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
‘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