East West 101: articles


Mean streets ... William McInnes, Susie Porter and Don Hany.

Walk on the wildside

It's been a long time between drinks for fans of edgy, complex local police drama. After the ABC's Wildside wrapped up in 1999, there's been . . . well, nothing really. That all changes this week as SBS launches East West 101, which reunites three of the key creative people from Wildside - director Peter Andrikidis, producer Steve Knapman and script producer Kris Wyld (Knapman and Wyld went on to create White Collar Blue for Ten in 2002).

Here, as in Wildside, there's a preference for gritty Sydney locations, multi-dimensional characters, naturalistic performances and a compassionate world view. But this is Wildside for a post-September 11 world. It centres on a Muslim detective, Zane Malik (Don Hany), haunted by a robbery 20 years earlier that left his father mildly brain damaged. At work Malik clashes with the bitter, racist Detective Sgt Ray Crowley (William McInnes) while their boss, DI Patricia Wright (Susie Porter), tries to maintain the peace. Each of the six episodes deals with a specific crime, set among a different ethnic sub-group, although there are several storylines that run through the series.

"It's not just a police show," Andrikidis says. "It's more about how you deal with being a Muslim in 2007 and how Australians react to that in the workplace." Knapman sees a broader message in the show - "the idea that what separates us as human beings is just ideology and it's a bit silly to go to war with each other because of that when we have so much in common."

Knapman doesn't reject comparisons with Wildside but prefers the new show. "I was never 100 per cent happy with Wildside," he says. "It was an incredibly ambitious show but it was probably a bit jagged, a bit confronting ... There are strong stylistic elements in [East West 101] that come from Wildside ... but then we have a lot of quiet, contemplative moments, a lot of psychological stuff. There's a greater and more sophisticated mix than Wildside achieved."

Andrikidis agrees: "It's a mixture of really hand-held berserk stuff to a really static, kind of commercial look. The police material has a really gritty look and the home material is almost traditional then the dream sequences are quiet surreal. It's not the in-your-face camera style of Wildside. We didn't want to repeat Wildside - it was 10 years ago."

The seed for East West 101 was planted several years ago when SBS's Glenys Rowe asked Knapman and Wyld to make a cop show for the network. She was a fan of Wildside and wanted something similarly gritty, but for an SBS audience.

"The original brief to make a crime show was good but we'd made two crime shows that were a bit different and knowing it was SBS we had to figure out how to deal with the whole multicultural aspect," Knapman says. Wary of contrivance, they approached police sources they had cultivated during Wildside. One of them suggested they talk to Hany Elbatoory, a Muslim detective of Egyptian descent who had led a group of detectives in the '90s affectionately known as the Wog Squad.

Elbatoory's stories provided the basis for East West 101. Malik is based directly on him and other characters are based on his fellow officers. For Knapman, it meant the show rang true. "It wasn't designed to suit SBS," he says. "It was just real and reflected totally the reality of policing in this state."

For SBS, the show ticks all the boxes. "What's interesting about East West 101 for SBS is that we're making a genre show but we're also meeting all their multicultural charter requirements," Knapman says. "The reality is you can make stuff that has something to say and make it entertaining and exciting."

For Hany, the issue was how closely to base his character on Elbatoory, with whom he became friends. "The dilemma is how much of the real person you bring into it - how much you end up mimicking or not. I think I played it as close to him as possible."

The decision to make Malik Iraqi rather than Egyptian was a practical one, as Hany is part Iraqi. He could have played an Egyptian but the deciding factor was the casting of Malik's father, one of the hardest roles to fill. Finally, after the usual casting avenues had been exhausted, Hany suggested his father, Toffeek, who had never acted before.

"The guy had to speak Arabic fluently and had to speak English fluently and had to pray properly and be familiar with the Koran but also had to be free to bastardise it because the character is sick," Hany says. "For true Muslims to be on camera praying and stuff is not cool, so we had to find someone who knew all about it but was cool to do it. The clincher was he had to look like me."

It was an inspired choice. Not only was Hany snr perfect for the part, his violin playing and singing were incorporated into the show's score. "He just had the quality we were looking for," Knapman says. "He just relaxed into it and was unfazed by it - he was quite incredible."

Hany agrees his father was great but has a less reverent take on why he nailed the part. "I think because he was so confused about what was required most of the time he just appeared to be brain damaged," he says, laughing. "It just worked wonderfully."

Hany snr was not the only case of inspired amateur casting. In fact, a mix of professional and amateur actors is one of the show's distinctive features. It arose for practical reasons, as there are more than 150 speaking parts from a diverse range of backgrounds. "It was very difficult to cast," Hany says. "Often you live with blinkers on thinking that the stories we tell reflect the world that we live in but actually the industry is quite anglo-white, so when you're trying to cast ethnic roles you're dealing with a very small pool of actors. You end up finding people who can do it but they might not have done it before."

For Andrikidis, this was a blessing. "New actors listen to the other actor so they're in the scene," he says, "whereas trained actors are performing and you've got to get that out of them. It's actually a little bit easier if you get the right people who are not acting. That's why having a mix of non-actors and actors is actually a good thing."

Andrikidis's enthusiasm for the show is obvious. Asked what shows in his CV he is most proud of, he doesn't hesitate: "Wildside and this. I've kind of come full circle. Wildside was the real turning point for me. That style of performance was everything I'd tried to achieve."

He's happy to be taking risks and grateful to SBS for giving him the opportunity to create something unconventional, challenging and, hopefully, entertaining. "People are either going to love it or hate it; you can't sit in the middle," he says. "If you're in the middle you're making soap."

East West 101 begins on SBS on Thursday at 8.30pm.

By Greg Hassall
December 3, 2007
Sydney Morning Herald