Kath & Kim: articles

Turner and Riley

We are family

Long-term writing partners Gina Riley and Jane Turner have turned their enduring mother-daughter act into a sitcom with a difference. Debi Enker reports from the set of Kath & Kim.

Magda Szubanski is laughing and she can't stop. In the master bedroom of a mock-Colonial Melbourne house, Szubanski and Jane Turner are shooting a scene for the new ABC comedy series Kath & Kim. But every time Szubanski attempts a deep, calming breath, she takes one look at Turner's face and cracks up again.

Written and executive produced by Turner and co-star Gina Riley, the eight-part comedy develops the trio of characters that first appeared in 1995's Big Girl's Blouse. Szubanski is Sharon, a pathologically accident-prone netballer. Riley is Kim, who regards Sharon as her second-best friend. And Turner is Kim's mum, Kath, who's attempting to explain to Sharon her reasons for staging a lingerie party. Kath hopes the proceeds from the sale of lacy lime-green teddies and luridly coloured G-strings will finance the Cinderella-style pumpkin coach planned as a feature of her impending wedding to Kel the butcher (Glenn Robbins).

But Magda's attack of the giggles refuses to abate, despite mock-stern warnings from Turner. "Here comes Ted," is the call as director Ted Emery's footsteps are heard on the stairs. Because the space in the bedroom is so tight, he'd been watching from a monitor downstairs. Looking abashed, but still laughing, Szubanski pretends to hide in the walk-in wardrobe. Time is tight on this 6 1/2-week shoot—things move fast and delays are frowned upon.

But when the lanky Emery enters the room, he's not frowning. He's worked with these women before on Fast Forward, where characters such as Pixie-Anne Wheatley and Kerri-Anne Kennel made them nationally celebrated performers. He knows better than to read the riot act. Instead, he clears the room of everyone but the cameraman and restructures the scene, allowing Turner to deliver her lines in close-up and leave, so he can shoot Szubanski's responses when she's caught her breath.

The incident is handled with a minimum of fuss, in an easy-going manner that typifies the whole production. It's not that Turner, Riley and co aren't working hard or fast; it's just that they're also having fun. It's an amiable set. There's a lot of consultation about timing, movement and delivery, and, as Riley notes, a director who wasn't comfortable with his cast (who are, after all, also the writers and executive producers) "putting in our two bobs' worth" might find the process frustrating.

The genial tone is reflected in the day's call sheet. These yellow pages are the production's bible. They contain information on everything scheduled to happen on set: maps of locations, props required, visitors expected, what time the actors are due on location and who will collect them. Some days, there's a "please note" addendum: it might warn crew members of parking restrictions or public holidays. Today it reads: "There are four types of cheese in a quatro-fromage pasta."

The shoot is unusual in appearance as well as atmosphere. There are no tripods, banks of lights or tangles of snaking cables. Kath & Kim adopts a reality-TV style, as though a camera crew had set up in Kath's Fountain Lakes home and recorded the action: the incessant bickering, the routine mangling of language, the occasional use of "the good room", the exercise, eating and TV-watching regimes. It's filmed with hand-held cameras and utilises natural light wherever possible.

Kath made her TV debut in Fast Forward, delivering wedding speeches. But the mother-and-daughter act that was born in Big Girl's Blouse owes its inspiration to sources as diverse as Sylvania Waters, Weddings, the character comedy of Absolutely Fabulous and some newlyweds Riley met on Dunk Island years ago.

Since then, the squabbling female family—with the ever-present Sharon as a surrogate daughter—has been perpetually preparing for a major life event. Inevitably, this will involve a lot of shopping. In Big Girl's Blouse, they planned Kim's wedding. Three years later, on Something Stupid, Kim was pregnant. Now it's Kath's turn to fret about bridal wear and floral arrangements. Baby Britanny, who annoyed her self-obsessed mother only briefly in Something Stupid, has been jettisoned between shows. "We didn't want to work with babies," quips Turner, a mother of three.

Instead, they pick up the story two months after Kim's wedding to besotted computer geek Brett (Peter Rowsthorn). Unimpressed by his treatment of her—"I'm not a housewife, I'm a hornbag!" she wails indignantly—Kim has flounced home, where her mother had been making the most of her freedom as an empty nester. Now the sulky, endlessly snacking Kim has deposited herself in front of the TV, rising only to raid the pantry and moan about Brett's latest transgression.

Although Kim sees herself as a hornbag, Riley describes her petulant princess character as a "whinge bag". Her dual inspirations for "life denier" Kim were a disgruntled prospective bride on Weddings, who responded with "I hate it" whenever she was presented with an option, and the forementioned Dunk Island newlyweds. There, the bride was such a wet blanket that her husband confided to his fellow holiday-makers: "My friends call her Mona because all she does is complain."

By contrast, Kath is a busy bee, happily buzzing between exercise sessions and shopping trips. Wound tight as the curls of her blonde perm, Kath prides herself on being "high maintenance" and is besotted with Kel, the man who has been productively exploring her many nooks and crannies. "Kath is a very neat person," says Turner, who slips into Kath's flat, grating drawl as soon as she starts talking about her. (On set earlier on the day of Magda's giggles, Riley had quipped that only dull women have clean houses.) "Kath looks after herself," says Turner continuing in character. "She keeps herself noice [nice], watches what she eats."

Priding herself on being a thoroughly modern woman, Kath's found her soul mate in a man who also appreciates fitness, "foin woins" (fine wines), '80s music and matching jumpers. Turner says affectionately that Kel is a "a real SNAG". In fact, he's so snaggy that by episode three he's been inspired to invent a commemorative sausage to mark their impending nuptials.

The women agree Robbins, like many of their guest-starring friends (including Marg Downey, Tony Martin, Daina Reid and Mark Trevorrow), shares their comic sensibility and his character and Rowsthorn's are rendered with surprising affection. They're daggy, with a hint of inappropriate swagger, but, far from being objects of derision, they're sweet natured and utterly devoted to their women.

"There's no mean side to either of them," observes Turner.

"Yes," Riley concurs with a sly grin. "We've been a lot more generous than many male writers have been to us."

"Although they don't get a lot of funny lines," Turner adds.

"No, we've taken the lion's share!" Riley beams.

As Riley, 40, and Turner, 41, discuss their comic creations, it's easy to see how the creative sparks fly between them. They lapse easily into Kath and Kim's idiom, with accents so strong they make Crocodile Dundee sound posh. They fire off each other, embellishing thoughts, finishing the other's sentences, relishing each other's humour. Riley is prone to hearty guffaws while Turner fires off dry quips. Both are wickedly accurate mimics and, as their comedy has demonstrated, keen and caustic observers of contemporary culture.

When they write, one talks and the other types. They met more than 20 years ago at St Martin's Youth Art Centre and, Riley recalls: "We knew then that we had the same sense of humour and made each other laugh. We started writing sketches on Fast Forward but we didn't really work much as a pair then. That really happened in Big Girl's Blouse.

Of all the characters they've created, it was this pair that cried out for more screen time. "In Big Girl's Blouse, they always felt like the characters who had more depth than those in the other sketches," Riley says. "They're the ones who were busting to get out. We had millions of ideas. We knew these characters really well."

Turner agrees they could "talk about anything with these characters, go anywhere and be Kath and Kim in any situation. We didn't think they were one-dimensional; they had enough depth and material in them to sustain a series." And, she adds, it wasn't as though they were writing about subjects with which they felt little connection. "It's our lives," Turner grins. "Shopping, dieting, worrying about being fat, relationships."

"It's about the tiny issues of life," Riley adds.

"But in being about the tiny, it's actually about the major issues of life," Turner qualifies. "Love, relationships, family."

Riley: "But that's channelled through mountains and molehills. That's how we've always seen them, that they make mountains out of molehills. And that's what fills all our lives, I think."

Turner: "That's what life's about."

"Life is about molehills," Riley concludes.

While the women agree that their comedy is about everything and nothing, at one unhappy stage last year, 15 months of development threatened to come to nothing. It happened during the dark days of the Shier administration, when independent producers were bruised from their dealings with ABC management. Just days before they were due to start production in March, after Riley had relocated to Melbourne with her husband and daughter, the ABC pulled the plug on the project. Mention of that time produces an uncomfortable silence.

"You know what the ABC was like for much of last year," says Turner after a pause. "It was in turmoil. Everyone was immobilised and we got caught up in that. It was shocking. We just thank God that Sandra Levy took over as head of television and that Robyn Kershaw came into the drama department and things got back on the rails."

Having put Kath & Kim back on track, Riley and Turner now hope they'll be embraced by the public, though they're aware recent attempts at situation comedy have failed to win over viewers. As a result, Riley and Turner have decided to follow their comedy instincts rather than go by the book.

"A lot of people will tell you how to write," Riley says. "We might be wrong, but I don't see a lot of people writing brilliant sitcoms, so why go by the book?"

"And ours is not strictly a sitcom," adds Turner. "It's sort of a breaking-the-mould type of show. It's sort of reality-television-situation-comedy, but it's more a comedy show than a situation comedy. It's character comedy, in the way that Ab Fab is."

And like Ab Fab, they hope Kath & Kim will leave an indelible impression on viewers. That, they agree, would be really noice.

It's life, but not as we know it

A guide to Kath and Kim's world

* Gina Riley sings the Shirley Bassey-style song The Joker over the opening credits.

* Sharon is Kim's second-best friend.

Her best friend is Tina, who is present, but unseen, at the hair eisteddfod in episode two.

* Sharon has a fresh injury in each episode: eye patch, neck brace, wrist bandage, burns to the feet acquired while attempting motivational fire walking.

* Sharon's world view: "The sooner you realise that all men are bastards and develop an interest in sport, the happier you'll be."

* The foods in Kath's kitchen is both strange and familiar. The ABC can't be seen to promote products, so the art department worked overtime. Watch out for Jabbah French Alps coffee powder, Glad Rap and tins of CPS diced tomatoes and ESP baked beans.

Mangling the language

Kath and Kim's way with words

* Kim's marriage has foundered because she hasn't had enough time to sew her rolled oats.

* Kath announcing she's hungry: "I'm ravishing."

* Kim explaining why married life on Brett's salary is unsatisfactory: "I want to be effluent, Mum, effluent."

* Kim's description of feeling angry: "I'm gropeable."

* "Specifically" is always pronounced "pacifically."

By Debi Enker
May 13, 2002