Water Rats: articles

Bisley may leave Water Rats

IS the King of the Rats deserting a sinking ship? Will Steve Bisley's decision not to return to Water Rats next season be the final wounding for a show that has slid over the past year from a ratings winner to a ratings struggler?

Not according to the Water Rats crew. After all, they say, the real star of the show is Sydney Harbour, and that's going nowhere.

But there's no doubting Bisley's appeal. As Detective Jack Christey, he is the Rats' strong and constant focus that keeps the hard-core fans tuned. He's a tough old bastard who shows the pain of the past in his sad eyes and a drinking problem.

But Christey has been inside of Bisley for three years and he's had enough and wants to move on. Serious drama, he says, is draining.

"I'm pretty sick of him. I really like being able to work across the medium—film, television and theatre—and I can't because this is demanding," Bisley explains.

"I like short-term work, rather than the continuum. And I'm really looking forward to the unknown."

Regardless of whether or not Bisley signed on for the show again next year, plans have been going on for some time now to give the Rats some extra dimensions, a new edge or two.

Water Rats unwittingly reflects both the nature of cops and the business of television: it's dogged and relentless in pursuit of results as well as having wins and losses.

And the turmoil of the past couple of months with the new OzTAM ratings system, which has cast doubts on the popularity of many shows and forced programmers, especially at Nine, into a re-evaluation of their viewers, just adds to the drama.

A change of cast is all part of the Rats' history and shifting back its timeslot from Tuesday 8.30pm to 9.30pm presents the opportunity to add more adult themes, says Nine head of drama, Chris Noble.

Bisley says the show is immersed in a ratings war, being up against ABC's The Bill, Seven's All Saints and Ten's Charmed in the 8.30pm time slot.

"If you understand television networks—and I don't—there was a little too much heat in the kitchen," he says. "Tuesday 8.30pm is a very competitive spot."

Five years ago, the Rats was one of Nine's top rating shows with Catherine McClements and Colin Friels carrying most of the weight. Minor roles were really walk-ons—viewers knew very little about them and probably didn't want to.

Then came the challenges when Friels and McClements departed within a year of each other: finding people to replace these fine detectives whose office had one of the best views in the city, and changing the show to grab back some of the ratings that went with their departure.

Enter Steve Bisley, one of the most familiar faces on Australian screens with a string of unforgettable roles—shonky car salesman Gordon Farkus in The Big Steal, old-school TV news executive producer Prowsy on Frontline, The Goose from Mad Max, to name a few. Adding to the dynamics was Dee Smart as Christey's offsider, the brassy babe, Alex.

But things started to look bad for the show at the end of last year. Ratings were struggling and there were rumours Nine was going to pull the pin. A new focus on the ensemble cast, including Aaron Pederson, Diarmid Heidenreich, Brooke Satchwell and Rebecca Smart, was introduced.

With more concentration on their private lives rather than them just pulling bodies out of the harbour, things started to look up when the series returned this year.

Executive producer, Ted Roberts, says the show wants to reflect the notion that cops have lives too, as well as have storylines and characters strong enough for a younger audience while maintaining the loyal ones.

"With our younger actors—like Diarmid, Brooke and Rebecca—we're hoping they will attract to the show their own fans."

Roberts says the decision to change Water Rats' focus had to be made. The executives were breathing down his neck last year but he feels much more optimistic now.

"Last year was really hard. There were some network changes where new people weren't as committed to the show as some of the previous ones. But we persevered. Then we were given another 26 episodes and everything looked fine," he says.

Making guest appearances in the Rats are some big names in the Australian entertainment industry. Bill Hunter has played Christey's bookie father, Carmen Duncan will play Alex's mother and Simon Lyndon will also briefly join the show.

And there will be affairs and other activities to take advantage of the later time slot. Watch Riley's (Aaron Pederson) movements, Roberts says.

With the novelty of reality TV, production of drama and sitcoms are dwindling, he says, but when there is a backlash against this trend, viewers will come back to shows like the Rats.

Bisley says: "Great television shows come from really good writing. Actors are only as good as their material."

By Kylie Keogh
March 29, 2001
The Daily Telegrap