Blue Heelers: articles
Back with the pack
An old dog returns to Blue Heelers as the predictable world of Mt Thomas is turned upside down. By William McInnes.
I sit in a green room. A room given over to actors to rest while they wait to ply their trade on the set. It usually has items designed to put actors at ease and the tools to prepare themselves. Mostly these are junk magazines dedicated to television and glossy-paged movie mags.
If you can’t see the worth of looking at people better looking, more talented and more successful than yourself, thankfully there is a television. On this an actor watches programs of unremitting rubbish while they wait.
Stupid American talk shows and shiny looking marketing shows dressed up to look like I don’t know what. This is where the actor prepares. On the TV is a super example of one of the less rewarding aspects of our special relationship with America. The Ricki Lake Show. Her chat show today is entitled “Reunions: going back to the past”.
As Ricki screams enthusiastically into the microphone, I get up to leave the green room. It’s time to work. “Is it worth it or will it break your heart. Can you go back to the past?” Ricki’s screams echo as I walk into the most beautiful Melbourne winter’s day and on to the set of Blue Heelers.
It has been six years since I have been on a Blue Heelers set. Six years since I left the show. And now I’m back with an American voice ringing in my ears. “Will it break your heart?”
My journey back to Blue Heelers began while I was in Adelaide on the set of LifeStory, a feature film I was making, directed by my wife, Sarah Watt. Blue Heelers’ producer Gus Howard was on the line. He had a proposition. The show, he said, was heading off into a new direction and he was wondering if I’d like to give it a hand.
As I remember it, I said no. But a producer is a producer and a good producer knows how to get what he wants. So that’s why I’m now walking through the remains of what used to be the Mt Thomas police station.
I look down at the set. Plywood and pine frames. Burnt and singed from an explosion that has rocked Mt Thomas. For more than 10 years this set had been seen on Australian television screens. That’s an eternity for a television drama. In fact, Blue Heelers has been on television for so long that some of the newer crew members can’t remember or didn’t know the original cast. Such as me.
Only three of the originals are now left on the show, John Wood, Julie Nihill and Martin Sacks. I look through the wreckage of the set and see John Wood posing for a photograph. Like the rest of the cast, John is always helping this charity or that worthy cause.
He wears a Hawthorn beanie and holds aloft a scarf of his beloved but long-suffering team. The photographer asks him to repeat the action. I yell out to be careful not to give himself a stitch. He laughs and gives me the finger.
As much as I like to rag him, John Wood is a pillar of the show. He lends more than his talent to it. He lends it a dignity and a sense of purpose. He is always thinking about how it could be better and how people, especially the guest cast, could be treated better. And he is lucky to have had receptive producers.
I look back as the yellow and brown Easter egg known as John poses again for the photographer and think of some of the guest cast who have walked through this set. Heaps of people. A few so appallingly bad that they became mini cult figures. Many were terrific, and nearly all the rest were good, hard-working actors happy to be given the opportunity to perform on television. Sometimes more than once.
It takes the idea of inbreeding to new heights that an actor can come back in several different character incarnations. One actor, a good friend of mine, came back five times—as a bank clerk, then a shonky security operator, a chicken fancier, a teacher and a roo shooter. Hit the duelling banjos, please.
And yet the value of Blue Heelers as a place of learning as well as earning can’t be denied. Through all its years it has given many people avenues to pursue their craft and to be paid for it. Not just in front of the camera.
The crews of Blue Heelers have cared a great deal about the show. That sense of professionalism spreads throughout the show.
Yes, there were shortcomings. A lack of time and money leads to corner-cutting, sometimes on epic scale. I remember, for a while there, solving crimes by groups of people standing around in little bunches preferably in front of a computer monitor, talking, nodding a lot and pointing at each other with pens.
But people still worked like maniacs to make the show as good as it could possibly be.
It tapped into something with the audience, too. Everybody, including the people who watched at home, laughed that so much crime could happen in such a small town where so many people looked the same.
But the audience joined in and went along for the ride. When I was on the show, the ratings went through the roof. This success, I hasten to add, had little to do with me. I was too busy eating dims sims and trying to make myself as scarce as possible.
Lisa McCune and Martin Sacks were incredibly popular—and John Wood, too. I look over to see him still patiently posing for the photographer.
It’s strange being back. Strange because it feels as if I had never been away. The crew and I still yell and laugh together as much as we did all those years ago.
All those years ago. This feeling of time passing made even more startling by the fact that reruns of early Blue Heelers episodes are being shown in the afternoons. So in the green room you can sit and watch 10-year-old performances, see a 10-year younger version of yourself and then have to go out and deal with the present. Seeing my younger self confirms a couple of things. Yes, I did eat an awful lot of dim sims, and some of those plots were just crazy.
Ninjas in Mt Thomas. I solve the crime of a man with a samurai sword thrust through his head. Ninjas did it. How did I solve this? I was reading Shogun at the time. There I am, soy sauce stain down my police shirt, holding a copy of Shogun and waffling about a secret society of martial arts warriors. Eating a dimmy.
Martin Sacks is watching with me. “I’ve got hair,” he screams as we watch the younger Martin in action. Finally he can bear it no longer.
“Turn it off, Will!” I laugh, and he gives a look only friends can give each other. “Will.” I relent and change channels and there on the television is none other than Eric Bana. He’s on an American talk show spruiking for Troy.
Martin stares at the television. “That’s Eric. Eric Bana,” he says.
Martin shakes his friendly head. “Mate, I can remember the afternoon they cancelled his show at Seven. He was standing in the loading bay. He was so upset.”
I tell Martin that I don’t think Eric Bana is upset now. I switch back to young Martin. Back to happy Eric. Back to Young Martin, and so on, for about a minute.
Martin sits still, putting up with my idiocy. Then he stands. He strikes a pose. “Well I’ve got a crime to solve. I can’t worry about this.” He waves a hand at the television.
“Yes mate, be happy for the fact you had hair,” I say.
“You can’t argue with the facts,” says Marty. We walk out together laughing.
Good humour, modesty and a sense that Blue Heelers was just a bit of good luck was always, and still is, what characterises the show.
It seems strange to me that there are rumblings around the network that the show might not be renewed. I don’t know why. Its ratings are still competitive. It still makes people watch and it tells Australian stories in our own voice. Martin told me that some fool of a reviewer had used Blue Heelers as an example of antique drama when compared to the plethora of slick American crime shows.
Well forget that. It’s all relative. Those shows are about as original as any mass-produced tin of beans. Skeletal over-made up women and men who primp and pose and follow the formula. I simply ask of people who think these shows better than Australian product, “Show me the ninjas!”
I laugh. On the set of Blue Heelers I laugh. Laugh with my friends. With Marty Sacks and with Sniffer and Frank and Dom and John Wood and Chris and Lachy and Beth and too many others to mention.
That American voice echoes in my head, “Can you go back to the past or will it break your heart?” On a beautiful Melbourne day, with a sky that stretches forever, I don’t think so.
So shut up, Ricki Lake. I’ve got a crime to solve.
By William McInnes
Investing in Blue Heelers’ future
Over the next few weeks, regular viewers of Blue Heelers will notice a change as the producers work to breathe new life into the once-invincible 10-year-old series.
For years Australia’s most popular drama—during its heyday it attracted a peak national audience of over 3 million viewers—the Seven Network drama last year lost top spot to Nine’s rural competitor, McLeod’s Daughters. Although still a healthy performer in Seven’s disappointing 2004 lineup, its average audience has fallen to fewer than 1.3 million.
In April the producers staged a live episode—a first for a contemporary Australian drama—and 1.6 million viewers tuned in.
Now they hope a shift in direction, a change of mood and setting, and the addition of four cast will cement its long-term future.
“Blue Heelers has always striven to show our world as it ought to be—a civil society where even the criminals are basically decent and where a just law is upheld by men and women,” says producer Gus Howard.
“Now it’s time to delve into our world as it actually is post September 11, and to explore the community distrust and fear and the trauma caused by sudden, unjustified violence against innocent people.”
The only practical way to change the moral outlook of the drama is to change the way its patriarch, Senior Sergeant Tom Croydon, views the world, he says.
“Tom has always been the hub of our show, the very centre of its moral certainty.
“He is a good, reasonable man, who is very sure about the difference between right and wrong and very slow to label people as evil—events may be evil, but not people.”
In coming weeks, that changes as evil enters Croydon’s world, killing those he loves, destroying that which he knows and impacting on the lives of all around him.
The shift began this week with a story arc, billed by the script department as “The Cataclysm of Evil”, in which Constable Jo Parrish (Jane Allsop) and intellectually disabled semi-regular character Clancy (Michael Isaacs), are killed in an explosion that rips through the Mt Thomas police station. In the same episode, Reverend Grace Curtis (Debra Lawrance), Croydon’s wife, disappears.
In coming weeks, Mt Thomas police members—played by John Wood, Martin Sacks, Paul Bishop, Ditch Davey, Simone McAullay—move into a new station and make way for four new police. Joining the cast are Geoff Morrell, Rachel Gordon, Danny Raco and Samantha Tolj. Original cast member William McInnes returns for five weeks, reprising his role as Nick Schultz, now a homicide detective investigating the murders.
By the time the story arc is over, Mt Thomas and its residents will have changed forever.
Sergeant Mark Jacobs (Geoff Morrell): Mid 40s career cop, steady, self-confident, calm, intellectual and ambitious. Has a 17-year-old daughter, Freya, with wife Penny.
Detective Senior Constable Amy Fox (Rachel Gordon): Early 30s, sweetly spoken, feminine but with a take-no-prisoners policing style. Smart and relentless detective but personally desperate for love and approval after childhood tragedies.
Probationary Constable Joss Peroni (Danny Raco): At 21, an enthusiastic cowboy who loves catching bad guys and loves wearing a gun. A keen heterosexual with a desire to be seen as an Italian stallion.
Probationary Constable Kelly O’Rourke (Samantha Tolj): An energetic 21-year-old graduate from the Academy, enthusiastic and self-confident. The ambitious daughter of a cop who was killed on the job when she was a child.
Blue Heelers screens on Wednesdays at 7.30pm on Channel Seven. William McInnes returns next week.
By Kylie Miller
Australian Television Information Archive <www.australiantelevision.net>|
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