Blue Heelers: articles

Heelers know the force is with them

Regular viewers of Blue Heelers, Channel Seven's long-running country cop drama, have probably seen Geoff Still, or at least his legs. He was a pallbearer at Maggie Doyle's funeral (the official end of Lisa McCune's character), an episode watched by some 2.1 million people.

"You couldn't really see me," he says, "but I was there."

Another cameo was as Sergeant Ross, a former boss of Sergeant Tom Croydon (John Wood), who runs the fictional Mt Thomas police station. But Still is no professional actor; he is a sergeant with Victoria Police and has been a cop for 27 years. Since 1999 he has also been the adviser to Blue Heelers.

This setup is unusual. Like most police shows, Blue Heelers had used former officers as advisers, but as producer Gus Howard explains, "We realised what we needed was more of a daytoday procedural and police culture adviser."

After negotiations, Victoria Police agreed to provide a working officer for the show. Still is the third person to fill the fulltime position.

Still has worked at various city and country stations and with different divisions, including plainclothes, but experience was not the only criteria.

"We try to find someone who, as a result of being a cop, has managed to strike a really useful view on the human condition," Howard says. "The technical daytoday stuff—how to hold a gun and what words to use—that stuff's easy to come by, but what really matters is someone who understands what it's really like to be inside the head and the heart of a working cop."

Working on a TV show might sound cushy compared with police work, but Still doesn't get much time to bludge.

"The average day in this industry is about 10 hours," he says. "As a copper you work a normal eighthour shift."

Still provides training for such things as handling guns, batons and capsicum spray, but these are just a fraction of his duties on the show. He attends preplot meetings, story conferences, production meetings and director's meetings. He reads each script draft (there are about five for each episode, with 42 episodes a year), makes notes and does research.

"If the writers want to know something about homicide, then I ring the homicide squad. If they want to know something about an armed robbery, I ring the armed offenders squad," he says.

Still is on set and on location to provide support for the director, actors and stunt coordinators, and he organises other police officers to talk about their experiences. Modified versions of these stories are often written into the show, with Still providing a few plot lines himself.

A recently shot episode, for example, takes its cue from a real incident. In 1998, on a plainclothes job, Still arrived at a domestic dispute to find a man who had doused himself, a car and the surroundings with petrol. The man was holding a lighter. Standing close enough to go up in flames himself, Still spoke to the man for an hour and defused the situation.

Regarding the fictional version, Howard says, "It's a different set of events but it's the same action and it's nice to be able to acknowledge Geoff's real human experience there."

One of the challenges that Still faces is reconciling the reality of police work with the pressures of creating drama. Time is the main factor. He cites an episode where P.J. (Martin Sacks) is suspected of murder. He is interviewed, charged, suspended, locked up on remand and subsequently found not guilty. The charges are dismissed, the suspension rescinded and P.J. comes back to work… all in 46 minutes.

"Everything's speeded up," Still says. "Procedure is correct but it just wouldn't happen that quickly."

Given the involvement of Victoria Police, it's hardly surprising that Blue Heelers presents a positive spin on the long arm of the law. As Howard puts it: "The vocation of this show is to shine a white light on the human condition, not put the human condition in the dark."

Three times a year, Still returns to police duty. He also keeps his Operational Safety Training Tactics qualifications up to date as he will eventually return to a regular police job. It might seem rather tame after the excitement of Mt Thomas.

"It's the busiest police station in Australia… I've gone a bit greyer since I've been doing this job—all the worries, all the fatalities, all the murders," he laughs. "I tell you, I would have taken early retirement years ago."

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

By Jacqui Taffel
July 18, 2002
The Age