Bed of Roses: articles


The women who gather around Kerry Armstrong's character Louisa, left, reflect different elements of her character.

Coming up roses

There are distinct echoes of SeaChange in a new ABC drama, writes Debi Enker.

EARLY on in the ABC's new drama, Bed of Roses, the citizens of Rainbow's End assemble in a local park for a ceremony. The occasion is the opening of a footbridge that officially recognises the contribution of the Chinese community to the region. The atmosphere is festive, red lanterns bobbing in the breeze as the townsfolk gather to honour their heritage.

Running late for the event, Louisa Atherton (Kerry Armstrong), who has recently and reluctantly returned to her home town, comes rushing down the hill in her high heels. Dressed in her customary city gear, she's having trouble negotiating the terrain, aware that her overdue arrival has — yet again — displeased her disapproving mother, community activist Minna (Julia Blake). Louisa is late because she's been struggling to sort out some housing problems. But for those closest to her, including her teenage daughter Holly (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence), this is just par for the course, further evidence of Louisa's preoccupation with herself.

The assembled crowd includes most of the series' major characters. Deb (Kaarin Fairfax), a dedicated saviour of stray animals; Marg (Caroline Gillmer) and her unfaithful businessman husband (Andrew S. Gilbert); Nick (Jay Laga'aia), the dependable local mechanic; and Sean Smithwick (Tim Phillipps), a local footy team talent who's shyly checking Holly out.

There's comedy and conflict as the community unites to celebrate its history, and carefully sewn into the fabric of the scene is much of the stuff of a series that's taken six years to develop and been through numerous incarnations in its passage to the small screen.

But the seed of the story has remained from the start: a middle-aged woman trying to pick up the pieces of a life that's abruptly fallen apart. Other elements emerged along the way: a semi-rural town in a "growth corridor" looking to the past as it grapples with a direction for its future. Teenage yearnings. A disparate group of women who come together in surprising ways to support each other.

Louisa has returned to Rainbow's End following the sudden death of her husband. Her grief at unexpected widowhood has been compounded by the news that his business dealings have left her ostensibly well-off family in debt. As well, there's the discovery of his infidelity. After the family home is auctioned, Louisa heads back, broke and heartbroken, to a place she never planned to live in again. She doesn't intend to stay long; just long enough to sell the shack her father left her and use the proceeds to help finance a new life.

"Louisa's lost her knight in shining armour," says Armstrong. "Not only has she lost him, but as he fell off the horse, he cut her off at the legs. So she's like a princess who's limping her way through and hoping no one will notice. It's really beautiful to play and very poignant."

Louisa's impractical high heels suggest her awkwardness in an unfamiliar environment: "When (costume designer) Kitty Stuckey and I were designing Louisa's character, we realised that she'd been on very solid ground with her husband since she was 16," Armstrong says. "She's been sheltered, but now she's on shaky ground. Part of that comes into what she wears and her denial of her situation. We figured that when she lost her home, one thing that they couldn't take was her shoes. So we started from the ground up."

More than six years ago, writers Jutta Goetze and Elizabeth Coleman began building their series around the idea of a woman on shaky ground. "The ABC wanted a story about a woman on the bones of her arse. That's the basic premise," recalls Goetze, who has been a TV writer and script editor for many years, and is also a novelist.

"A woman who's been spoilt, who has had everything she wants, who has never had to work or really strive, has kind of survived on her charm, who suddenly loses everything and has to start all over again," adds Coleman, who is also an experienced TV writer and a playwright.

There are distinct echoes of SeaChange in the premise. The popular ABC series ended just before this project was first mooted and it began with a lawyer, wife and mother finding her world collapsing around her. That Aunty might be in the market for another weekend warmer, a good-natured and reassuring series that could attract a range of viewers but appeal to women in particular, comes as no surprise.

Yet there was no quick or easy path from Pearl Bay to Rainbow's End. Goetze and Coleman, who first met in 1991 on The Young Doctors, took the drama through a number of transformations under several ABC drama chiefs. At one stage, it was a 13-part series about a woman who starts an odd-jobs business after her builder husband leaves her.

What they've ended up with is Louisa. As the six-part series begins, she's a comfortable Brighton wife who dabbles in pottery while looking after her home and children, 16-year-old Holly and footballer Shannon (Dave Thornton). Then events force her back to the scene of her childhood, to face the prickly mother she doesn't get along with and the town she doesn't want to stay in.

"Louisa's relationships with her family are quite fractured to start with, so we needed an actor who has an innate warmth," explains Coleman. "She's been an inattentive mother, not maliciously inattentive, but she's a self-absorbed woman who should be taking more notice of her children. And because a mother who isn't that attentive isn't an appealing thing, the ABC was anxious to have a central character that viewers would like."

The writers and Stephen Luby, who produced the series with Mark Ruse, agree that Armstrong (Lantana, SeaChange, MDA) has been able to portray Louisa sympathetically and in all her colours. "Kerry has an incredible ability to communicate a range of emotions in a look," says Luby. "She can carry three or four elements of Louisa's crisis at once and convey her vulnerability. There's a lot of light and shade in the character. At times she's quite girlish, and that requires a lightness; at other times she has great grief over the loss of her husband, and Kerry is able to get to the depth of that as well. So her range, as well as the fact that she is in most scenes, is something to behold. Kerry's got a lot of stamina and her ability to do the emotional nuances is quite phenomenal."

Julia Blake describes Louisa as "the spine of the show", and Armstrong needed stamina to get through the nine-week production, which spent most of its time in south Gippsland. The $5 million series required cast and crew to shoot an average of 7 1/2 minutes a day of screen time.

"When I started in the business, it was commonly understood that the best you'd get out of a location day was five minutes, and that was pushing it," recalls Luby (Fast Forward, Crackerjack, Stiff). "But somehow, with the ways that things are funded and increasing costs, that equation is now up to 7 1/2 minutes, so people have to work harder and under higher pressure."

Schedule demands aside, Armstrong welcomed the opportunity to display her range. "Louisa is really testing me, she's incredibly complex. But I'm able to do some of the physical comedy that I love — Buster Keaton is a hero of mine, and Lucille Ball. I had to do a scene at the golf club, where Louisa's taken a job as a cleaner, and she gets tangled up in the vacuum cleaner. I thought it was just perfect: she's like someone in a web who's just getting more and more tangled."

Balancing the comedy with the pathos was critical for the writers, too, and they reckon they have different attributes in that regard. "We have complementary skills," says Coleman. "Jutta is wonderful at evoking a sense of place and she's very good at the deeply emotional, heartfelt stuff and the hard-hitting stuff. My inclination is to go for the comedy: I like to pinpoint people's foibles."

Goetze adds: "Elizabeth has a wonderful sense of pacing and humour."

Coleman: "So Jutta will say to me 'Dig a bit deeper, what's really going on?' And I'll say to her, 'We need to lighten this up here.' It works out great because we can acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses."

Those working with the writers point out that their collaboration, and a process that demanded years of writing and re-writing, has resulted in well-honed scripts that are economical yet full of nuance. "The scripts are a bit of a Sara Lee cake, layer upon layer upon layer, and the detail is fairly extensive," says Paul Moloney, who directed the first three episodes.

Blake (Bellbird, Eden's Lost, Travelling North, Innocence), a stage and screen actor whose career spans 50 years and is no slouch at script assessment, describes what all hope will be the first of several series as "stunningly written. I just loved the script to bits. I couldn't believe my good fortune when I read it.

"There's some very funny stuff and there's some very poignant stuff. The writers have written rounded characters who are highly individual. There's great detailing in each of the female characters, they're idiosyncratic and the dialogue reflects that. It's very rare. They really know people."

Moloney also notes that the women who gather around Louisa each reflect different aspects of her. "To some degree, they represent a facet of her character that's gone missing. Deb is into animal welfare; she's the mother earth who isn't scared to get her hands dirty, which Louisa hasn't done for some years. Minna is all-loving, all-consuming and passionate; Louisa has become a bit selfish and self-centred. With Holly, there's almost a role-reversal where the daughter is more capable and motherly. Marg is in a similar circumstance to Louisa because her husband's no longer with her."

For her part, Gillmer (Hotel Sorrento, Underbelly) is hoping Marg will become "a pin-up girl for all the aggrieved wives out there". The jilted wife of the town's most prominent businessman, Marg is the classic woman scorned: fuming, hurting and vigorously seeking revenge.

Gillmer, who has spent time in the past few years touring the country with the stage production of Menopause the Musical, says that Bed of Roses goes some way towards filling a gap for a largely ignored but significant section of the audience.

"Menopause the Musical is a simple little show with these middle-aged chicks on stage. The reason that it's been so successful is that word on it spread like a bushfire: women find out that there's something for us, something talking to us. That audience is there and wanting someone to write for their tribe," says Gillmer, pointing out that the women here are front and centre, not doing dishes in the background or appearing only to wave the kids off to school.

But beyond its representation of a range of women and of a supportive community, Blake believes that Bed of Roses is a drama for its time. Her character is a tireless heritage activist, a woman committed to honouring and preserving the town's history, as well as safeguarding its future. "Minna's not a woman who relaxes," says Blake with affection. "She's always doing things: meetings with her heritage group, poring through council minutes. She feels under threat, she feels the threat of modern life, of so-called progress, especially living on a growth corridor. A lot of people nowadays feel that way. I think that we live in an anxious age."

With its themes of coming home to find yourself, of respecting the past while moving to the future, of nurturing and rebuilding, Bed of Roses touches on many of these issues and creates a community in Rainbow's End that offers some reassurance. Not exactly a pot of gold, but something of value.

"All of the women are empowered, they do change, they do have a journey," says Blake. "But it's all been done in an entertaining way. The series has laughter and comedy, as well as quite serious issues; issues of old age and family relationships are right at the heart of it. This type of drama really is the heart's blood of ABC television."

Bed of Roses premieres Saturday at 7.30pm on ABC1.

By Debi Enker
May 8, 2008
The Age