Fireflies: articles

Fight my fire

LOST RIVER is not an auspicious name for a place. But as the fictitious country town at the heart of the ABC’s new drama series, Fireflies, the name is apt.

Using the Lost River fire service as the central thread of the story, Fireflies explores rural community life in Australia. And, like most, it’s a community grappling with various problems, from the struggle to keep a business running to a marriage in meltdown.

Written and created by John O’Brien (MDA, Water Rats), Fireflies stars Libby Tanner (All Saints) as Lill, Lost River’s newest resident, who has moved to the weekender she and her husband, Perry (John Waters), have been working on for a few years.

A fire scare brings home one of the realities of living in the country and has her rushing to find out more about the local Rural Fire Service (RFS), and the volunteer firies who run it.

Perth-born Jeremy Sims (Chances, Secret Men’s Business) stars as Backa Burke, the captain of the Lost River Rural Fire Brigade.

Sims has given up his morning to talk to me about Backa and it is what he calls a “Pork Chop day”—when he is not on Fireflies duty and can work on things for his theatre company, Pork Chop Productions.

He has a lot to say about Backa. Both the show and the character probe areas that are of interest to Sims.

“Backa’s an Australian male in his mid-30s, who’s struggling with all sorts of ideas of what he wants to do, and where he wants to be, and what it means to be male. What it means to be Australian.

“I think he’s tried to break the mould a bit. He fell in love with a Russian girl when he was in Europe.

He brought her back with him and stuck her in the middle of a country town. And then is surprised when she doesn’t fit in.” Sims’ laughs wryly.

Predictably, the marriage is in trouble and fuelling the problem is Backa’s sense of emasculation at home.

Though he comes from the oldest family in town and should have the biggest spread of land, his father gave it away. Now Backa helps his wife, Svettie (Natasha Novak), run their ailing craft shop.

In contrast, he feels valued and useful at the fire station. “People I’ve talked to in the volunteer fire brigade service say that it breaks more marriages than anything else,” says Sims.

“The commitment is huge. You don’t get paid for it. The people who do it get addicted to it because there is a sense of order, there’s a structure.

“There is adrenaline but the main thing is, they go, ‘I run this, I’m a man and I run this place’. And for Backa that’s what he loves about it.”

It’s a situation he thinks some male viewers will relate to and hopes men will enjoy watching Backa’s dilemma.

“His dilemma isn’t something you can put into words very easily. In a generalised sense, it’s that he hasn’t become the man he should be, or society hasn’t let him, or there isn’t room any more for him. I think that is something that a lot of men with identify with.”

Sims believes the show will be hugely real for people who live in country towns.

“John O’Brien does live in a small country town four hours drive from Sydney, and he is a member of the local RFS, so he knows all these things.”

The actor has discovered quite a bit about the RFS himself.

“The rural fire service is a fascinating beast. All these strange people, from all these strange backgrounds, turn up and put their uniforms on. There are affairs, there are arsonists within it who get their jollies by lighting fires so they can go and put them out.

“Then there are people who go there to get away from their family; people go there because they can’t make friends.”

He says most of the RFS people he has spoken to describe the service as a cult.

“Once you get started you can’t get out. It’s a huge sense of belonging. It’s a kind of second chance for some people, too, they might be 35 years old and having missed out on things, or in a dead-end job.”

All of which illustrates the importance of RFS’ social role in a community.

“Nearly everyone I spoke to said in country towns the Rotary is just about over,” says Sims.

“The CWA is antiquated and irrelevant. The only social organisation whose numbers are growing is the RFS.

“And it now fills the same position perhaps as the church did, or the Rotary did, or the CWA, or any other things that you can think of in terms of glueing a society together.”

It also means the politics is rife.

“Everyone involved wants to be in a position of power, or not, depending on what they want,” says Sims.

As part of the preparation for the series, the actors did an RFS training course.

This gave Christopher Morris (Salem’s Lot, Fat Cow Motel), who plays Backa’s younger brother Joey, an insight into what would motivate people to join the RFS.

After covering basic rules and procedure, including lots of hose rolling, the actors had to deal with a burning drum of gas. “There was a 5ft (1.5m) flame coming off it,” says Morris, “and we had to advance towards it and we’re going, ‘Oh my God, we’re just actors—we’re not ready for this.’ But we did it.

“It was exhilarating, makes you feel I can do something. Maybe I should join up with the RFS.”

By Liz Grant
February 04, 2004
The West Australian