Blue Heelers: articles

Cop out

The end of the venerable and much-loved Blue Heelers is symptomatic of the broader decline in Australian drama, writes Graeme Blundell

SENIOR Sergeant Tom Croydon is tired. His cancer has returned and he can't stop throwing up. The job, with all its strictures, prejudices and obligations, has shaped him out of its clay. He knows no other existence but the life of his country police station in Mt Thomas. But it's as if he has broken his foot kicking against reality, sick of repeating "So what happened?" to his green constables.

He clips his words as if sealing them in a coffin. He doesn't care about losing his job or that his cop shop may be closed, his team transferred out of existence. But the wishes of a dying girl suddenly mean everything to him and he starts to grapple with what it means to be human again.

This is the scene as, after 13 years, Blue Heelers bids farewell tomorrow with a special two-hour episode in which recent Logie winner John Wood proves he is not only Australia's most popular actor but also one of our greatest.

This 510th episode also makes Blue Heelers Australia's longest running weekly prime-time drama, topping Hector Crawford's Homicide, which notched up 509 episodes until 1975 (not counting specials, pilots and arcane one-offs).

The first Blue Heelers went to air on the Seven Network on Tuesday, January 18, 1994, at 7.30pm with an all-action episode: a young woman bashed and raped by her boyfriend, a weapon fired over parking fines, a dog shot dead, a suicide attempt. And new constable Maggie Doyle (Lisa McCune) arrived in Mt Thomas, confronted by rampant male chauvinism and the fact she was stationed with ex-boyfriend Constable Wayne Patterson (Grant Bowler).

Not only did both have to cope with adjusting to rural life, but Croydon was suddenly in their lives, the crusty copper who believed the law was different in the country. "I'm tired," he liked to say characteristically. "We're all tired, all of us down at the station, we are all just so tired of scraping dead kids off the highways."

Despite an embarrassing first-night glitch 43 minutes into the program, when 58 seconds of sound from a tennis promotion replaced the Blue Heelers track, the show won its timeslot. Bucolic Mt Thomas, with its 10,000 residents, quickly became crime capital of Australia due to the constant confluence of murders, thefts, kidnappings, explosions, shootings and assaults played out each week.

The brainchild of mercurial producer Hal McElroy (Picnic at Hanging Rock), Blue Heelers had its genesis in a 1991 idea called "Boys in Blue", centred on young city cops with a gun, a pair of handcuffs and a notebook, and the enormous responsibility placed on their inexperienced shoulders.

The original concept read: "In outback Queensland, blue heeler means cattle dog. They're quick, courageous, smart and loyal. They chase cars and they bite strangers. And they never let go. In outback NSW, blue heeler means cop. It's sometimes hard to know which species they're talking about."

Countless rewrites later, the title changed and outback NSW became country Victoria. The setting was the fictional town of Mt Thomas, the action centring on the local police station and pub, where drama walked through the door each day, and representing microcosms of urban problems. But for all the meticulous preparation, Blue Heelers struggled for the first six months. Although successful in Melbourne, the Sydney ratings were poor. A second year looked doubtful but dramaturgical surgery soon had the show attracting 2.5 million viewers each week. With 42 episodes a year and screening in almost 50 countries to a global audience of 40 million, Blue Heelers became Seven's feel-good flagship.

"Our audience could make an appointment with the show to have their weekly emotional experience," executive producer Gus Howard says. "At the end of the episode, they felt it was safe to turn off."

Australian viewers (Howard calls them "informed conservative"), weaned perhaps on the Crawford police shows Homicide, Division 4 and Matlock Police, preferred, at that time, to feel certain of authority and their television cops.

Even the setting of Mt Thomas reminded them of that older Australia, when they were young and people left their doors unlocked. "It's about a nice kind of nostalgia," Wood once said about the show.

"Even when we took Blue Heelers into the worlds of doubt and alienation after 9/11, the audience wanted the old reliable Tom Croydon back," Howard says.

The often maligned drama, satirised for not being gritty and abrasive enough, was the most socially oriented in 1990s Australia, less a cop show than a vehicle for engaging with issues and problems and not the final events of justice and retribution. Date rape, business ethics, police corruption, vigilante justice, heroin use, vandalism, murder suicide, insurance fraud and environmental pollution were just some of the issues Croydon and his young city-bred constables dealt with as they struggled with the stifling conservatism of small-town Australia.

"Our job was to shine that white light, not look at the dark sordid side like other cop shows," Howard says. "We reached into the gloom and pulled ideas into the brightness. The moment of illumination ended the journey of each episode. We never went away from that. 'Life could be good' was our continuing subtext."

Certainly Blue Heelers was higher-minded than Homicide, which first went to air in 1964. Yet our first cop show was a trailblazer in other ways: audiences became accustomed to hearing Australian accents and to seeing dramas worked out in their streets. Homicide proved we were not simply an audience for somewhere else.

It's interesting that programs such as Number96, The Box, The Sullivans, Prisoner and A Country Practice followed in its wake. Today, the ambling, almost funereal closing of Blue Heelers emphatically marks the decline of local drama, the curtain drawn over a golden period of TV when, on average, eight Australian adult dramas were shown on prime time, many propelled by the success of Blue Heelers.

As Tom Croydon might say, "You can't carry the world, son."

Blue Heelers two-hour special, introduced by John Wood, screens on Seven tomorrow at 8.30pm.

By Graeme Blundell
June 03, 2006
The Australian