­tion has changed all that.

‘‘ I trained on shows like The Sul­li­vans and Car­son’s Law,’’ Cox says. ‘‘ Those shows were very set-bound — be­cause there weren’t a lot of (suit­able) ex­te­rior lo­ca­tions.

‘‘ Now, if you’re clever, you can use CGI (com­puter gen­er­ated im­agery) strate­gi­cally to have a much big­ger can­vas.

‘‘ We didn’t want to look at the past as a nov­elty— though peo­ple do love the dresses and the cars.

‘‘ We wanted to look at a time in the past that had con­nec­tions to the present.

‘‘ Phryne Fisher is a very mod­ern woman. She is look­ing at women’s rights at a time when they were not taken for granted.

‘‘ Aus­tralia’s past hasn’t been en­shrined enough in our TV. We have our own his­tory. This cur­rent crop of dra­mas are a cel­e­bra­tion of that.’’ Look­ing back (clock­wise): the one-day cricket team as seen on Essie Davis as Phryne Fisher; John Wa­ters in

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