Blue Heelers: articles

The publicity people did it

I remember the day, almost 30 years ago, when I told a colleague in the Age newsroom that I had been to the flicks the previous night to see Murder on the Orient Express, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s whodunit starring Albert Finney as sleuth Hercule Poirot and a cast of movie greats playing the suspects. “And what a terrific climax,” I said. “They all did it.” He was furious. I had revealed the ending, and he did not forgive me for a long time.

I’ve been cautious about such things ever since, despite the fact that, from time to time, I cop a mountain of mail from Green Guide readers and 3AW listeners who reckon I sometimes let the cat out of the bag about what’s to happen on their favourite TV shows. Sorry. If I do, it is inadvertent. My only defence is that I get excited about good TV, particularly thrillers and whodunits. But I know it can be horribly annoying.

Just imagine, then, when I spied at the supermarket checkout last week the latest edition of TV Week. There, on the cover, was “Blue Heelers Tragedy: Jo Killed By Bomb!” Yes, a week before last night’s episode of the veteran cop show in which Senior Constable Jo Parrish (Jane Allsop) was to be played out of the series, the magazine—with the obvious approval and assistance of Channel Seven’s publicity department—published a graphic account of what was to happen, complete with photographs of Parrish handling the booby-trapped backpack set to kill her. We all knew Allsop was leaving the show, but the suspense was ruined. Even without buying the magazine, we knew the means of her demise.

And this week, it has happened again. Same magazine. Same show. Heelers fans are told, once again in graphic detail, that in next week’s episode, Senior Sergeant Tom Croydon (John Wood) discharges himself from hospital after last night’s bomb blast left him in a coma, searches for his missing wife, Grace, and finds her dead in a shallow creek near the home of a well-known criminal family. Thanks a lot.

Why do they do this to us? It ruins the surprise. With imported shows—Friends is the recent example—it’s hard to avoid learning how a show will end. The news is out within minutes of the final episode going to air in the US. But to deliberately plant stories that reveal not only the demise of key characters in major local series but the manner of their deaths, two weeks in a row, seems self-defeating. Who would watch?

There is a huge difference between planting a tantalising morsel in a TV magazine or showbiz column about a major character meeting their end in coming weeks and revealing in detail who it is and how it happens. There, in this week’s TV Week, is a picture of Tom Croydon hugging the body of his dead wife after he finds her—next week.

This is a fairly recent development. I do not recall too much information leaking out—or being deliberately leaked by the network—about the murder of Lisa McCune’s Blue Heelers character, Maggie Doyle, only four years ago. We knew she was leaving the show, but TV writers were sworn to secrecy about how Doyle departed. Not these days.

At a time when Australian TV drama has reached its lowest point in a decade, this tell-all approach cannot help. The list of local dramas that have died in recent years is depressing—MDA, Grass Roots and Fireflies on the ABC; Marshall Law and Always Greener on Seven; Water Rats and The Young Lions on Nine; and White Collar Blue, CrashBurn and The Secret Life of Us on Ten. And we cannot afford to lose any more. Most of the survivors, however, look anything but healthy. A time-shift for Nine’s Stingers from 9.30pm to 10.30pm on Tuesdays, starting next week, suggests it’s on the way out. Blue Heelers and All Saints on Seven are substantially below their ratings peaks of several years ago. Only McLeod’s Daughters, returning to Nine next Wednesday, is winning the sort of figures that producers aspired to only a few years ago.

We are good at making telemovies. Small Claims and BlackJack on Ten and the recently launched Murray Whelan series on Seven are strong examples, and there are more of all of them to come. But weekly one-hour local dramas are not holding our interest as they once did. There are lots of reasons for that, including weak and implausible plots, too much soap (i.e. too many hatches, matches and dispatches), too much talk and too little action and, increasingly, too many young characters. But knowing the climax to an episode a week in advance is the ultimate turn-off. Let’s hope they cease and desist.

By Ross Warneke
July 8, 2004
The Age