Headland: articles

cast photo

From left: Libby Tanner, Conrad Coleby, Sam Atwell, Reshad Strik and Sophie Katinis.

Learning by heart

Seven gambles on a summertime drama about love, sex and intrigue on a uni campus. Alan Mascarenhas reports.

The car screeches around the mountain - tyres skidding, occupants screaming. Outside, it is pitch-black, inside, the vehicle is a tangled whirl of arms and legs. It could be a scene from the teenage horror flick I Know What You Did Last Summer. And the end comes fast - the driver lurches off the road and slams into a tree.

It's a savage start to Headland, Channel Seven's new twice-weekly drama about university students on the coastal town of South Heads. Four people die in the crash but the driver Craig (Sam Atwell) survives, ensuring that the ramifications ricochet in coming episodes. Was the car sabotaged? Were its occupants fighting? And was Craig drunk? Infuriatingly, he is in a coma and has probably forgotten everything.

Cut to four weeks later. The town is still in shock as the students of South Coast University arrive for orientation week. Craig remains on life support, but his sister, Grace (Libby Tanner), has returned to her job as the campus counsellor. She is joined in the office by Adam (Conrad Coleby), a newcomer to the town, whose predecessor, John, died in the crash.

Why the title Headland? It's a nod to the iconic cliff-top guesthouse where Adam is staying. The Headlands Hotel is run by two student siblings: self-contained Heath (Matthew Walker) and his buxom, flirty sister Sasha (Rachael Taylor), who takes an instant shine to Adam. Adam shouldn't feel flattered. It's the way Sasha's been acting around most blokes lately.

Tragedy, turmoil, self-discovery and lust. Seven is throwing every spice in the cupboard to give Headland a shot at success - not to mention the kitchen sink.

Desperate to avoid the fate of recent Australian flops such as Last Man Standing, The Alice and The Cooks, the network is launching Headland during the non-ratings period to give it time to build an audience. In a sign of confidence - or bluff - it has already commissioned a second series.

"The pressure will be off," producer Jo Porter says. "It's fantastic for audiences to know it's worth falling in love with the characters because the show is here to stay."

The gamble appears justified. Headland lacks the slick production of American shows such as Lost or CSI, panoramic shots of the Illawarra coast notwithstanding. The quality of the acting is inconsistent - though Tanner is a standout - and the show is unashamedly soap.

Still, in tapping the student genre, Seven has resisted the trap of creating a show about trendy, inner-city intellectuals. The characters are less pretentious than those of The Secret Life of Us and there are no angst-ridden voice-overs.

Instead, Headland, with its attractive young cast, is pitched squarely at the mainstream. Seven hopes the ratings for Headland will reinforce Home and Away, not dilute its popularity. The decision to run it over summer is also a bold pre-emptive strike on young audiences before arch-rival Ten rolls out Big Brother 6.

The tortured build-up to Headland reflects the all-or-nothing stakes. The soap went through several name changes - Away From Home, Campus and 10 Degrees South were all considered and dumped. An early pilot failed audience testing and the script endured multiple rewrites. As a result, it is debuting about six months behind schedule.

What went wrong? The early pilots focused too much on the car crash, giving the soap an aura of negativity and death, Porter says. Yet the crash's inclusion was vital to make viewers scream for answers - the equivalent of Mary-Ellis's suicide in Desperate Housewives or the mysterious hatch in Lost. "[Creator] Bevan Lee was very aware that you have to be very strategic with your opening," Porter says. "You have to give people a reason to stay around. The mystery in the first hour is a very good way to do it."

Tanner is engagingly blunt about Headland's teething problems. "I thought, like you do with any new script, that it needs a bit of work, a bit of tweaking." However, she had no doubt about accepting the juicy role of Grace. The popular actress has struggled to land a lasting television gig since leaving All Saints, where she won a Silver Logie as the tart-tongued nurse Bron Craig.

Porter says Tanner was a natural fit. "She's so honest and accessible [and] she's got a huge loyal following." Certainly, the aim was to give her a compassionate, yet vulnerable, persona - like Bron - that viewers could embrace.

Grace lives in a beautiful ocean-front home left to her by her parents. Her coma-ridden brother is her last surviving relative. And she harbours a tragic secret - she was having an affair with John, her co-counsellor, who died in the crash.

"The grief is enormous," Tanner says. "She has to hold onto her brother who's spiralling down. The fact that he's killed his mates. But also, she was so in love with [John] and they were just about to come out and tell everybody. There's a lovely flashback scene of him when she visits the tree that he smashed into."

As a counsellor, Grace is intelligent and professional. She doesn't leave much time for her own needs, but Tanner lets slip that she soon finds a new love-interest. Not one of her students, surely? "Grace is supposed to be my age and I'm 35. They're not writing her any younger. They can't," she explodes. "They've seen what I look like at 5 o'clock in the morning. Does Grace have a thing for younger men? Yes, well, I suppose she does."

Tanner's own undergraduate experiences sound like a blast. She studied drama at the University of Ballarat and lived in an old hamburger van with her hippie boyfriend and seven puppies. "I see people wandering around in the story-line saying, 'I've got to get this essay done.' The pain of it! [But] I loved university and it's a bit sad how fast all the years go. I look at the younger cast and think, 'That was me a second ago on Pacific Drive.' "

One of the show's up-and-comers is Walker, a New Zealand-born NIDA graduate. The 26-year-old is perfectly cast as Heath, whose privileged upbringing masks a stilted relationship with his business-tycoon father. The complex state of affairs between Heath and his sister, Sasha, also helps sustain interest early on. "They're very yin and yang," Walker says. "She keeps him smiling and full of energy and he kind of keeps her grounded. He's very protective of her."

Like all the young characters, Heath is an occasional visitor to the counsellors' office. Ever the dutiful sibling, he is worried about his wayward sister, but also reels from a broken heart. "He's a real romantic and just falls in love with people completely," Walker says.

Of course, Seven hopes the various journeys of self-discovery on Headland will have us all diving for the couch - the one in our living rooms, that is. "The show's not just about a car accident," Tanner says. "It's about this fantastic group of people, predominantly students, who are having a really good time. Of course there's intrigue, crime, lust, love - we've got it all. It's great escapism and that's what'll keep people in."

By Alan Mascarenhas
November 14, 2005
Sydney Morning Herald