Blue Heelers: articles

Wood and Tolj

The old and the new: John Wood and Samantha Tolj in Blue Heelers.

Blue Heelers

It’s been a long and bumpy road for TV’s old dog, but this year Blue Heelers has regained its crown as most popular Australian drama.

A year ago, when it should have been celebrating its 10th birthday, things weren’t going well.

Over the previous year, Heelers’ once rusted-on audience had abandoned the show in droves, switching loyalties to slick American imports including The Guardian on Channel Ten and CSI: Miami on Channel Nine—which alone stole about 200,000 viewers a week.

Having lost its top-drama billing to Nine’s chocolate-box rural drama McLeod’s Daughters, the once invincible hound was limping. Seven executives muttered about putting it down.

When its contract with production house Southern Star expired, Seven commissioned just enough episodes to see out last year—the first time since the initial eight-episode season it failed to order a full series.

CSI: Miami is a top, mega production; it’s a blockbuster in the States,” Seven’s head of drama, John Holmes, said at the time.

“Pit that against a show which is 10 years old and there’s a fight on your hands.”

Fight they did. In April last year, the team produced an episode live to air—a first for a contemporary Australian drama. The ratings spiked to 1.6 million, with 595,000 viewers in Melbourne.

Charged with increasing the audience and lowering its average age, producer Gus Howard and the Heelers creative team set about shifting the mood and setting, killing three characters, adding five and turning the once harmonious Mt Thomas police station on its head.

The ever-dependable patriarch, Tom Croydon (John Wood), went off the rails, swearing vengeance after the rape and murder of his wife, the destruction of his police station and the death of Jo Parrish (Jane Allsop).

The year-long storyline, involving a family of bad apples headed by the vengeful Barry Baxter (a chilling Danny Adcock), ended last night with Baxter dead, Croydon estranged from his surviving family and Mt Thomas changed forever.

Although the future is not secure until Seven orders more in a couple of months, no one doubts Blue Heelers will return, and the writers are plotting a new season.

The audience in Australia’s five mainland capitals hovers around 1.3 million viewers a week—nothing like the 3 million of its late 1990s heyday but enough to regularly beat its challenger CSI: Miami.

In Melbourne, the show averaged 415,000 between February and July last year, including a low in April of 305,000.

On July 14, the week after the police station was blown up, a whopping 522,000 people tuned it. This year, the average is 445,000.

Also in its favour, the series is now attracting the young demographic desired by the network and its advertisers.

“The project was to increase the size of the audience and lower the demographic, and we have done both, so that’s good,” Howard says.

“We’re finding that the makeup of the audience has changed slightly. It’s younger . . . and people who never thought they could watch Blue Heelers, who never thought they could find it interesting, suddenly are.”

As well as adding younger cast—Rachel Gordon, Samantha Tolj, Charlie Clausen and Danny Raco—changes were made through a combination of “context and perspective”.

“We went out to meet the public mood—that’s what I wanted to do and I think that is what we have done,” Howard says.

“It’s essentially the same show with the same dramatic vocation.”

The next challenge for Howard is to fill the void left by the departure of popular original cast member Martin Sacks, who filmed his last episodes three weeks ago.

Sacks’ character, detective P. J. Hasham, departs in early August. Geoff Morrell’s Sergeant Mark Jacobs follows six weeks later.

“We want to put the audience into a position where they can look at Tom and think, ‘Wow, what will the poor guy do after all that?’ “ Howard says.

The larger cast has given the writers a chance to shift focus, to give the audience a better understanding of characters and their development within the group, he says. Episodes starting to appear now will focus more closely on individuals.

“You can really get inside the head of the character. That’s a definite direction I can promise.”

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

By Kylie Miller
June 23, 2005
The Age