Murray Whelan Series: articles

scene from Stiff

David Wenham and Robyn Butler in Stiff, John Clarke’s telemovie adaptation of Shane Maloney’s novel.

Small screen, big ambitions

Not every Australian movie worth seeing screens at the cinema. Tom Ryan looks at the state of play of the telemovie.

Telemovies have always been the Australian cinema’s poor relations. On the big screen, a budget of anything up to $10 million is considered small, but that’s still about three times the cost of a telemovie. Cinema releases usually get all the media attention too, while features for the small screen are generally treated as disposable fodder. However, recent indications are that telemovies deserve a better fate.

Sue Masters, director of drama at Network Ten, says the reason for the dismissive treatment is clear. “I think there’s always been a snobbery towards television. I don’t think people generally expect the commitment to craft that’s clearly there. Time is money and we don’t ever get much change out of four weeks on a telemovie, unlike a feature film which is inevitably longer. Everybody would love to have more money, but we just work with what we have, and I don’t think we did any less than 10 drafts of the scripts.”

A big difference between telemovies and cinema releases is, of course, the way they reach audiences. As long as a Strange Bedfellows or a Thunderstruck remains on general release, there are plenty of chances to catch it. But for Stiff, John Clarke’s telemovie adaptation of Shane Maloney’s novel, there’s just one (tonight on Seven).

This makes for a considerable irony because, as Masters points out, telemovies routinely get a bigger audience than many Australian features. “With regional (TV channels) as well, you’re looking at up to 1.6 million people, which, for a small country with five free-to-air television stations, is pretty good.”

None of this is intended as a putdown of Australian cinema, which—financially speaking, at least—has troubles enough of its own. Last year, total production was down from $131 million to $49 million. It’s a trend this year’s production slate is unlikely to reverse.

The issue here is the lowly status accorded to local telemovies. None of those I’ve seen recently quite reaches the heights of last year’s two-part mini-series After the Deluge. Nor are any graced by the visual flourish of a feature film such as One Perfect Day. Nevertheless, their professionalism is striking: polished scripts, tightly constructed plots and casting that again reveals the depth of talent available to filmmakers in this country.

Small Claims (which, like After the Deluge, was produced by Masters) screened last month on Ten. Directed with a fine sense of detail by Cherie Nowlan (Thank God He Met Lizzie) and smartly written by the husband-and-wife team of Kay Bendle and Keith Thompson, it’s a crime thriller set in the everyday world of child care and domestic clutter.

In a role she seems to have been born for, Rebecca Gibney escapes the power-suit straitjacket of Halifax f.p. and finds much more room to move in the everyday gear of Chrissy Hindmarsh, a suburban mum with three kids in tow.

Chrissy uses her experience as a solicitor to investigate the disappearance of another mum in the local play group (Freya Stafford). She soon finds herself in a prickly partnership with a new arrival there (Claudia Karvan), a single parent and ex-detective, now relegated to a desk job because she has a two-year-old to look after.

BlackJack, which Masters brought with her when she moved from the ABC a couple of years ago, screened on Ten last year. Set in side-street Sydney, directed with no-nonsense efficiency by Peter Andrikidis (Cop Shop, Grass Roots) and written by long-time collaborators Gary McCaffrie and Shaun Micallef, it’s a very timely cop thriller.

The always reliable Colin Friels is Jack Kempson, an honest cop who becomes an outcast when he wears a wire to expose a crooked colleague (John Brumpton). Exiled to the archives, he’s drawn into a 30-year-old kidnapping case.

The result is a thriller in which all the characters are marked by mistakes that can’t be erased. And, unusually for TV drama, it closes with the unstated implication that, rather than providing a cathartic release, Kempson’s probing of the past might have produced more traumas than it has resolved.

Just as Small Claims mixes its thriller aspects with the stresses of parenting, so too does BlackJack. Kempson’s relationship with his disabled teenage daughter (Gigi Edgley) lends a special weight to his vulnerability. The same issue arises in both Stiff and its sequel, The Brush Off, whose bumbling investigator hero Murray Whelan (David Wenham) shares child-minding responsibilities for his 10-year-old son (Julian O’Donnell) with his estranged wife (Robyn Butler).

However, the tone of these telemovies is much less weighty, the wry depiction of Victoria’s corrupt underbelly inheriting its playfulness from Maloney’s novels. Both are scripted by the estimable John Clarke—Stiff is also directed by Clarke, The Brush Off by Sam Neill—and are shaped around their constantly befuddled protagonist’s attempts to fulfil the duties of an assistant to a state government minister. In Stiff, Mick Molloy’s Angelo Agnelli is Ethnic Affairs Minister, his office in Sydney Road; in The Brush Off, he’s been promoted/demoted in a cabinet reshuffle to the Ministry of Water and the Arts, based at the city end of St Kilda Road.

Both films exhibit an infectious sense of the absurd and are graced by the especially tasty flavour of Clarke’s distinctive writing. Not only does it spice both films but much of the time Wenham even appears to be channelling Clarke in his performance (in much the same way that Kenneth Branagh does Woody Allen in Celebrity).

Directed by Shawn Seet (MDA, The Secret Life of Us) and written by John O’Brien, Loot screens on the ABC this week. Another thriller, also conceived as the first in a series of telemovies and set in the world of white-collar crime, it pits Jason Donovan against the corporate double-dealers whose duplicity has contributed to the suicide of his brother-in-law.

He’s another hero required to take responsibility for children, although this time they’re his nephew and niece. And, again, women’s business—to do with his sister-in-law (Tara Morice) and his estranged wife (Anita Hegh)—shares the foreground with the investigation of a crime, setting the everyday humdrum against the intricacies of the sharemarket. Like the other recent telemovies, Loot benefits from strong performances, although it could have spent less time being fascinated by the complicated deals and more with the characters’ private turmoil.

The telemovie boom looks set to continue. There are three more BlackJacks in the works, scripts have been written for three further Small Claims telemovies, and, if the Murray Whelan telemovies do well for Seven, there are more in the offing.

Nine is also taking a punt on Big Reef, which is shooting in Queensland. And with Ten now ruling the roost as far as the production of local telemovies is concerned, you can be sure that Masters has plenty more up her sleeve too.

Stiff screens on Seven tonight at 8.30pm. Loot is on the ABC on Friday at 8.30pm

By Tom Ryan
June 20, 2004
The Age