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The Age

Land of hope and soap

Author: DEBI ENKER
Date: 10/11/2005
Words: 2396
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: Green Guide
Page: 8
Can headLandavoid the harsh judgement passed by viewers on recent local dramas? Debi Enker assesses its chances in a climate hostile to new productions.

NATURALLY, there are nerves.

There's always anxiety before the launch of a new show. It's a project that people have slaved over, sometimes for years, certainly for many months. Now it's poised for public presentation and, for those involved, that might mean applause and bouquets, a withering barrage of brickbats or, maybe worse, indifference.

If launching a new production is invariably nerve-racking, introducing a home-grown one now is especially daunting. The climate is harsh, even hostile, to fledgling dramas. Even if a producer was convinced that he or she had created the best thing since SeaChange, or the next Home and Away, the litany of local dramas that have died unhappy deaths in recent years would loom like a spectre. The Alice, Last Man Standing, Fireflies, CrashBurn, Marshall Law and The Cooks all struggled through single seasons, their time on-air mired in criticism. MDAstruggled through two seasons and a sickly revival.

White Collar Blue died for lack of international investment. There were short-lived efforts such as Young Lions, and shows that started with energy and promise only to fade away, such as The Secret Life of Us, Always Greener and Something in the Air. The roll-call of recent free-toair fatalities is a dispiriting one, with McLeod's Daughters a lonely survivor."

In the current climate there would be no All Saints, there would be no Blue Heelers and there would be no Home and Away," maintains Bevan Lee, the Seven Network's script executive and the creator of its new serial, headLand. "Every show that I've done has had a shaky start.

But once, you had the time to get it right, to get the feedback from the audience, to bed the show in. The Sullivans took a long time to bed in, Young Doctors took a long time."

Now it's instant impact or no future.

So Seven's decision to launch headLand, created for a 7.30pm timeslot and conceived as a spin-off from Home and Away, comes at a tense time. The pressure is compounded by the soap being scheduled to fill two prime-time positions each week.

Originally titled Away From Home and set to star a few of what Lee affectionately calls "our Home and Away lovelies", the serial has been sold to England's Channel Four. It has gone through titles, tone adjustments, story shifts, cast changes, focus-group testings and tweakings since the pilot was shot in February. The mood has been lightened, the Summer Bay connection severed. In production since May, the show has kept two complete crews and a substantial core cast of 11 fully occupied shooting 50 episodes of the originally commissioned batch of 52.

In a time-poor world, the idea of making a drama to screen two hours a week is so quaint that it almost seems novel. It hasn't been done for decades, not since the 1970-'80s era that gave us The Restless Years, Sons and Daughters, Carson's Law and Prisoner. But Seven's brains trust might be harking back to the glory days of A Country Practice, which launched in November 1981, screened twice a week, and held a firm place in viewers' affections for 12 years.

Again, Seven has opted to give its new show a "soft launch", starting it two weeks before the end of the ratings season, as other networks are winding down for the year. Perhaps the serial will stand out with less competition. Maybe it will have time to establish itself and win a healthy audience before the main game starts again in February.

There's also a darker reading of the strategy: Seven is so worried that it's agonised over the best time for headLand's debut. By launching it late in the year, it can test the soap before ratings resume. If it turns out to be a dud, either it will be off the air, or consigned to some Siberian slot in the Guthy-Renker home shopping graveyard shift.

At this point, though, nobody associated with headLand wants to think such dark thoughts, least of all Bevan Lee. The eloquent and passionate industry stalwart (Sons and Daughters, Home and Away, All Saints, Always Greener) cheekily describes headLand as "TheOCwith a healthy injection of reality", adding that the past year working on it has been as "a terribly difficult and torturous process, the hardest thing I've done in my career, by light years."

What has emerged from that process is a serial set in a place blessed with spectacular water views and an ocean that just begs the telegenic cast to get into their bathers. South Heads is both a university town and a steel city, which allows for a culture clash between the white-collar uni types and the blue-collar locals.

Our introduction to this fictional world literally comes with a crash, a multi-fatality car accident that starts the show in full-throttle fever pitch.

It's followed, four months on, by the arrival of a mystery man on a motorcycle. The impact of the tragedy is felt throughout the town, and questions of what happened on that fateful night persist.

Meanwhile, the viewer is introduced to the coastal community through the man on the motorbike, Adam Wilde (Conrad Coleby). An archetypal outsider, he's a stoic loner who's returning to the scene of his troubled past, accepting a job as a student counsellor, working with Grace Palmer (Libby Tanner). He rents a room at the Headlands Hotel.

It's a promising set-up and the first episode sprints along at a fair clip, deftly introducing the students, staff, parents, partners and pub patrons. The creators are hoping that the atmosphere of the town, the vitality of its residents and the mystery surrounding the crash will hook viewers."

It's not a science," says producer Jo Porter. "There are so many variables: you never know what the marketplace is going to be, or what the big news will be in the week that you launch. You can only try to be strategic, to make the very best show that you possibly can, with the resources that you have."

Porter also notes that given the serial is being made for a commercial network, it needs to appeal to the broadest audience possible.

Although headLand doesn't directly borrow from any production, it's taken cues from elsewhere. "We wanted to speak to the landscape, in the way that McLeod's Daughters features the landscape," she says. "We wanted to have a great sense of community; Home and Away has that great sense of community. We wanted to be truthful to 20-somethings; The Secret Life of Us did that."

Equally, we knew that we needed a mystery to hook audiences: we wanted there to be an imperative to find out what happened. We thought that viewers want a strong narrative; they don't just want a character-based drama.

We didn't just want to say 'Here are some interesting people', which is important, but also to have a sense of intrigue."

For his part, Lee was keen to demonstrate that narrative is not a dirty word. He's hoping salvation lies in a good yarn. "My belief about why some of the recent Australian dramas have not succeeded is that we've lost the fine art of storytelling," he says. "Good as some of the production values on some of these shows are, as good as some of the acting is, as good as some of the writing is in a character sense, they are narrative-impoverished."

If you say the word 'narrative', a lot of people in the business think you mean soap opera. All the good and compelling dramas make you want to keep watching them. If narrative equals soap opera, then I'm going to write soap opera until the day I die, because people want a good story."

Fireflies didn't have a good story.

The Alice doesn't have a good story; Secret Life of Us waned in its later seasons because it became increasingly narrativeimpoverished.

You didn't get to the end of an hour and say, 'I want to see what happens next'. Among my own shows, Marshall Law, whatever else it had, did not have strong narrative imperative."

"This show has to make people come back two hours a week. I wanted to go back to a really good yarn, the same imperative that had people waiting on the docks of Boston harbour for the next instalment of The Old Curiosity Shop so they could read about the death of Little Nell. If I can have the Australian audiences metaphorically queuing on the docks of Boston harbour, I'll be happy."

Lee spruiks his new show as "a potpourri, a fairly realistic serial which embraces the fact that life can be melodramatic, where comedy, or 'charmedy', is cheek-by-jowl with intense emotion". He says that life's like that: tragic, comic, melodramatic.

He knows what headLand is: unabashedly, it's a soap. He also knows what it's not. "I'm not saying we've made The Great Australian Television Series. It's not Hamlet.

The brief was: make a show that will make people want to come back to two hours a week. I think we've done that in spades. But if I said we've just made the thing that's going to get the AFI award for best drama of the year, I'd be having myself on."

I'm perfectly prepared to accept that it will get some bad reviews, but I believe that those reviews will be damning it for what it's not, rather than praising it for what it is. Every soap opera I've done, by virtue of the fact that's it's a serial, has been attacked. headLand is setting out to be a good and compelling serial, and that's how it needs to be judged.

People who like serial television will like it; people who don't like serial television will probably think it's a load of old rubbish."

In the show, South Heads is played by Austinmer, a suburb north of Wollongong, or, as it's affectionately known, "The 'Gong".

The hotel that's home to some of the characters and a gathering place for the townsfolk is played by the Headlands Hotel ("Where the mountains meet the sea").

The building, perched atop an escarpment that overlooks the rolling waves of the Pacific and offers a view of the sprawl and smoke stacks of Wollongong, could best be described as a developer's dream. A dilapidated pile atop some magnificent real estate. Still functioning as a pub, it has paint peeling from its walls and window frames, and rusted downpipes and tin roofing that gives way to gaping holes.

But if high hopes are realised and headLand joins the ranks of such local stayers as Neighbours and Home and Away, one could easily imagine this spot becoming a muststop destination on a British TV-lovers Down Under tour. They'd visit Palm Beach to see Summer Bay, move south for happy snaps of the home of headLand, then travel even further south to Pin Oak Court in Vermont South, for a squiz at Ramsay St.

Lee has wisely written the hotel as being poised for development by an entrepreneurial businessman, so, if it's sold off and knocked down, the show can sail on smoothly. In the interim, it provides a nicely atmospheric setting as both accommodation for a handful of key characters, and a pub where romances can ignite and fights can break out.

Typically, for a serial, there are numerous romances in various stages of beginning and busting up.

There are also a fair few punch-ups: "Our make-up department does great scabs," affirms director Daniel Nettheim.

The show's coastal feel comes from the hotel exteriors shot in Austinmer but much of the production is based in the White Bay studios, the complex that is headLand's Sydney HQ. The ground floor is crammed with lovingly decorated sets, including the university's student-services atrium, the pub interiors, various characters' bedrooms and the student accommodation at Whitlam College. These are standing sets, which don't need to be regularly packed-up to make way for another production, as those on-site at TV stations often do. That's a big bonus for the art department, which has packed the place with knick-knacks that reflect the characters' lives and personalities.

There's also room for an odd injoke.

In appropriate gold lettering, the honour board at Whitlam College features the names of series directors Jean-Pierre Mignon and Katherine Millar. Producer Jo Porter is immortalised on a wall plaque: Honorary Secretary of Student Association, 1973-81.

From the early episodes, one thing seems clear: if headLand takes off, Conrad Coleby is destined for cover boy status, and the cover girl is likely to be Rachael Taylor, who plays the arch blonde rich bitch Sasha.

But in the current climate, few would be game to bet on its success.

headLand could become another gravestone in the cemetery of local dramas. Or it might be the start of something that will one day take its place beside such enduring soapie successes as Neighbours and Home and Away. Those who've been putting in 12-hours days on it for the past year are fervently hoping for the latter.

headLand premieres on Tuesday at 7.30pm on Channel Seven and continues on Thursday at 7.30pm.

Who's who in headLand

Grace Palmer (Libby Tanner): "The ersatz mother figure of the show, but a very sexy mother figure," says creator Bevan Lee of the university student counsellor."If you want advice, or tough love, or honesty, you come to Grace. She has her own secrets and, like all good counsellors, she needs counselling."

Adam Wilde (Conrad Coleby): "James Dean with a psych degree," says Lee of the new student counsellor."He comes in on his bike and solves problems, but has his own to solve because of a dark secrets from the past."

Sasha Forbes (Rachael Taylor): "The classic, archetypal bitchgoddess, but an understandable bitch when you get to know her history.You don't know whether to love her or hate her because she's obviously so damaged."Older brother Heath (Matthew Walker) has the unenviable task of looking after her.

Kate and Will Monk (Brooke Harman and Josh Quong Tart):The young marrieds, or "breeders", as Sasha unkindly refers to them.Parents of baby Emma,a couple in crisis as a result of an illconsidered fling. Kate is starting a university course;Will hopes to own his own pub one day.

 
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