Blue Heelers: articles

Heelers goes off duty

A DOMINANT force in Australian drama for more than a decade, the long-running cop show Blue Heelers will not easily be forgotten.

Set in a fictional country town, Mt Thomas, Blue Heelers was cop soap with a heart. It ends this week after 12 years, 510 episodes and 25 Logie awards, including the Gold Logie that eluded star John Wood for a decade.

At its peak, it drew 2.5 million viewers a week, glued to a rich tapestry of character stories. Big-hearted Tom Croydon's (Wood) struggle with his wife's death, the moral struggle of rookie cop Adam Cooper (Damian Walshe-Howling) and the smouldering romance between doe-eyed Senior Constable Maggie Doyle (Lisa McCune) and rugged Senior Detective P.J. Hasham (Martin Sacks).

Seven intended the show to bow out by matching the record 510-episode run of its 1960s police series, Homicide. A closer look at the calculations, factoring in a Homicide clip show and five movie-length episodes, puts Blue Heelers just shy of its record 516 hours on air. It is, nonetheless, an extraordinary achievement.

Blue Heelers was created by producer Hal McElroy (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave) and writer Tony Morphett (Dynasty, Power Without Glory). Two pilots were written - one dark, one light and the character of Molly Doyle was changed to Maggie Doyle to avoid any confusion with the much-loved A Country Practice character Molly Jones.

It resonated with viewers and launched the careers of McCune (Forensic Investigators, Little Fish), Grant Bowler (Border Security, Through My Eyes), William McInnes (SeaChange, Kokoda), Sacks (My Husband, My Killer) and Tasma Walton (Little Oberon).

"It was cast beautifully from the beginning," Morphett says. "It's hard to imagine a better initial cast - Lisa McCune, John Wood, William McInnes, Marty Sacks, terrific people. And we had a wonderful 12 years with it, so how can you complain? I'm sorry it's gone, I love the show and I loved writing for it, but all things come to an end."

The immense success of the show was fuelled by the romance between Maggie and P.J. and the frenzy of newspaper and magazine stories that detailed it. Seven's head of drama, John Holmes, says: "The whole Maggie and P.J. thing came about because the chemistry between the two artists was recognised and taken up by the writers."

Their romance peaked when the pair were trapped in a collapsed mine and confessed their feelings, and ended tragically when Maggie was shot and killed in the line of duty. The series struggled to reinvent itself after her death. Blue Heelers without Maggie and P.J. was akin to Prisoner without top dog Bea Smith or Sons and Daughters without super-bitch Pat the Rat. It was never the same.

"It's true, there are those landmark moments in a show's history, where a lot of people would say it's never as good after those halcyon days," Holmes says. But he believes it was more a victim of its longevity.

"The ratings were falling, it hadn't got the viewership it had a few years ago and while they were still respectable figures we felt it was the right decision, and we had to move on," he says. "It had been around so long it was a bit like a comfy couch. It's there and you don't notice it until it's gone."

The final episode sees the station facing closure and Tom Croydon trying to deal with Adam Cooper, who has returned to settle an old score. There's a touching finish that should satisfy diehard fans.

Many factors contributed to the show's success: traditional themes such as good versus evil, popular television cliches such as cops and robbers, and larger than life characters.

"The cop-out answer is all of the above, but the challenging question, what makes a good drama really work, is difficult to answer," Holmes says.

"If we knew the answer we'd just apply that rule to everything we do. The key is chemistry. Why did the Maggie/P.J. thing work? It was two characters who fell in love and occupied a lot of screen time. That would not really describe the magic and chemistry that particular story had.

"So, there is all the hard work, the scripts, the characters, the casting and the stories. But how much of it is chemistry? I've never been able to quantify it."

The final episode of Blue Heelers airs on Sunday at 8.30pm on Channel Seven.

By Michael Idato
June 01, 2006
The Age