Jessica: acticles

It's a dud. Period

Bryce's baddies bore on but Bill still thrills, finds Ruth Ritchie.

Bryce Courtenay's world must be a satisfyingly simple one. It's easy to recognise the baddies because they carry guns, shoot black people, make racist remarks at every opportunity and treat family members worse than any stepmother ever cooked up by the brothers Grimm.

Good guys work very hard, with their hands. They mostly have dirty faces but nice teeth. They're kind, tolerant and amiable. They love black people, hate guns and appear to be infinitely forgiving of their terrible relatives.

In between are victims and waifs. The victims are easily identified because they are usually maimed. The waifs are mostly drunk or dirty or illiterate, or just plain forgivably weak and hopeless. Everybody else watches, without dialogue, their world spin on the dastardly deeds and moral high ground of the key players.

It was easy to spot the goodies, baddies and silent partners in Jessica (Ten, Sunday, Monday). But there was no explaining why some members of the same family were saints and others twirled the mo more than Snidely Whiplash. And that's just the women. In a neat and tidy move, every woman except for Jessica (Leeanna Walsman) was a complete and utter cow.

The wickedest witch of them all was the hero's mother (Heather Mitchell). Following the time-honoured clues (red hair, bad attitude), Mitchell's character was vile to everybody, especially those she could humiliate and exploit. All the better if they were black and/or maimed. Mitchell would have shot the entire cast if she'd hung around long enough. Her drip of a son and his dirty-faced, brave, dreary girlfriend Jessica would have been goners, but sadly one of the poor maimed characters got up on his hind legs and shot her, quite early on Sunday night, and then we knew we were in for a long and bloody awful journey.

Why is a project like Jessica such a dud? High production values, good cast, a decent enough budget to get horses and drays in nearly every scene, and yet… People like Sam Neill, John Howard and Tony Martin (along with all the wonderfully wicked witches of the cast) don't set out to make a corny period drama.

Arguably the best television drama produced anywhere in the world involves bonnets and horses. The bar keeps rising. Pride and Prejudice, Hornblower, The Forsyte Saga provide dazzling proof that the genre is better than alive and kicking. Classic works of literature are getting another lease on life with a Merchant-Ivory approach to meticulous adaptation. And perhaps that's the problem. Diehard fans will be shocked to learn that this critic simply doesn't rate Courtenay with Austen, Dickens and Trollope.

It might have been a good yarn, on the page, but on the screen Jessica has more fleas than the wardrobe that might have been dusted off from All the Rivers Run, Picnic at Hanging Rock, My Brilliant Career and I Wore a Lot of Lacy Underwear in Very Hot Weather.

Goodies and baddies have dominated the small screen since Gunsmoke and Dragnet. Did our judgement become more black and white with the introduction of black and white TV, or is oversimplification just the silent partner of the ad break?

Without an ad, and barely an edit, Andrew Denton's meeting with William Jefferson Clinton gave an insight into a character far too complex for any Courtenay saga. This interview, shot in London during a gruelling press tour of Clinton's autobiography, wasn't your standard episode of Enough Rope (Monday, ABC, repeated Wednesday). Neither was it a standard promotional pitch.

Denton did well to lean hard on Rwanda and go easy on Monica. Neither sycophantic nor scandalising, his approach gave the ex-president an opportunity to think, listen and speak, all at once. We got the emotional, thoughtful man. We got the 24-carat statesman and his keenly observed recollections of Yeltsin, Arafat, Mandela and the rest of the cast on the world stage. We got regret, philosophy and intelligent optimism.

He balanced tactful diplomacy on the war in Iraq with some strong criticism of the Supreme Court regarding the Gore/Bush election decision. After about 15 minutes of outrageously articulate ruminations I found myself thinking, Hey, this guy is good. He should be, like, I dunno, leader of the most powerful nation in the Western world. At the risk of entering Bryce Courtenay's wonderfully monochromatic world of goodies and baddies, the contrast between Clinton and his successor is stunning. It would be comical if it weren't so disastrous.

In the minutes that followed on Monday, Lateline's Tony Jones interviewed Mark Latham. He compared the one-time governor of Arkansas to the one-time mayor of Liverpool. Even Latham got a laugh out of that one. Although he was a little hazy on the financial situation at Liverpool Council a decade ago, Latham appears to be one of the good guys. He wasn't holding a gun, exploiting the maimed and the drunk or shooting any black people. Not on Lateline, anyway.

By Ruth Ritchie
July 24, 2004
Sydney Morning Herald

Leeanna Walsman

Leeanna Walsman as Jessica Bergman.

Period piece

The students of Millthorpe Public School are agog. Sam Neill, the star of Jurassic Park, is standing in the main street of their historic village trying to haul his dishevelled, drunken body on to a horse. Propelled into the saddle by two blacksmiths, Neill holds the reins with unsteady hands. His ruined nose is the colour of claret and his suit appears to have been trampled by cattle.

“Well, good-day and giddy-up,” says the actor, who is playing an alcoholic English barrister called Richard Runche. He shakes the reins and sways unsteadily on his way.

Someone yells “Cut!” and the spell is broken. Technicians in jeans and T-shirts leap forward to adjust period costumes and fake moustaches. The illusion that Millthorpe, a village 250 kilometres west of Sydney, has slipped back in time to the early 1900s is shattered.

Neill dismounts—in real life he’s an able horseman—and strolls towards the excited kids. He signs a few autographs, poses for photographs and adjusts his bow-tie. “How did you get out of school today?” he inquries jovially. “Aren’t you supposed to be doing English or Maths?”

The historic village of Millthorpe is usually a quiet place. But in March last year it played a starring role in Jessica, the Channel Ten miniseries based on Bryce Courtenay’s novel of the same name. The book is set in and around the Riverina town of Narrandera in the early part of the last century. The filmmakers wanted to shoot nearer to Sydney and Millthorpe’s quaint Pym Street was chosen to impersonate Narrandera circa 1910. Stripped of any trace of modernity, it was decorated with hay bales, vintage bicycles and advertisments for long-forgotten products such as Flumis and Cooper’s Powder Dip. The transformation was completed when an obliging local council covered the bitumen with 30 tonnes of dirt.

Jessica is an ambitious project. A sweeping four-hour period drama (it will be shown in two installments on consecutive nights) about a young woman’s harsh, turbulent life in rural NSW, it stars Neill and 24-year old Leeanna Wallsman as the feisty Jessica Bergman.

Jessica is that reliable literary contradiction, the gorgeous tom boy. She works the land with her father Joe (Tony Martin) and blows the heads off brown snakes with a shotgun. Yet even filthy moleskins and a battered hat can’t disguise her natural beauty, particularly when the sun obligingly backlights her blonde curls.

Jessica’s mother Hester (Lisa Harrow) has all the compassion of Lady Macbeth. A volatile mix of ambition and resentment, she takes no interest in Jessica. Hester is determined her favourite daughter Meg (Megan Dorman) will marry Jack Thomas (Oliver Ackland), the region’s most eligible bachelor and will stop at nothing to get her way.

The result is a fast-moving story with more twists than a garden hose. There are bloody murders, a secret love affair and stunning reversals of fortune. Three court cases—each filmed in the old courthouse in the nearby village of Carcoar—shape destinies and strengthen the friendship between Jessica and her one ally, Runche. There’s even a Stolen Generation subplot.

It all adds up to what director Peter Andrikidis calls “a great Australian yarn”.

“Some of it supposed to be based on fact,” says Andrikidis, whose credits include the Thredbo disaster drama Heroes’ Mountain and the ABC’s Grass Roots. “There’s no fat in the script. It moves at a cracking pace.”

That pace and the story’s see-sawing emotions present a real challenge for the actors. Wallsman, who came to notice in the 2000 movie Looking for Alibrandi, admits as much during a brief break from shooting.

“As an actor it’s terrifying because every couple of scenes there is an epic moment,” she says. “She [Jessica] experiences absolute unbelievable happiness through to absolute unbelievable despair and sadness …”

Not that it discouraged her. Wallsman was rehearsing a Sydney Theatre Company play when Jessica went into production, but the overlapping schedule didn’t dampen her enthusiasm.

“As soon as I read the script I decided I wanted to do it,” she says. “I hadn’t read a female role like that for ages. It’s her determination. Even in this day and age there aren’t many people who will stand by what they really think. She barrels through regardless of the consequences.”

The man responsible for this rollercoaster ride is Peter Yeldham. He’s written more than a dozen miniseries, including 1984’s All the Rivers Run and 1987’s Captain James Cook. The costly historical drama genre fell out of favour with the networks in the ‘90s, so Yeldham relished the rare chance to revist it.

“It gives you a chance to explore characters in real depth,” he says. “I think it’s harder when the book is well loved. You have to make changes and people who know the book will see those changes. [The screenplay’s] faithful to the character of Jessica rather than the book, but Bryce has read it and was happy with the result.”

Back on Pym Street, Andrikidis is preparing to shoot a scene in which Runche staggers past a stall signing up recruits for the Great War. Standing under a banner that reads “Fight for God and Country” he utters a few disparaging remarks about the distant conflict and lurches towards the hotel. Millthorpe’s brass band march by in silence—the sound will be added later—and some of the production’s 60 extras mill in the background.

“The only acting I’ve done before is acting the goat,” laughs Darryle Wenban, 51, a bricklayer from Orange, who became a Jessica extra after answering an advertisment in a local newspaper. Wenban’s impressive beard is his own. His mate Keith Ryan, a 33-year-old labourer from Millthorpe, required a false moustache to complete his period look.

Location manager Annelies Norland says she got a huge response from locals eager to appear in the production. The hardest thing was finding older women with long hair—the prevailing style of the period.

Norland points out that this kind of period drama is expensive to make. The lack of a major Australian repository of hire costumes means they have to be custom-made locally or imported. Antique props are also expensive and horses aren’t always the most cooperative actors when you’re battling the clock. You can understand why Jessica’s $7.2 million budget only allowed a brisk eight-week shoot.

Norland said authenticity was paramount, despite the tight budget.

“We weren’t trying to create an English period drama,” she said. “It would have been a dusty, dirty environment and we used a lot of spray to make actors look hot and sweaty.”

Director of photography Joe Pickering has similar concerns. He realised the countryside around Millthorpe was too verdant to pass for the drought-affected Nerrandera described in Courtenay’s book. As a result, the colours in Pickering’s images were “browned-out” during post-production.

As the shadows lengthen down Pym Street, Sam Neill—finally released from duty—strolls into the catering tent. Close inspection reveals capillary in his florid complexion to be the microscopic work of a make-up artist.

“This is a very big story, but it’s been [adapted] very skilfully,” he says. “You have to come to work prepared.”

Does he like the decrepit Runche?

“I don’t know if he’s likeable or not,” he says with the trace of a smile. He’s just a terrible old reprobate.”

By Richard Jinman
July 15, 2004
The Age

Jessica wins two major awards in Chicago

The Screentime-produced mini-series Jessica, starring Leeana Walsman and Sam Neill, has won two major awards at the 40th Chicago Film Festival in the US. Jessica, which will screen on Network Ten later this year, won the Silver Plaque for Best Mini-Series and director Peter Andrikidis received the top award, the Silver Hugo, for Best Achievement in Direction.

Jessica is the dramatisation of an extraordinary life based on the best-selling novel by Bryce Courtenay. It is a sweeping saga of love, deceit and sacrifice set during the early years of the twentieth century in the farmlands around Narrandera — then a small frontier town in rural New South Wales.

Jessica was produced by Screentime with Geneva-based Powercorp who retain worldwide distribution rights, and financiers Network Ten Australia, the Film Finance Corporation of Australia, The Movie Network and the NSW Government through the New South Wales Film & Television Office.

Executive Producers are Des Monaghan and Bob Campbell for Screentime and Justin Bodle and Nick Witkowski for Powercorp, producer is Anthony Buckley (The Potato Factory, Heroes’ Mountain, Caddie).

Additional cast include Lisa Harrow (The Last Days of Chez Nous, Kavanagh QC, Come In Spinner), John Howard (Always Greener, SeaChange) and Tony Martin (Blue Murder, Wildside).

release from TM Publicity for Screentime
May 2004