Blue Heelers: articles

Aarne Neeme

Aarne Neeme

Neeme in small-screen return

When acclaimed theatre director Aarne Neeme left Perth in 1992 he had no idea that he would one day take Australian TV back 40-odd years.

But that is what he has just done, directing the first live-to-air hour of TV drama since Australian networks began using videotape.

The special episode of Blue Heelers, broadcast to an audience of 1.6 million viewers on April 21, was a merging of two worlds for 59-year-old Neeme, who made the move to directing for TV just three years ago.

"In one way this episode was closer to theatre in that we had actors rehearsing for five days and then performing with the camera as the audience on the sixth," says Neeme.

Neeme made his name as a theatre director in Perth from the 1970s when he came from Sydney to work with the old National Theatre at the Playhouse and as resident director for the Octagon Theatre at the University of WA.

He was also head of drama at the WA Academy of Performing Arts for many years and became artistic director of the Hole in the Wall Theatre Company before it merged with the WA Theatre Company to become the since-defunct State Theatre Company.

With the demise of the Hole in the Wall, Neeme decided he had to leave Perth. He says actors and directors often have to make this choice.

"Australian theatre is still very Sydney-Melbourne-centric, so that is where the work is," he says. On the other hand, he argues, those centres tend to undervalue the achievements of other cities. "WAAPA produces some extraordinary people but WA doesn't have enough theatre to support them," he says.

"There was a wonderful theatre scene in Perth in the 70s and 80s but that has been lost to a degree. There was a real theatre audience then rather than just an events audience. They followed their favourite actors in different roles and styles from play to play."

In the early 90s Neeme became a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore, a move that allowed him to delve deeply into the wealth of Asian theatrical traditions on our doorstep.

"The best thing about a job like that is being paid to read," says Neeme. "Reading Eastern theatre made me realise what a role it has played in the development of theatre in the West. I helped the university establish a theatre studies department—it was a real melting pot of Western and Eastern cultures."

After two years in the tropics, Neeme returned to Sydney as a "jobbing director" only to find, ironically, that he won jobs almost everywhere else.

His travels have even involved a trip to Estonia—the country his parents fled as refugees at the end of World War II—to translate and direct David Williamson's Money and Friends for an Estonian audience.

During the same year he was offered an "attachment" to an episode of Blue Heelers. "That means watching a production from start to finish, without getting paid," he laughs. A second attachment followed, during which he directed a couple of scenes, leading ultimately to being given his own episodes.

Since then he has directed nine episodes of Blue Heelers, two of All Saints and five of medical-law drama MDA.

"What viewers don't realise is that it takes a director four weeks to make a one-hour episode—from pre-production, through to rehearsals, shooting and editing, while the actors shoot one episode a week.

"That's why ultimate control of these shows stays with the producers—they have to keep plot lines and continuity going while four directors are at different stages of the production cycle."

The live-to-air episode was also produced within four weeks but involved radically different logistics. "Normally we'd work with two cameras—for this one we had nine. And we used 75 crew instead of 40. Getting all the cameras, actors and crew from scene to scene was somewhat challenging. We even had to disassemble and move a two-tonne crane during an ad break."

While the producers of Blue Heelers are not planning another live-to-air episode, Neeme says the experience was a real high for the 100-strong cast and crew. "There were so many people rushing about in splendid unison," he said. "Seeing them all melt away into position as they were counted back in from an ad break was magical."

By Rob Burgess
May 03, 2004
The West Australian