Crownies: articles

Crownies largely follows the exploits of five rookie prosecutors working for the Director of Public Prosecutions. They are played by (from left) Andrea Demetriades, Todd Lasance, Ella Scott Lynch, Hamish Michael and Indiana Evans.

Winning hearts and cases

Genre fatigue aside, there's no objecting to the ABC's new legal drama Crownies.

"COMPARED to what really goes on, we're just scratching the surface," Marta Dusseldorp says.

"It's pretty horrific what people do to each other."

Dusseldorp is talking about her role as Janet King, a Crown prosecutor in the ambitious new ABC drama series Crownies. It's a legal series, a genre of which we've seen more incarnations than Chopper Read has seen years behind bars. This one, however, claims to be different. This one is about prosecutors.

"I think audiences are used to legal dramas featuring the defence," says Lewis Fitz-Gerald, who plays King's boss, a director of public prosecutions, or DPP. "They eat it up and love it and that's great but there aren't a great many stories based on the prosecution side.

"The prosecution side is usually painted as the guys in the black hats, whereas as far as society is concerned they're the guys in the white hats going after the baddies. This is an interesting shift and I think it captures something of the Zeitgeist in that need to see justice for all."

Actually, it's not the first prosecutorial drama. Most famously, there was Law & Order. In the first half of each hour-long show, the cops collared a crim; in the second half, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office — their equivalent of the office of the DPP — would prosecute the "perp". The formula was wildly successful. When the final episode aired in the US last May, it had been running for 20 years. Equal with Gunsmoke, Law & Order ranks as the longest-running US drama series.

But yes, most legal dramas are either about the defence team or about private practitioners. From the US, we've had LA Law, Ally McBeal, The Practice and spin-off Boston Legal, Harry's Law, The Good Wife and Damages.

Meanwhile, several Australian efforts have shown considerable imagination, including Rafferty's Rules, about a magistrate with domestic woes, MDA, about the lawyers who fight for medicos, and Rake, about a hard-living, fast-quipping silk.

Prosecutors have been criminally under-represented in Australia, however. And for Dusseldorp, working on Crownies has opened up a new world.

"It's only since I've done this that when I flick through the paper and I see a story about Nick Cowdery or the DPP or a prosecutor that now I realise there is this whole undercurrent."

Dusseldorp's character is a 10-year veteran of the DPP's office. Tough and tenacious, Janet King possesses a sharp tongue and sharper mind.

Dusseldorp, by contrast, is a pensive mother of two. She's found the subject matter more confronting than she expected.

"We're dealing with child murder and rape," Dusseldorp says. "There's a line I had to say about what had happened to a child and I couldn't say it without tearing up but I knew Janet wouldn't. It was hard to shoot. Finally I had to just blurt it out; it was too painful as a mum. I'm learning to get a little bit more thick-skinned. I know it's not real but in a way it is, because it does happen."

It does, and too often. Which means there's plenty of material for the show.

"Yes," Dusseldorp says, "it's a bottomless pit of horror."

And sex. For this account of the law is also an account of the lewd, blending matters legal with matters carnal.

Crownies concentrates on five young solicitors, all of them recent law school graduates. In their mid-20s, they bear satchels crammed with qualifications and hormones and their adventures bounce between the intellectual idealism of work and the hedonistic explorations of play.

As the second-in-charge of the DPP, Janet King is less hedonistic. Her personal life, however, has its own stresses, as she struggles to conceive with her female partner: "Well, she's the senior Crown prosecutor," Dusseldorp says. "Not to give anything away, she's in a lesbian relationship and things spin out of control a bit."

On a set visit, Green Guide watched as Dusseldorp and Fitz-Gerald worked with director Lynn Hegarty. The first floor of a tile warehouse has been converted into an impressive replica of the DPP's offices. Bookshelves groan under the weight of chunky legal tomes; photocopiers mark the spots where gossip is exchanged; a large open-plan area is divided from the offices by glass walls. In one corner is a cage containing a small, pretty songbird with bright red feet. Its name is Atticus. I'm guessing it's a finch.

The detail is impressive and for Hegarty and her co-directors, the elaborate location is a blessing. Many shots are filmed through glass walls; often the camera follows characters as they talk. "You're not fighting the location, you're embracing it," Hegarty says in a break between set-ups. "This is not The West Wing but then it's not just people talking in offices. Here you can follow characters from one end of the set to the other."

According to the crew, real prosecutors from the DPP's

office were impressed by the interiors when they visited. The exteriors were filmed at the Parramatta court complex in Sydney. "It's good to be out here in the west," Fitz-Gerald says. "You're actually in the geographic heart of the city and that's not a bad thing. The welcome we receive out here is fantastic.

"We're hoping this is going to have a different look from the city."

Like the solicitors it portrays, Crownies is ambitious. The first series has 26 53-minute episodes, each one shot in just six days. What's more, the cast is a large ensemble of fresh faces. Alongside a core of Todd Lasance (Home and Away, Cloudstreet), Hamish Michael (City Homicide), Ella Scott Lynch (All Saints), Andrea Demetriades (Bell Shakespeare) and Indiana Evans (Home and Away) there is the sure hand of TV staples such as Jeanette Cronin and Peter Kowitz.

Complementing the ensemble of actors is a formidable ensemble of directors. Apart from Hegarty, who has directed Heartbreak High, Wildside, Packed to the Rafters and more, they include Tony Tilse, Chris Noonan and Cherie Nowlan. Each one has shot a block of episodes.

"That's common for one-hour and two-hour television," says Fitz-Gerald, who himself has extensive directing experience. "It has to be. It's very taxing work. They're long days and you have to be focused.

"And for the actors, there are different qualities to each director. One director might come with a real excitable energy and someone else will come with a calm energy but the fact is that the output remains the same. You can't shoot any more set-ups in a day simply by being excited about it. The experience of it is different from block to block — but not so very different or the writers/producers would be scratching their heads."

Hegarty is inspired by shows such as The Practice as well as The West Wing. "This is a behind-the-scenes aspect of the judicial system," she says. "Even though the ideas and moral problems are dense, it still has a lot of energy and that's what I liked about The West Wing. We've taken that from The West Wing in that we move everything around, we don't get bogged down in long turgid scenes where people just sit there. There is a youthfulness in this office, there are a lot of young solicitors who are hungry and questioning.

"It's about people who have a passion for the law and for justice," he says. "The storylines here tend to deal with very idealistic lawyers trying to pursue justice and good ethical outcomes but sometimes the law is a very blunt instrument.

"That said, there's also the lives and loves of the people who work here and their personal relationships — you really buy into the characters and their personal lives and their struggles at work.

"I think the HBO experience has changed people's expectations of what they're prepared to invest in. Shows like Mad Men and The Sopranos had ongoing narratives where you really invested in the characters but there wasn't an absolute sense of, 'OK, that's the end of the hour, it's all sewn up. We've solved the crime, let's move on.' Those shows ask you to take on long serial elements. This does, too, and I think that's the way interesting television is going."

For Lewis as for Dusseldorp, preparing for their roles meant spending time with Nicholas Cowdery, who until recently was the NSW director of public prosecutions.

Dusseldorp describes her meeting as a "life-changing moment", thanks to the outspoken official's gravitas and sense of justice. In one ongoing plot line, Fitz-Gerald's character also locks horns with the attorney-general, just as Cowdery did with NSW politician John Hatzistergos.

"That's a case of art imitating life," says Fitz-Gerald, whose credits include playing Meryl Streep's lawyer in Fred Schepisi's Evil Angels. Apart from everything else, Lewis is just pleased the ABC is making Crownies.

"It does feel as if the ABC has decided to get back in the drama business," he says. "I think that's a public expectation that they should be but it wasn't so long ago they made six or eight hours of drama in an entire calendar year. We need to see ourselves represented and in ways that are different, perhaps, from the ways commercial networks present drama. If you're less driven by ratings, perhaps riskier storytelling may be undertaken.

"And this [Crownies] feels good as we do it — but others will judge. Audiences will be the judge of whether we got it right."

By Sacha Molitorisz
July 7, 2011
Sydney Morning Herald