SeaChange: articles

The sun sets on Pearl Bay

A chapter of Australian television will close on Sunday. One of our best, most-loved and most important dramas is ending after three years. Light, funny and fey, SeaChange does not bear the usual hallmarks of a television legend, but it tapped into the Australian psyche in a way that more serious dramas, such as Wildside, never managed. The people of Pearl Bay have become part of our lives and Sundays at 7.30pm will never be the same.

In its early days, SeaChange was billed as “something rich and strange”, and it drew in the Australian public. When the first series ended, the buzz was so strong that the ABC repeated it just before the second series went to air. Both the repeats and the new series rated their socks off, knocking Nine's long-standing Sunday night juggernaut, 60 Minutes, from the top spot.

John Howard, who plays Pearl Bay's bullying mayor Bob Jelly, attributes the show's success to “a sense of irony which is peculiarly Australian”. Kate Atkinson (neurotic Constable Karen Miller) says: “It was just timely in terms of a political and social shift in this country, and probably globally. A lot of people want to recapture a simplicity and a community in their lives.”

That's the heart and soul of SeaChange: the story of a overworked, overwrought city lawyer struggling to purge the complexity of modern city living from her life. And that was the biggest surprise to co-creator Deb Cox: that people identified so strongly with “the whole idea of the sea change, of escaping”.

“To me it was very mythical, it was a journey that people make inside their head. For me it was like Victorians saying, ‘One day I'll go to Queensland.”'

She was always confident the public would identify with characters presented honestly, with all their foibles, but never patronisingly. Writing partner Andrew Knight says: “We just tried to get into people's lives as equals.” He pauses: “That's probably the most pretentious thing I've ever said.”

The cast of 17 SeaChange regulars moved on when shooting ended in August, but the actors look back on the three seasons they spent in Barwon Heads, the real-life Pearl Bay, with fondness, gratitude, even nostalgia.

Sigrid Thornton, who played the city-fleeing lawyer Laura Gibson, describes it as “a fantastically warm and rewarding working experience”.

Kerry Armstrong, who plays small-town socialite Heather Jelly, likened acting in the show to an intense tennis rally — “like how John McEnroe felt when he was playing Bjorn Borg all those years ago”.

Kevin Harrington, who plays unflustered handyman Kevin Findlay, calls SeaChange “one of the best gigs that I've done”. Lamenting its passing, he adds, with more than a touch of the fictional Kevin: “It's five months' work I could have had that I won't have.”

Georgina Naidu, who plays Indian shopkeeper Phrani Gupta, the show's nod at multiculturalism, is getting on with her stage career, but says wistfully: “I'm not ready to say goodbye to Phrani.”

The cast loved the way their characters developed during the series. Harrington appreciates the way his screen character was “a spiritual man — and that's an interesting perspective because that would be the last thing he would think of himself as”.

Atkinson loves the way Karen grew after her overseas trip (taken between series): “It provoked all kinds of conflicts and changes in the relationship with Angus, and it was just what I needed as a challenge.”

Every mayor in Australia had a moment of self-recognition when Bob Jelly burst into the national consciousness. A monument to male chauvinism, Bob never really changed. He does, however, undergo a sort of revelatory moment in the final episode.

“But,” Howard says, “as usual, that revelation only lasts as long as he needs it to. He will always be Bob Jelly.”

Bob's wife, Heather, evolved the most, from the dolly-bird wife to a woman who succeeded in real-estate, leaving (though always loving) her husband, even standing up to the evil Morton Tregonning.

Armstrong says she saw Heather in the first series not as a dumb blonde but a dying blonde — “dying to please, dying to disappear, dying to do well, dying just from insecurity”.

“It's been such a celebration of a woman coming out from behind what can only be described as a big buffoon of a man and finding her liberation,” she says. “I'm now walking down the street and women are patting me on the shoulders, punching me on the arm and saying, ‘Fantastic. Well done. Good on you, love.”'

Atkinson, just back from a long road trip to north-western Australia, says her SeaChange role “got me lots of dinner invitations”. Many people, though, had trouble separating truth from fiction. “I think it's funny that people think I'm even remotely like Karen,” Atkinson says.

Andrew Knight has loved hearing strangers at parties enthuse about the show, unaware of his involvement. “They felt they owned it,” he says. “When you get it right, which is very rare, it's public property, it becomes part of the psyche. Which is why to rush in and do a fourth series would be wrong.”

One thing is clear: this is not the last we'll see of the cast we have come to know as family. SeaChange has launched and re-invented careers. Thornton finally shook off two decades of costume dramas and will soon start rehearsals for the Melbourne Theatre Company production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal; David Wenham found a new audience outside art-house cinemas when he peeled off Diver Dan's wetsuit; and William McInnes need never get back into a Blue Heelers uniform. As for Howard, no-one will confuse him with the Prime Minister again.

SeaChange's cast are springing up everywhere on the bigger screen: Harrington and Tom Long (laidback, surfing court clerk Angus Kabiri) are stars of the hit Australian film The Dish, which shares SeaChange's lightness of touch. “I know that Tom and I were cast in The Dish because Jane Kennedy (one of the film's producers) saw us in SeaChange,” says Harrington. “She said so.”

Wenham is on show in another acclaimed flick, Better Than Sex, and is in New Zealand shooting Peter Jackson's screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, in which he plays Faramir.

Armstrong stars in Lantana, Ray Lawrence's eagerly awaited film, alongside Geoffrey Rush, Anthony LaPaglia and Barbara Hershey.

Kane McNay, who plays Laura's son, Rupert, in the series, walked off with the Young Actor's Award at the recent AFI Awards for his performance in the film Mallboy. It was the only Australian film selected for the Cannes Film Festival this year. From Pearl Bay to Cannes? Not bad.

At the heart of SeaChange are friends and writing partners Cox and Knight. The cast heaps nothing but praise on the pair (Kerry Armstrong calls Cox “an extraordinary human being”) and their writing. Cox says the key to SeaChange was “the nexus between comedy and drama”. She and Knight avoided “setting out to deal with a social issue” or preaching.

Knight says: “What we often tried to do was canvas a complicated issue and throw up all the inherent ironies, contradictions, emotions, poignancy — those sort of things — without ramming anything down people's throats.”

Cox adds: “I find it very odd that people have difficulty categorising this as drama with a humorous edge, because to me it's nowhere near as artificial as straight drama or straight comedy. Usually there's a strong thread of humor running through everything. To me, that's just a truer representation of life. To me a straight drama without any relief would be a very artificial, odd way of storytelling.”

While the episodes flow beautifully, Knight insists that “they were not the sort of things you can just churn out; they were tricky buggers to write”.

All agree the writing process was a collaborative exercise. Actors would often suggest ways to develop their characters, and serendipity played its part. In the first series, for example, local publican Meredith (Jill Forster) and Heather discover they are mother and daughter. How did this idea come up? “I just noticed Kerry Armstrong looked like Jill Forster and I thought, that's interesting, and we worked out that the two could work,” says Knight.

The passing of SeaChange will not spell the end of the relationship between Cox and Knight. The pair has gone into partnership with Andrea Denholm to form a production company developing other ideas for miniseries and feature films. Cox says they are “working on a small slate of strong projects”, including one likely to end up on commercial television.

There's also a three-hour miniseries for the ABC about three sons and their father, who has Alzheimer's. That is Knight's pet project, but Cox is story-editing and “helping him out”.

“It's great, still funny,” says Cox, “but it has a darker, heavier feel to it than SeaChange.”

For now, though, the sun is about to set on Pearl Bay for the last time. Cox and Knight hint at a possible return, but one suspects this is in part an attempt to soften the blow that the nation will suffer on Sunday night when the credits roll for the very last time.

“We haven't really pulled the plug,” says Knight. “What we've said is there is no more water immediately in the bath, and we don't want to rush in and do a fourth series.”

We live in hope.

SeaChange screens Sunday on the ABC at 7.30pm.

By Jenny Tabakoff and Michael Idato
December 07, 2000
The Sydney Morning Herald