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