Kath & Kim: articles

Backyard bliss

The foxymorons of Fountain Lakes are turning the suburban dream into a global phenomenon. Michael Idato reports.

In its youth, Kath & Kim was merely a sketch, threadbare but ripe with possibility, played with the kind of joyous mischief you might find in a game of lounge-room charades. Now, sold to Britain, the US and Europe, with DVD box sets and its own line of merchandise, it returns to the ABC for a fourth outing—this one a telemovie—as a bona fide juggernaut.

At its heart, however, not much has changed since Jane Turner, Gina Riley and Magda Szubanski first breathed life into Kath, Kim and Sharon in a wedding planner sketch for the 1994 series Big Girl’s Blouse. “We don’t have the great world domination plan, I’m afraid,” says Riley, who plays self-centred Kim. “We just take it one show at a time and do what feels right for the show.”

Still, it is not surprising that commercial TV came knocking, hoping to spirit the foxymorons of Fountain Lakes away from the ABC. “We weren’t always honour bound to go to the ABC,” says Jane Turner, who plays the daffy, but lovable, Kath. “But we had developed the first series there, and made the second and third, which is not to say we wouldn’t have been comfortable at a commercial network. There was just no reason to go.”

Following the success of the first three series of Kath & Kim, Riley and Turner, who write the series, took a break at the beginning of this year, intending to return to Fountain Lakes, but unsure where to start. “We knew we’d probably left it too late to write a complete series,” Turner says. “And we wanted to write something in the winter and shoot in the warmer months, having last year shot in the winter when it was freezing.”

So Riley and Turner decided to write a telemovie instead, a significant change of gear for the characters, and a serious challenge for them. “We thought writing a telemovie would be like writing three episodes. Little did we know…” Riley says, laughing. “It was quite a different experience.”

In one sense, Turner adds, it isn’t much different from writing a single—albeit long—episode, “with much bigger stories for the characters”.

The result is a telemovie, Da Kath & Kim Code, which opens as Kath and Kel (Glenn Robbins) return from a Da Vinci Code package tour of Europe to prepare for the Christmas holiday, and promises “intrigue, love, suspense, revenge and denial”.

Turner hints that the film may break one of the traditional rules of situation comedy—that characters must never change, returning to their emotional start position at the end of every episode. “In this one, some people actually change and they could change forever. The stakes are higher,” she says.

In a series, Riley says, you have to “hold it in for the eight episodes. For this, we could just go for it and whatever happens, happens. You can make it big, and go on that arc without holding back.”

For Riley and Turner it represents an opportunity to shake the tree a little, a change from playing the same riff, as hysterically funny as that same riff might be. “Sometimes you think, I wish I could change her a bit more. But at the same time, you know that is where their comedy is coming from and that is where their heart and soul is and it’s always going to be there,” Turner says.

The joy is finding new layers to the characters, Riley says, “latching onto something that feels absolutely right for that character, something you have never seen that character do before. That’s the really exciting thing.”

With the script written, the challenge was to deliver a telemovie to the ABC before the end of this year. As well as writing and starring in Kath & Kim, Riley and Turner are also co-producers, with Laura Waters and Rick McKenna (Riley’s husband).

The shoot was intense, Riley says. “We had a couple of very huge things that we’ve never had before—big routines and big moments that took longer than we thought to shoot. It was a little hairy for a minute there in the first week because we thought we’d over-committed ourselves.”

But as producers the experience was fantastic, Turner says. “It was so satisfying to see all the elements and the cogs and the wheels churning really smoothly. Those big shoots went so well, it was great as producers to feel that everyone had put 100 per cent into the day.”

Neither will discuss those “big shoots” in detail, preferring to keep the film’s twists and turns a secret. What is known is that Australian comedian Barry Humphries and Canadian crooner Michael Buble appear in the film. Newspaper reports that Elton John also appears seem less concrete.

There are rumours it is a holiday movie (not difficult to believe, given it opens two weeks before Christmas) and possibly a road movie (less likely). “Well, Kel does go for a walk along the road,” Riley says, laughing. “Kim does drive my Barina,” Turner says. “I think that’s about as road as it gets,” Riley says. But, Turner says, “some overseas elements are involved. We’ve gone global.”

Indeed they have. The series has been sold to a raft of countries, including New Zealand, Singapore, Finland, Canada, Ireland and the US. In Britain, it screens on BBC2, which has launched some of the best recent comedies, including Absolutely Fabulous and The Office.

There is a belief, certainly within Australia, that Kath & Kim’s success stems from the way it taps something innately Australian and shrouds it in the dark, disturbing cloak of our suburban souls. In fact, Riley and Turner concede, feedback from foreign audiences suggests that might be a fallacy.

“England, America, Europe, Holland in particular … they totally get it,” Turner says. “They are such types—the try-hard wife, the princess spoiled daughter, the doormat husband.” Fans, Riley says, regularly say “that’s my family. We get that all over the world now. It’s universal.”

More boldly, talks are under way to adapt the series in several countries, replacing Kath and Kim with local equivalents, much in the same way Prisoner became Hinter Gittern (Germany) or Mother and Son became Keeping Mum (UK), Gloem inte mamma! (Sweden) and Pas pa mor (Denmark). “If it happens we would like to see the essence of the show retained,” Riley says. It would become its own show, Turner says. “We can’t see it being detrimental to the original Kath & Kim and it would be exciting to see what another country will do with it.”

Either way, a fifth outing in Australia seems inevitable. And Riley and Turner have no objection. “Like I said, there is absolutely no world domination plan. We will see how this goes,” Riley says. “We had a fantastic time doing this, we enjoyed the writing and the performing of it, and if the audience really likes it, then maybe there’s life in the old girl yet.”

Da Kath & Kim Code airs on the ABC on Sunday at 8.30pm.

By Michael Idato
November 21, 2005
The Sydney Morning Herald