The Alice: articles

Brett Stiller, Jessica Napier and Luke Carroll

Centre of attention... Brett Stiller, Jessica Napier and Luke Carroll.

Second coming

Nine resurrects The Alice as a drama series.

There are no safe timeslots, declares Channel Nine's head of drama, Posie Graeme-Evans. "In a television environment where no drama series has worked since McLeod's Daughters, this is extremely serious," she says. "We know that television is the most remarkably Darwinian of pursuits. Even five years ago it was possible to put a drama in a slot and let it find its feet. We don't have that luxury any more."

The Alice, however, might be a rare certainty in an uncertain business. A spin-off from last year's telemovie of the same name, the series has already survived a change of producer (twice), a change of management at the network and a tightened budget. For tenacity alone, it deserves to work.

Last year's telemovie, written by Justin Monjo and directed by Kate Dennis, introduced faded rock star Jack Jaffers (Erik Thomson), unhappily married Helen Gregory (Caitlin McDougall), medical school dropout Matt Marione (Patrick Brammell) and nurse Jess Daily (Jessica Napier), all drawn to Alice Springs by a solar eclipse.

The eclipse, which cast a supernatural aura across the Central Australian landscape, and the talkative, opinionated ghost of Helen's best friend, Patrick (Simon Burke), became the keystones of the telemovie's personality—quirky, magical, even spiritual.

Attracting 1.8 million viewers, the telemovie was an unlikely hit given that the Australian appetite for drama is usually sated by cop shops, hospitals and family feuds. Translating that success into a weekly series, however, has been a bigger challenge than everyone, including lead actors Thomson and McDougall, expected.

"We went through this higgledy-piggledy ride," McDougall says. "We loved the show so much, we wondered what was going to happen next."

After the telemovie aired, producer Robyn Sinclair left the project. She was replaced by John Wild, who had just finished on Nine's police drama Stingers. "Unfortunately, that didn't work," Thompson says, "but it also identified what we wanted the show to be, and particularly what Posie wanted the show to be."

Wild left and Sinclair returned, but only to consult. The Alice was finally handed to John Edwards, whose credits include Police Rescue, The Secret Life of Us and Love My Way.

"We were holding on, white-knuckled, to this concept," Thomson says. "But I felt really deep down that it was going to happen, because I knew no network would let go of a telemovie that had been watched by 1.8 million people."

Edwards, despite working simultaneously on The Alice and the second series of Love My Way, was the project's salvation. "He has a really good bullshit meter," Thomson says. "He can see something and in a quick and unemotional way he can cut the fat off. You trust him implicitly because of his track record."

Edwards is exactly what you expect in an executive producer. He speaks quickly but with great clarity. What he found when he signed onto The Alice, he recalls, was "a setting, an attitude to the world and a cast". What was missing, however, was a clear road map for the telemovie to become a series.

"They were considerable challenges, because there were a lot of things that were quite unusual for Australian television, particularly the sensibility of the piece," Edwards says. "This is a show that is about poetic justice in a way. Robyn [Sinclair] was telling the story of a place, in the heart of a continent, in a post 9/11 world, where somehow the side of the angels would prevail."

Critical to its success, he says, was finding a truth in that reality. "I think in TV drama, truth in storytelling is almost more important than anything else," he says. "Being psychologically truthful is what we try to do all the time. You fail sometimes, of course, but we're not trying to do the tough naturalism we did in Love My Way, or even the searching truth of, for example, the gay stories of Secret Life. We're not telling those stories, but we're still trying to be truthful in the same way."

So, what is The Alice about? Northern Exposure in the outback is an easy, if slightly inaccurate, line. There are shades of SeaChange and perhaps even a dash of the ludicrous absurdity of Desperate Housewives. "The Alice is about the operation of fate in people's lives," Graeme-Evans says. "It's about how life throws you a curve ball and how a place shapes you." An early pitch line, she recalls, read: "A stranger comes to town and the Alice sorts them out."

In a sense the telemovie was a road movie and the series is the story of the destination and the people who inhabit it. "In the movie, we were travelling. Now we've arrived," Graeme-Evans declares.

The series picks up the story at the inquest into the death of Helen's husband, the unpleasant Connor (Christopher Stollery), and Jack's discovery that Jess is his daughter. "There was a mystery which touched each one of them," Graeme-Evans says. "We jump off into the series from that mystery in terms of what happened to Helen's husband, and we use that device as a way of finding out what happened to everyone. The biggest change of all is that Jack, the nomad, has anchored himself to one place."

As with the movie, spirit of place is crucial to the series. "It's the thing that moves me more than anything else," Graeme-Evans says. "Most shows that have worked in Australian drama have a cohesiveness to them because the characters dwell in a place that shapes them. Water Rats was a cop drama, but the fact that it was on Sydney Harbour gave it the flavour that made it Water Rats."

The Alice certainly makes the most of its central Australian setting, but as with most TV shows there is good use of smoke and mirrors. Production is divided between Alice Springs and a studio in Homebush, where several sets have been recreated. It's a lie, but no worse than discovering that CSI: Miami, Dallas and Seinfeld were all made in Los Angeles. "On the face of it, it would seem quite jarring, but you bring the dust back to Sydney with you," Burke says.

A lot hinges on the success of The Alice. To understand the gamble of launching a new Australian drama, you need only look at the corpses littering the side of the road—Marshall Law, Young Lions and Fireflies to name a few.

"This is extremely important," Graeme-Evans says. "I can't be blase about this. I'm not. You learn more from failures than you do from successes, but I want this to work, and if it doesn't work I'll be gutted."

In its favour, Edwards says, is that audiences want to escape through their TV sets to a more comfortable, sensible reality. "It is a post-9/11 world. I do believe that the world can be a wonderful and fundamentally benign place, and I want to be told stories that reflect that in such a way that it doesn't affront my ordinary common sense. We're not telling fairy stories and saying everything is wonderful—and I think there are times the Alice spits people out—but reconciliation and finding a place in the cosmos are things that happen, and to tell those stories is a good thing to do."

The Alice begins on Nine on Sunday at 8.30pm.

By Michael Idato
July 27, 2005
Sydney Morning Herald