Sea Patrol: articles


All hands on deck

The growth of big-budget cinema-style television has permanently changed the audience's expectations, says Sea Patrol's executive producer, Hal McElroy. To succeed, television dramas need to keep pace with the ever-increasing size of TV screens, a technological realm with one rule of thumb: bigger is better.

"The bar is constantly being raised," McElroy tells the Guide. "Every single episode has to be better than the last one and season to season there should be a noticeable improvement. If you think you can roll around in clover and everything is fine, you're dead."

If Underbelly is The Godfather for the small screen, then Sea Patrol is Top Gun in boats. Filmed over 87 days, on location at Mission Beach and Cairns and in a studio on the Gold Coast, it is a 750-scene, 13-hour feature film.

It has high-speed boat chases, tension-soaked standoffs and movie-style showdowns. "To do that, you have to have money, time and confidence," McElroy says. "The budget for series three has increased, it has given us a little more time to do things but the word is confidence.

"With two series under our belt, we are better and smarter with our storytelling, so the process is more fluid. The actors would tell you they're more relaxed, more confident, they know where they're going and that plays out across everything directing, writing, production."

Like the previous series, Sea Patrol: Red Gold is set aboard the (fictional) Royal Australian Navy patrol boat HMAS Hammersley. It stars Ian Stenlake as the boat's commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Mike Flynn, Lisa McCune as his executive officer, Lieutenant Kate McGregor and an ensemble of actors as the vessel's navy crew.

The first series dealt with the death of a marine biologist on the fictional Bright Island and the threat of a marine-borne toxin, while the second, subtitled The Coup, involved an insurgency on the fictional Samaru Islands.

The third shifts the action to the Indian Ocean, the theft of "red gold" coral and a web of murder, piracy and eco-terrorism.

McElroy says the biggest writing challenge is simultaneously serving the 13-episode story arc (a byproduct of the show's funding as a miniseries) and the individual episodes. "There is a bit of a battle in the cutting room," he admits.

McElroy has high praise for the show's cast Stenlake, McCune, Saskia Burmeister (Nav), John Batchelor (Charge), Jeremy Lindsay Taylor (Buffer), David Lyons (ET), Matthew Holmes (Swain), Kristian Schmid (RO), Jay Ryan (Spider), Kirsty Lee Allan (Bomber) and new addition Nikolai Nikolaeff (2Dads).

"Every member of the cast gets at least two episodes where they're principal in the story, so these guys all know they will get a chance to shine," McElroy says.

For one, however, this will be a final journey. In the explosive first episode, a member of the Hammersley's crew is killed, delivering an emotional wallop to the crew's strong sense of family. It's difficult to explore the twist in detail without giving away the identity of the departing actor but co-producer Di McElroy, realising the dramatic potential for the story, answered the actor's request to be let go for another project, with these words: "We'll let you go as long as you let us kill you."

The longevity of any Australian drama is dependant partly on domestic ratings but also on revenue from international sales. Costing close to $1million an episode, Sea Patrol is the most expensive weekly drama made in Australia and its performance is closely watched by both the network's statisticians and accountants.

"Overseas sale is never easy with an Australian program because we forget that everywhere else in the world we're foreign and in Europe we're dubbed," McElroy says. That said, a deal has just been finalised to sell the series to Germany and Italy. It has already been sold to Belgium, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Britain and several other countries.

"It's action-adventure, which is very expensive to make, and generally speaking American dramas have moved away from it because it's so expensive, so that gives us a point of difference in the market," McElroy says. "We're on the sea, which we know is elemental, and when people think of Australia they think of blue water, so there is a very positive association. It has a lot to offer the market."

McElroy is confident the show will return for a fourth series, though nothing has been confirmed by Nine. The production team is already developing scripts, with a preference at this stage for 16 episodes without the over-arching miniseries plot. Everything, he says, depends on the current season's ratings.

"We're hoping to get 1.5 million people, which is where we finished up last year, and in the current market that's a hell of a number," he says.

By Michael Idato
May 18, 2009
Sydney Morning Herald