Blue Heelers: articles

The top dogs of local TV drama

It’s our most-watched television drama, but what is the secret of Blue Heelers’ success? A nostalgic longing for family values would have to be one reason, writes Jane Freeman

They could have called it Son Of Country Practice or Matlock Revisited. Instead they called it Blue Heelers and, critics be damned, this is the most popular Australian drama series on television.

Seven’s Blue Heelers is the success story of TV drama in recent years Last year, Heelers suddenly bounded forward to become the nation’s number one drama series. It draws an audience of up to 3.5 million over five Australian cities every Tuesday night and has been sold to more than 34 countries with a global audience of 40 million. You can even buy a “best of” compilation video, featuring interviews with the stars John Wood, Lisa McCune and Martin Sacks.

This homely show regularly comes in as Australia’s most-watched TV show, nationally. Yet it was never an idea that would set the world on fire: cop show meets A Country Practice. Formula television and cheap formula television at that. It’s filmed on video and produced for a rumoured $250,000 an episode.

Yet, despite the critics giving the show a bagging when it first went to air, Heelers is officially a phenomenon and everyone in the industry is glancing at it enviously and wondering how it happened. If only Water Rats or Big Sky should be so lucky.

In search of the secret to Blue Heelers’ success, we spent a cold and rainy day with the cast at Williamstown, where many of the streets of the fictitious ‘Mt Thomas’ can be found.

We’re in a back street behind the railway station , opposite an abandoned fish and chips shop, which has peeling, mustard-coloured paint splotched with graffiti and lost promises of home made dim sims. But, eddying cheerfully around the road, oblivious to the squalor, the cast and crew of Blue Heelers are at work. Jokes pass around faster than the Channel 7 umbrella. Actors splutter into laughter between takes.

Actors William McInnes and Damian Walshe-Howling spend a lot of time huddling into warm coats, which they have to reluctantly relinquish every time they shoot a scene. The illusion they are trying to create is that this is the sunny country town of Mt Thomas, the land of the short-sleeved police shirt.

McInnes, who plays big Nick Schultz and is, according to the unit publicist, acclaimed by real police persons as the most convincing of all the tele-cops, is having a bit of trouble with his police baton. He has to keep snapping out to tap someone on the shoulder (“What do you think you’re doing”, which is the Mt Thomas equivalent of “’Ello, ‘ello, wot’s all this then”).

Unfortunately, McInnes can’t telescope his own baton back down again, so they have to find someone form the art department to thump it on the bitumen road after each take.

It is just another day in the gruelling schedule of Blue Heelers. This episode revolves around an unscrupulous dating agency. Maggie Doyle (McCune) and PJ Hasham (Sacks) went undercover as the desperately lovelorn in order to unravel the scam. Everyone here knows they are working on a hit and that this year they will know where their rent money is coming from.

“Every Wednesday, when the ratings come down, everyone swarms and checks them out.,” McInnes says, drinking tea from a plastic mug in the catering marquee., with his plastic gun on the table beside him. “Everyone seems reassured to know that people are watching it.”

According to the show’s biggest star, McCune, executive producer Hal McElroy has never wavered about the show’s aim. “He said from the beginning that we were there to provide entertainment, not to do something different or to change anything,” McCune says approvingly.

Heelers hasn’t always looked this healthy. McElroy got the idea after talking to a young policeman for research on another series called Boys In Blue, about inner-city cops. McElroy found himself entranced by the young officer’s stories of his stint in the NSW country town of Young, where the police were known and “blue heelers” and “tyre biters”.

McElroy and writer Tony Morphett got to work on the idea and Heelers was launched in 1992. The first six months were shaky, both with the critics and the view figures, recalls actor Martin Sacks, who says the cast and crew would not have been surprised if the series had folded.

Two years ago, producer Ric Pellizzeri came in and made changes he regards as important to the show’s success. He introduced themes to drive each episode, as simple as “your past comes back to haunt you” or “love is more important than work”.

“This is a very moral show, very humanistic, moral drama,” he says. “The goodies always win, the baddies also get caught. It’s they way people want the world to be, the righteous win.”

This is a positive show with a positive social messages,” McElroy says.

“When we present a problem, we attempt to show solutions so the person watching the show gets a sense of satisfaction and a sense of conclusion, rather than ‘anarchy reigns and the whole world is screwed up and we don’t how to fix it’.”

Sacks admits he has not always felt happy with this relentless problem-solving. “It’s a show where at the end of the day, the problem is always solved and everyone goes to the pub and says ‘job well done’ and then we all go home and sleep well… I sometimes wish it could be left a little open-ended, that things did not always have to come in a full circle, that we could let the audience make up their own minds,” he says.

“But that is the kind of thing they do on shows like Cracker and Phoenix or Janus. I have just had to accept that this is not the style of show we are making here. Initially, I did want to make something with a stronger edge, which was a bit more abrasive, but that is not this show.”

If one ingredient of the Blue Heelers formula is cuddly family values, the other is the likable characters, with soap operatic through lines dealing with their personal lives.

“People like these characters,” McCune says,. “Maggie is very moralistic, good at her job, very professional, very ambitious. All the good qualities although sometimes we see the negative side of those qualities as well. In general the Blue Heelers people are good. We’re the Famous Five and people want to know what they do each week.”

Pellizzeri believes that taking his friendly bunch and placing them in a rural setting has a lot to do with its appeal. Every Australian, he says, has a country idyll in the back of their mind.

“We all have a yearning to retire to our country block. Even thought we live on the coast, the bush and the outback is in our hearts. Mt Thomas is a little like this country idyll. This is a world where there are people to protect and look after you, to watch out for you. And if you are a victim they will be there to champion you.

Actor John Wood (who plays senior sergeant Tom Croydon), while disclaiming all insight into the Blue Heelers secret for success, agrees that the fictitious country town setting, Mt Thomas, must figure largely.

“People think it seems like a nice place to be, although it’s become the crime centre of the universe over the past three years,” he says, smiling. “But the is a nostalgia for those values people still think are important in Australia. Everywhere you turn, there is an enormous level of violence, but I think people still think it would be great to be able to go down the street and leave their doors unlocked. People perceive Mt Thomas as being that sort of place.”

“It’s romanticised,” Sacks says bluntly. “There is an element of Disneyland in this, because real country towns have all sorts of problems. It’s not just froth and bubble and great mates. And sometimes we do address those issues.”

The fact that Heelers rates better in the cities than it does in Northern NSW and in Tasmania—where it rarely makes the top five—seems to suggest this rural idyll does appeal more to urban dwellers than real country folk.

By Jane Freeman
April 17, 1997
The Age