Blue Heelers: articles

Force is with them

A brilliant reinvention has saved Blue Heelers from the axe

Award-winning country police drama Blue Heelers has been around for half of Samantha Tolj’s 22-year-old life. She once appeared in it as a teenage tart but has returned as a rookie cop.

“At my age I’m so completely full of excitement to have scored a permanent role with such a well-respected, great quality television drama,” the young actor says.

Her character, Probationary Constable Kelly O’Rourke, is one of four new characters introduced to a series needing something special to survive the brutal world of TV, where 11 years might as well be 90.

As for Tolj’s description of the role as permanent—well, when she signed that only meant until the end of this year.

At the time the Blue Heelers team was facing certainly its most important mission ever.

If they failed both they and Mt Thomas would disappear off the face of the earth.

Should they succeed the show—and most characters—would survive to fight another day.

But Mt Thomas has become a darker, grittier place, the people and cops in it transformed by an invasion of evil. It was a mission 10 months in the making and since early July the Blue Heelers team has accomplished it, pulling the show back from the brink of oblivion.

In the past two years the Wednesday drama drifted from an average 1.5 million viewers to 1.2 million, bashed around by CSI: Miami, just as CSI assaulted All Saints on Tuesday.

Seven told production company Southern Star it was make or break time. Scripts were overhauled and storylines set on a course into darkness and conflict.

“Mt Thomas was created in 1993 and the world has changed,” says Seven’s drama chief John Holmes.

“Despite people saying over the years that it has been the crime capital of the world, its time had passed.

“It will now be more reflective of today’s country towns, not the sleepy backwater it was. It wasn’t an easy task but the creative team responded brilliantly and there’s a real feeling of excitement again.

“The old girl can still dance. And dance to new tunes.”

On July 6 the Mt Thomas police station was blown up, setting off a cracking storyline resulting in some of the best Australian serial drama of recent years.

Mt Thomas’s universe was invaded by a continuing crime wave of killings, violence, suicide, explosions, drugs, muggings and more.

Officer Jo Parish was killed, central character Sergeant Tom Croydon’s wife was raped and murdered, an attempt was made on his daughter’s life and he is being pushed to retire by head office.

Sgt Croydon, played by eight time Gold Logie-nominee John Wood, turned from affable peace-maker to possible murderous lone wolf on a nasty downward spiral.

Viewers devoured it, building an audience of more than 1.5 million.

“People are back in droves and that’s a wonderful outcome,” says Wood. “I was tremendously impressed by the commitment of everyone involved to do this in a believable way. It’s been a terrific acting experience.

“The regular characters have been pushed to the limit and it was great working with some excellent guest stars who helped raise the intensity levels.

“Tom’s whole outlook has changed and that’s physically very apparent in the way he just stares at other people, stares them down. And Tom will be going further down before he comes back up.”

The four new characters were introduced as the mayhem reigned. Joining Tolj was former Home and Away star Danny Raco (Prob-Const Joss Peroni), veteran Geoff Morrell (Sgt Mark Jacobs) and Rachel Gordon (Det Amy Fox).

Sgt Croydon knew nothing of their deployment to his station and his dismissive reaction to all of them is a plot-spiker.

Holmes says new characters allow two different stories to run each episode, broadening dramatic possibilities and letting some light to

shine in the brooding new dark.

“The new characters created two shifts for the police station and that has allowed us to have two stories or two cases per episode rather than just one,” he says.

“That is really the biggest change. One will be a major story, the other a more minor one. They can cross over but it doesn’t have to happen.”

Wood praises the new arrivals whom he says have individually brought something fresh to the set as well as the show.

Tolj and Raco’s characters are fumbling, sometimes comedic rookies aimed at younger viewers, Morrell’s Jacobs is a steady but possibly undermining hand and Gordon’s pretty detective has a steely inner nerve.

Tolj says she noticed the change on-set this year from when she played Loelle, “the town’s teen tart” several years ago.

“I don’t know how much we felt it, compared to the oldies—we call the established actors the oldies and we’re the newies—but they were working really hard to make the show survive, to make it last.

“So we’ve come in and said OK, this is the way it is now. Everyone is really working hard to make the show survive, to keep the quality of the drama up there.”

In a way it reflected the arrival of the new characters.

“When Joss and Kelly arrived, all the characters were going through such an intense internal time in dealing with really heavy issues as well,” she says.

“These two young guns came in the day after their whole world had literally been blown up.

“Kelly and Josh handle the lighter duties of policing while offering some comedic relief, as opposed to them getting thrown into the middle of all the really hard issues.”

So the rookies went off on lighter plot tangents while the “oldies” handled the tough work of trying to solve the crime wave while building a new police station in an a rundown railway warehouse.

Blue Heelers returns to Seven after the Olympics and there’s plenty of drama still to come.

“The ratings have shown the audience is there to be wooed,” says Holmes.

“We attracted younger ones, new ones and old ones who had lapsed and gone to the dreaded CSI: Miami.

“Now good stories must follow to keep the momentum up and Southern Star has shown that they can do it.”

By Marcus Casey
August 25, 2004
The Daily Telegraph