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Roger Le Mesurier and Roger Simpson

Roger Le Mesurier and Roger Simpson

The two Rogers

The stereotype of the showbiz producer isn't flattering. A smooth operator who's all slick talk and little substance; a shark swimming stealthily through the turbulent waters of the entertainment industry, primed to pounce on an opportunity and maul a competitor, eyes keenly trained on the money, heart hardened to those around him. A flim-flam man. Treacherous, oily, self-serving.

It's an image that couldn't be more remote from the one associated with producer Roger Le Mesurier and writer-producer Roger Simpson, who last week celebrated their 21-year partnership at a black-tie "soiree" in St Kilda. It was a warm-hearted affair and the mood of the room was manifest: in a precarious industry that has its fair share of bad guys, these are the good guys. They produce work that they can be proud of, they treat people well and they even manage to have fun.

Over two decades, the two Rogers have moved from period dramas to contemporary crime stories. Starting in 1982 with the feature Squizzy Taylor, they transferred to television and the-then thriving historical miniseries genre, making Sword of Honour, Nancy Wake, Darlings of the Gods and Snowy. The 13-hour drama about the people working on the Snowy Mountains Scheme tipped them to the marquee potential of Rebecca Gibney and started their fruitful relationship with the Nine Network, where they have since made 21 Halifax f.p. telemovies as well as Stingers, Dogwoman and their favorite, Good Guys, Bad Guys.

In recent years, their field has been crime: "We love the murder-mystery genre," says the genial, grey-bearded Le Mesurier. "We love murdering people." Their recent work has been unabashedly Melbourne-based and it's far removed from their first series, the police drama Skirts, where they were instructed by Seven to avoid any identifying features of the city - "No trams, no river" - for fear they would alienate Sydney viewers. Now, the New Zealand-born Simpson and former Sydneysider Le Mesurier make dramas that showcase the city from an array of angles.

Sometimes, when the time comes to reflect on the career of a successful producer, colleagues duck for cover or request anonymity as they stick the boots in. With the Rogers, there's a queue of collaborators happy to sing their praises. Sue Masters, now head of drama at Network Ten, was the ABC's drama chief when the Rogers' serial, Something in the Air, started and she's now working with them on the pilot telemovie, Life, which could grow into a legal series for Ten. "They both inspire amazing affection," she says. "They mobilise people because they care, because they're always trying to do something fresh. They're attracted to strong writing and they're production-literate. It's a wonderful combination of strengths: Roger Le Mes has a really good script brain and Roger Simpson has got a real writer's soul. For all their bonhomie and jokes, they're very gentle-hearted men who genuinely care about and nurture other people."

It's a view echoed from an actor's perspective by William McInnes who appeared in Snowy and more recently in Halifax. "They're decent chaps,  even if Roger Simpson is a New Zealander," quips McInnes. "There are a lot of good producers in the country, but they're probably more personable than most. Roger Le Mesurier is very jolly and friendly, and Roger Simpson is drier and a bit more withdrawn, but they work terrifically well as a double act."

Director Brendan Maher worked with the pair on Skirts, Halifax and Something in the Air, and won an AFI award for his episode of Good Guys, Bad Guys. The Skirts experience was not one that would necessarily engender camaraderie and it might have ended the fledgling career of a less resilient partnership. Originally commissioned as a gritty 8.30pm, weeknight drama, Skirts was belatedly shoved into a 7.30pm Sunday slot, following Disneyland, and the Rogers were instructed to "hang on to" the family audience. By the time the series was hastily retooled, Skirts had foundered.

The Rogers are now philosophical about the experience but Maher maintains that, even in  rocky times, he felt that his creative contribution was welcomed.  "Many producers see directors and writers as naughty children who have to be controlled," Maher observes. "Simpson Le Mesurier actively encourage you to make a contribution. You're not purely a shot collector. They're involved in every part of the process - scripting, casting, shooting - but you feel safe, you don't feel that someone is going to trample over a product you've worked hard on. And the proof was in the pudding: they allowed more pre-production time and more post-production time. They thought that it was important that a director spend more time on a production and they were willing to pay more to get it."

Maher likens them to the odd couple: "They're both very smart business-wise but Roger Simpson is really energetic, extraordinarily positive, has got 1000 ideas, works in big, broad strokes. Roger Le Mesurier is more low-key and conservative, but not in a traditional sense: he's thorough, more reticent to commit until he's really worked it through for himself. He thinks about the broader ramifications. They're complementary and it's great to have that balance in an editing room, or in a script meeting or casting session."

Maher adds that their business savvy is evident in the way that they deal with the TV networks. "They're reasonable and that's why the networks like them. They have their own sense of what they want the product to be, understanding that the network also has wants and needs."

That's an aspect of the duo that Nine's director of drama, Kris Noble, has experienced. Noble dubbed them Mr Quality and Mr Entertainment in 1993, when they made Snowy, and still maintains that the titles apply equally to both of them. "Initially I found them quite difficult," he recalls. "They wanted to get their way, and I thought, 'Oh, this is a tough match.' There's this jovial front but they're quite tough characters. They're very focused, very professional. A very powerful partnership."

Noble recalls with pleasure their pitch for the Halifax, a telemovies franchise that spans seven seasons and is now poised to morph into a weekly series. "They pitched it to me, I liked it straight away, I pitched it to the network, they liked it, and, with Rebecca in place, we got a sign-off virtually straight away, which was quite unheard of in those days."

Good Guys, Bad Guys, however, had a more convoluted gestation. Nine had agreed to an Equalizer-style crime show starring Marcus Graham as a former military man who used his skills to help people in need. Even though Nine greenlighted the project, the Rogers were dissatisfied with the concept and reworked it, returning with a dry-cleaner named Elvis Maginnis who fell into trouble.

"Nine has been our most successful relationship," says Simpson. "We're very comfortable with that relationship. It's been good for both sides." But there's a sense in which neither he nor his partner can believe that they've been doing this job for over two decades. Sitting in the conference room dotted with awards amid a cluster of red-brick buildings that has constituted their company's base since 1988 - the former North Melbourne police station - they seem pleased and a little surprised to have reached the 21-year milestone.

"I pinch myself because, when I started out in this business, I didn't know what a producer was," says Le Mesurier. "We stumbled from show to show for many years."

And, adds Simpson, in the early days, that was the way they liked it: "We used to feel sorry for Hector Crawford," he grins. "Great big company, all those employees, and having to go to work every day. What attracted us to the business was the gypsy existence. We had a plan to make a movie and when we finished the movie, we sat around saying, 'What are we going to do next?' So we thought, 'Let's do a miniseries.' So we did Sword of Honour. We didn't plan a company. In fact, in those days, we probably would have thought it meant creative death to have a structure. We were too young and stupid and hippy-ish to think about a company. Then we grew up."

If there was a dark period during that coming-of-age, it was the treatment of Something in the Air by the ABC after Sue Masters left. The good humor in the conference room freezes at the memory of the scheduling shift that alienated the audience and effectively killed off the show. While they can be philosophical about the treatment of Skirts, and aren't bitter that Snowy never made it into the second series that was originally envisaged, they regard the serial's treatment as "vandalism".

"If a show's not working and it gets cancelled, we're used to that. It's an occupational hazard," says Simpson. "But when a show's good and has a growing audience, and is getting the figures that were meeting the market research expectations … "

Adds Le Mesurier: "It was just bloodymindedness, people throwing their weight around, trying to pretend that they knew what they were doing, and they didn't have a clue."

"Everybody who worked on it - cast, writers, directors and producers - was treated with contempt," Simpson continues. "Our relationships with our backers are irreparably harmed by that sort of careless ignorance. We lined up $10 million of private investment and it was treated with contempt.

"What was even more outrageous was their own money, which they were willing to throw away. They threatened that if we didn't agree to the change in schedule to Saturday night, the show would  be put on the shelf: they were going to shelve

$16 million worth of production out of spite. That was the sort of people we were dealing with." But, Simpson adds, "there's no joy in Jonathan Shier's demise. The damage is done. He shouldn't have been appointed in the first place."

With that chapter closed but the scars still raw, the Rogers are looking ahead to projects "in development":  the 22-part Halifax series, the fifth season of Stingers; the possibility of  Life as a legal series starring Vince Colosimo and Nicholas Bell.

Their enthusiasm for having a crack at comedy suggests that there might be a sitcom brewing, even though Merle, their 1997 pilot for Ten, didn't pan out. There's an idea for a sci-fi series, although nobody seems keen to touch it: "It isn't hairy monster science-fiction," Simpson explains, "It's more in the Dr Who vein: people-based, futuristic drama." There are a couple of features being contemplated, and there's Townsville, about a female priest attached to Queensland's Lavarack army barracks, in the bottom drawer.

In spite of a full slate and 21 years in business, there's still the niggling fear that it could all end. "There's always that feeling that it could stop," says Le Mesurier. "A few years ago, we had nothing about to happen. Then Stingers got going, we came back with more Halifaxes, and we rolled on."

But while they're rolling, they don't forget to have fun. The Rogers' reputation as enthusiastic lunchers is legendary. "They love a lunch," affirms Kris Noble. "The first few times, I couldn't get them out of the boardroom! They always thought when they came to our boardroom, that's it for the day. They'd come in at 1pm and at 5.30 they were still here. Those were the early '90s. Times have changed, but I remember those days fondly."

Sue Masters concurs: "They're terrific lunchers. The first script meeting I had on Something in the Air, I was shocked when the wine came out at lunch. It had never happened to me before. And they used to have lunch together even when they were terribly poor, when productions were falling over and things were tough. They still managed to meet, have lunch and compare notes, which I think is rather gorgeous."

Their comparing of notes for the 21st anniversary soiree resulted in a jaunty double act of a speech in which the Rogers thanked wives and colleagues and recalled some of their hairier moments: a long-running litigation with a solicitor, tussles with Thames Television over Darlings of the Gods, the pitch to Paramount Pictures in Hollywood that was dismissed before they'd even had time to finish their cups of tea. But in a line that summed up both the mood of the night and the character of the company that they've built, Le Mesurier concluded, "It's been a wonderful ride."

Simpson and Le Mesurier reflect on…

Sword of Honour (1986, mini-series starring Andrew Clarke and Tracey Mann about Australia during the Vietnam War): "Unemployment to credibility, an important breakthrough."

Nancy Wake (1987, biographical miniseries starring Noni Hazlehurst as the fiesty Australian war heroine): "A great Australian and a great adventure for us making it in Australia and France."

Darlings of the Gods (1989, miniseries dramatisation of the volatile relationship of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier): "Our first international co-production. We're proud of the result, but it was hard to do while Laurence Olivier was alive, and you're always wary of co-productions."

Skirts (1989, police series that starred Tracey Mann and Nicholas Bell): "Our first chance to make on ongoing series, and a really good idea, but stuffed by bad programming."

Snowy (1993, 13-part drama about the people who assembled to work on the Snowy Mountain Scheme): "The beginning of our relationship with Rebecca Gibney. We told the story too slowly, we didn't get down the tunnels quickly enough. It might have been slightly ambitious, a bit too hard to pull off, and, in retrospect, we could've managed that better."

Halifax f.p.  (1995, Rebecca Gibney as a cool, blonde forensic psychiatrist: "We love it. It's been fantastic for Rebecca and we love the murder-mystery genre."

Good Guys Bad Guys (1996, comedy-drama series starring Marcus Graham as a reluctant crime-fighting dry cleaner): "We love that one too. We're sorry it didn't go on, we think it could've and should've."

Something in the Air (1998, rural serial) "Too angry to answer. Our greatest tragedy."

Stingers (1998, undercover cop drama): "Five series speaks for itself. Bloody good television. Strong cast, been a good show."

Dogwoman (2000, Magda Szubanksi in a trio of telemovies as a dog lover with a nose for crime-solving): "In a sense, probably more Magda's project than ours, but we were delighted to make it with her. Ambitious, expensive, hard-to-make television. It's probably like Snowy: hugely ambitious. But we're proud of it and it's done well."

By Debi Enker
November 29, 2001
The Age