Water Rats: articles

A tale of drowned Rats

So that sinking feeling finally became too soggy for Nine. Water Rats, the television series that never seemed sure whether it was selling Sydney Harbor for the tourist bureau or delivering a cop show for the hard of hearing, is all washed up. It bows out on Tuesday, not just with a gurgle or a whimper, but with a big bang.

You can't say the network wasn't patient with its sunny, salt-sprayed drama. It stuck with it for 177 episodes, with budgets reported to be often double other Australian series. It brought in actors who could walk on water. It had that highly regarded television writer Tony Morphett as its leading storyteller.

Nine steered Water Rats through the choppy waves, realising that, along with its series of Melbourne-made Halifax f.p. telemovies and, later, the undercover police show Stingers, the Southern Star production could help it break a long run of failed dramas. And, indeed, at first that's just the way it seemed.

It was as if the producers had learnt from the story-telling mistakes of Ten's unlamented spin-around-the-harbor series Chopper Squad, and understood what the audience appreciated in the ABC's action-packed Police Rescue. It knew it needed the sort of ensemble that Seven found for Blue Heelers—and at least one big star.

There was no trouble about the locations or the sets. The Bridge and the Opera House had never failed before and they could always be guaranteed to dazzle those overseas viewers. Just take the picture-postcard shots from every angle. Make sure the ferry has a role. Keep within a glance of Goat Island. And don't let the skies turn grey, the seas turn to spray, or the summer sun drift away.

Trouble was, the scenery took over in those early episodes. Who says Sydney Harbor can't become tiresome? Even when you have patrol launches zooming this way and the other to follow distant explosions, there is a time to cry "enough". The Coathanger became as big a scene-stealer in Water Rats as that souvenir bottle-opening paw was to Skippy.

The New South Wales Water Police, on whom the series was based, is at Pyrmont on Sydney Harbor and has a dozen seagoing craft, as well as nearly 60 smaller boats, all with the latest electronic navigational aids. It holds the distinction of being Australia's first civilian police force, created as the "Row Boat Guard" in Sydney Cove by Governor Phillip in 1789.

Today the force also polices the coastline around Newcastle, Coffs Harbor, Sans Souci and Port Kembla, as well as many large country waterways. Nine's squad, of course, has rarely travelled as far as the Heads. Not that it has needed to go that far.

There has never been any shortage of "floaters" in Water Rats. No lack of villainy or corruption. New York's or Chicago's finest would pale at the workload. Our heroes recover bits of bodies every week, serial killers roam, Asian drug smugglers wage war within a blink of Kirribilli, Sydneysiders nail neighbors to trees, the wealthy bump off wives and girlfriends from their luxury yachts, and villains rehearsing for Blue Murder drop mates in concrete-padded cossies in for a swim.

Water Rats debuted in 1996, promising in those pre-Olympics years to reach an international audience of some 200 million. It was optimistic. And let's be clear, in all six series the show has never been that far from success. But it just couldn't quite get the full act—the writing, the directing and the performances—together at the same time.

There was much to appreciate in Colin Friels' performances as Detective Frank Holloway and, until someone beefed up her character, Catherine McClements as the ill-fated Detective Rachel Goldstein. And then, when they disappeared, there was always the reliably gritty Steve Bisley, proving charismatic as Jack Christey, finding his father and a daughter while sorting out Charlie Driscoll and other bottom-of-the-harbor nasties.

When the writers were allowed to steer clear of those almost mandatory high-speed boat chases and focus on the characters, we saw some top story-telling and acting. Toni Scanlan as Senior Sergeant Helen Blakemore, wondering about her uncertain future, built up a warm and intriguing personality. Similarly, Peter Bensley's role as pen-pushing station boss Jeff Hawker was intelligently developed.

Perhaps it was the influence of Wildside. It could have been a response to the critics. Or perhaps the traffic is particularly noisy in Sydney. But in recent episodes of Water Rats, Christey, Aaron Pedersen as Detective Mick Reilly and Dee Smart as feisty cop Alex St Clare, have turned the action into uproar. They've shouted their way through the dialogue.

There was a great deal for them to shout about in this week's episode. After a sniper attack, St Clare was one of two officers down by nightfall. And the network announced it was all over. Next week, Christey will undoubtedly set off the sort of firestorm that Texas expects from the FBI. Don't expect any more lingering shots of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Just angry drowned Rats…

The final episode of Water Rats screens on Tuesday on Channel Nine at 9.30pm

By Brian Courtis
August 02, 2001
The Age