Always Greener: articles

From genesis to revelation

Just what is involved in bringing a TV drama to air? Michael Idato followed Seven's Always Greener to find out.

When Seven's new drama series Always Greener premieres on Sunday, viewers will see just under 50 minutes of TV. What they won't have seen is the near-year-long effort it took to get the show to air.

Many months before the program appears, sets must be built and actors must be found to play on those sets. Many months before that, scripts must be written and coffee must be brewed to keep the writers writing those scripts. The process is painstaking. Scripts are reworked, the pilot is shot and not everyone who takes to the stage makes the final cut. The pilot is disassembled and rebuilt, again and again, until "the mix is right".

The key players in the genesis of Always Greener are executive producer John Holmes, producer Jo Porter and network script executive Bevan Lee. This story begins not with them, however, but with Lisa McCune.

October 2000: The Pitch

Always Greener owes its life to former Blue Heelers star Lisa McCune. Her decision to become a mother (her son, Archer, was born in June) was momentous, not least because it stalled plans for Leather & Silk, a series being developed for her. Seven's programmer, Chris O'Mara, summoned Holmes and Lee to a meeting to come up with a new idea. "It was no secret that we were looking for early evening family viewing," Holmes says later.

The new idea turned out to be quite an old one. A decade earlier, Lee came up with a concept titled Ned Kelly Slept Here, about a city family that takes over a bed and breakfast in the country. Years later, he retooled it as the story of two families—one from the city and one from the country—that swap places. He renamed it Fair Exchange, but it continued to languish in a bottom drawer.

"There was never an opening for it," Holmes recalls. "but Bevan had always held the passion for it. Certainly, we had a feeling that with a rewrite [it was conceived as a five-night-a-week soap] it could be ideal for us.

"The pitch came at that meeting," Holmes continues. "Bevan basically pitched his one-page outline. Chris O'Mara's eyes quite literally widened, because like all good ideas it was simple, easy to grasp. I think he knew then and there he had found his early evening, one-hour drama."

The ball was rolling.

December 1, 2000: The Third Draft

No, not the first draft. That was quickly abandoned. Nor the second, which writer Anthony Ellis describes as "much straighter". Scripts often undergo a series of rewrites and, in the case of Always Greener, it is the third draft, penned by Ellis, that becomes the first working script for the series. It is delivered to O'Mara, who, like the TV executives of Hollywood mythology, sends it back with "notes".

"It was at that point that we started to fully embrace the quirky aspects of the show and inject its humour," says Ellis. "It began as a slightly straighter piece; as we went through the process of developing that first show, we found the comedy."

Superficially at least, Always Greener is representative of a new trend in television—drama that is sentimental, complex, intelligently (but not melodramatically) soap-operatic in style, featuring characters written with humour and wit. SeaChange is the best Australian example of the genre. Understandably, Seven is prickly about comparisons between the two for they share more than a cast of quirky characters. Both are aspirational, unashamedly sentimental and play with a dry sense of humour.

Lee acknowledges the time the concept spent in his bottom drawer served it well. "The fun and unexpectedness of the show wouldn't have come out of me, say, two years ago," he says. As an example, he offers the opening of the first episode, where a rooster crows before it is unexpectedly silenced with a bullet.

"I would have written it as a much more traditional show two years ago and that opening scene, to me, is a metaphor for the show. We present the expected, and then turn it back on itself."

"There are a lot of young people coming into drama and saying, 'We don't want to do that old farty stuff,' but I think you need to know the rules in order to break them effectively," he says.

"We will do things that have not been done in an Australian family drama before. We recognise there are certain aspects of family life which television tends to sanitise, but we will deal with certain attitudes, body functions and sexual states that may not often get dealt with in a very real way."

February 5, 2001: Pre-production

Long before the actors come on board, the production must set up office. Phone lines and a good vending machine are just as important as "creative types".

Though it will be a month before the offices are up and running, Always Greener is officially open for business. "Feelers" are out for the cast, and the production crew—led by director Kevin Carlin—begins the painstaking process of deconstructing the script in order to construct the production.

Asked for the formula for success in TV drama, Holmes admits, "I've never been able to define what it is." Most accept there is no sound plan, but experience teaches broad brushstrokes.

"It's gut," says Holmes, "a feeling of what automatically feels right ... I guess you know what won't work ... but getting the right combination of cast and story is difficult."

Although Holmes is undisputed puppet-master, Porter is the show's producer and "showrunner", as they say in the US. Once Always Greener launches, she'll take the reins while Holmes concentrates on Leather & Silk, the McCune pilot now rescheduled for September.

March 2001: Casting

Welcome to the front line. Auditions have been held in Sydney and Melbourne, where a stream of faces—some familiar, others not so—have played out a set piece for the camera. The result is a stack of videotapes that are screened behind closed doors for a select audience: Holmes, Porter, director Kevin Carlin and the Guide.

The show requires a large cast. John Taylor is an emotionally exhausted father of two; Liz, his wife, is an office-worker tired of the grind. They have three kids—drug-dabbling rebel Marissa, wannabe rock star Jason and bullied Kim. John's sister, Sandra, is a country widow, with two solid kids—Pip and Cam.

In addition, there is a long list of peripheral roles.

Despite the ensemble feel, John and Liz Taylor are the de-facto leads and their casting is vital. Anne Tenney's audition for the part of Liz Taylor is a standout. "She's warm and likable," says Porter.

Casting John Howard as John Taylor is not so straightforward. "Any male between 30 and 45 is a difficult age to cast," Holmes explains. "The pool is very small and we were going through the usual suspects, if you like. Rather than going down the route of the deluxe, square-jawed leading man, Bevan actually suggested someone to me who was outside the square. We didn't go with him, but the penny dropped at that point and we thought of John Howard.

"Actors choose themselves. It's absolutely true. Everyone says there is this great science, but it's the actor. You sit here and listen to the same scene 30 times in a day, sometimes more ... Suddenly, you find yourself hearing the scene in a way you've never heard before and you're into it."

May 3-18, 2001: The Pilot

Pilots tend to be perceived as an American indulgence, born of too much money and not enough talent. In fact, they are more common in Australia than many realise. Neighbours was piloted; ditto Home and Away, which was initially a stand-alone telemovie.

The pilot process, Holmes says, can be life-saving. "It's too easy to get wrong and it's bloody hard to get it right," he says. "Piloting is an essential part of the process."

Porter agrees: "It enables you to make it, and then actually stop, sit back and try to become as objective as you can," she says. "People can tell you your baby is charming but it has a funny nose and you still have enough time to send it off to the surgeon."

Less than a fortnight before production on the pilot is set to begin, the country house—the centrepiece of the series—remains undiscovered. Location scouts have been hunting for potential locations since the beginning of the year and the issue is now a pressing one.

Expectation turns to excitement when a house is found, but Holmes walks into the production meeting, and bursts out laughing. Indeed, the house is perfect. In fact, so perfect it has been featured in Home and Away for more than a decade. Excitement turns to despair; it's back to square one.

"We initially looked around the locations where we had shot A Country Practice, but in the 10-plus years since then it has become much more built up," Holmes explains. He insists the location be within an hour of the Epping soundstages where the interiors are being built.

In the end—with little more than a week before shooting begins—Holmes must settle for 90 minutes when a property is found in Camden.

June 13, 2001: The Jury is Out

Although the pilot is delivered to O'Mara on June 8, the show faces its toughest audience a week later—a test audience, whose observations will shape any last-minute changes.

"All Saints was the first show we tested this way," says Holmes. "The one thing that screamed out of the research was it was far too slow to get going, and based on a check conducted at every commercial break ... we would have lost 30 to 40 per cent of our audience."

The verdict is in—and they like Always Greener. Certainly, it tests far better than Seven had dared hope. In fact, the audience had very few negative remarks. "Our biggest concern was whether or not they feel the show is 'family'," says Porter, "and it has come back universally as yes."

Even the unfortunate rooster that opens the series was a hit, as was a fart gag. "Everyone seems to love a fart joke," Porter laughs. Later, Lee happily takes a bow. "I am thrilled to give the world one of the best fart gags ever conceived in drama," he laughs.

There are, however, some minor adjustments to be made. Tenney's character, originally written as a hotel cleaner, becomes an office worker because the test audience felt her original job didn't ring true. "That bore out our instinct," says Porter.

And one of the recurring roles—that of a real-estate agent—was recast in the final version to be played by Andrew Clarke. "We took the character a different way," explains Holmes. Porter is more candid: "If truth be known, I fell in love with an actor and I still think he's a fantastic actor and perhaps I put him in a role which wasn't right for him."

August 22, 2001: The Launch

A battalion of TV critics and columnists gather along with the cast for a screening of the pilot at the Valhalla Cinema in Glebe. Reaction is positive. The feeling is the drama plays intelligently and believably, without compromising the show's sentimentality, which, many agree, is one of its strongest suits. "We've really tried not to be saccharine or mawkish," says Ellis, "and we do often undercut the sentiment with a gag."

Lee is unapologetic about the show's mix of comedy and drama. "Life is funny, sad, romantic. Yet we draw a line that a show must be a comedy or a drama. I wanted to reflect life. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, sometimes we do both in the same day," he says.

"It is easy to be cynical, it is hard to be sentimental. In television, there are a number of people who try and make people feel guilty for accessing their emotions, but I would much rather it be emotional, and hopeful."

Sunday, 7.30pm: The Broadcast

The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Television audiences are strange beasts, and more than one masterpiece has broken a leg metres out of the gate.

"It's so personal, and many of us have been working on the show for between six months and a year," Holmes says. "But there comes a time when you have to hand it over, completely, to the viewers.

"They say, 'lap of the gods', and it's a cliche, but it's true. It's like hand-rearing a baby and sending it out into the big bad world."

Michael Idato
September 03, 2001