City Homicide: articles


A force to be reckoned with ... from left, Daniel MacPherson, Nadine Garner, Shane Bourne, Noni Hazlehurst, Aaron Pedersen and Damien Richardson.

Straight up and down

Viewers don't like gimmicks, says Seven's head of drama, John Holmes. "If you have to trick up a television program, the audience just sees through it. It often gets in the way and you end up having to maintain a facade about the terms on which you're doing the show."

Seven this week unveils its new local drama, City Homicide, a no-tricks, no-gimmicks police show in the tradition of such classics as Homicide and Division 4. Set in a metropolitan homicide squad, it focuses on four young detectives: ambitious Jennifer Mapplethorpe (Nadine Garner), self-assured Simon Joyner (Daniel MacPherson), fast-living Duncan Freeman (Aaron Pedersen) and driven Matt Ryan (Damien Richardson). Shane Bourne and Noni Hazlehurst appear as their superiors.

"We haven't done it as a period piece or as a futuristic piece, we don't solve our crimes via ESP and we're not ready to have them as night-time vampires," Holmes says, referring to the American police genre's appetite for tricks - not all of them conventional and some of them plain unbelievable. "I think those kinds of shows are make-believe and we leave that to the Americans. We're not trying to trick this up, we're not in any way trying to be too cute with the audience. This is straight up and down."

As with most television dramas, City Homicide went through several reinventions during its development. It began five years ago as a concept called The Detectives, written by John Hugginson and based on a "kernel of an idea" presented to him by Holmes. The Detectives was put in a drawer, however, while Seven focused on other dramas, including the reboot of its long-running medical series All Saints.

"Out of the blue, John [Holmes] rang me up and said we want to pick it up again," says Hugginson, who then sat down with his writing partner, John Banas, and produced a short outline and character framework for the series. Three scripts were written and the third was selected for a pilot.

The pilot starred Damian de Montemas, Socratis Otto, Travis McMahon and Nadine Garner as the young cops. Of the four, only Garner remained after Holmes, producer Maryanne Carroll and Seven programmer Tim Worner took a good look at it.

The pilot process is one of the most important developmental steps for a new drama series, Holmes says. "We recast on Always Greener, we completely restructured and recast on All Saints, we did some recasting on this and, in this case, we also reshot episode three. We've always piloted drama at Seven; it's invaluable. It's about learning the language of the show and by that I don't mean the spoken word."

With five decades of television police dramas in mind, Holmes concedes there is a need to reinvent the concept without seeming either gimmicky or cliched. "One of the chief criticisms could be, 'Oh, not another police show', and we had that with All Saints - 'Can't they do anything but police, lawyers or medical?' People understand the parameters of the show - you are dealing with life and death - and there is great affection for it. Blue Heelers, for example, ran for 12 years and, even at the end of its run, it had over a million viewers.

"In trying to broaden it out and make a different police show, what you do is unleash the writers and allow them a little more scope - their weekly clean canvas is a bit broader, they don't have to package it under such tight parameters. In a way we're trying to tell slightly bigger stories."

In a genealogical sense, City Homicide descends more directly from early police shows such as Homicide than any permutation of the template that followed. Seven has a long and successful history with the police genre, including Cop Shop and Blue Heelers. (This would be a bad moment to mention Skirts.)

"Without it being a direct line from the old Homicide, it certainly comes from it," Holmes says. "Once you start dealing with the death of the week, the case of the week, you're getting very close to those old classic TV shows."

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is its visual style, created by the frequent use of location shots and an obvious investment in post-production. "We had a little more money," Holmes says, "and money in television really just equates into more shoot days."

In the economics of television drama, it's a difficult equation to balance, considering networks increasingly want more for less. The biggest challenge for a local drama is to not look awful when compared with US dramas, which have budgets four and five times greater and which often occupy the timeslots before and after.

"I think, perhaps, if you went back 10, 15 years, you could sum up Australian drama, somewhat cynically, as wobbly sets, a lot of interior studio and a bit of natural lighting," Holmes says. "Look back 20 years to Home and Away and it was OK for the time but you could never use those production values today, you just wouldn't have a show. Against those American shows with their massive budgets, we clearly can't just keep puddling along with simple dramas."

As with Sea Patrol, City Homicide steps out of the studio and makes the most of its locations. "Sea Patrol has huge second units [the crew who shoot ancillary material, including aerials] and their second unit has given them some fantastic stock shots, soaring above the ship," Holmes says. "It's not part of the story but, what it does is, it gives you a bigger canvas. We've tried to make it a bit fresher, a bit sexier, to polish it, to make it just that little bit more glossy."

Seven has commissioned 14 episodes of City Homicide, all of them written by Hugginson and Banas. Most television dramas employ a battery of writers who work for script editors who polish and tune all the instruments of the dramatic orchestra to sound alike. City Homicide, in contrast, has a very small creative hub - Holmes, Hugginson and Banas (referred to as "the Johns"), Carroll and Seven's network script executive, Bevan Lee. Holmes describes the group as "a guerilla unit".

"At each stage it's critical you have the right people who understand what you're trying to get, which is essentially these young people coming together in an incredibly difficult and confronting job," he says.

The benefit, Hugginson says, is that as new elements of characters are added in the writing of later episodes, there is time to adjust earlier episodes while they are being filmed, to give the entire series a consistent tone.

"It's not a process where we write one script each," Banas says. "Rather we both write the same script, so there has to be a certain absence of ego. We listen to each other, we have different strengths and we bounce off each other really well. And, in the end, we come up with something that is better than either of us individually could come up with." Hugginson adds: "It works a treat."

By Michael Idato
August 20, 2007
Sydney Morning Herald