Graeme Blun­dell ap­plauds a melo­dra­matic come­back

Com­plex un­der­cur­rents el­e­vate a melo­drama set in Aus­tralia dur­ing the so­cially tu­mul­tuous 1950s

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blun­dell

‘Iset out to cre­ate a nar­ra­tive-dense ro­man­tic melo­drama, in the mould of Dou­glas Sirk’s movies of the 1950s such as Writ­ten on the Wind and All That Heaven Al­lows,” Be­van Lee says of A Place to Call Home, his won­der­ful blue­stock­ing ro­mance that ran for two sea­sons on the Seven Net­work in 2013-14 and is now mak­ing a come­back on pay tele­vi­sion via an un­usual joint ven­ture.

“I want to fight the rise of melo­drama be­ing viewed as a some­how lesser form. To me a good melo­drama is a big plum pud­ding of a show, full of fruit, flavour and the odd sur­prise three­pence.”

Sirk’s lav­ish and sump­tu­ous pic­tures were largely dis­dained at the time as pathos-filled, campy tales of ar­dour or fraught do­mes­tic sit­u­a­tions with cliche-rid­den char­ac­ters, dis­missed by the cognoscenti as “women’s weepies” or “three-hanky movies”.

But con­cealed be­neath the flaw­less aes­thet­ics was a cut­ting in­dict­ment of Amer­i­can bour­geois val­ues. The Ger­man-born Sirk, a peer of Ber­told Brecht and Kurt Weill, rev­elled in the irony of priv­i­leged peo­ple trapped in the ex­cess of their dis­so­lute lifestyles. “Time, if noth­ing else, will vin­di­cate Dou­glas Sirk,” the Amer­i­can critic An­drew Sar­ris pre­dicted, and these days his im­mac­u­late craft and style are cel­e­brated.

As was Lee’s se­ries, a nar­ra­tive-dense ro­man­tic pe­riod melo­drama. Set in 1950s ru­ral Aus­tralia, it fol­lowed the lives of the Blighs, a wealthy and com­pli­cated pas­toral­ist fam­ily in NSW. It was a stylishly vis­ual re­al­i­sa­tion of cul­tural history and dra­matic ac­tion con­verg­ing in a dense Sirkian form we had not seen in our TV drama be­fore.

Now, sea­son three ar­rives on a new net­work, Seven hav­ing joined with Fox­tel af­ter can­celling the sec­ond sea­son — the au­di­ence had skewed to an un­wel­come older de­mo­graphic of mainly women over 55 — be­fore its run fin­ished, to the cha­grin of thou­sands of de­voted fans. But the show has been re­vived by the ag­i­ta­tion of those pas­sion­ate devo­tees and the wily per­spi­cac­ity of Fox­tel boss Brian Walsh.

Although he was alerted to the show’s de­voted fol­low­ing soon af­ter Seven axed it, a phone call from his sis­ter Jeanette sparked the orig­i­nal come­back talks with Seven.

“My sis­ter called me up from Coffs Har­bour and chewed my ear off about the show and how an­gry she was that it was can­celled, and de­manded it be put back on air,” Walsh says. “I had to tell her that it wasn’t ac­tu­ally my net­work, but it got me think­ing a lot.”

Fox­tel com­mis­sioned two new sea­sons, and was mirac­u­lously able to re-sign the en­tire cast and most of the orig­i­nal cre­atives, with the ex­cep­tion of Lee, who was on leave. The ex­pe­ri­enced Su­san Bower, who has writ­ten for and pro­duced many suc­cess­ful shows in­clud­ing A Coun­try Prac­tice, McLeod’s Daugh­ters and Neigh­bours, took over as story pro­ducer.

Bower sud­denly had nar­ra­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity for the res­ur­rected show, along with ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers Penny Win from Fox­tel and Julie McGau­ran from Seven, and pro­ducer Chris Martin-Jones, who had been with the se­ries since 2013. It is a com­plex and orig­i­nal style of man­age­ment for Aus­tralia, with all pro­duc­tion and post-pro­duc­tion staff em­ployed by Seven to make the se­ries for the client Fox­tel.

“It was my role to set the plan and aim of the se­ries and each episode, and I then worked with the writ­ers to fur­ther de­velop those ideas,’’ Bower says. She was de­ter­mined to con­tinue Lee’s work of in­ter­weav­ing so­cial change within re­la­tion­ships be­tween men and women and on a broader can­vas, city ver­sus coun­try, rich and not so rich. “It’s the change in gen­der roles, par­tic­u­larly women within re­la­tion­ships against the back­drop of the very big changes oc­cur­ring in Aus­tralian so­ci­ety dur­ing the 1950s, con­sid­er­ing the fall­out from World War II,” she says.

“Rich story ma­te­rial. But of course the audi- ence [was] very in­ter­ested in the ro­mance, es­pe­cially be­tween the char­ac­ters of Sarah Nord­mann and Ge­orge Bligh.”

Sarah, played by the lu­mi­nous Marta Dus­sel­dorp, is still at the cen­tre of the se­ries. She is the one-time mys­te­ri­ous nurse who made a new home in the pic­turesque coun­try town of In­ver­ness af­ter work­ing her pas­sage home aboard an ocean liner, nurs­ing the un­com­pro­mis­ing ma­tri­arch El­iz­a­beth Bligh (Noni Ha­zle­hurst).

Ro­man­ti­cally drawn to El­iz­a­beth’s gen­tle wi­d­ower son Ge­orge (Brett Climo), Sarah in­ad­ver­tently be­came in­volved in a fam­ily se­cret that linked her fu­ture in­ex­tri­ca­bly with the fam­ily. Once en­gaged to Ge­orge, she moved into the ba­ro­nial fam­ily es­tate, work­ing to prove her­self a fit­ting wife-to-be. El­iz­a­beth, ob­du­rate, sus­pi­cious and schem­ing, played a de­vi­ous wait­ing game to see what might be un­earthed about Sarah’s past dur­ing the Euro­pean war.

Then Sarah’s hus­band Rene (Ben Win­spear), part of the French Re­sis­tance and thought to have died in Dachau, was brought to In­ver­ness, a man ren­dered al­most mute. Sarah was torn be­tween her feel­ings for Ge­orge and her duty to her suf­fer­ing hus­band. As sea­son three be­gins, Rene is ar­rested for the at­tempted mur­der of Ge­orge af­ter a shoot­ing in­ci­dent that also ap­pears to in­volve Regina Stan­dish (Jenni Baird), his sis­ter-in-law, the only wit­ness, a ma­li­cious and vil­lain­ous beauty ob­sessed with Ge­orge and de­ter­mined to make him hers.

El­iz­a­beth’s de­ci­sion to leave the fam­ily home to ex­plore a life of her own, hav­ing given the deed of the house to her son, proves more dif­fi­cult than she thought. And her son James Bligh (David Berry), mar­ried to the stoic Olivia (Ari­an­wen Parkes-Lock­wood), is still haunted by his hid­den sex­u­al­ity, while the par­ent­hood of their baby Ge­orge is threat­ened with ex­po­sure.

These are just some of the plot lines Bower needed to make plau­si­ble, em­ploy­ing the me­chan­ics of melo­drama to ex­plore peo­ple too fear­ful, self­ish, de­luded or self-loathing to ap­pre­ci­ate what should be melo­drama’s ul­ti­mate re­ward: the love given them. Hap­pi­ness is just out of reach. “Many see this as ‘ soap’ in an evening times­lot and many wrongly think it’s easy to write,” Bower says. “It’s not. Hence the tal­ented writ­ers that came on board.”

She as­sem­bled an im­pres­sive group — David Han­nam, Gi­ula San­dler, Deb­o­rah Par­sons, Kather­ine Thom­son, Kim Wil­son, Sarah Lam­bert and John Ri­d­ley — and both Seven and Fox­tel em­braced Bower’s idea that she work with a mod­i­fied writ­ers-room model sim­i­lar to that used on many US pro­duc­tions.

“All writ­ers work in­house and are across all as­pects of story, script de­vel­op­ment and pro­duc­tion,” says Bower. It’s rare in lo­cal pro­duc­tions for ac­tors and crew ever to see a writer, most of whom work from home.

Lee had left Bower with a strong end­ing to se­ries two, an orig­i­nal idea that be­came the con­clu­sion to the spe­cial air­ing of the re­fur­bished episode sep­a­rately broad­cast on the SoHo chan­nel, and many plot lines for the third se­ries.

“The dif­fer­ence of course be­ing that the third se­ries was to be the last whereas Fox­tel are look­ing to on­go­ing se­ries,” Bower ex­plains. “So I was tasked with open­ing up char­ac­ter and story arcs rather than clos­ing them down. And of course Fox­tel wanted to put a US ca­ble tone to the sto­ries — more filmic in story con­tent and struc­ture, tone and di­rec­tion — but the show was not to lose what was there.”

And in so many ways un­der Bower’s sym­pa­thetic script su­per­vi­sion, this ma­jes­tic weepie, pro­duced with such in­tegrity, con­tin­ues Lee’s love let­ter to an Aus­tralian so­ci­ety su­per­fi­cially very dif­fer­ent as it strug­gles out of a ter­ri­ble war but as deeply com­plex and as richly lay­ered as to­day; where seem­ingly suf­fo­cat­ing con­ven­tion­al­ity masked buried webs of am­bi­tion, love and re­strained pas­sion, and class re­sent­ments.

It’s also still a show­case for some eye-pleas­ing cin­e­matic style from di­rec­tor Ian Barry and cin­e­matog­ra­pher John Stokes, and the act­ing re­mains splen­didly nu­anced. How­ever the sub­ver­sive un­der­cur­rent un­der­neath this lush aes­thetic is what leaves an in­deli­ble mark on the au­di­ence. And, of course, the ro­mance.

A Place to Call Home, Sun­day, 8.30pm, SoHo

Marta Dus­sel­dorp as

Sarah Adams in A Place to Call Home

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