Crashburn: articles

McClements and Blabey

Rosie (McClements) and Ben (Aaron Blabey).

She says, he says

He says that he just wants to see her happy again. She says that she's unhappy but she doesn't know how to talk about it. He says that he loved her unpredictability. She says he used to make her feel good about herself. He suspects that she always wanted him to be something different, something better. She maintains that she's always been direct with him. He says he has no idea what went wrong in their relationship. On that, at least, they agree.

Meet Ben and Rosie Harfield (Aaron Blabey and Catherine McClements). They've known each other for 12 years, been married for nine and have a seven-year-old son. We're introduced to them as they arrive, nervously and separately, for their first session with a marriage counsellor. Their partnership has hit a rough patch, they both look shell-shocked and their pain is palpable.

What got Ben and Rosie to this point, and what will become of them after it, is the subject of CrashBurn, a 13-part comedy drama from SeaChange creators Andrew Knight and Deb Cox.

One of the country's preeminent television teams, Knight and Cox have worked together in a productive partnership that has spanned Kangaroo Palace, Simone de Beauvoir's Babies and After the Deluge. They've also been involved in films, including Spotswood, Dead Letter Office and Siam Sunset.

This pair doesn't devise cop shows or medical dramas. The closest that Knight came was the delightfully off-beat detective romp, The Fast Lane, which he wrote with John Clarke. Together, Knight and Cox create witty, astutely observed, funny-sad, hard-to-classify comedy-dramas that regularly attract descriptions like "whimsical" and "quirky".

And they have a knack for tapping into the Zeitgeist. With SeaChange, they mined the mounting frustration with the stresses of city life and the dream of escape. With its account of Australians' adventures abroad, Kangaroo Palace explored that fondly remembered interlude in life between being a student and settling down to a job and a mortgage. Simone de Beauvoir's Babies focused on the dilemmas of thirtysomething women making knotty choices about romance, marriage, careers and children. After the Deluge, which recently screened on the Ten Network, was a wrenching meditation on modern men in crisis.

"We just don't have that many serial killers," Knight says with a shrug. "There are mad people out there, but not an awful lot that I've crossed paths with. But we seem to be making a whole lot of shows with people saying 'Take the shot! Officer down!' It isn't my life; it isn't terribly many people's lives.

"When we did SeaChange, we did try to go into an area where we thought people were heading. With CrashBurn, it's our intent to do stuff about relationships and just how friggin' hard they are to keep together."

Knight and Cox decided to focus on the fabric of a long-term relationship: the attraction in the first encounter, the early, intoxicating lust, the faltering and fear of commitment, the decision to marry and have a child. And then the struggle to keep the family afloat.

"Anyone who's been in a relationship for a number of months would be able to identify with it," says Fiona Eagger, who produced CrashBurn with Andrea Denholm. "It's about the nature of intimacy, how you keep love alive."

Beyond that, though, it's also located in territory that television, with the exception of a sitcom like Mad About You or the extremely rare relationship drama, like Once and Again, rarely traverses. "So many shows are about finding The Person, the right person," observes Denholm. "But once you find them, how do you keep them, or live with them? Deb and Andrew were really interested in exploring that because finding the person is usually the end of the story. People get together, there's no URST (unresolved sexual tension) left and the show's got to finish."

Cox and Knight have chosen to conduct their exploration using an ambitious structure that amounts to something of an Australian  television first. CrashBurn charts the current, painful period of Ben and Rosie's relationship as each contends with a trial period of separation, agreed to at that first counselling session. But much of their story also unfolds in flashback as they reflect on critical events in their past. And while those milestones are being recalled, each episode also offers Ben's perspective on events and Rosie's in a He Says, She Says format division that splits each hour in two.

"When we started writing, we realised that we wanted to start it at the end of the relationship because it was about separate lives and it was about what happens to people when they separate," Knight explains. "And then we realised that that didn't really work, that you didn't care about people if you didn't know what they looked like when they were together.

"So we decided to put whole bits of it in the past, so that we got the sense of where their relationship was and tracked bigger events: where they lied and where things went pear-shaped. It allowed you to care about whether they stayed together or stay apart."

Films such as Akira Kurosawa's famed Rashomon (1950) and the Kevin Bacon-Elizabeth Perkins romantic comedy-drama, He Said, She Said (1991), as well as the TV adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests (1978), used the idea of people having different views of the same event, and revealed those disparate views, as does the US crime drama Boomtown. But no one has tried to stretch that idea through one story and 13 hours of television.

"We had lots of discussions about the subjectivity of memory," says Denholm. "All the funny stories came out about moments in our past, with our partners. I'd recall something as being a fabulous discussion and my husband remembers it as an ultimatum."

In Ben and Rosie's case, as viewers witness events from both points of view, there are gaping, and sometimes hilarious, discrepancies. There are also lies, times when they couldn't say what they wanted, or said it clumsily, and times they didn't know what they wanted. There are also surprising twists as missing pieces of the story fall into place.

"History is written by someone with a Biro," Knight asserts. "It may not be the right view, but it is a view. Here, you think you've seen the full story and then you see the other half. In the end, over the course of the series, you realise that neither half's right, that relationships are often built on compromise, lies, only hearing those things that you wish to hear and wanting to protect your partner."

Both Ben and Rosie are seen to behave badly, act irrationally and make silly decisions. And they're often aided in those missteps by the family and friends surrounding them, concerned pals and parents who are always ready and willing to offer advice on the right way to behave, most of it misguided.

Ben has his wry cousin, Adam (Grant Piro), and his feral former flatmate, Theo (played with a relish for grunge by Bob Franklin). They believe that they're wise in the ways of women while proving to be mostly clueless. Rosie has her straight-talking best pal, the zookeeper Abby (Sacha Horler), her mum, Anna (Carmen Duncan), and Adam's clear-headed wife, Liv (Maria Theodorakis).

While in counselling, Ben and Rosie also encounter an older couple who appear to be engaged in a broad pantomime of reconciliation as they energetically hurl abuse at each other. Richard (Richard Piper) is a failed entrepreneur and Candice (Liz Burch) the oft-betrayed wife who's finally getting her revenge.

"I liked the idea of doing a series which wasn't politically correct," says Knight. "Where men could say what they wanted about women and women could say what they wanted about men. And what makes it politically correct is that you join them in the middle. You just put a bit of adhesive tape somewhere in the middle and you put in 'and'. So it has some of the most appalling lines from men and women."

Ben and Rosie and the community around them suggest that each sex finally finds the other unknowable, that men are a mystery to women and women represent a puzzle that men can't solve. It all comes across as less a battle of the sexes than an ongoing guerilla campaign that has played out for time immemorial and is quite possibly destined to rage forever.

"There's a lot of humour in the dark pit of relationships," observes Sacha Horler. "You can get good comedy and pathos out of situations when things go wrong, and I think that that's what Deb and Andrew have written so beautifully. These characters have high aspirations for living well with good intentions about being good parents and great lovers."

But for Ben and Rosie, as for many of the others, the high hopes founder and relationships run off the rails, which is where the series gets its title. "I think that men crash and women burn," says Knight. "Women tend to break up in a relationship and men tend not to see it coming. Then women crash later."

Here, Ben laments that he didn't see it coming, while Rosie tearfully admits she's been miserable for some time. Their troubles afford Cox and Knight the opportunity to explore the different ways in which men and women approach love and life. And they do so by deploying a contingent of full-blooded, warts 'n' all characters.

"The way most television of series form works is that characters represent a constant position," observes Knight. "(Writer) John Alsop said a great thing: the trouble with Australian drama is that it gets an interesting character, an interesting human being full of complexity and contradictions and humour and anger and bile and warmth, and then casts it among 14 different actors who each have one facet of the personality.

"We're always wanting clear lines but I think what made SeaChange successful was that everyone had baggage. It wasn't just attractive man meets attractive woman. There were all these cans attached to the human beings that were clattering along behind them, and to me, that's what's interesting, the clutter and clatter in people's lives."

For an actor, the chance to play with that baggage, to work on a character that grows and changes, represents a welcome opportunity. "It's unusual and that's why it's such a delight," says Aaron Blabey. "These are the most beautiful scripts I've ever had the pleasure of being involved with. There's scarcely a scene that wasn't a delight to play, whether it was something openly comic or really painful and heartfelt. Without wanting to sound smug about it, I think that's very rare for Australian television."

When it came to writing the kind of multi-faceted characters that they wanted, Knight says that, initially, he took the guys and Cox the girls. "That's how it started, but because there are so many crossovers, we just started writing over the top of each other. By and large, I'd think that the men's characters were mine and the women characters were Deb's, but there would be a helluva lot of Deb in the guys and helluva lot of me in the girls.

"We kept occupying very stupid positions, where I represented all men and she represented all women. I would say to her, 'A man simply would not say that and you would not know because you are not a man.' It just became infantile. Deb and I have known each other for 20-odd years, but never romantically. So we'd have her partner running surf boards through the house or vacuuming and we'd be sitting there writing this tortured relationship. It was bizarre."

And then, of course, there was the disagreement about how it would end. No one wants to give too much away about the plot of CrashBurn. The hope is that while Ben and Rosie's journey represents some universal truths about romance and relationships, its intricacies will engage and surprise viewers as it unfolds. But will they make it? Should they reunite, or go their separate ways? Half way through filming the series, which was mainly shot in Melbourne over 15 weeks prior to Easter, Cox and Knight were still arguing about that.

Knight deadpans that the resolution came when Cox left to collect her daughter from school and he wrote what he wanted. "It was the easiest win I've ever had. She came in and I said, 'The network loves it, and men think this way.' And she said, 'Oh, all right,' and started fiddling with it. Finally, I think that you could see in the performances where it should end."

Wherever it ends for Ben and Rosie, it starts for viewers on Monday, and Aaron Blabey says that "Hopefully, from the very beginning, the audience will want these two to work it out. We're kind of sunk if they don't." Summing up the series, the actor says, "Andrew has described it as bleak but funny. I think that there is a lot of light in it, a lot of hope, and it's hope mixed with a nice big dose of cynicism. There's a nice balance and that's where the comedy comes from. That's what saves it from being too dour: all of the stuff that's about the worst things is handled with a beautiful sense of comedy that comes from life and from the way that people deal with stuff. That's its strength as a series. It's about real stuff."

CrashBurn premieres on Monday at 8.30pm on Channel Ten.

By Debi Enker
August 14, 2003
The Age