City Homicide: articles

Don Barker with Noni Hazlehurst

Homicide's Don Barker with Noni Hazlehurst.

The beat goes on

When Homicide's Don Barker appeared on City Homicide, it was a chance to compare cop shows with fellow actor in uniform Noni Hazlehurst.

It may be premature to talk about a new golden age of Aussie TV, but Australian crime dramas certainly have a new lease on life. There's Rush on Ten; Nine's about to launch The Strip; and Seven's City Homicide is well into its second season. There's certainly a whiff of the good ol' days about it, when Grundy's and Crawford's churned out hours of local crime every week: Division Four, Matlock, and, of course, the original Homicide.

So it seems fitting that next Monday night marks a quiet reunion of two stalwarts of Australian television, and of the genre: City Homicide's Noni Hazlehurst, and Don Barker, whom those with long memories will recall as Homicide's Detective Sergeant Harry White.

Back in the '70s, Hazlehurst had a guest role in Homicide, although she doesn't remember a great deal about it.

"I know I played a lot of rape victims in those days," she says. "Judging by that picture, I was pretty sulky! I think I might have been the girlfriend of the bloke whodunit, and I was being taken in for questioning."

In a sign of the times, this time round, it's Barker guest-starring (as a retired cop), while Hazlehurst has the ongoing role of Detective Superintendent Bernice Waverley. And casting women in positions of command isn't the only thing that's changed in the intervening decades.

There have been big changes behind the cameras, too. Even on a mid-budget, quick-turnaround series suck as City Homicide, whole streets are still blocked off to accommodate not just technical equipment, but hair, make-up, and the all-important catering truck.

"For us, lunch was a pie from the corner shop," Barker recalls. "When we went to colour, things got a bit more sophisticated, but there were no extras, no stuntmen, no make-up and wardrobe on location. We used police driving instructors for some of the hairier car chases. And we eventually got a caravan - seven of us in an old Milford."

The lack of extras sometimes made head office feel like a pretty lonely place. "In our day it was like the entire Russell Street building was inhabited by five policemen," Barker says. But there were perks. "Crawfords provided petrol - at four cents a litre!"

And if those old episodes look as if they were made in a bit of a hurry, well, they were.

"We made one episode in six days. Now we make two in 15 days. When you're making five minutes a day, those extra three days make a big difference," Barker says. Not to mention that, with more ads per hour, episodes have shrunk from 52 minutes to about 42.

"And at one stage we were making two episodes a week, with two crews, and really, that was easier in some ways. You didn't spend so much time sitting around."

On the other hand, while things might have been rushed behind the scenes, on screen everything was rather more leisurely.

"You couldn't go from the detectives' office to the suspect's house in one cut," Barker says. "We had to show the audience how we got there. Same with the scripts. There's a lot less exposition these days."

It seemed to take Australian writers a long time to realise they didn't have to show everything But finally we've started to catch up with the rest of the world. City Homicide always proceeds at a smart pace and the new Ten cop show, Rush, (which also, incidentally, has a woman in charge) is fabulously frenetic.

Both shows do a bit more with their characters, too. Barker says his Homicide character apparently had five kids, although no one ever saw them - or his wife. Within the first five minutes of Rush, we knew Catherine McClements' Kerry Vincent had some serious personal issues; by the end of the ep, one of her senior detectives had run off the rails; Hazlehurst's Bernice has a teenage son regularly giving her grief, while her colleagues all grapple with demons.

In fact, in almost every respect, Homicide looks absurdly quaint. The cops never carried guns. Hair was always neat. They always got their man. And usually it was a man. But Barker says scripts were often based on real cases, although usually from overseas, where even in the 1970s they had crime worth talking about.

"But they were almost always on the domestic level," he says. "It was always the husband whodunit, or the wife, or the son. I think the first thing Jon English did was play a drug addict and that was a two-hour special, an episode about a drug overdose."

To its credit, though, Homicide did manage to get an episode banned. A bonkers Pamela Stephenson was about to murder her sleeping husband. "She picked up this enormous knife, raised the knife in the air - and then we cut to a shot of a dog biting into a piece of meat," Barker says. That was considered far too graphic for a 7.30pm timeslot.

And that's probably the big change between cop shows now and cop shows then. The level of violence, both graphic and implied.

But while it's easy to think of Homicide as being make-believe and Rush and City Homicide as making some attempt to embrace realism, they all reflect their times.

"The crimes that were shocking back in Homicide days wouldn't raise a blink these days," Hazlehurst says. "So the crimes we deal with are much more vicious. But then, so are the crimes in real life."

By Melinda Houston
September 07, 2008
The Age