SeaChange: articles

Andrew Knight

Andrew Knight: Has weathered more than his share of storms.

Pearl Bay's Knight of the realm

Andrew Knight is gulping down the remains of a healthy-looking bowl of breakfast and apologising. He was up until 3am working on one of the last four scripts for the third and possibly final season of SeaChange.

He's sent his contributions to co-writer, Deb Cox, who's working from her home in Byron Bay, and, on this crisp morning in Melbourne, he's organising a time for Matt Cameron to come around so that they can start work on another episode.

Knight is tired as the final stages of scriptwriting for the series collide with the deadline for their delivery. He's also concerned that he'll ramble incoherently through this interview.

Fat chance. Knight could recite a grocery shopping list and make it sound hilarious. With his wit and ability to zero in on the quirks that make people tick, a list of canned goods could offer an insight into a household. He is a gifted storyteller, wry and effortlessly funny, so attuned to his surroundings that he can turn a trip to the shops into a sociological study.

The recently revived local milk bar a few minutes walk from his home in a quiet street by the bay gives rise to thoughts about the importance of neighborhood gathering places and the way that fast-food chains strive in vain to manufacture that cheery sense of community.

That, of course, leads to talk of the inviting sense of community that is a key to the popularity of Pearl Bay, the isolated hamlet that he says was partly inspired by The Tempest: “That's why Miranda is Miranda and there are references to it everywhere: the notion of being always under threat and always about to be consumed.”

Knight sees SeaChange as being about “the nobility of failure” and he has long proved himself to be an astute and compassionate observer of human foibles.

The fictional communities that he has helped create embrace eccentricity, whether it's on the factory floor of Ball's moccasin factory in the film Spotswood, on the stranded outback tour bus in Siam Sunset or in the office of the bumbling sleuths in The Fast Lane, the crime comedy series he wrote in the mid-'80s with John Clarke.

But he is so self-deprecating and critical of his own talent that he's liable to convey the impression that his 20 years of work as a writer and producer in the film and TV industries is a bit of an accident.

Even if his only credit was SeaChange — where he's been directly involved in the writing of 30 of the 39 episodes — his CV would look sharp. But his writing credits also include The D-Generation, Fast Forward and Full Frontal.

He spent years in the late ‘80s and ‘90s pedalling hard on the sketch-comedy treadmill, churning out gags and contributing to the creation of some of the most memorable comic characters on Australian television.

As a founding partner of Artist Services with Steve Vizard in 1989, he was central to the company's growth from a producer of sketch comedy, variety and specials into an enterprise that turned out comedy series (Bligh, Jimeoin, Eric, The Micallef Programme, Shark Bay), kids' shows (The Wayne Manifesto), mini-series (Kangaroo Palace, Simone de Beauvior's Babies) and movies (The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Dead Letter Office).

Half of the company was sold to Fairfax for $9 million in 1995 and, in 1998, Vizard and Knight sold their interest in it to British media giant, Granada, for $25 million. That deal, in which they continue to work for the company, also saw Granada buying a 9.1 per cent stake in the Seven Network and merging its production arm to form Red Heart, one of the biggest TV production houses in the country.

Over a cup of coffee under the fringed umbrellas in front of the local milk bar, he's noting the irony of his situation: that the show he's currently losing sleep to complete is popular because of its sense of serenity while he and Cox are at “a slightly demented stage, running around and yelling at each other and going completely mad trying to finish it off”.

Deb Cox, who has known Knight for 20 years, since their days in the script department at Crawford Productions, and has been his co-writer on a range of productions over the past decade, says that “he'll deny it, but he actually thrives on the adrenalin. It infuriates me, but it's the reason that I like working with him.

“If something isn't right, he's quite prepared, at the eleventh hour, to pull it to shreds and put it together again. You fight it for about two seconds and then you realise that he's right. He'll still have the energy to argue at 2am and, because he feels ownership of it and pride in it, he'll destroy his health and everybody else's to get it right. It's driven a lot of people mad, working with us.”

The third season of the phenomenally successful comedy drama started shooting in March and is due to be aired later this year. Before that, the ABC is re-screening the second season as a warm up.

Last year, SeaChange dominated Sunday nights, attracting national audiences of two million and attaining the status of what the Americans would respectfully call “water-cooler TV” and “appointment television”: viewers don't casually flick on to it and decide to stay, they plan to stay home to watch it. And they talk about it the next day. If you missed it, you'll feel left out.

“Despite the fact that it should look unpressured, SeaChange is actually rather difficult to write,” says Knight. “It doesn't have too many conventional narrative structures. It's not plot-driven; it's driven thematically and philosophically. When we get it right, you sense that, and when we get it wrong, it looks like a bad soap.

“I get very frustrated when people say that it's comedy so it's easier to write. If you make a mistake with a conventional narrative, as long as there's a bit of an action sequence or a bit of a punch-up and a few people looking earnest and being declamatory, it might work. But this clunks when we get it wrong.”

One of the reasons that SeaChange rarely clunks is that Cox and Knight have worked hard to shape it. They share a sensibility about its tone and they have developed a partnership that, on screen, appears seamless: it's hard to pick who wrote what.

“We have these cliched generalisations we make about each other, where he does the gags and I do the heart, but it's not that clear-cut,” says Cox. “I've learned from him how to make humor work better, but he's also much more rounded than that. I worry a lot more about the soundness of the story structure, where Andrew is a lot more freewheeling and lateral, which drives me mad. But that's the reason he comes up with these great ideas at the eleventh hour. It's exhausting, but it works.”

In an assessment of his talents, Knight is likely to focus on the shortcomings rather than the accomplishments. But, on the subject of the other contributors to SeaChange, he's positively glowing, though he's worried that his enthusiasm will be construed as publicity-speak.

“We have an extraordinary cast and a very good producer in Sally Ayre Smith. They stop it from getting appalling. The cast is sublime. It's the only reason that Deb and I did a third series. You don't get that kind of panoply of talent often. I know this sounds like publicity, but I've never worked with better people in terms of performance. I can't write now without thinking of their speech rhythms and their tones.

“I was really nervous when we cast Sigrid because she's so damn good looking and so associated with mainstream television. The joy was discovering how wonderfully neurotic she can play and the degree to which she could get the madness that's there in that character.

“The problem for the rest of the cast — and I know it gets to people like Jill Forster — is that you can't make every episode about them. There's a big cast and what we try to do is let certain episodes speak to certain characters.”

Last year, SeaChange faced a seismic shift, having to realign its dynamics due to the departure of chick magnet Diver Dan (David Wenham). Max Connors (William McInnes) arrived and the stories moved beyond the central tale of stressed-out city lawyer Laura Gibson (Sigrid Thornton) and towards more of an ensemble piece, focusing increasingly on the congenial collection of couples: Harold (Alan Cassell) and Meredith (Forster), Phrani (Georgina Naidu) and Kev (Kevin Harrington), Angus (Tom Long) and Karen (Kate Atkinson), Bob (John Howard) and Heather (Kerry Armstrong).

“It was very difficult when David left the series because Deb and I had been interested in exploring a class relationship between a successful woman and a no-name man, because the sort of men who are available to women at that age are either on their third marriage or corporately driven,” explains Knight.

“When David left, we couldn't bring William in and have him address that same role. We had to carve out a different space for him.

“William is brilliant — he's an extraordinary actor. But it took us a long time to figure out exactly how to write to him best. You don't have to write a lot for him, but I tend to over-write. John Clarke once described our style of writing as the coastal route: if there's a short way to say something, we will take the coastal route.”

The scenic approach obviously suits SeaChange and, in conversation, Knight is apt to wander, too. He'll slide easily from observations about parking at the Chadstone shopping complex to rapture about the structural perfection of works by Bach and Mozart. He'll muse about going back to university to study history and admit that the only thing he watches on TV with any regularity is The Sopranos.

He worries that he'll sound pretentious as he outlines the uneasy marriage of commerce and creativity necessitated by the film and TV industries, noting especially the equivocal status of the writer.

“One of my first experiences in films was going to the wrap party at some discotheque,” he recalls, shaking his head. “I got to the door and said ‘Andrew Knight', and they said ‘You're not on the list'. And I said ‘I wrote it', and this big security guard leaned in and said ‘Is it all right if we let the writer in?' I always thought that that was all you ever really need to know about the film industry.

“The trouble with the way that scripts are done in this country is that they're not done organically. A whole lot of people sit around in a room and have these plotting meetings where, because it's Tuesday morning, you're compelled to have an idea even if you don't have an idea. And then that becomes a template and some poor bugger has to go away and write what just may be a pile of crap.

“And most of what's left of Australia's forests are chopped down writing notes about what's wrong with all of this. And then someone comes back three months later with a script that's a pile of crap. The joy with this series is that we can write whatever we damn well like, with a cast who can do anything.”

Playwright Hannie Rayson, who's co-writing two episodes for the new season, says with a laugh that she's known Knight since “before he was famous”.

They shared an office above a fruit shop eight years ago, while she was writing Hotel Sorrento and he was working on Kangaroo Palace.

She describes him as “a very complex person. He's troubled, he's incredibly generous and he's obviously funny. That's part of the joy of this job, I spend a lot of time laughing. He's very witty and he's very dark. He's got warmth and softness and generosity and on the other side, life is hard for him. He's a very rich human being, full of contradictions and paradoxes.”

Rayson is admiring of his talent as a writer. “There is both an upside and a downside of coming from a background of sketch comedy,” she says.

“The upside is that marvellous ability to find the tag, the funny, witty tag. I thought that the downside would be that he would privilege the wisecrack over content. He doesn't. He obviously feels an incredible affection for the characters and he gives them a full and rich emotional life. He doesn't get enough credit for being a really fine writer. In the public imagination, he seems to be cast in the backroom as Steve Vizard's partner.”

The early years at Artist Services, churning out sketch comedy at a punishing pace, took their toll, and it's not hard to see parallels between Laura Gibson's initially stressed-out situation — marital problems, work pressures, kids she doesn't see enough of — and Knight's.

A divorced father of two children, who still finds the break-up of his 20-year relationship with their mother painful, he lives with his “compassionate partner” of three years, Banu Erzeren, a shiatsu practitioner who's doing a degree in acupuncture (they met over his bad back).

Their light and airy house is redolent with the scent of essential oils. Happy snaps of family, friends and holidays dot the kitchen and living area and Knight delights in revealing the hidden tunnels and concealed attic that the kids can play in.

When the current burst of SeaChange is finished, Knight will resume work as executive producer on a project he has nursed since the early ‘80s, an adaptation of George Johnston's My Brother Jack. The $7.5 million mini-series, which will start production in mid-June, has been written by John Alsop and Sue Smith and will be directed by Ken Cameron, the team behind Brides of Christ.

He's also keen to get back to the three-part mini-series, Before the Deluge, that's he's started to write with the Jackson Browne song in his head. “The ABC wanted me to do a mini-series about men and mid-life and marriage collapses, courts and kids.”

He starts to describe the opening scene of a battle in a suburban backyard. It's a father-son story, he explains, a tale of struggle and survival, of war and divorce, with an unreliable narrator who's locked in the throes of Alzheimer's disease. The picture is vivid and intriguing. You want to hear more, to find out how this drama will develop. Andrew Knight is a natural storyteller, bleary-eyed or not.

By Debi Enker
June 01, 2000
The Age