Blue Heelers: articles

marching band passes Tom and Jo

Old dog's new tricks

Seven’s flagship drama Blue Heelers should be celebrating its 10th birthday this week. Instead it is fighting for its life.

It’s a sweltering Friday morning in the bayside suburb of Williamstown. As crew members balance umbrellas to protect actors Ditch Davey and Simone McAullay from sunburn, dry heat beats off bitumen in the quiet residential street.

Around the corner, a green-and-gold-clad brass band warms up, preparing to march, as musical director Kevin Hiller proffers tips.

Two white sedans, “dressed” as cop cars by the Heelers’ art department, are parked in the driveway of the fictional Mt Thomas police station where John Wood, looking at ease after 10 years in his senior sergeant’s clobber, jigs in the shade of a tree.

Filming the scene, which involves a catfight between two teenage girls during a street parade, has been held up for half an hour by the whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop of a low-flying police chopper—fictional police drama being hampered by the real.

Line producer David Clarke, mobile phone clamped to his ear, checks anxiously to see how long the interruption will last. With only two location days budgeted for each episode and dozens of extras to pay, it is a costly delay.

Blue Heelers’ toughest battle this year, though, will be fought in lounge rooms around Australia. Once the all-conquering juggernaut of local drama—in its heyday it attracted a whopping 3.5 million viewers in the five mainland capitals—the series faces the biggest threat to its future since its debut on January 18, 1994.

A massive shift in viewer loyalties last year saw Heelers lose its crown as Australia’s favourite local drama to Nine’s early evening series, McLeod’s Daughters. Now it must fight to survive in its own 8.30pm Wednesday timeslot as hundreds of thousands of viewers switch to Nine’s slick import, CSI: Miami. Combined with audience losses in 2002 to The Guardian, on Ten, it is a dangerous trend. Over the past five years, almost 250,000 viewers in Melbourne alone have deserted Blue Heelers.

For the first time since its initial eight-episode order, the Seven Network has commissioned a fraction of its usual quota of 40 episodes from production house Southern Star, just enough to keep the drama on air until the end of the 2004 ratings season. Industry rumour suggests that Heelers cast members whose contracts expired last year were re-signed on short-term deals. Read together, these signs could indicate a lack of faith in Blue Heelers’ future. They also could be seen as a practical measure, the work of a management team intent on reducing Seven’s financial exposure at a time when the network is publicly tightening its belt. Expenditure as required.

“We’ve had a really sweet run for years now and I think it’s really good for us at this age to be put under some commercial pressure,” says Blue Heelers’ series producer Gus Howard.

Hopefully it will flush out some interesting creative developments, such as the marketing-driven live episode the network has planned for April, he says. “You don’t do a live episode for nothing… It’s an interesting creative risk to take and with any luck it will be fun to watch, exciting to watch.”

It has long been a bugbear of Howard’s that ratings are not taken in rural Australia where, anecdotally, “we know that we play very very strong”.

When Tennant Creek last year suffered a black-out at the time the show went to air, the council received so many complaints that it organised a public screening of the missed episode.

As it stands, Blue Heelers attracts about 1.3 million loyal viewers a week, including 40 per cent of the 25 to 54-year-olds watching television in capital cities.

To be fair, it still draws hundreds of thousands more viewers than most Australian drama rivals, including Stingers on Nine, The Secret Life of Us on Ten and MDA on the ABC. But the audience is ageing and in a market where—rightly or wrongly—young viewers are loved by advertisers for their perceived inclination to spend, an audience dominated by over 50s is less desirable.

“I’m perfectly happy with the core audience,” Howard says. “But what I know is out there is at least another one million people who could watch this show… and be taken on a journey and know that it’s a valid journey.”

This year his job is to increase Blue Heelers’ audience either by attracting younger viewers or by winning back those who have deserted. “I would just dearly love a way of reaching the 24 to 35-year-olds,” he says. “There’s nothing in the show that should be off-putting to them.”

Following the cosy formula of country “cops with heart”, the drama centres on the community-minded Mt Thomas police station where all crimes are solved and each day ends with a friendly beer down the local. So reassuring was its formula that Blue Heelers faced early criticism that it was spun from the same fibre as A Country Practice, the companionable hospital soap it was brought in to replace.

Created by Hal McElroy, the series was born after a five-year gestation that started with a concept based on city cops. Its focus shifted after McElroy was inspired by the stories of a young officer based in country NSW where the police were known as “tyre biters” or “blue heelers”.

“In many ways, police in the country are dealing with microcosms of urban problems,” McElroy said at the time. “There are often larger social disintegration problems than in urban areas: unemployment is higher; job opportunities are much lower; there are very few intellectual pursuits and that’s a volatile mix.” All set in a police station where a drama walks in the door every 10 minutes.

“People’s lives are basically mundane,” says John Wood, who has played the paternal Senior Sergeant Tom Croydon since Blue Heelers’ inception.

“When you come into contact with crime, you come into contact with big drama. For the most part you are digging the garden or your drains are blocked or you don’t like what you had for dinner last night.”

Each week the drama features a crime, backed by large and smaller themes affecting rural Australia.

Howard finds it frustrating that while the recent ABC miniseries Marking Time won critical acclaim for tackling parent-teenager relationships, adolescent sex, drug use and race relations in a country town, Blue Heelers’ treatment of the same issues is regularly overlooked.

“I really wish that more people would look at the show because they might be surprised at what they find,” he says. “There is not a topic—political, moral, legal—that we haven’t dealt with. We just do that week after week after week. A single-title show can, quite rightly, claim worthiness whereas an ongoing show claims worthiness at its peril.”

While at first Blue Heelers focused on crime, as it developed character-driven story arcs began to dominate. Ratings peaked in the mid to late 1990s with a will-they-won’t-they storyline between Lisa McCune’s much-loved Maggie Doyle and PJ Hasham, played by Martin Sacks. Both stars went on to win a raft of audience-voted Logie Awards, with McCune collecting the Gold Logie four years in a row.

John Wood and Simone McAullay

Wood, an undisputed star of Australia’s small screen with hits in the 1970s and ‘80s including Power Without Glory, Dearest Enemy and Rafferty’s Rules, believes that, along with likeable characters, the “bucolic” feel and rural setting are strengths with which Australians identify.

“Everybody sort of thinks of themselves as people from the outback even though we are all clustered along the coast,” he says.

So far the drama has rolled with the punches, adapting to meet whatever challenges it faced.

“It does change and I think that’s one of the strengths. Everyone said when Lisa (McCune) left, ‘The show’s dead’, and she’s been gone for nearly five years now and the show’s still going strong.

“It does survive, life’s like that. Over the same 10 years the lives of the cast and crew have also changed, with several marriages, many babies and the death of parents.”

It’s not the first time Heelers has faced competition. Over the years, Seven’s commercial rivals have thrown up Beverly Hills 90120, Melrose Place, The Guardian and The X-Files. All temporarily wounded the veteran. This year it’s taken a sustained beating, with CSI: Miami stealing around 200,000 viewers a week.

Where did Blue Heelers go wrong?

According to the Seven Network’s head of drama, John Holmes, the problem lies more accurately with the “tyranny of the remote control”.

“The feeling is that it is increased competition,” Holmes says. “Blue Heelers (in 2003), as was the case with All Saints the year before, has had a sustained barrage from an evil American import in the CSI franchise.

“With All Saints, all our research shows that while our audience loves All Saints, they’d also sampled CSI and we just had to give them an excuse to go to CSI and they’d go. I think we saw a bit of that erosion this year.

“In terms of Blue Heelers, this year CSI: Miami started. That’s a top, mega production, it’s a blockbuster in the States. Pit that against a show which is 10 years old and there’s a fight on your hands.

“CSI: Miami is not a show I watch regularly… but you can see why it works. It’s a very well constructed show, the stories are very economically told. You don’t learn a lot about the characters themselves. That’s certainly the way the American shows are going. They love to get involved in the main driving story. Less about the characters, they’ll glimpse parts of their personality. We were doing that three years ago and then we felt it was time to change the mix of the stories slightly.”

While maintaining the strengths of the show—its sense of community and family dynamic—Blue Heelers must adapt.

“We have got to get into the stories quicker,” he says. “We can’t let them come to the boil over 50 minutes, we’ve got to start heating them up much faster, jump right into the story. Grab that audience by the throat and say don’t go off. If we don’t make a show they want to watch, then we fail.”

Stories will be “tightened” and the pace increased. Episodes will be more self-contained with fewer serial strands, although some will remain.

“People talk about the lighting and the mix between location and studio, but it’s all nonsense really. It’s all to do with story and how you tell the story through the characters.

“The last thing you are going to do is do any right-hand turns or U-turns. It’s going to be very much steady-as-she-goes. They’ll look at their character mix and go ‘What kind of stories have we told now and what kind of stories could we tell.’”

Howard agrees: “We won’t do anything radical like The Bill did, that would be silly.” Any changes will occur within the parameters of the show.

Amanda Bishop joins the cast this season in a recurring guest role as Rochelle de la Rue, the senior constable in charge of nearby Widgeree police station. Future characters will be cast with the desired audience in mind although Howard promises to “avoid at all costs observing that person through 55-year-old eyes”.

“The age of the character is irrelevant,” he says. “It’s not age, it’s attitude and it’s the action that the character is prepared to take.”

While the Blue Heelers team keeps an eye on its competitor, they remain confident its appeal will diminish over time.

Holmes, like the producers, puts a positive spin on the challenge ahead, and makes some valid points.

“People have been heralding the demise of this program for probably about seven of the 10 years it’s been on air and we had various prophets of doom raise their voices louder around the departure of Lisa McCune, saying that the show was going to fail and wasn’t going to go on past that year…

“The truth about these shows is that you keep renewing them; as your audience changes so does the show. Blue Heelers is no different.”

Blue Heelers returns to Seven next month.

By Kylie Miller
January 15, 2004
The Age