Phoenix: articles

The Inside Story

Set to reappear in March in its second series, ABC-TV's Phoenix doesn't just look authentic—there's a real cop behind the scenes.

The two detectives who stop to watch the dusk action in Kent Street, Richmond are jacketless. But these men, arms folded, legs apart, moustaches and ties just so, are marked apart from the crowd. When they stroll over to talk with a reserved, silver-haired man standing inside the chequered police tape, he is absorbed into their aura of distance.

On the set of Phoenix, ABC-TV's gritty police drama, the actors impersonating detectives sense immediately who the outsiders are… Gordon's friends. The real thing.

Senior Sergeant Gordon Davie was a good detective—one of the best. He left the Victorian Police force in 1990 after an 18-year career during which he led major investigations in all states and was decorated for his role in the Russell Street bombing investigation. He was 46. "It affects you, working on jobs like that," he says. "I got to the stage where I couldn't get into a car without looking underneath."

Help: Shortly after he slipped back into civilian life, Davie received a call from a couple of television people—Alison Nisselle and Tony McDonald (Davie discovered he had once worked for McDonald's father, the late Detective Chief Inspector Dallas McDonald). They needed help with a quasi-documentary police series called Phoenix. Davie knew nothing about television but his experience, which included undercover work on the Hilton Hotel, Russell St and Turkish consulate bombing, coincided remarkably with their plot. He agreed to work as an advisor.

Phoenix was a success for the ABC last year, collecting awards and, as a curious by-product, a cult following of young professionals, including detectives. A second series of 13 episodes was shot in Melbourne recently and is scheduled to screen from March. Again, Davie has been involved but this time from the beginning.

In Tony McDonald's mind, Davie is the touchstone of this new style cop show that rates authenticity alongside drama.

"Every line of dialogue has to be scrutinised by Gordon for accuracy, tone and attitude," he says. "We had a million questions for him in the first series and 20 million in the second series."

While Phoenix writers and actors had, in the main, good access to working detectives in Victoria's now-defunct Major Crimes Squad (since reborn as the Special Response Squad), Davie has been their in-house copper. Likewise, on set, Davie was on hand for queries about the construction of a door that has to give way under a sledgehammer, about the likelihood of a crook being heard as he jumps from a first-floor window onto the back of a truck and so on. "However Gordon says to do it…" barks director Kate Woods from behind a monitor to a cameraman's request. She calls Davie "Dad".

Hints: Davie looks older than his years and his manner is benevolent, almost country squir-ish. Only his carefully measured speech hints at an underlying professional toughness. His adult daughter Odette, who is among the crowd lining Kent St, says that when her father was in the police force, he never talked about his work. Phoenix has provided her with an oblique entry into his world.

McDonald also came to respect his own father, posthumously, through making the series: "It took me working with blokes like Gordon and other coppers to find out what he was all about," he says.

Davie came to television as an absolute beginner. "It was completely foreign to me… actors, writers, they are altogether different to the people I am used to associating with," he says. But it turns out that their jobs are not so different: ‘"there is a lot of role playing in policing—you have to be able to project yourself into the mind of the offender to be a successful detective. That is the key part."

Honest: Phoenix doesn't fudge police attitudes, although "the language has been cut down to billyo" says Davie, sitting on the Major Crimes Squad set, a faithful replica of his old office. "It is very honest—police are racist, they are sexist, they are biased—and quite obviously that is not all of them. But it is there. To deny it is there would be utter stupidity…"

Phoenix is not a police publicity exercise. In fact, after the ABC's 7.30 Report screened a story on police shootings in Kensington in Victoria, the state police closed down shop and refused to co-operate further with the Phoenix team. Nor is it Davie's story. Fragments of dozens of cases have been knitted together by the six writers of the series.

"I see it as close to the real thing as you can possibly get." Davie says. Former colleagues agree. During the last series, they rang him often to tell him where particular incidents appeared to come from.

By Diana Bagnall
The Bulletin
January 12, 1993

Phoenix Cops It Sweet

This might not be the place for a public confession, but here goes. Remember Phoenix, the ABC's gritty police drama which everyone raved about last year? Well, I watched only two episodes. There you are—it's out. I don't feel good about it but that's not the point, is it? I Besides, I can now make amends.

The ABC recently sent me 13 episodes of Phoenix 2, and I watched every one of them. Not out of guilt, dear reader, but because I had no choice—its disturbing world of "ag burglars" and "toe-cutters" is totally mesmerising.

Phoenix 2 starts in the bed- room of an elderly couple, sound asleep in their separate beds. By morning their lives will have changed irrevocably after a brutal attack by two vicious burglars.

True, it's a fairly suburban start, but don't be fooled. Just as the crooks tease the cops with a trail of mystifying clues, Phoenix plays with the viewer, leading us into a maze of tantalising subplots so that, in the end, the only way out is to watch.

This isn't such a bad sentence, as Phoenix 2 is a compelling tale defying convention both in style and content. The carefully careless camera angles are back and so is the muffled dialogue, but they soon merge into the background as the acting and the story take the foreground.

Creators Alison Nisselle and Tony McDonald aren't satisfied with merely telling how the goodies catch the baddies. They are far more intrigued with exploring how the fine line between the law and the unlawful behavior often blurs for the worst.

The main plot is a classic detective story involving Major Crime's quest to catch crooks who are committing violent aggravated burglaries against wealthy senior citizens.

Solving these "ag burgs" means a lot to Major Crime. They're the maverick squad in the police department with a~ record for aggressive police I work which might get the job done but is hell for image and public relations.

Sergeant Peter Faithful (Simon Westaway) is under pressure to carry out a clean arrest. Unfortunately, crime is a messy business and in the heat of the moment… well, things happen. Faithful is moved by the plight of one old couple who are victims of the ag burgs and, as a result, catching the crims becomes a personal crusade. His zeal has a good and bad effect on his work. Westaway is a perfect fit as the brooding, determined Faithful and his work, especially in the episode where he is held hostage at the end of a double-barrel shotgun, is hot stuff.

But Westaway can't take all the glory—Phoenix 2 is an ensemble piece and it is hard to fault any of the actors. They are all excellent, especially David Bradshaw as Fluff, dubbed the cop's cop, Jennifer Jarman-Walker as researcher Darby and Vikki Blanche, whose time in the United States studying acting was obviously worthwhile.

Readers who watched last year's Phoenix will know how lucky they were to witness such good television. But I can tell you this is no exclusive club—anyone can tune into Phoenix 2 and be privy to 13 hours of excellent drama.

Those who don't will be committing a major crime against the cause for first class drama. And they won't have another chance next year—the ABC says there definitely won't be a Phoenix 3.

By Sandra McLean
TV Week
March 06, 1993

Squad cops a Logies bouquet

If ever a timely push along could come for a TV series, then the TV WEEK Logie Award so deservedly won by Phoenix must be it.

We don't usually talk numbers when it comes to Logies voting, but I can tell you that the size of its "majority" is something about which Mr Keating and Dr Hewson could only have dreamed.

Suffice to say Phoenix was an emphatic winner in the Most Outstanding Series category, decided on the votes of actors and actresses around Australia.

And here's hoping there is some beneficial rub-off for the follow-up series, which now has one of the toughest slots. At 8.30 on Thursdays it runs smack up against the extraordinarily popular The Extraordinary on the Seven Network and the beguiling U.S. import Northern Exposure on Network Ten.

Since the crash-landing of RFDS, the Nine Network has had to scramble for a few specials to fill their Thursday schedules, but the Hey Hey It's Thursday, with Elton John live and the AIDS appeal, and a Sports Illustrated calendar girl flesh fest haven't been too bad a start.

So Phoenix II, just like its TV WEEK Logie Award-winning predecessor, has not won a public following to match the critical acclaim it attracted. Maybe the Logie will be just the fillip it needs. I hope so, because personally I'm just as hooked on the second series as I was on the first.

Phoenix II also owes much of its appeal to the relevance as well as the tightness of its scripts—one of the commercial networks ran a series of special reports on "ag burgs" a week or so before the new series had its premiere.

There are more strong performances from the regular characters, with Simon Westaway and Sean Scully outstanding among the survivors from the original series, and Jackie Kelleher lending enormous enhancement as the elderly victim, Betty.

The newcomers to the constantly overworked squad and its immediate connections fit nicely, too, providing everything from domestic complications to comic relief. And again the whole deal is imbued with that wonderfully gritty realism which was such a feature of the first series.

The Logies victory for Phoenix and other Logies results in the Most Outstanding—or peer judged—categories can and should be interpreted as a II huge pat on the back for the' ABC, but they also say something about the lack of "quality" opportunities on offer from the commercial networks.

Hopefully the signs of change are there in recent announcements made by the Nine Network, for instance, but there's no doubt that a pretty sad state of affairs generally still exists.

The ABC also scored a major breakthrough in the public voting categories, with Gary Sweet winning the Most Popular Actor Silver Logie, as well as the peer voted award. Traditionally the ABC and those associated with its shows have had to wait for the peer voted categories before being able to accept any gongs, but not this time.

The Silver Logies are high points in what has been a remarkably consistent career, kicked off with a Best New Talent Logie (for his role in The Sullivans) more than a decade ago.

That was when Sweet, now the star of the Southern Star Xanadu-ABC-BBC production Police Rescue, was still wondering whether he'd done the right thing by quitting his job as a schoolteacher in Adelaide and moving to Melbourne. He did.

By Lawrie Masterson
TV Week
March 17, 1993

Force behind the Phoenix reality

Alison Nisselle portrayed the human side of law enforcement in Two's rule-breaking drama series.

When the ABC drama Phoenix exploded on our screens last year it was obvious straight away the series was not your typical Australian cop show.

For a start there was the unnerving realism and hard-edged style, captures by a hand-held camera which actually seemed to intrude on actions of Melbourne's Major Crime Squad. And then there was the gritty, no-nonsense acting by a cast which looked and felt like real cops—not regulars off the set of a soapie.

But what really set Phoenix apart was its words—the top-notch quality of a plotline and scripts which steered away from the usual car chases, shoot-outs and confessions.

A large slice of the credit for that belongs to co-creator and writer Alison Nisselle who teamed up with Tony McDonald to produce a Series which drew the acclaim usually reserved for overseas products like Hill Street Blues, Edge of Darkness and The Bill.

For her part, Nisselle believes the ABC deserves some of the praise because she is convinced Phoenix would never have been made by a commercial network.

"The ABC has always been prepared to head off into unchartered territory, to take risks and try new things, whereas there hasn't been that sort of management at the commercial networks in recent years, " she said.

Nisselle claimed that the last Australian TV series to take a risk and create a new look was The Sullivans. "In its way The Sullivans did something quite different and I don't think anything really new had been done since then. We've coasted along on the same thing."

She said that not enough people were prepared to take risks. "It starts at the top with network management and depends if they are prepared or even interested in seeing something different, or whether they just want to play it safe and provide more of the same thing."

Melbourne-born Nisselle, in the drama business for 20 years, began her writing career as a cadet reporter on The Herald before moving into radio and eventually television journalism. Her big break came in the ‘70s with a writing assignment on The Box, another series which changed the rules of television.

"Crawfords had a policy of taking on trainee writers and it was a terrific experience, "Nisselle recalled. "Unfortunately nobody does it anymore and they should because script-writing is a craft that takes a long time to learn and really needs on-the-job training."

Since those early days she has become on of the best in the business and her credits include The Sullivans, The Flying Doctors, Carsons Law, GP and The Zoo Family.

But even with more than 150 hours of produced Australian drama under her belt, Nisselle found Phoenix to be her greatest challenge. "I found it twice as hard to write Phoenix as anything else because of the enormous amount of research and attention to detail," she said.

The task was made easier by the presence at her side of Gordon Davie, a former Victorian CIB detective who served in several task forces, including investigation of the Russell Street bombing in 1986. He helped inject crucial authenticity into the show and his advice, according to Nisselle, was invaluable.

Many serving members of Victoria Police also provided help to both Phoenix series—above and beyond the call of duty.

"The police are remarkably good about co-operation and have a great tolerance," Nisselle said. "They're so self-analytical and self-critical that they don't have a problem with other people showing them warts and all, as long as it's done fairly."

Nisselle and her writing partners must have done something right because official cooperation actually increased with the second series. She said the police knew exactly what they were letting themselves in for and held no false expectations that they would be exclusively portrayed in a positive light.

"There was a lot in the first series which made some of them—certainly the police hierarchy—wince, but they also appreciated the fact that our characters were portrayed as human beings." She hopes that Phoenix has helped dispel the often held and highly negative public impression that officers are like robots—cold, hard, unfeeling and probably corrupt.

"The police can only benefit if we show them to be human beings because the truth is that its a highly emotional job. The second series should have the same overall effect as the first. People will understand the kind of job the police have to do, and appreciate the pressures and the politics involved."

Nisselle explained that the Phoenix writers were careful not to let their personal feelings and attitudes intrude on the scripts.

"From the start we decide to make no judgements whatsoever. We do not apply our opinions to what is right or wrong—we are simply the cold, hard eye observing what is happening. When we're on the 11th floor with the squad we absolutely represent their point of view and then when we go up to the assistant commissioner's office we absolutely represent his point of view."

She found the characters of the superintendent and assistant commissioner the toughest to wrote because of the different perspective they bring to issues compared with the Major Crime Squad. "It is hard to write them sympathetically—you've got to really switch your head around to be fair to them. They have a public and a political responsibility. They have to deal with the incredible media pressure, plus pressure from the government and the Department of Public Prosecutions, while also showing loyalty to their men."

All the Phoenix characters are based on real people or a combination of real people, but Nisselle denied the series was an intrusion into their lives. "They love it. The certainly become extremely proprietorial about their characters and that's what we want because it is fundamentally their story. And when you wonder if you're doing the right thing with a character you can submit yourself to them for judgement. They might look at it and say ‘ah no, I wouldn't do that' in much the same way as actors do."

And involvement of the genuine police officers in the production of Phoenix goes beyond script development. "We like them to come and look at filming and to be available to speak to the actors." Nisselle is justifiably proud of the first Phoenix series. "Everybody really put themselves into it and were striving for the same thing, which is enormously difficult when you try to do something different."

Even so, the show's success caught her by surprise. "By the time it was in the can we were all looking at each other and saying ‘Hey, this isn't bad' but you still don't know how anyone is going to react. You can never take an audience for granted so it's a happy surprise when you look up and suddenly people are clapping."

She has high hopes for the second series but has been in the business long enough to know it is unwise to make predictions.

With Phoenix II being screened, Nisselle has again teamed up with Tony McDonald to develop a new 13-part series for the ABC. She will not reveal what it will be about, except to say that it will stay in the same reality vein.

By Jim Tomkins
Sunday Herald-Sun
April 04, 1993