The Circuit: articles

Gary Sweet and Aaron Pedersen

Identity crisis ... Gary Sweet (left) and Aaron Pedersen in The Circuit.

Just deserts

Broome seems a natural setting for a television program: a place out of time bathed in the unearthly glow of the dark orange sunset reflecting off the red sand. An indigenous flavour soaks the landscape, which is a curious for a town built in 1883 largely to white specifications. The Australian explorer and politician Sir John Forrest chose the site and a governor of Western Australia, Sir Frederick Broome, gave it his name.

Perched between desert and ocean, Broome serves as a metaphor for the indigenous legal drama The Circuit, which debuts on SBS this week. At its heart, it is a story of colliding identities. There is middle-class lawyer Drew Ellis (Aaron Pedersen), who comes to Broome and rediscovers his indigenous identity. There are magistrate Peter Lockhart (Gary Sweet) and court officer Sam Wallan (Kelton Pell), who struggle together to extract justice from sometimes incompatible legal systems. Finally, there's gay city journalist Archie McMahon (Nick Simpson-Deeks), who came to Broome to be with his Aboriginal boyfriend.

The series begins with Ellis's arrival in town. He's an Aboriginal city lawyer whose way of thinking is considered profoundly white by the indigenous communities of the Kimberley. He's a man caught between two skins, although in playing him, Pedersen was determined to steer away from cliche. "We write an issue about a young black man who has an identity crisis, but we've been doing that for years," he says. "Instead I approach it by asking, what are the strengths of this man and what are the flaws?"

Sweet's character, Lockhart, is caught in his own dilemma, trying to reconcile the ordered legal world in which he works and his personal life, which is in turmoil. "I loved the writing because it was passionate and honest and it was uncompromisingly fair," Sweet says.

"Peter is a fairly complex bloke and I think as I became more and more aware of him, I realised he was a very tortured soul. He takes all his cases home and they haunt him. He's not lonely; he's just alone."

At its heart the series explores what it means to belong, Sweet says. "It's a struggle to fit in. I guess everybody wants to be part of a club - the journalists' club, the footy club - everybody wants to belong. Sometimes, I guess, I don't know if I want to belong to too many clubs or I can't decide which club I want to be in."

The series was filmed in the Kimberleys over two months last year. Pedersen and Sweet both mention the spiritual quality of the setting, although the episodes are concerned with more earthly issues, such as child abuse in indigenous communities.

"Broome is a kind of mystical place and it's forced me to take a good look at myself in a lot of ways," Sweet says. "I wasn't aware enough of indigenous culture and I put that down to ignorance and neglect, I guess, on my part. Being here in Broome, where the visibility of the indigenous people is much higher, you can't help but get involved and, hopefully, be a part of it. I have really had a great time here."

Pedersen sees the town as virtually another character in the story. The sentiment is not unfamiliar - it echoes the Alice Springs of The Alice and even Victoria's serene Mt Macedon in Picnic at Hanging Rock.

"It's such an eye-opener for anyone," Pedersen says. "Broome has its own spirit and after a while you start to become Broome. The character of Drew is clearly defined by the characters he meets in Broome but Broome itself is a bigger character than any of them. It defines and sculpts him and he is challenged by it."

The series was created by Ross Hutchens and Kelly Lefever, and written by a largely indigenous writing staff. An indigenous identity permeates every aspect of the production, a significant step when you consider many similar projects confine such involvement to little more than a consultancy role.

"I am privileged to be involved in this - I am empowered by this," Pedersen says, with pride in his voice. "It's a trailblazing project - it's got 95 per cent Aboriginal cast; 95 per cent of them are from Broome. It's fantastic. It's in-house. I've been welcomed here and I hope I've been very respectful of it."

The Circuit begins on SBS on Sunday at 9.30pm.

By Michael Idato
July 2, 2007
Sydney Morning Herald