Blue Heelers: articles

John Wood

Nail-biting time and Sergeant Tom Croydon (John Wood) has become "one scary dude".

Blue Heelers

Last year Blue Heelers finally got serious and entered the 21st century. After giving the show a radical makeover, its ecstatic producers looked on as ratings soared from 1.1 million to more than 1.5 million viewers nationally per episode.

The changes were way overdue. Up against popular American police shows such as CSI, Heelers had been looking bland, clunky and old fashioned.

It needed a total renovation: from the scripts to the sets, the casting to the camera work. The show had been grinding out the same material year after year since it began in 1994. It had become the frail, old-aged pensioner of commercial television.

The producers took an enormous punt. Not only did they turn the show's formula inside out, they also adopted some of the dramatic techniques that make American cop shows so successful.

Heelers' camera work became slicker and more intimate, the characters were made edgier, the dialogue became faster and more reflective.

The show even sounds different. For one thing, there's a lot more shouting these days. Tempers are perpetually tested - a dramatic device commonly employed in American cop shows.

They need to take care, however, not to overdo the aggrieved outbursts. Constable Jones (Ditch Davey) has done more shouting recently than most people do in a lifetime.

In the recent Heelers episode "Sex Sells" the entire cast began yelling apocalyptically at each other after a suspect refused to reveal where he had dumped the body of a little girl.

Their frustrations led to the kind of macho meltdown you'd find in a David Mamet screenplay.

Constable Jones was bawling out sergeant Jacobs (Geoff Morell) who was shrieking at constable Peroni (Danny Raco) who in turn was ranting at constable O'Rourke (Samantha Tolj) who copped the mother of all servings from senior sergeant Tom Croydon (John Wood).

Boy, that Tom Croydon has become one scary dude. He's so vitriolic, he makes that furious chef Gordon Ramsay look like Mr Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street. Maggie Doyle would turn in her grave.

The series' transformation is fully comprehensible only if you're aware of the diabolical events that took place last season.

It was ugly. They blew up the police station, killing off the lovely Jo Parrish (Jane Allsop). Croydon's wife was raped and murdered. Even his dog was killed and strung up.

Once known for its bucolic loveliness, Mt Thomas became a hub of jagged nerves, paranoia and internecine antagonisms.

Consumed by revenge, a demented Croydon set out to destroy the family of criminals who ruined his life. Along the way, he abandoned friends and almost wrecked his career.

Croydon became a rural version of Dirty Harry. He energetically beat up suspects, crunching their civil liberties under foot like cockroaches. He strode through the badlands with a three-day growth, an eye patch and a bloody big gun.

For his sins, Dirty Heeler Croydon eventually fled to Melbourne and was later found in a seedy flophouse covered in his own vomit - his only companion an empty Scotch bottle.

Croydon's persecutors were eventually captured and dealt with but nothing's been the same since. It was fundamentally brave of Wood to allow his character to become so comprehensively messed up.

The old copper may never quite recapture the audience's love or trust again. He's brutal but so much more interesting.

Heelers has settled down this season, but we now know the show is capable of surprises. Of particular note was Gary Sweet's recent turn as a thoroughly offensive hardcore crim in the worthy double episode "Chasing Smoke".

The new, younger cast members are solid. Charlie Clausen as constable Alex Kirby is an especially welcome and cheeky addition. Rachel Gordon as detective Amy Fox is a good brooder, but she looks like she stepped off the set of one of the CSI's. She's preposterously glossy and well dressed for a country copper.

The dependable PJ (Martin Sacks) is leaving the series this year. Sacks has been a terrific performer - since the show began. Sacks' reassuring PJ was the only constant during last year's transition.

In that tumultuous environment, you sometimes found yourself clinging to his character like a drowning person grasping a lifebuoy. But the show has moved on; Sacks no longer belongs.

Blue Heelers is a slick product. Its ensemble cast and sub-plots are handled with aplomb equal to any quality American police show. But perhaps there's a danger that the writers will borrow one too many dramatic devices from the Americans.

In the episode "One Sick Puppy", a serial killer was introduced to Mt Thomas. What's next? A shooting spree at the local high school?

Whatever the case, at this point Blue Heelers remains a sterling Aussie alternative to a TV genre so dominated by the US.

Blue Heelers screens on Wednesdays at 8.30pm on Channel Seven.

By Chris Middendorp
April 14, 2005
The Age