Kath & Kim: articles

 Jane Turner and Gina Riley

Calling the shots: Kath & Kim creators Jane Turner (left) and Gina Riley.

The power of two

The success of Kath & Kim means Jane Turner and Gina Riley are well in control. By Debi Enker.

THEY’RE back. And if the prepublicity and the level of public excitement is any guide, they’ll be welcomed. But the return of Kath & Kim raises some iSS-yews. Why are they appearing in a telemovie? Have we seen the last of them in multipart series? What does the future hold for the foxy ladies from Fountain Lakes?

Their creators are in no hurry to answer such questions, and they don’t need to be. Gina Riley and Jane Turner have worked themselves into a powerful position. They have written, produced and starred in one of the most popular comedies in Australian television history. Now, they can write their own ticket.

They produce their own projects and work at their own pace. It’s a luxury that would be the envy of anyone in the TV industry. Any network would roll out the red carpet if they requested a meeting.

Another series of Kath & Kim? Yes, please, as soon as you’re ready, ladies. Or perhaps something different? A couple of new characters? Whatever you like: be sure to give us a call.

Following three successful seasons of Kath & Kim on the ABC, Riley and Turner can set their own agenda. They might’ve written another series of Kath & Kim.

Instead, they decided on Da Kath & Kim Code.

When the Kath & Kim machine gets rolling, the women work surrounded by friends and regular collaborators. On-screen, that means Magda Szubanski, Glenn Robbins and Peter Rowsthorn.

Behind the scenes, it involves a compact and well-established crew, and director Ted Emery, who’s worked with the women since their Fast Forward days.

But even having achieved an enviable level of autonomy and built a comfortable working environment, these smart, funny, selfdeprecating women also have the humility and the battle scars to recognise that the ultimate power lies with the audience. Will they watch? Will they like it? Will they want more? Those are the questions that accompany Sunday night’s telemovie.”

It’s great that we have this freedom at the moment,” says Turner. “Hopefully, there will be a market in TV for this show, whatever the form is.”

Riley agrees, “We’re incredibly lucky to be in this position. We have worked for it, but we’re lucky that at this time, we’ve locked on to something that people like,” says Turner, completing the thought.

Beyond the local market, the pair are also watching over the international growth of Kath & Kim, a mother and daughter act that Britons and Americans are now embracing. The first season of the comedy is being repeated on BBC2, prior to the screening of the second season next year. In the US, where the show appears on cable’s Sundance channel, it has attracted a devoted gay fan base.

In New York, snooty shop ladies Prue and Trude are seen not as parodies of classic Armadale or Brighton matrons but as spot-on Upper West Side spoofs.

Following the third season of Kath & Kim in Australia, with a fantasy extravaganza finale that attracted 1.87 million viewers, Riley and Turner decided to take a break.

They weren’t sure that they wanted to make another series, or if the Kath & Kim creative well had run dry and it was better to end on a high.

They agreed to start writing and see what happened. Related activities took them to London to promote the comedy. Travels in Europe made them aware of the booming trade in Da Vinci Code tours. Ever alert to blips in popular culture, they noted this development for future reference.

What crystallised after their travels was the decision to write a telemovie. It would have Kath (Turner) and Kel (Robbins) returning from a Da Vinci Code tour and it would feature a Christmas theme that would enable an emphasis on the enthusiasm that Turner and Riley and their characters share for shopping.

Despite the accolades and the mighty ratings that previous seasons of Kath & Kim have brought, the premiere of any production is accompanied by nerves. The higher you fly, the further you can fall, and there will always be the tall-poppy cutters itching to announce that the heady reign of the high-maintenance hornbags is over. Inevitably, there are also questions about the future: will there be more of Kath & Kim?

Will they now appear only in telemovies?

“We really don’t know,” says Riley. “We’ll see how this goes.

We’ve had a great time doing it and we feel that it’s worked. But ultimately it’s not up to us.”

“You’ve just got to test the water and test the market,” agrees Turner.”

You don’t want to be flogging a dead horse. You have to feel the groundswell of positive vibes, that people are still wanting more. But it also comes down to whether we feel like we’ve got more in us. At the moment, it still feels pretty good.”

Right now, the groundswell is more like a tidal wave. There’s palpable public excitement about the production. It’s an opportunity to renew acquaintances with the first family of Fountain Lakes: Kath Day-Knight, her adored hunk o’spunk hubby, Kel, the perpetually petulant Kim (Riley) and her beleaguered mate, Brett (Rowsthorn), and puppy-dog loyal second best friend, Sharon (Szubanski).

What might occupy the clan for this 90- minute outing remains a closely guarded secret. Riley and Turner are keen to plug any leaks that might spoil the surprises they’ve laced through the story, and trying to prod them for information they don’t wish to reveal is about as useful as trying to get a straight answer out of a politician. They remain friendly but impenetrable.”

“Kim eats Twisties,” Turner offers.

This much can be revealed. The story begins two weeks before Christmas. Kath, predictably, is in a tizz: there’s so much to plan and prepare. Who will bring the lettuce?

Then there’s all the shopping. And so many choices. Which earrings work best? The mini flashing Santas, or the candy canes? At the checkout, the candy canes get the nod: “They’re subtle.”

This is the meat and potatoes of the comedy, classic Kath & Kim territory: an impending event and the all-consuming flurry of nutty activity leading up to it. This time, the event is Christmas, but the comic foundations remain the same: “It’s mountains and molehills,” says Riley about the ways in which trivial decisions balloon out to assume such a prominent place in the characters’ lives.

In addition to the Christmas rush, there are problems in the marital unit: it seems that the newly promoted Brett has acquired a sense of self importance. He may also have pashed someone other than his wife. “Why go out for fillet steak when he’s got sausage meat at home?” demands the disbelieving Kim when news of his rumoured transgression reaches her.

Meanwhile, Sharon appears to be enjoying a new romance.

Finding more activities for these characters, fresh crises for them to muddle through and new things for them to fight over—beyond arguments about who scoffed the last low-fat Fruche—was one of the challenges. Once Riley and Turner decided on a telemovie, things moved fast. According to Riley’s husband, producer Rick McKenna, the telemovie was conceived in May, written in June and July, shot over 16 days in September and October, and in post-production through October and November.

But early in the lightning-fast proceedings, the women discovered that writing a 90-minute telemovie wasn’t like writing three episodes of a series. They share a wry chuckle at their initial notion that it might be easier than writing a whole series: “That was our folly and we were sadly mistaken,” says Riley. “The month before we started shooting we had a bit of a fright and realised it wasn’t quite there yet. Every scene is more important in a long-form than it is in a series. It has to be a lot bigger. And if you’re holding people for that long, those storylines have to have a really satisfying resolution.”

Turner notes, “We approached it in the same way, but we were going a little bit into unexplored territory.

We realised that we had to put in more detail, we had to fine-tune things more, make them ring true and have them building and growing with each scene. We had to have more emotional jeopardy for some characters.”

As they adapted to the demands of a different format, they tried to stay true to the qualities that had drawn viewers to the comedy, the wickedly astute observations of life in the suburbs.

“I think the essential thing is that people want to laugh at themselves, and Kath & Kim gives them a little forum to do that,” says Riley. “But, as always, we love the detail. The plot is merely a device for us to put heaps of little silly observations.”

The skill, she notes, is “that combination of silly observation and a basis in real emotion”. With a grin, Turner adds, “The story is a tree, and we love putting on the baubles.” She pauses for a moment, slides into Kath’s voice and advises, “Use that as you will.”

Those precious baubles, the minutiae of modern life that the women seem to absorb with anthropological aptitude, gives them something that they share with their guest star, Barry Humphries. Weeks after he visited their Patterson Lakes location to film his role (the precise nature of which will be revealed on Sunday night), they remain chuffed at having him as a participant in their comic endeavours. Admiringly citing his satirical assaults on the suburbs as an inspiration, they delight in the pleasure that he took in pottering around Kath and Kel’s house, checking out the bookshelves and peeking into the pantry.

Whatever the future holds for Kath & Kim, it’s clear from watching Riley and Turner at work that they still get a kick out of these characters. On a Monday early in October, the production is on location at the Southland Shopping Centre.

A number of scenes need to be shot in Target before the store opens for business. Fifty extras queue patiently at the checkouts with their trolleys as Riley prepares for Kim to throw a hissy fit over a chocolate bar. Wardrobe chief Kitty Stuckey, who’s responsible for the clothes that so brilliantly define Kath and Kim, hands Turner a wonderfully kitsch denim handbag, made from the top of a pair of blue jeans and dotted with sequins. It goes well with her shirred blue blouse and high-waisted jeans.

Meanwhile Ted Emery is auditioning a couple of toddlers to see who can throw the most convincing tantrum. He gets on to his knees so he’s at eye level to have a chat with three-year-old Nathan Harvey, who’s wearing his Hawthorn footy jumper, and fourand- half-year-old Briana Shiels. The little girl delivers a performance so convincing it would make any parent cringe.

With the required scenes completed on schedule, the crew moves to Santa’s Castle set located in one of the centre’s arcades. The group is so unobtrusive that many shoppers remain unaware that Kath and Kim are in the building.

This is the unofficial “Family Day” on the set. In the line of children waiting patiently to see Santa are Riley’s daughter, Maggie, Turner’s daughter, Anna, and co-producer Laura Waters’ girls, Rachel and Greta. Santa’s Castle is staffed by a dejected elf, played by Judith Lucy, and McKenna, who’s making his Kath & Kim debut as Santa. He’s so convincing that Nathan Harvey sidles up to him with a look of wonder.

The production moves quickly through its schedule. Ladies enjoying their coffee and toasted sandwiches for lunch watch happily as sequences are shot in the arcades, and Szubanski delights some of the onlookers with a vigorous outburst of Sharon-speak. More scenes are filmed in a food court and teenagers wandering in to buy their afterschool snacks are excited to find Kim and Sharon in their midst.

When the pair visit a formal wear hire store, Mark Trevorrow, reprising his snippy shop assistant Daryl, looks down his nose at them.

They move on to a bridal store and it’s here that Sharon has a big scene.

Szubanski pulls out all stops and is hilarious, reducing Riley, many of the crew and most of the assembled shoppers to delighted laughter.

Moving away from his video monitor to congratulate his cast before setting up for the next shot, Ted Emery murmurs appreciatively, “Now that’s comedy.”

By Debi Enker
Photo: Eddie Jim
November 24, 2005
The Age