Tele­vi­sion Grame Blun­dell on a wordy, wor­thy fam­ily drama

An Aussie fam­ily en­coun­ters some wacky lo­cals af­ter mov­ing to a small town in New Zealand

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blun­dell

‘Don’t you wish you had a job like mine? All you have to do is think up a cer­tain num­ber of words. Plus, you can re­peat words. And they don’t even have to be true.” The droll words are from Dave Barry, the Pulitzer prize-win­ning Amer­i­can colum­nist who wrote a pop­u­lar na­tion­ally syn­di­cated hu­mour col­umn for The Mi­ami Her­ald. He also said, “You can only be young once, but you can al­ways be im­ma­ture” — which might be a de­scrip­tion of Ge­orge Turner, played by the ami­able Erik Thom­son in the new Seven fam­ily drama 800 Words, which started last week to good rat­ings.

Ge­orge, we learned last week, had been a colum­nist for a Syd­ney news­pa­per week­end colour sup­ple­ment. He was the lov­ing hus­band of Lau­ren and de­voted fa­ther of teenagers Shay (Melina Vi­dler) and Arlo (Ben­son Jack An­thony). It seemed his only other con­cern in life was typ­ing ex­actly 800 words for his pop­u­lar col­umn, some­thing about which he was finicky, the word count part of his writerly schtick.

His col­umn’s style emerged from his use of per­sonal anec­dotes com­bined with a ge­nial if oc­ca­sion­ally mor­dant tone to com­mu­ni­cate his frus­tra­tions with so­ci­ety and to nar­rate the ev­ery­day strug­gles of a fam­ily man. It pro­vided him with a sense of con­trol over his life — but this abruptly ended when his wife died, plung­ing him into a sense of cri­sis.

But Ge­orge, un­like so many blokes with a midlife calamity, had no de­sire to buy a sports car; he didn’t fan­ta­sise about younger women or go on a crash diet. In­stead he quit his job, told his kids to pack their bags as, sight un­seen, he had bought a house over the in­ter­net in the fic­tional sea­side New Zealand town of Weld, where he once hol­i­dayed as a child. Of course, it was all a comic dis­as­ter. Their car was de­mol­ished by a run­away sculp­ture as they ar­rived; their fur­ni­ture sank on board the Ti­ta­nia (yes, change the last let­ter); and the house was a wreck, “a work in progress” ac­cord­ing to real es­tate guy Monty (Jonny Brugh). Weld is re­mote and iso­lated, far off the Kiwi tourist trail, and they were soon adopted into the lo­cal com­mu­nity whether they liked it or not. But just as Ge­orge ques­tioned his san­ity along came the women of Weld, four at­trac­tive sin­gle ladies, as nutty as they are de­sir­able, in­trigued by Ge­orge.

As played by the de­pend­able Thom­son, more an­i­mated here than in his stint on Packed to the Rafters, he’s one of those blokes who har­bour un­re­al­is­tic am­bi­tions and anx­i­eties about be­ing a fam­ily provider. He gives the im­pres­sion of a man who feels like an im­poster, ex­pect­ing to be un­masked at any mo­ment and there’s some­thing about him that sug­gests he has avoided or de­layed grow­ing up, as if be­ing a child is the only way one truly can be happy and sat­is­fied.

In mov­ing to Weld, though, he’s quickly dis­cov­er­ing that per­sonal deal­ings with loved ones are re­ally a par­al­lel ca­reer for most of us; dis­con­cert­ing, de­mand­ing and only oc­ca­sion­ally re­ally sat­is­fy­ing, no mat­ter how hard one tries.

Seven de­serves con­grat­u­la­tions for go­ing out on a limb with a lo­cal prod­uct writ­ten, acted and pro­duced with some dis­cern­ment, qui­etly amus­ing and at times just a bit wacky. Shot in New Zealand and fea­tur­ing pic­turesque lo­ca­tions on the North Is­land, the show started a lit­tle ten­ta­tively, rather like Ge­orge. But there’s a ca­sual kind of warmth and in­clu­sive­ness to the sto­ry­telling that re­flects the slightly folksy pop­u­lar col­umns Ge­orge is back writ­ing as he set­tles, if un­com­fort­ably, into Weld.

He was writ­ing one called “Rush De­ci­sions” when the pi­lot be­gan (it’s a se­ries that en­joys play­ing with time), an ac­count in fact of the early days of the jour­ney he has un­der­taken with his fam­ily. It’s a job he got through his wife’s close friend­ship with editor Jan (Bri­die Carter) who had, it seems, al­ways en­joyed the chatty Ge­orge’s views on life, chal­leng­ing him dur­ing a party af­ter sev­eral wines to write some down. She liked what he had to say and gave him his own col­umn — a bloke’s voice at the back of a fe­male-ori­ented pub­li­ca­tion. Since Laura’s death she has be­come his best friend, but it’s easy to think she lurks rather pret­tily as a fu­ture love in­ter­est too.

There’s a lot go­ing on in this agree­able se­ries, and as the sec­ond episode takes off this week Ge­orge rapidly has be­come the most un­pop­u­lar new Aussie in town as a re­sult of call­ing Weld a “dead-end town” in that first col­umn from his ram­shackle new home. There’s in­tro­spec­tion aplenty from Ge­orge and buck­ets of back­story to be cov­ered in later episodes, the right kind of nar­ra­tive bus­tle, and a wry sense of ap­pre­hen­sion that at times re­minds one of Sea Change. But it lacks the fla­grant in­ven­tions, the weird, lyri­cal flights of fic­tion that char­ac­terised that won­der­ful se­ries, though it has some po­ten­tially de­light­fully over-the-top Maori char­ac­ters.

This is the sort of show that, from the start, sets up a har­mo­nious re­la­tion­ship with the viewer. As hap­pens in only good com­mer­cial TV drama, the writ­ers seem to be speak­ing di­rectly into your ear, con­fid­ing and teas­ing with a kind of throw­away ca­sual sto­ry­telling fi­nesse. Watch­ing it be­comes a kind of di­a­logue, or even a friend­ship, based on iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, un­der­stand­ing and com­pan­ion­ship. At the show’s core, I sup­pose, is the sup­po­si­tion that, no mat­ter how un­con­nected things seem, there is a cer­tain pat­tern to hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. And a show as good as this brings us char­ac­ters who, in talk­ing about them­selves, are talk­ing about us all. Far re­moved from the warm fuzzi­ness of 800 Words is Stephen Knight’s Peaky Blin­ders, re­cently ob­tained by the ABC af­ter screen­ings on Fox­tel’s BBC First. It’s the cor­ro­sive tale of a volatile crim­i­nal gang, headed by Tommy Shelby (Cil­lian Mur­phy), and its rise to power in post-World War I Birm­ing­ham. The moniker Peaky Blin­ders comes from the gang­sters’ habit of keep­ing ra­zors in their caps. As one of Mur­phy’s broth­ers says, “They blind those who see and cut out the tongues of those who talk.”

The se­ries from BBC2 — co-star­ring Sam Neill as an al­most-bi­bil­i­cal po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tor and He­len McCrory as Tommy’s tough mother — is gor­geously the­atri­cal, arty, claus­tro­pho­bic and vastly en­ter­tain­ing, join­ing those other re­cent am­bi­tious dra­mas from the in­no­va­tive Bri­tish pro­ducer: The Shadow Line, The Hour, Pa­rade’s End and The Fall.

The open­ing is one of the best in re­cent TV drama: an ethe­re­ally hand­some fig­ure of mys­te­ri­ous ori­gins, dressed in an el­e­gant Ed­war­dian three-piece tweed suit and newsboy cap, sits bare­back on a steam­ing black horse. Slowly, he rides through a pe­riod ur­ban wilder­ness; he is a man, from the way he rides, with a close as­so­ci­a­tion with the spirit of na­ture. In a few won­der­ful mo­ments we’re given a fig­ure with some ar­che­typal power that re­flects that seem­ingly uni­ver­sal need for he­roes of a cer­tain kind.

And when Nick Cave starts singing about a tall, hand­some man with a red right hand rid­ing through the slums and the ghet­tos, we know we’re in for some­thing spe­cial. The scene is sug­ges­tive of some kind of western, though the set­ting and the cin­e­matic look sug­gests Martin Scors­ese’s Gangs of New York but, at the same time, there’s a Ser­gio Leone Once Upon a Time in Amer­ica feel about it. Then a graphic tells us we are in Birm­ing­ham in 1919 and the man — he turns out to be Tommy — trots his horse into an in­dus­trial sea­side waste­land of spew­ing fires, mills and der­ricks; uni­formed cop­pers nod at him, doff their hel­mets, bid him good morn­ing. It’s breath­tak­ing, even if the pi­lot — with so many char­ac­ters, plots and fore­shad­owed sub­plots — can leave you feel­ing as if you’ve had too much lo­cal ale.

800 Words, Tues­day, Seven, 8.40pm Peaky Blin­ders, starts Mon­day, Septem­ber 28, ABC2, 9.20pm

Bri­die Carter and Erik Thom­son in 800 Words, top; Cil­lian Mur­phy in

Peaky Blin­ders, left

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