DRA­MATIC EM­PHA­SIS

Af­ter years of re­al­ity TV, more Aus­tralian drama is on the way, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story - Rose­mary Neill

RE­VIEW’S pho­tog­ra­pher is coax­ing a cheesy grin from Hal and Di McEl­roy, urg­ing the hus­band and wife pro­duc­ers to imag­ine their new $ 15 mil­lion drama has just topped the rat­ings. ‘‘ More like ‘ thank Christ for that’!’’ says Hal, gri­mac­ing, perched in front a model of the age­ing navy pa­trol boat that plays a star­ring role in the cou­ple’s latest ven­ture, Sea Pa­trol .

The McEl­roys are in their of­fice on Syd­ney’s eu­ca­lypt- speck­led north shore soon be­fore Sea Pa­trol ’ s de­but ear­lier this month on the Nine net­work. The 13- part se­ries, made with help from the Royal Aus­tralian Navy, is Aus­tralia’s most ex­pen­sive television drama to date. At more than $ 1 mil­lion an episode — a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of this is in- kind sup­port from the navy — the McEl­roys clearly need Sea Pa­trol to res­onate with view­ers ( more of which later).

It has taken four in­vestors, ap­proval from two navy chiefs and Defence Min­is­ter Bren­dan Nelson, two pa­trol boats, a navy crew and one bro­ken an­kle to launch this sea­far­ing drama on to the small screen. ‘‘ It took damned near four years to make,’’ says Di, a warm, gre­gar­i­ous wo­man given to the odd burst of fe­roc­ity.

The McEl­roys are sea­soned pro­gram- mak­ers, with pro­duc­tion cred­its rang­ing from lon­grun­ning prime- time hits ( Blue Heel­ers , Wa­ter Rats ) to left- field ex­per­i­ments ( SBS’s Go­ing Home, set en­tirely inside a train car­riage).

But Di knew she was in for un­prece­dented, lo­gis­ti­cal hur­dles when she slipped and broke her an­kle on a navy ves­sel dur­ing a re­search trip for Sea Pa­trol . The se­ries, which taps into the pub­lic’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with border se­cu­rity, is largely shot at sea.

Dur­ing four months of film­ing in un­pre­dictable trop­i­cal wa­ters off north Queens­land, a vast cata­ma­ran served as a float­ing wardrobe and make- up de­part­ment. Ev­ery day about 60 ac­tors, pro­duc­tion crew and sailors grap­pled with six tonnes of equip­ment on a pa­trol boat built for 24. The cast, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia’s

SPAA ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Ge­off Brown says en­dur­ing Aussie dra­mas such as Blue Heel­ers and McLeod’s Daugh­ters have al­ways branded the net­works and ‘‘ I just think they lost sight of that’’. He says that dur­ing the past five or six years, TV ex­ec­u­tives were blinded to the po­ten­tial of lo­cal drama by re­al­ity TV, which is of­ten cheap to make and highly pop­u­lar.

They were also put off by a tougher in­ter­na­tional mar­ket­place, as coun­tries that once de­frayed the high costs of Aus­tralian drama by co- pro­duc­ing or im­port­ing it poured all their re­sources into their own pro­duc­tions. small- screen sweet­heart Lisa McCune, learned how to per­form their own stunts.

If the McEl­roys have a lot rid­ing on the suc­cess of their big- bud­get drama, so does the broader in­dus­try. In re­cent times, pro­duc­tion of Aus­tralian TV drama has fallen alarm­ingly and in­dus­try in­sid­ers hope Nine’s in­vest­ment in Sea Pa­trol is a sign of re­stored faith in the form.

The in­flu­en­tial Screen Pro­duc­ers As­so­ci­a­tion of Aus­tralia is not so much en­cour­aged by Sea Pa­trol ’ s hefty bud­get as by sig­nals from TV ex­ec­u­tives that they once again be­lieve in Aus­tralian drama.

But McEl­roy, who pro­duced the clas­sic film Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock in his 20s, be­lieves the lo­cal in­dus­try went into de­cline be­cause it failed to cre­ate sto­ries that con­nected with mass au­di­ences. ‘‘ What’s sadly true is that in re­cent years the in­dus­try hasn’t had that light­ning strike,’’ he says.

In 2005- 06 the Aus­tralian Film Com­mis­sion found that bud­gets for lo­cal adult drama to­talled $ 129 mil­lion, sig­nif­i­cantly down on the five- year av­er­age of $ 168 mil­lion. In 2005, SPAA com­plained that drama pro­duc­tion at the com­mer­cial net­works was at a 10- year low. At the ABC — tra­di­tion­ally the torch­bearer for qual­ity lo­cal drama — drama pro­duc­tion had dropped to un­prece­dented lows.

ABC head of television Kim Dal­ton ad­mits that last year the na­tional broad­caster screened just seven hours of new home- grown drama, down from 102 hours in 2001. That’s eight min­utes a week. Dal­ton calls this ‘‘ a com­pletely un­ac­cept­able sit­u­a­tion’’.

Brown says it is ‘‘ hugely in­ad­e­quate and an em­bar­rass­ment to the ABC and to the in­dus­try, and it just makes it tougher all round’’. He fears that if the ABC’s drama out­put stays low, the com­mer­cial net­works will rebel against the lo­cal drama quo­tas they must meet to re­tain their li­cences. ( The com­mer­cial net­works screen 100 to 200 hours of home- grown drama ev­ery year.)

Dal­ton, who joined the ABC in early 2006, says that even though the na­tional broad­caster

lacks the re­sources to make a lot of high- end drama, in re­cent years ‘‘ there is no doubt that the ABC pri­ori­tised its fund­ing away from drama to other ar­eas. The story is there if you look at the sta­tis­tics.’’ Dal­ton wants to change that. He says 14 hours of new Aus­tralian drama will be screened on the ABC this year. The minis­eries Curtin and Bas­tard Boys have al­ready screened and ‘‘ rated ex­tremely well’’, he says.

Soon to screen on the ABC are Rain Shadow , a six- part minis­eries about the drought star­ring Rachel Ward, and a new com­edy se­ries, The Li­brar­i­ans . ‘‘ It ( the to­tal) is still quite low,’’ Dal­ton con­cedes. He wants to lift the ABC’s drama out­put to 20 hours next year, ‘‘ and I would hope that we will stay like that for the next cou­ple of years. The only rea­son we will be able to get back up to that level — I still ac­cept the level is low — is the ef­fect of the money we got in the fed­eral bud­get last year.’’

He is re­fer­ring to the ex­tra $ 30 mil­lion over three years Can­berra granted the ABC. It sounds sub­stan­tial, but only half — or $ 5 mil­lion a year — will go to adult drama. The other half will be spent on chil­dren’s TV and doc­u­men­taries.

Brown says the ex­tra fund­ing ‘‘ is still far from ad­e­quate, but it’s a start and the ABC needs to build on it’’.

Talk of a home- grown drama re­vival is also be­ing driven by the fed­eral Gov­ern­ment’s new 20 per cent tax re­bate for in­vest­ment in lo­cal film and TV drama, an­nounced in the last bud­get. Dal­ton says the tax re­bate ‘‘ will in­crease out­put but to what ex­tent, we don’t know. I think it’s a pos­i­tive step.’’ The SPAA is scep­ti­cal be­cause only TV se­ries that cost $ 600,000 an hour will at­tract the tax de­duc­tion. ‘‘ That is too high for TV drama,’’ Brown says. ‘‘ For an or­gan­i­sa­tion like the ABC, it’s unattain­able.’’

Al­though the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket has been re­sis­tant to Aus­tralian sto­ries ( apart from soaps), Sea Pa­trol has been sold to Hall­mark, an Amer­i­can pay- TV op­er­a­tor that reaches 100 ter­ri­to­ries. And this month Chan­nel 7’ s lon­grun­ning hospi­tal drama All Saints was picked up by the BBC.

Nine has com­mit­ted to a sec­ond se­ries of Sea Pa­trol , though the go- ahead is con­tin­gent on fur­ther fund­ing from the Film Fi­nance Cor­po­ra­tion. Nine is also film­ing two new lo­cal drama se­ries: Un­der­belly , about Melbourne’s mur­der­ous gang wars, and Canal Road , a med­i­cal- le­gal drama. Both will be screened next year.

How­ever, the net­work that has tra­di­tion­ally dom­i­nated the rat­ings has not al­ways been so sup­port­ive of lo­cal drama. Late last year, SPAA ac­cused Nine of be­ing ‘‘ out­ra­geous’’ and ‘‘ cyn­i­cal’’ when the net­work launched the New Zealand drama Out­ra­geous For­tune in a 10.30pm times­lot in a non- rat­ings pe­riod. It was thought Nine wanted to use the Kiwi se­ries ( funded by NZ tax­pay­ers) to help meet its drama quota. Fol­low­ing a 1997 High Court de­ci­sion, NZ pro­grams can count as Aus­tralian con­tent.

In the end, Nine didn’t need to fac­tor in the Kiwi drama to meet its drama quota. It did, how­ever, in­clude 11 lo­cal fea­ture films, most screened late at night with lit­tle pro­mo­tion. ( Nine head of drama Jo Hors­burgh did not re­spond to a re­quest for an in­ter­view.)

Mean­while, Seven — poised to trump Nine this year as the high­est rat­ing net­work — has head­hunted the na­tion’s fox­i­est horn­bags, Kath and Kim, from the ABC. Seven’s new ur­ban po­lice drama, City Homi­cide , will also air soon.

Ac­cel­er­at­ing the charge to put Aus­tralian ac­cents and sto­ries back on the small screen are SBS and pay- TV chan­nels in­clud­ing Fox 8, Show­time and UKTV. This year, pay- TV chan­nels have broad­cast the third se­ries of the award- win­ning Love My Way and Dan­ger­ous , a drama about ram raiders from Syd­ney’s west­ern sub­urbs. The 10- part se­ries Sat­is­fac­tion , which ex­plores the lives of five women who work in a brothel, will air on Show­time later this year.

‘‘ Pay TV is now recog­nised as a real force in Aus­tralian TV drama,’’ Brown says, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to edgy, youth- ori­ented drama. SBS, he adds, ‘‘ is a fan­tas­tic com­mis­sioner, given [ its] lim­ited re­sources’’.

De­spite be­ing over­looked in the fed­eral fund­ing round that gave the ABC ex­tra drama money, SBS has more than dou­bled its drama out­put dur­ing the past two years.

‘‘ We were dev­as­tated ( to miss out on the ex­tra fund­ing). We would love to be do­ing a lot more. We are ca­pa­ble of do­ing a lot more and it is very frus­trat­ing that we don’t have the bud­get to do it,’’ says Ca­role Sk­lan, a com­mis­sion­ing ed­i­tor for drama at SBS.

Sk­lan ex­plains that dur­ing the past two years SBS has shifted its re­sources from sup­port­ing one- off tele­movies and fea­ture films, such as the award- win­ning Ten Ca­noes and Look Both Ways, to TV drama. ‘‘ We wanted to make au­di­ences more aware that SBS sup­ports Aus­tralian drama,’’ she says.

In the 2005- 06 fi­nan­cial year, SBS made 15 hours of lo­cal drama. Last fi­nan­cial year it pro­duced 32 hours.

SBS is screen­ing The Cir­cuit , which Syd­ney’s The Daily Tele­graph has called ‘‘ the best new se­ries of the year’’. The Cir­cuit stars Aaron Ped­er­sen and Gary Sweet, and traces the le­gal, po­lit­i­cal and racial fault lines that in­ter­sect in the world’s big­gest le­gal ju­ris­dic­tion, the Kim­ber­ley.

Sk­lan says SBS is out to make ‘‘ drama with a twist that re­flects Aus­tralia’s cul­tural di­ver­sity’’. One of SBS’s two sched­uled se­ries of short ex­per­i­men­tal dra­mas is by new in­dige­nous film­mak­ers and the net­work will also screen an­other new minis­eries, East West 101 , a drama fea­tur­ing an Arab de­tec­tive liv­ing in Syd­ney.

The sched­ul­ing of East West 101 will also be un­con­ven­tional. It will pre­miere in De­cem­ber, be­cause com­pe­ti­tion from the big US dra­mas dur­ing rat­ings sea­son ‘‘ just kills SBS, so we have tried to find ways where we can re­ally fea­ture our work’’, says Sk­lan. She notes that with the SBS line- up and sev­eral com­mer­cial se­ries and minis­eries in pro­duc­tion, ‘‘ peo­ple are say­ing they can’t get television crews be­cause it’s all hap­pen­ing all at once. It’s my im­pres­sion that all the net­works are now gear­ing up to sup­port more Aus­tralian drama. Peo­ple must have been feel­ing that there was just this vac­uum of Aus­tralian sto­ries with Aus­tralian char­ac­ters who con­nected with Aus­tralian au­di­ences.’’

Based on the pro­duc­tion flurry of the past six months, Brown is cau­tiously op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture. ‘‘ We think there is a great op­por­tu­nity for Aus­tralian drama to work again,’’ he says.

The Ten net­work, it seems, is buck­ing the trend. Its only new home- grown drama this year was the tele­movie Joanne Lees: Mur­der in the Out­back , which screened in March. It has just fin­ished film­ing an­other tele­movie, The Falls , star­ring Ge­orgie Parker, which it hopes to turn into a se­ries next year. ‘‘ It’s been very much a de­vel­op­ment and pro­duc­tion year,’’ says a spokes­woman schooled in the art of eu­phemism.

* * * IT’S the morn­ing af­ter the night be­fore. On Thurs­day, July 5, Sea Pa­trol went to air for the first time. Within hours, the rat­ings were out, and the num­bers looked good; more than good. The se­ries recorded the strong­est de­but for an Aus­tralian drama se­ries in six years.

The first episode drew 1.98 mil­lion view­ers across five cap­i­tal cities, out­per­form­ing an NRL State of Ori­gin match broad­cast the same week, a rare feat for an un­tested lo­cal drama.

‘‘ I think you could say re­lieved is the word,’’ Di McEl­roy says, when asked for her re­ac­tion.

Hal McEl­roy is even more down­beat, re­veal­ing he and Di haven’t yet treated them­selves to a cel­e­bra­tory drink. ‘‘ We didn’t open the cham­pagne, we kind of fell ex­hausted to the floor. It was a kind of stress re­lease,’’ he says, adding that he and Di are up to their ears fi­ness­ing scripts for the sec­ond se­ries.

Hal says it’s a trap to get car­ried away by a de­but episode’s rat­ings, as viewer num­bers typ­i­cally fall away af­ter that, then climb back up. On its sec­ond out­ing, Sea Pa­trol peaked with 1.84 mil­lion view­ers, at­tract­ing an av­er­age 1.66 mil­lion fans, still an out­stand­ing re­sult. Even so, Hal McEl­roy in­sists: ‘‘ It is a marathon and all we have done is turn the first cor­ner.’’

More to fol­low: Head of television Kim Dal­ton hopes to lift the ABC’s lo­cal drama out­put to 20 hours

Lo­cal re­nais­sance: Pro­duc­ers Di and Hal McEl­roy, far left, have a lot rid­ing on the suc­cess of Sea Pa­trol; Lisa McCune on the Sea Pa­trol set, fac­ing page, top; the cast of SBS’s The Cir­cuit , be­low; left, from top, scenes from the ABC’s Rain Shadow, Nine’s Un­der­belly, the ABC’s Curtin, Nine’s Canal Road and Seven’s City Homi­cide

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