Blue Heelers: articles

original cast

As you were: early Blue Heelers cast members, Lisa McCune, Martin Sacks, John Wood, Grant Bowler, Ann Burbrook, William McInnes.

Farewelling Heelers with heart

Television dramaland is a strange place. New ideas float about like pollen in October. Scripts are written and discarded. A firm decision will end in uncertainty and a vague promise. A pilot is filmed on a diet of optimistic energy and the result is quietly placed on a dusty shelf. Drama chiefs are here today, gone tomorrow.

No one has the key to unlocking the mind of the viewing public. No one. It's mainly guesswork. What's the difference between Home and Away and headLand? Not much, yet the former maintains its high ratings while the latter is shunned and its future appears increasingly bleak. Bellbird ran forever but when the ABC tried to repeat that success with The Last Resort it failed miserably, despite better production values and a fine cast.

So when Blue Heelers debuted in 1994, there were no guarantees. It was a hybrid: the rustic ambience of A Country Practice meets the urban grit of Cop Shop. For me, as a jobbing actor, it meant the possibility of some employment at a time when the ABC no longer had the funds to make quality programs such as Phoenix and Janus and when Crawfords was no longer creating local drama.

I was fortunate to be asked to play the small role of a Mt Thomas solicitor, Greg Walters, in an early episode. More through good timing than talent, I was invited to return whenever a local miscreant needed legal advocacy in the interview rooms at the station.

There, I would invariably come to grips with John Wood as the eternally patient and wise Sergeant Tom Croydon.

As a consistent visitor, I witnessed the development of the ensemble, a rare occurrence in a business that can be blighted by inflated egos, petty jealousies and insecurities born of a lack of talent. There was none of this silliness on the Blue Heelers set.

From the morning when the director, writers and cast assembled to read the script, to the wrap shot, the tone was an easygoing professionalism. I was struck by the way each guest performer was welcomed into the company. There were no small parts, rather important components of the whole.

The selflessness of the core cast meant one could relax into one's character. As Walters and Croydon engaged in debate, Wood and I began to come up with "bits of business", our personages intent on irritating each other. It might be a dismissive inflection of the voice or simply not moving to let the other pass easily. This amused us and hopefully added to the fabric of our scenes.

Walters' final screen moments in the second season - he turned out to be a drug lord - saw him flung against a wall and arrested by William McInnes and Grant Bowler. Seconds before the call for action, I had been treated to their finest Forrest Gump imitations. It was that sort of company, all good humour and bonhomie.

By then the show had started to gain ratings success, its immediate future secure, though popularity in Sydney was a little tardy. The viewing public had embraced the characters and shared in their failures and triumphs. The millions of Australians who weekly tuned in had undertaken that leap of imagination so coveted by all in the television drama trade: they chose to believe. By adopting Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief", they put aside the impossible lawlessness of Mt Thomas, that the constabulary were unthinkably attractive, courteous and efficient, and that Chris Riley's pub was the source of a remarkable degree of spiritual renewal over a few late-night beers.

For nearly a decade the public remained faithful to the production before the passion waned.

The last years were difficult as rumours of its demise spread but Heelers endured, providing employment (and training) to scores of actors, directors, writers and technicians. Many tyro actors gained their first exposure on it, and they were in good hands.

A few years ago, back on the set playing another character (a stern grazier harbouring a nasty past), a studio scene featured the young actor playing my son. He was being questioned by Martin Sacks as Detective Hasham. It was late and everyone was tired but Sacks pleaded for concentration from all, pointing out how important the scene may be for the boy's future. He was right. The young man, partly on the basis of his Blue Heelers work, found his way into Neighbours - and Patrick Harvey then won a Logie as best new talent.

To state the bleeding obvious, the end of Blue Heelers is a disaster for local drama without a replacement to fill the void. But there are grounds for optimism. Producers are always meeting with networks. Writers are polishing dialogue. Ideas are being formed through the inspiration (or fog) of large glasses of cheap whiskey. A skilled cast and crew await a phone call. So here's to Blue Heelers - and to its successor.

Channel Seven announced the axing of Blue Heelers last Friday.

By Kevin Summers
January 19, 2006
The Age