Blue Heelers: articles

True blue, and loving it

IT IS JUST over a week since the Logies, and another triumph for the cast and makers of Blue Heelers, but it is a long way from the glamor to the set of Australia's most watched TV drama.

In fact, it's pretty cold and draughty here at the Mt Thomas police station—aka studio eight at Channel 7 in South Melbourne, home of the police offices and the bar of the town's Imperial Hotel.

A section of the police office set is lit, but the rest of the surprisingly small space is dark other than the glow of the beer fridge in the bar set, with its baskets of ageing chips and glasses of long-flat beer.

Other contemporary ratings favorites such as Ally McBeal, or ER have their casts of thousands, multiple sets, and endless budgets (especially for stars), but here, about a dozen people are pumping out one of a long line of scenes for the day with a minimum of fuss.

They are moving quickly through run-throughs, and shoots, collectively teasing star Martin Sacks when he fluffs a line a couple of times, and quickly moving on. There is no star treatment, and no fashionable cynicism or creative angst.

This show—watched by about two million people in Australia each week, and seen in about 70 countries—is made in a humble studio by a bunch of people who are unashamed of their lack of pretension, theatrical ego or artistic neurosis.

They shoot here on Mondays and Tuesdays, spend Wednesdays rehearsing and go on location to Werribee and Williamstown (where the external shots of a private house dressed as the police station are taken) on Thursdays and Fridays.

Boring? Not for a huge number of viewers, and not, it seems for actors and technicians who have, in many cases, been doing this for almost seven years.

It sounds hokey, but each says the same thing about why their country-town cop drama—with the occasional episode on winning the Tidy Town award or someone rigging the local fishing comp—manages to keep its audience where many others have failed; they reckon it has a lot to do with the unusual harmony that surrounds the making of the program.

While other sets have been riven with bitchy rivalry and television tantrums (one Australian police program pops up as the regular example) the Blue Heelers team puts the program's appeal down in part to the personal dynamics of its people.

"It is a very united group, everyone gets along extremely well, there's no nasty tensions—I mean I've heard of other shows where they've got counsellors in trying to break up problems between various people,'' says Jane Allsop, a relative newcomer of 12 months, and winner of the recent Best New Talent Logie. She chomps a few of the bar chips in a quick break.

"We don't have a cast that's sort of ego and all that stuff, and we just don't really have any problems, and I think that shines through—it's sort of got nothing to do with the show, and yet everything at the same time.''

John Wood, the police drama veteran who has appeared in every episode of Blue Heelers, says the satisfaction on set is up there with the Australian-ness of the series as a factor in its success.

"The thing about Blue Heelers is it could only be made in Australia. It's far more Australian than Water Rats or Murder Call, which come out of the same production house (Southern Star). Rats could be made anywhere in the world, except for the harbor, Murder Call could be an X-Files-y thing.

"The other reason (for the success) is that we got off to a great start, because the original cast developed such an intense rapport and we got on so well with the crew, we had a fantastic working relationship and we've been lucky to maintain that.''

Wood says he makes a point of making guest actors feel welcome, and that conversely, should anyone arrive with an attitude, it is quickly sorted out.

"The atmosphere on set is really relaxed but it's professional; there's a lot of taking the piss out of each other from both sides of the camera, but the sort that can only occur when there's a great deal of professional respect ... the sort of things we say about each other you could never say to somebody you didn't like or they'd thump you.

"It shows on screen, I believe one of the reasons the show is successful is because the audience actually senses that enjoyment.''

Wood says he has experienced the opposite, as a young actor doing guest spots on the hoary old cop-classics Homicide, Division Four, Matlock Police and Cop Shop. "The difficult thing I found, you'd walk on to the set and it was just closed to you, it was a little boys' club, there were no women, and it became all fightin', f——' and shootin', and there's no recognition of the sensitivities or sensibilities of young actors.''

Says Martin Sacks, an actor who seems as down to earth as your local grocer: "I really believe it still is a very unpretentious little show that tells simple stories about characters the public seem to care about.

"Every day we have a good laugh, put our heads down and bum up and make this TV that seems to be attracting quite a large audience, something we're all proud of. It is a really buoyant and fun atmosphere, that just keeps people coming back.''

For Gus Howard, a producer on hand at today's shoot, it is the strength of the characters and the fact they remain "in the light'', rather than in on the murkier side of psychology, that attracts.

At a time when much police drama centres on tortured characters who become even more so as crimes remain unresolved, Howard says the solutions provided in Heelers stories are attractive.

"Our characters are in the light, not in the dark. OK, something comes out of the darkness and they look at it and they say, 'Well, this isn't right, it has to be fixed, wrongs must be righted'.

"There is a very strong belief in each one of those characters that wrongs not only must be righted but can be righted.

"We don't work out of newspapers, don't worry about issue-based stories, all we go for is basic truths. And audiences seem to respond to that.''

Howard dismisses criticisms that the program is too parochial and the plots too neat. "To say it's folksy, as some people do, is probably judging it far too lightly. Yes, there's a sort of mythology there, that people can relate to, and it's the same mythology at play in SeaChange—mythology of another place, a previous time, a slower pace.

"(But) the day-to-day story material is as real as anybody's lives. So I think it comes back to (the appeal) of those truths.''

Their appeal has been strong enough to beat back all competitors other networks have lined up in Heelers 8.30pm Wednesday timeslot.

"Who is our demographic? They are the people who can sit down at 8.30 and give the show their attention. We've been up against shows for 20s and 30-somethings in black suits who just make it home and sit down and start watching TV—we were up against Melrose Place for years and years—and that ultimately gave up against us.''

Heelers has also consistently beat off ratings challenges from "expensive nature programs, all kinds of specials, action movies, a whole range of things''. ''People have been working pretty hard for the last couple of years, various programmers have worked hard to put up interesting stuff to steal what they know is the Blue Heelers audience and they haven't done it yet.''

And how long can this magic dust, sprinkled somehow over this blue-chip product remain? "A prime-time show, winning the week, winning its night and being the most successful drama in the country—it's probably a bit silly to say it will go on forever, but it will go for a while, really.''

May 14, 2000
The Age