Canal Road: articles


Canal Road cast: L-R, Sam Anderson as Henry Walter; Alyssa McClelland as Skye Brady; Brooke Satchwell as Bridget Keenan; Charlie Clausen as Tom Squires; Diana Glenn as Olivia Bates; Paul Leyden as Spencer McKay; Sibylla Budd as Daina Connelly; Patrick Brammall as Steve Yunnane; Peta Sergeant as Holly Chong.

Melbourne's ripper story

When it came to putting script to screen, all roads led to our city's waterways in Nine's gritty new series, says

The highlights of Channel Nine's drama Canal Road, which premiers this Wednesday, include Brooke Satchwell flashing her legs, As the World Turns' Paul Leyden home where he belongs, and marvellous Melbourne showcased in all its chic, gritty glory.

Last year, Channel Seven's City Homicide did wonderful things with its Melbourne setting, showing us a sharp-edged, thoroughly modern metropolis steeped in blues and greys. Now Canal Road presents different but equally compelling results.

According to Nine's head of drama, Jo Horsburgh, it wasn't that the sexy murder-mystery-medical-drama couldn't have been set anywhere else. It was more that Melbourne offered something distinctive - something apart from trams - that everyone was looking for.

"Melbourne just has a real sense of style, doesn't it?" Horsburgh says. "I don't think there was ever a time we thought it wouldn't be set there. The original concept came from Melbourne, the original research came from Melbourne, Susan (Bower, Canal Road's co-creator) lives in Melbourne. There were all kinds of reasons it was right."

And in the time since the series was first dreamed up, over quiche in Horsburgh's backyard, the city itself has evolved along with the concept until the two became a perfect match.

Horsburgh, Bower and Louise Crane had a few ideas brewing that afternoon. One they called "The Clinic", based on one of those multi-disciplinary urban practices. Another was "Spencer's Devils", about a bloke seeking the truth about his dead wife and child.

Over the decade it's taken to actually get the thing into production, those two ideas have merged to create the 13-part series that begins this week, in which the many faces of the city - and its waterways - feature heavily.

The interiors and the overall style of the Canal Road clinic - shot in Nine's Richmond studios - are based on a clinic in Darlinghurst, "a beautiful modern building" with a shingle advertising everything from a GP and an acupuncturist, to legal advice and addiction counselling.

"That's what we wanted. Something multifaceted. So yes, it's about the clients and their stories. But it's also about looking at life through a certain prism, in a slightly mysterious way."

Once the two ideas had become one, there was a huge list of possible titles (most of them still including the word "devil" just because it's kind of sexy). "But, in the end, we decided rather than trying to 'explain' through the title, we'd go for something neat and simple. So we came up with Canal Road." Which is where the Melbourne exterior locations come in.

"We wanted to use the idea of the canal, the whole idea of 'what lies beneath', the mystery of water," Horsburgh says.

Waterways feature strongly: the chief exterior location is Banana Alley, on the north bank of the Yarra; the protagonist, psychiatrist Spencer McKay (Paul Leyden) likes to scull on the river; other key scenes are shot around the newer canals of Victoria Harbour.

"So we had that new part of Docklands, with all the new canals, all that wonderful new architecture. But, with the word canal and the idea of the canal, we also wanted to hark back to those old murder mysteries, almost the Jack-the-Ripper kind of thing."

The overarching plot-line - Spencer's (perhaps deluded) search for the "truth" about the death of his wife and son - are certainly a traditional murder-mystery. But even the clinic stories tend to take a walk on the dark side. At the same time, Victorian Melbourne wasn't really what they were after.

"We wanted something that had a contemporary feel. We also wanted something that was slightly heightened, where everyone just looks a bit more spic. So we used the laneways a lot. We really tried to use the landscape to create a sense of modernity, but with history."

After the glory days of Homicide and Division Four (and, maybe, The Sullivans) there was a long period where we all seemed slightly embarrassed about seeing our home town on the telly. And it was considered death to overseas sales if a series looked too Australian (unless it featured Uluru or the Sydney Harbour Bridge - and even then, maybe not).

But globalisation can be a wonderful thing. As Australians started to travel, they brought an international perspective home. As everyone else in the world started to travel, the ideas of "Sydney" and "Melbourne" came to mean somewhere you could get a great cocktail rather than somewhere with kangaroos hopping down the main street.

"Our cities are maturing," says Horsburgh, "in the architecture but also in the way of life, the streetscape. Our big cities do now have a sophistication and that's what we wanted to do - show a more stylish, sophisticated city."

The response from overseas buyers has been enthusiastic, although many failed to realise Canal Road was actually shot in the antipodes.

"That has a lot to do with the way the cast is presented, the look of them, the lighting, the look of the whole show. But we also showed a big, sophisticated city with a sense of history. So, from an international perspective, it doesn't feel parochial."

As a Sydneysider, Horsburgh says seeking out locations was a lot of fun.

"It was intriguing and exciting to go about finding a Melbourne that had a real sense of style about it, to create an image of Melbourne that we hadn't really seen on television before," she says. "Melbourne had always tended to look older and historic, which is lovely. But we wanted a really upmarket, slick, chic look, lovely smooth lines, and then mix that with the older styles to create a real international look. I think the end result is very rich."

By Melinda Houston
April 13, 2008
The Age