The Alice: articles

Caitlin McDougall and Erik Thomson

Caitlin McDougall and Erik Thomson, both of whom star in the Channel Nine telemovie The Alice.

Outback magic

Nine looks west and finds hope in a desert drama, writes Debi Enker.

There’s a wistful wife, a faded rock star at the crossroads, a disenchanted doctor seeking herbal remedies and a can-do outback native who will try to turn any twist of fate into an opportunity. There’s also a straight-talking nurse, a helpful ghost, a regretful cop who’s strayed and an obnoxious twerp who’s training to run up Ayers Rock (he doesn’t use its proper name), boorishly oblivious to the cultural or emotional sensitivities he might trample along the way.

This lively collection of characters, all heading towards or living in Alice Springs on the eve of an eclipse, holds the Nine Network’s hopes for the future of its local drama. If things go as fervently desired on Sunday night and the ratings are promising, the telemovie pilot of The Alice will get the green light to grow into a series. It could become the production that Nine needs to fulfil its local drama quota obligations, to partner the galloping success that is McLeod’s Daughters, and perhaps to allow the detectably weary undercover cops of Stingers to retire.

The Alice is the first project developed under the regime of Posie Graeme-Evans to hit the screen. Graeme-Evans assumed the drama chief role at Nine following the failure of the Sydney cop series, Young Lions, in 2002, and the subsequent exit of longstanding director of drama, Kris Noble. An experienced producer and the driving force behind McLeod’s Daughters, Graeme-Evans moved into her office at Nine in December 2002, and The Alice offers the first indication of the direction in which she might steer the network’s drama production.

It represents a discernible departure from the crime and police series that have permeated Nine’s history, stretching from Division 4 and Water Rats through to Stingers and the Halifax f.p. telemovies. There’s not a serial killer, murderous psychopath or vicious drug kingpin in sight in The Alice. It has a warmly welcoming tone, flickers of comedy, hints of whimsy and magic, a theme of fresh starts and second chances, and an isolated, idiosyncratic community.

The immediately striking thing about the telemovie is its similarity to a hugely popular ABC drama that Australian viewers took to their hearts a few years back. That might be why The Alice, written by Justin Monjo (Farscape) and produced by Robyn Sinclair, has been dubbed by some who’ve seen it as “SeaChange in the desert”, although Graeme-Evans is surprised by the comparison: “I can say to you, hand on heart, in our endless discussions about scripts, I don’t think anybody ever brought that up,” she says. “SeaChange was wonderful, but we didn’t even think of SeaChange in doing this. We didn’t ever talk about it in those terms.”

However, Graeme-Evans does observe that her storytelling inclinations run more towards character-driven drama than to generic models. “As a producer, I personally have not been very interested in genre. I’m more interested in character-driven drama that has something fresh to offer. That’s not to say I won’t make a police or hospital show. We make Stingers and I’m hugely proud of Stingers. So I don’t want you to think that I despise those forms of drama: I do not.

“But I think that, for instance, McLeod’s has proved that the Australian audience welcomes seeing something that’s made in Australia that feels different and is outside the square. In the end, I’m not as drawn to procedural drama, where the characters serve the plot. I’m more interested in the characters driving the plot, so that the drama comes out of the characters rather than the other way around.

“This is the network that carries all those extraordinarily accomplished, great big polished American cop dramas. The only way we can stand up against overseas drama is to do killer drama of our own, and by that I don’t mean serial-killer drama, but stuff that is compelling. Where does compelling stuff come from? First and foremost, it comes from the characters. Goodnight nurse. Beginning, middle and end, it’s the characters and their interaction, then you add.”

So there might be a local cop on duty in The Alice, and a doctor and a nurse among the core community of characters, and they could be handy for opening up legal, criminal and medical storylines. But this is not cops ‘n’ docs TV: its key setting isn’t a police station, hospital, doctor’s surgery or courtroom. It roams around, visiting a pub, several households, the train to Alice Springs and the roads around it. It also visits a rock, if not The Rock.

The place is part of the appeal and Graeme-Evans is hoping that this novel setting for a contemporary series will be an attraction: “We all live in cities and we get in traffic jams and the rain comes down, and we’ve all got mortgages and we live in a world that’s frightened of terrorism. Is it such a bad thing to take someone by the hand and go, ‘Let me take you somewhere. You may not have been to this place, but you know, it’s your country. Come and have a look.’”

In addition to its exotic appeal, Alice Springs is rich in potential for multi-generational stories. “Our broad demographic target is 25 to 54,” says Graeme-Evans. “We hope that this will appeal very broadly, that people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, will find characters that they enjoy looking at and feel resonate. The fantastic thing about the place is that it’s got one of the most transient populations in Australia. It has an enormous young population, they go there for the seasonal work that’s to do with the tourist industry. But people pass through the Alice from all over Australia on holidays, and you hear this so much: ‘Oh, I came for a few days and I stayed for 30 years.’ There’s something about that great big empty world. So it doesn’t feel forced that we have a range of ages in The Alice. It doesn’t feel contrived.”

In building what she hopes will be the foundation for a new series, Graeme-Evans says that decisions must come down to instinct and ideas about storytelling. “All I can do is put one foot in front of another and follow my own instincts. Yes, we can do focus groups, of course we can, and we get ratings information and analysis, and all the rest of it. In the end, I come back to the fact that I have faith that the Australian audience like stories. They like them in a bunch of different forms. It’s our task to serve up stories in a way they want to watch ‘em.”

Graeme-Evans, who worked as a producer on Rafferty’s Rules and Sons and Daughters in the ‘80s, and created the family series, Mirror, Mirror, in the ‘90s, has some runs on the board in that regard. The creative force behind McLeod’s Daughters, she fought a decade-long campaign for that project, initially to get the 1996 telemovie made and then to have it develop into a series. Now into its fourth season, McLeod’s has become the country’s most-watched Australian drama and a shining star for Nine.

Currently, as well as presenting her newest TV baby to the world with considerable pride, Graeme-Evans says that she’s “head down, bum up making pilots. My brief was ‘Make pilots’. I’m hoping that by the end of this year, we’ll have a few more financed, because that’s the key, and I’m just proceeding in an orderly fashion until somebody tells me to stop.” The next one to air is likely to be Big Reef from producers Roger Simpson and Roger Le Mesurier. Shot on the Barrier Reef, it also features a sunny northerly location.

Colourful and loquacious, Graeme-Evans, who has also turned her own storytelling skills to the historical romance novel, The Innocent, has a newcomer’s bubbling enthusiasm for her latest production that extends beyond an executive doing a pitch. She lavishes praise on her colleagues, noting with delight that producer Sinclair persuaded railroad authorities to stop The Ghan so that the train could play its part in the production: “How many producers in Australia have got the chutzpah to do that?” she wonders admiringly.

Graeme-Evans describes many of the people who worked on The Alice—from writer Monjo, who has previously adapted Tim Winton’s novels, That Eye, the Sky and Cloudstreet, for the stage, to editor Mark Perry and casting director Helen Salter—as “the best in Australia”. She sees director Kate Dennis (MDA, The Secret Life of Us) as a leading light in a new generation.

But keen as she is on The Alice and those who have contributed to it, Graeme-Evans is also a seasoned player who’s been around long enough to know that this can be an industry that kills its young. The nature of pilots is that many don’t grow up to be series, let alone popular and enduring series. She also knows how brutal and unforgiving this business is, how elusive success can be, and how fast the fall from power and favour can happen.

“I am scared to death, of course,” she admits about the premiere of The Alice, which happens to fall on her birthday. “It’s the first thing, and you never know, we might fall flat on out faces. But I am at peace with the fact that Robyn and Kate have made the most beautiful film. And if I’m wrong, if we’re all wrong, it won’t be because we haven’t loved this bloody thing and that we haven’t wanted it to fly like a bird. “I may be a shooting star, honey. I may go down in flames, but God, I love it.”

The Alice screens on Sunday at 8.30pm on Channel Nine.

By Debi Enker
July 29, 2004
The Age