love is a four letter word: articles

Tough love

It's not often that an Australian drama can be described as "cubist". Traditional in style and linear in structure, the current crop inspires different sorts of descriptions: like solid for Blue Heelers or stolid for All Saints; perhaps flinty for Stingers, and whimsical for SeaChange.

But cubist?

Actor and musician Peter Fenton, who earned acclaim for his first feature role in 1998's Praise and plays one of the leads in love is a four letter word, is responsible for the description of the new ABC series. "There are many things happening from different angles and it's a real mix of styles," he explains. "It's funny and it's got real drama, heavy emotion and light emotion. It isn't a love story that has Vaseline crowding the lens: it's a love story, which is funny and painful. It's clever and has a nice punch to it."

Over a lunch of takeaway Thai noodles at the ABC's Sydney studios in Gore Hill, Fenton and his vivacious co-star, Kate Beahan (Chopper), are trying to define the 26-part series that represents a major commitment for ABC drama, albeit one that was made before respected drama chief, Sue Masters, departed for Network Ten.

Like the show's writers and its producer, Rosemary Blight, the actors find it's not a production that's easy to define in a neat, high-concept nutshell. "Political comedy drama," is the way Michael Miller, who created the series with Shelley Birse, describes it. Former GP and Wildside writers Miller and Birse developed the series over two years with colleagues who also trained in the ABC drama department, Ellie Beaumont and Matt Ford.

"We've seen so many cop shows, so many medical shows and courtroom dramas," says Beaumont. "Yeah," adds Miller. "That's where we've come from: the murder of the week, the disease of the week. We worked together on those shows and always wanted to do something that related more to us and our world and the things that we experience."

"I'd say it's comedy meets drama," ventures Beaumont. "I worry about saying 'political' because it makes us sound really earnest, as though we've got an axe to grind. We're hoping that it's subtle and that the politics are delivered with humor. It's not didactic, it's not a big tirade."

The politics that the writers are referring to is a culture-versus-commerce clash that is a key theme through the series. Primarily, it's played out in the battle over the Courthouse Hotel, which is part-owned by Angus (Fenton) and his lover, Albee (Beahan).

With its etched glass windows, heritage green walls, wood-panelled bar and faded carpet, the Courthouse is a vision of an old-style local pub. Angus wants it to be a community gathering place and a venue for live music, a showplace for local bands. What he is determined it won't be is another soulless outpost for big-business interests pushing poker machines. For Angus, the one-armed bandits represent a dire social evil, not only in their promotion of gambling but also through the economic reality that they represent. Their installation enables pub owners to cut staff and spare themselves the expense of providing other forms of entertainment. If patrons are busy drinking and plugging their coins into the slots, the pub's essential role, as a place for social interaction, is lost.

The culture clash is also explored through Albee's job as a literary editor at Blue Bear Publishing. "The fact that Albee works in a publishing company allows us to explore the political agendas there as well as in the pub," says Beaumont. Adds Miller: "She wants to publish a good book, but she's under pressure to put out more sporting biographies, and bloody cook books with CDs."

The creative team behind the show is keen for it to provide a sharp-shooting snapshot of its times and to create full-blooded characters that will resonate with an audience. They have deployed a melange of styles to achieve that end. love is € blends comedy and drama; it combines the characters' reality with fantasy and daydream interludes; it mixes standard video tape production with sequences shot in a noticeably different style on Sony mini DV cameras. It has a music number in every episode and the lineup of bands performing in the series includes The Dumb Earth, Machine Gun Fellatio, Endorphin and The Whitlams.

Defying neat description, love is a four letter word is supposed to be messy, like life. There are highs and lows, fun times and tragedy, and the course of love, work and family relations is not destined to run smoothly.

What is clear, however, is that the series is intended to be about twentysomethings and their struggles to find their way in the world, to be happy, fulfilled human beings, engaged in work that doesn't conflict with their values and involved in relationships that light up their lives.

It's a show that the ABC hopes will attract viewers younger than its traditional constituency and, in that respect, it's easy to understand why it invites comparisons with the BBC's This Life. In the late '90s, the BBC commissioned onetime "rave consultant" and lawyer Amy Jenkins to create a show about her generation, to depict the social and professional trials and tribulations facing people in her age group. Its cult success was credited with making the BBC "seem cool again".

Clearly, Auntie also hopes for a whiff of cutting-edge cool and that love is € will be its own House of Hip.

"We all loved This Life, though we're not making This Life," says producer Rosemary Blight. "What we liked about it was that the characters were drawn so beautifully. You went into their world and you stayed there. And it was a world that gave us a type of television and a representation of a generation that we don't often get. The writers have taken what they loved about This Life and put it into a world that they know really well.

"They're depicting a time of life when you can have everything that you want. But when you get everything you want, you think, 'Do I really want it?' As one of the writers said, 'We're allowed to be gay, or we can be straight; we can get married, or not get married; we can do it on the Internet, we can do it through interactive.' There are all these options, and we look at how that impacts on the raw, day-to-day reality of living your life."

Interestingly, the writers, who are thankful for the broad brief and creative latitude that they have been afforded by the ABC, have chosen to locate their turn-of-the-millennium twentysomethings at the rather old-fashioned Courthouse Hotel. Under the guardianship of the gallantly struggling Angus, it's a defiantly traditional establishment. No gourmet pizzas on the menu. No trendy, Wallpaper*-inspired interior design.

"We wanted the warm Melbourne pub feel," says Miller. "That's what pubs originally were about, people getting together." However, the irony of the approach isn't lost on the writers. "It's pretty funny," says Beaumont. "They said to us, 'Write a show about young funky people', and we've all written about the old world being so great and the desire to go back to that. Let's go back to pubs where people talked to each other, let's go back to when people played the piano, let's go back to when people used to read books and care about the book, instead of the cover.

"Here we are being told, write young and funky, and probably our grandparents would really enjoy some of the themes of the show," she says, quickly adding that some of its sex, drugs 'n' rock and roll impetus might also have Granny choking on her Horlicks.

"My grandparents would be horrified," Miller notes dryly.

Like Cheers, where everyone knows your name, the Courthouse is a community centre: "It's a warm place," says Rosemary Blight. "The pub is the heart of the story and it's the sort of pub where, when they shut the doors at closing time, you'd really want to be inside with Angus and Albee."

Shot on locations around Sydney and at the Gore Hill studios, which house the interiors for the pub, the living quarters above it and the Blue Bear offices, love is a four letter word is an inner-city story. The pub's denizens would be right at home in Fitzroy. Stand-by wardrobe lady Natalie Dives describes the show's look as "very Newtown". Translation for Melburnians: "very Greville Street" or "very Brunswick Street".

Production designer Leigh Tierney has translated the everything-old-is-new-again philosophy to his evocation of life above the pub. An eclectic array of op-shop finds, Eastern fabrics, mismatched carpets and found objects grace the bedrooms, bathroom and communal kitchen area.

Angus and Albee's bedroom, painted purple, has fabric draped over the windows and fairy lights above the four-poster bed. A flock of plaster ducks fly on the wall, clothes hang on an open rack, and there are turntables and vinyl records alongside the CDs.

In the kitchen sits a staple familiar to many shared households: the makeshift coffee table constructed from a piece of chipboard propped up by milk crates. There's even a green vinyl pouf. And some creatively applied blackish paint suggesting mildew above the loo.

It isn't the sort of accommodation that would immediately attract mobile-phone wielding entrepreneurs eyeing their first million from an Internet start-up. And that's the intention. "Angus is someone with a good heart and a humanistic philosophy," says Peter Fenton. "He's a bit of a leftie."

"That's one of the big-ticket items that we explore over the run of the series," says Michael Miller. "Angus has found that his will isn't to make money but to try to feel good about himself. He's a bit of a socialist, though he'd never say it, and he cares for other people."

When it comes to any early assessment of how well the writers, who work together as a tight-knit team, have succeeded in evoking their times, one thing is clear. The writers look just like the actors when they're in character. They dress the same, they're about the same age - mid-20s to mid-30s - they're interested in the same sorts of music.

And if success could be measured by heart, by the high hopes and the passion poured into a project, love is a four letter word would be destined to be a surefire winner.

"What the writers got, which has to be a rarity in Australian television, is that the ABC basically handed them this gift," says Rosemary Blight. "They said, 'Make a show that talks about you.' The big debate in this country is that we don't have enough time for development, that we don't put enough into writing. These writers had the opportunity to workshop, brainstorm, write a draft, write another draft. The scripts have been worked and worked, like a feature film script."

At the end of the process, the writers are hoping to have produced something timely and original, a series that's honest, speaks to the tensions of the times, and offers some laughs and good music. And they're hoping that the audience will warm to their characters.

"Angus and Albee are trying to make sense of the crazy world that we live in, trying to walk a moral line," says Michael Miller. "They're flawed central characters," explains Beaumont, "but their redeeming feature is that they're trying to do the right thing.

"They often stuff up, they're often inconsistent, they can be hypocritical. But ultimately they care about each other and they care about the people around them, and they care about their work. And though they're flawed, I hope that people will fall in love with them, 'cos we did."

love is a four letter word premieres on Tuesday at 9.30pm on the ABC.

By Debbie Enker
January 25, 2001
The Age