Canal Road: articles


TV noir ... the cast of Nine's new drama, Canal Road.

Dirty old town

There's not a Melbourne tram or palm-lined esplanade in sight in Nine's new drama, Canal Road. Instead, aerial shots sweep ominously over the city's night skyline. The Yarra River is murky and swirling and sinister figures lurk in graffiti-covered laneways.

The impression is of a dark and brooding city, where pale and beautiful people struggle every day against an undercurrent of danger and despair.

With its dramatic, filmic production quality and interwoven plotlines of sorrow and manipulation, Canal Road is in keeping with a trend away from the sunny series that have long been the hallmark of Australian television drama.

Recent shows such as Nine's gangland drama Underbelly and Showcase's brothel drama Satisfaction paint a very different Australia to the one that sparkled by the sea in The Secret Life Of Us or that glowed by rural twilight in McLeod's Daughters. And Melbourne, it seems, is the setting of choice for producers of such television noir.

Filmed in the middle of winter near Flinders Street Station, Canal Road shines a flashlight on the machinations of a busy medical-legal drop-in centre, where heroin addicts, homeless people and cash-strapped city workers collide.

"We're showing Melbourne like it's never been shown," says co-producer Susan Bower. "The Secret Life Of Us made Melbourne groovy and we haven't gone for that look. We've gone for inner-city apartment living, not suburban or beach living."

Bower, who took over as executive producer of Ten's Neighbours this year and whose credits include Nine's Sea Patrol and McLeod's Daughters, says Canal Road was 10 years in the making, at least in her mind.

A former nurse who got her scriptwriting break providing medical information for A Country Practice, Bower was inspired by her experiences and those of her colleagues working in medical-legal centres around the country.

"We're exploring the top and the bottom end of town," she says. "Because of the physical area that it's in, you'll have homeless and disadvantaged people coming in but you'll also have lawyers who are pethidine addicts or heroin addicts. These centres exist; they're all over the place."

Bower admits the premise is a little confusing. Is it a medical drama, a legal drama, a psycho-thriller or a romantic mini-soap? "The medico-legal thing throws you," she says. "It's not a medical show. We don't do immunisations, we don't do stories about people with headaches or a stroke victim or anything like that. It's a bit like The Practice in as much as it is a law story but it's also about the people and it isn't your normal open-and-shut cases. It's not at all like MDA ... The idea is that nothing is what it seems, that there is always intrigue, that there is mystery to everything."

The plot centres around psychiatrist Spence McKay, played by Australian actor Paul Leyden, a household name in the US thanks to five years on the soap As The World Turns.

Grieving the loss of his wife and son in what he mistakenly thought was an accident, McKay is angry and alone. He can find no comfort in the arms of his female colleagues, despite their fawning affection. Instead he employs the services of a glamorous prostitute (Klara Lisy) who, it seems, is also enamoured.

When not gazing dreamily at McKay, the women at Canal Road are dealing with their own tormented personal lives. Workaholic GP Olivia Bates (Diana Glennon) could "run a small country" but can't find love. Corrections officer Holly Chong (Peta Sergeant) is being stalked by a criminally insane client.

The hard-partying ways of community nurse Bridget Keenan (Brooke Satchwell) find her in embarrassing situations, such as being handcuffed naked to a hotel bed by a Siberian backpacker. And the cyber-infused world of dizzy receptionist Skye Brady (Alyssa McClelland) is about to unravel horribly.

Meanwhile, over at McKay's private practice, patient and high-flying lawyer Daina Connelly (Sibylla Budd) is playing a dangerous game with her shrink - one that, given she is a sociopath, will no doubt end in somebody's tears.

Thrown into the mix are disgraced lawyer and current legal aid worker Steve Yunnane (Patrick Brammall), flirty physiotherapist Tom Squires (Charlie Clausen), personal care assistant and petty criminal Henry Walter (Sam Anderson) and brash ladies' man Detective Ray Driscoll (Grant Bowler).

As Wolfgang West on the New Zealand show Outrageous Fortune, Bowler experienced the twisted side of TV drama, something he wishes was more prominent in the Australian industry. "Outrageous Fortune is a far more politically incorrect show than anything I've ever done but Kiwis have a different sensibility," he says.

"They're far less conservative than we are [and] what they make tends to have a far greater cultural identity to them. I think Aussie television can get a bit earnest, a bit Dudley Do-Right. Everybody wears their seatbelt and salutes and does all the right things at the right time and, though that's lovely and laudable, I don't think it's necessarily reflective.

"Complex characters and difficult situations are really nice to see on screen. In commercial television, especially, there's an enormous temptation not to offend anyone and what we tend to do is damp things down. You look at the stuff we import, like Boston Legal, Prison Break, 24 - they're all about people behaving badly. They're horribly flawed, almost completely non-functional, but we can't help but fall in love with them."

The challenge with making Canal Road, Bower says, is that the concept evolved as filming progressed. "Our brief from Nine was that there was to be no serial content as such. It wasn't like, 'You must watch next week to find out what happens.'

"What ended up happening was that there is serial content but if you were to tune in to episode nine, you wouldn't be confused. But there is a 13-part murder mystery that unfolds, with loose ends being tied up by the end of the series. The reward, if you watch it every week, is that it will build on things."

For a producer who has built her career on the lighter side of Australian drama, Bower is enthusiastic about the darker series on our screens.

"There's been a resurgence of drama and it's because I think the general public got the idea that we weren't going to see any of our actors or hear our own voices telling our own stories on television. I think it's terribly important that we keep hold of our culture.

"The French have a minister who just looks after television and film because it's their culture, they recognise that. Australia is very, 'Oh, she'll be right mate,' about our culture, until it's gone.

"[Even though] there's a generation that loves video clips, they'll still sit and watch television. They might download it but they'll watch it. And we have to give them things that they want to watch."

By Bridget McManus
April 14, 2008
Sydney Morning Herald