love is a four letter word: articles

Sex, pubs and rock 'n' roll

Sexy, smart and in your face, Love is a Four Letter Word celebrates hard living and good writing. It's about time, says Matt Buchanan.

Picture this. An Australian drama without a sleepy coastal town, suburban cul-de-sac or water-police speedboat pursuit in sight. Amazing. Picture instead an inner-city pub run by a young, spunky couple and their scurrilous mate, churning with lusty, morally dubious, self-interested hypocrites possessed of an overdeveloped sense of community and an overwhelming taste for grog, rock music and good publishing.

That's right. At last—something to look forward to on the box.

Conceived by four experienced young writers after they were given one of the most enlightened briefs in recent broadcasting—"go and write about a world you know about and (this, one imagines, was the key) have fun with it"—the ABC's new 26-part series Love is a Four Letter Word has everything going for it.

For a start, it's astutely cast. That young, spunky couple at its heart, Angus and Albee, are played by Peter Fenton and Kate Beahan, both riding critical highs from their respective appearances in the films Praise and Chopper, while Paul Barry, as Angus's unscrupulous best mate Paul Bannister, is exceptional.

Also, in each episode different local musicians, from Tim Freedman to the band Endorphin, appear at Angus and Albee's pub, providing at once a clever drawcard for the 15-35 audience the ABC hopes to entice, as well as the backdrop to a major—and commendably topical—story strand: the perilous state of live music in Sydney since the pokies took over. (Incidentally one of the scriptwriters, Matt Ford, does bear an, oh, shall we say, "astonishing resemblance" to the lead singer of Sydney band Machine Gun Fellatio, which, also purely incidentally, appears in episode two).

And then there's Angus and Albee's relationship itself. Somewhat eccentrically, it's an open relationship. That is, they can sleep with others (and do they ever) because they both believe they should be free agents. Their situation means the writers don't have to stoop to crazier set-ups each week to keep them on the verge of breaking up; being on the verge of breaking up is their natural state. Angus and Albee are like a dodgy electrical fitting, their dangerously unstable relationship the source from which the show's drama crackles and fizzes.

With an unprecedented writing brief, a good cast, weekly live music and a script bristling with contemporary politics—sexual and civil—Love is a Four Letter Word has the potential to be that rare commodity: a show that speaks to a generation about their own lives in a language they can understand. Better still, it doesn't look like anything else you've seen on TV.

In temperament, tone and subject matter it might well have fallen from the same tree as Cold Feet and This Life, programs that are, with varying degrees of humour, interested in their characters' motivations. But this show's slick, edgy visual style owes more to hip boutique cinema. Perhaps this is to be expected. While Tony Tilse, who directed the first three episodes, is a TV veteran whose CV lists GP, Fallen Angels, Farscape and Big Sky, the producer, Rosemary Blight, and the two remaining directors, Daniel Nettheim and Kay Pavlou, have worked almost exclusively in film.

"Tony and Kay and I got together with Rosemary before the series began and talked stylistic stuff—films we liked, techniques we liked," says Nettheim. "We looked at Run Lola Run, Go and Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, and though they weren't exactly direct influences, the pace and the catalogue of filmic tricks they employ to tell the story—speeding things up and slowing them down, the jump cuts—certainly helped our communication on visual ideas."

Happily, though, Love is a Four Letter Word's appealing freshness comes from more than the smooth application of self-consciously cinematic storytelling devices. Talk to anybody associated with the show and one word appears more than any other—script.

"The last thing on my mind was that I'd do a television series," says Blight. "But then I read the scripts. When it's hard to get to good scripts, it's not because we don't have good writers—it's because the writers haven't been given development time. But our writers received an amazing brief from the broadcaster (read: former ABC commissioning editor Sue Masters) to write whatever they liked, about a world that they knew about. And they were told to have a good time with it.

The results from Michael Miller, Shelley Birse, Ellie Beaumont and Matt Ford were, to put it mildly, rather well received.

"They weren't like anything else I'd read for a while," says Nettheim, before stressing that the writers' involvement did not stop once the manuscripts were delivered. "I was told early on by Rosemary that the writers' word was gospel. And they would come to every screening. It was fine if I wanted to change things for dramatic reasons but it would be ideal if I could run those changes past the writers. I gather from speaking to other (TV) directors, the level of creative involvement from the writers and, ultimately, the directors was quite unusual."

He's right. With most flagship series—and at 26 episodes, Love is a Four Letter Word is most definitely that for the ABC—it is the producers who ordinarily wield the "creative control". Writers, for example, have their work handed to the director while the ink is still wet and that's the last they'll see of it. And directors themselves are only allowed in the editing suite as long as they bring the producer a steaming hot mug of coffee and a cake they've baked especially for the occasion. Only then, if they're lucky, will they be given a short time before, as Nettheim puts it, "they are told: 'See ya later'." But in this case, he says, "the directors were involved through to the final cut".

Peter Fenton, the one-time lead singer of rock outfit Crow who came to acting prominence with a studiously underplayed characterisation of human beanbag Gordon Buchanan in the film version of Andrew McGahan's novel Praise, echoes his producer's feelings about the writing.

"I didn't really want to do television," says Fenton, who still plays music (most recently Thursday nights at the Bondi's Beach Road Hotel with David Lane and Friends). "But the scripts were enough to draw me over to this other, dark world. It balanced a lot of elements that I would find entertaining if I would sit down and watch a TV show. It had credibility, it was funny and it had plenty of emotional gravity."

"The difference," says Blight, "is that these writers don't actually palm out the scripts to other writers. There's only four of them and they all work together. They've written good characters—characters with heart."

"The show's very much driven by the complex inter-relationship between the main characters," agrees Nettheim. "And the decisions that they make—whether to take the moral ground or to act on their libidinal instincts—cause considerable dilemmas for the characters. Sometimes," he adds laughing, "the behaviour of the characters is really appalling."

That's putting it mildly. These are people who want to have their cake and eat it. And they would, too, if their mouths weren't already full of somebody else's. Consider Paul, Angus's best mate. As charismatic an agent of expedience as one might meet, you'd call him mischievous if he wasn't such a bastard. When he's not stomping on a TV starlet's sports car and backing out of his ownership of the pub, he's disclosing Angus's darkest secrets to Albee's sister and fibbing straight to Albee's face.

Angus, meanwhile, is a good chap who nonetheless finds it just too hard to tell the truth to Albee about his fling with his father's housekeeper (and soon-to-be wife). Albee, no stranger to deceit, finds herself juggling at least three men, yet delivers impatient sermons to her younger "crazy" sister, Larissa, about her lack of direction and sloppy moral conduct. When she's not feeding Paul's manuscript into a shredder, that is.

Despite Love is a Four Letter Word's engaging presentation and wit, there's a risk that this world of bands versus poker machines and frustrated wannabe novelists will be foreign for anyone who didn't fumble through a BA and slum it in the inner city. But if some viewers do find the lifestyle and preoccupations of the characters unrepresentative, the broader themes—loyalty, the benefits of community, the fear of intimacy—should prove common enough currency.

The bottom line is that the show will live or die by the audience's interest in its characters. If Angus and Albee don't interest viewers, then no amount of hip styling and mystery band spots will be enough to pull anyone through 26 episodes.

"What's good, says Nettheim, "is that all the issues provide a cultural context for the show and for the drama, but without dominating. The show never becomes an issues-based program, per se. It's always the people."

"I found it to be really political," says Fenton.

"To a degree, I am of that world and it has the ring of truth for me. I suppose that the uniting force at play here is that both Albee and Angus are interested in credibility against the forces of commercialism. I think it's timely and proper that such a thing is addressed. There are people who don't want to go out and make a few million dollars every week. There are people among us who are turned on by a sense of community and being part of something more human than economics. So maybe we might strike a nerve in the collective consciousness.

"Out of the budget they were working with," Fenton concludes, "it is interesting, entertaining and, dare I say, unique. And dare I say even more … intelligent."

You may.

Love is a Four Letter Word begins on Tuesday at 9.30pm on the ABC.

By Matt Buchanan
January 29, 2001
Sydney Morning Herald