Graeme Blundell applauds a melodramatic comeback
Complex undercurrents elevate a melodrama set in Australia during the socially tumultuous 1950s
‘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