It’s good to see that there are so many new home-grown drama series beginning and continuing on Australian network TV. There was a very dry period around the beginning of the last decade with the seemingly resistless rise of reality shows. While the likes of Big Brother reigned supreme, times were thin for actors and scriptwriters. Nine’s attempt to resurrect BB has resulted in lacklustre ratings, causing them to double the rate of evictions, which can only be good news for the likes of your reviewer, whose guilty viewing pleasures have their limits. But happy days are here again for the landlords and creditors of those highly skilled (and usually impecunious) artists whose vocation is to entertain. A new atmosphere of encouragement for writers and and opportunities for writers is pervading the boardrooms of TV channels. In particular, Australian actors are valiant bunch, forever honing skills that have far too few outlets in our country with its great distances and tiny population of live theatre patrons. Thus TV dramas become an important career path, keeping at least some of our actors here in work.
The ABC has been busy here, but commercial channels have also entered the fray: Seven’s A Place To Call Home has passed the crucial renewal test and should return for another season. Noni Hazlehurst is great as a the matriarch Elizabeth Bligh; her long career has included some extraordinary feats of great acting. Unforgettable and lovely as the Nora in Monkey Grip in 1982, she has become a grand dame of Australian drama, enjoying her middle-aged power, effortlessly rivetting one’s attention every time she is in a scene. There are a few performers who have that magnetism and one always remembers them: they fill a room with their presence. Hazlehurst is one and I hope that she continues to dominate the Bligh clan for many seasons to come.
Nine has gone for the familiar and predictable with Cops L.A.C., and a continuation of the Underbelly series, which for me lost its way after the first excellent series. Watching the Squizzy Taylor version is purgatorial; such good young actors, such terrible scripting, such relentless vandalism of an actual and fascinating recent history that doesn’t need such oafish anachronisms as the rock music track, and especially the women’s utterly ridiculous clothes, makeup and underwear, most of which could be seen on a fashion shoot today without even looking dated. The ABC’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is refreshingly careful about the period look. Essie Davis has the elegance and confidence to carry off the clothes, which sometimes are ravishing, reminiscent of the Erté drawings that have obviously inspired them.
The ABC has been serving us well with drama, giving a go to original concepts, taking a risk (so unlike the timorous executives at Nine). Sometimes the risk pays off well: Upper Middle Bogan, after a rather frenetic start, is shaping up very well. Peter Helliar’s It’s A Date is uneven: some of the episodes are hilarious and perceptive, even touching: look out for the episode with the beautiful artist/TV chef Poh Ling Yeow adding actor to her impressive list of skills.
But the jewel in the ABC’s drama crown is The Time of Our Lives, starring William McInnes, Claudia Carvan, Shane Jacobson and Stephen Curry. It is a family drama that draws one in, achieving the essential goal of making one care about what happens to the characters. Carvan’s brilliant as Caroline Tivolli, a tortured, over-protective mother who has determined that her son is gifted and therefore cannot be thwarted. McInnes matches her perfectly as her husband Matt, who has given up on trying to parent their son because of her overbearing anxiety and inability to share the task. In the process he has also given up on their marriage; the pain of the situation is patent. Shane Jacobson as Luce Tivolli, in a happy second marriage, tries to juggle his parental responsibilities in both relationships. The series begins with a jilting: the brothers’ adopted sister Chai Li, is left at the altar and there is a great deal of damage control for the whole family.
It’s a mature and well-focused plot with believable characters, superbly acted and well-scripted. All of the episodes are still available on Iview, so it is worth giving that one a try if you are looking for a series to follow.
Worthwhile viewing has always been the stock in trade for the ABC and SBS. But it is the latter that has been providing me with the guilty pleasure. The Chinese dating show If You Are The One continues, going from strength to baffling strength, drawing in 50 million viewers in China and a growing band of furtive devotees here. I protest (when being teased about it by concerned family members) that it gives one a small insight into the real day to day culture of ordinary Chinese people. Their hopes and dreams, their quirks and differences and the interesting experience of occasionally witnessing our culture being summed up by Chinese commentary rather than the reverse. It’s worth a watch, if only to remind ourselves that China really does exist, and that this one program has a viewing audience more than twice the size of our whole population. It would be just plain silly not to try to know them better.
Juliette Hughes is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.