Blue Heelers: articles

Davey, Bishop, Allsop

Jane Allsop [with Ditch Davey and Amanda Bishop] rehearses for Blue Heelers’ live episode.

Heelers try new trick

Blue Heelers is to make Australian TV history with a live-to-air episode, writes Kylie Miller.

On Wednesday at 8.30pm, a large group of people will take a step never taken by a contemporary Australian drama.

For the first time, an episode of Blue Heelers will screen live to air—audiences tuned in around Australia will see the action as it happens in the Seven Network’s South Melbourne studios.

It’s an exciting development for those involved in the 10-year-old police drama and one the network hopes will reinvigorate its previously invincible series and win back viewers who have switched off.

Once the top-rating drama in Australia with a peak of over three million viewers, Blue Heelers last year lost its crown to Nine’s rural competitor McLeod’s Daughters. In a few months the producers will make significant changes—including the addition of four new cast—and they want the audience to notice.

“We always used to talk about doing a live episode as a joke but it was never deemed to be a practical possibility because it’s very, very hard,” says Blue Heelers producer Gus Howard. “Then late last year (Seven Network production executive) Tim Worner came back from the iternational TV markets and said ‘The Bill have just done a live episode, why don’t we?’”

Once decided, Blue Heelers’ cast and crew rose to the challenge. Actors John Wood, Martin Sacks, Jane Allsop, Ditch Davey, Simone McAullay and Julie Nihill all will be involved. Only Paul Bishop, who has a clashing theatre commitment, will not appear.

Director Aarne Neeme, a Heelers regular, has been chosen for his extensive theatre experience, with Simon Francis, whose credits include Rove Live and Enough Rope, engaged as technical director.

A script has been developed for a stand-alone episode that enables the cast to deliver their lines and tell a story, but also is possible to film. Blue Heelers creator Tony Morphett has written an episode to run as close as possible to real time, with all action taking place during a single night in Mt Thomas.

“The standard Blue Heelers episode is very strongly inter-cut between all the various elements of the story heading towards some sort of climax,” says Howard. Action might move from a police car to the inside of someone’s house, back to the police station, and into the interview room or Tom (Croydon)’s office.

For simplicity, all the action in this episode takes place in the pub or the police station, to be filmed by eight cameras on two existing Blue Heelers sound stages.

“Then there’s the interesting technical challenge which is to tell the story in one continuous run moving from room to room,” Howard says.

“The whole script has been written so that when we do a hard cut from there to there, the cast at this scene are either going to leave that one early, or arrive at that one late or not be in this one, so that there is a continuous flow… The script has had to be structured so everybody can be in the right place at the right time and that in itself presented another quite large challenge.”

Neeme elaborates: “In a normal episode, if a character says ‘I want to speak to you in my office’, you’d cut to them in the office sitting down. Here we have to fill in the gap that it takes them to move from here to there.”

After receiving the script a couple of weeks ago, the actors now have six days to rehearse—a luxury in television time.

The challenge for the cast will be to remember their lines, hit their marks and sustain a performance for a full hour, something most television actors are not required to do.

“Normally it is shot in bits and pieces; sometimes it’s a scene, sometimes it’s a shot,” Neeme says. “The positive thing for the actor is that they have an ability to control the performance. Normally it’s up to the editor what shot is finally used and here what we see is what we get, so the actors are very much in charge of their work.

“Sometimes actors do take a number of shots to get into the groove and here they have only got that one opportunity. There’s a danger that you can deplete yourself by getting there too early—the actor who gives their best performance during rehearsal. You don’t want to get them stale and you don’t want them underdone.”

But, the director says, the most difficult element is choreographing the technical demands with the performance.

“It is just like a dance between the crew and the cast and they really have to dance together to make sure that the performances are captured in the appropriate way,” he says.

“It’s the same difficulty for the crew, they also only have one go at it. It’s the understanding that they are going to have to develop between each other that will be critical.”

Everyone knows preparation is the key.

“We’re all excited by it,” says Martin Sacks, one of the show’s three original cast members. “It hasn’t been undertaken before, but I think everyone will just be treating it like a play. There’s a beginning a middle and an end, and when it’s on it’s like a runaway train—it’s on!”

And there may well be hiccups. As Howard says, only half in jest, “People can sit there with a little piece of paper on their knee and they can put ticks under the headings of ‘Mics in Shot’, ‘Nice Shadows on the Wall’, ‘People Who’ve Forgotten What to Say Next’, ‘People Arriving Late’, ‘Sneezing’, ‘Coughing’, ‘Running Out of Breath’. All those things…”

“That’s the excitement and the danger of it,” Neeme says. “There are so many things that can go wrong!”

By Kylie Miller
April 15, 2004
The Age