Love My Way: articles

Drama we're overdue

WHEN was the last time you were startled watching Australian drama on television? OK, wrong question, aiming too high. When were you at least quietly and deeply satisfied?

The trouble with Australian TV drama, as we prepare for the return this week and next of two of the top-rating shows of 2005, the American hits Lost and Desperate Housewives, is that it can seem an open invitation to despair and a source of national shame. Yet we are not talking about the impossible here. One of the finest bits of acting I have seen on TV - probably in any medium - was Richard Roxburgh's performance as Roger Rogerson in the 1995 docu-drama Blue Murder.

While Blue Murder was towering TV, this was also a period when the ABC did Wildside, with all that funky, cutting-edge evocation of the dark side of Australian life. A bit earlier there was Heartbreak High, with its recognisably human teenagers.

There was SeaChange with its easygoing but not unsophisticated evocation of an enclosed world that revealed in semi-romantic fashion the real one. There was Marcus Graham and Allison Whyte as an investigative odd couple in Good Guys, Bad Guys and Lucy Bell as a clairvoyant detective in Murder Call.

None of this except for Blue Murder was extraordinary, but it represented a level of dramatic entertainment that was worth spitting at. Of course there have been TV series since. You could feel you were in the presence of entertainment with some resemblance to life watching Gary Sweet and Kate Kendall in Stingers. And there were the old reliables, such as Blue Heelers and Neighbours.

You have to cheer when people such as John Clarke and Sam Neill dramatise a high-class bit of Australian popular writing such as Shane Maloney's Murray Whelan novels, as they did with the 2004 telemovies Stiff and The Brush Off..

You also have to have some respect for people who do something to break the mould. The 2005 miniseries Little Oberon was an attempt to blend fantasy with the small-town format in whimsical fashion. The critics hated it but it was beautifully shot and included a superb, wholly unpredictable performance, scathing and bare, by Sigrid Thornton as the mother suffering from cancer.

Australian TV drama needs more of that sort of risk taking. It was not for nothing that the recent Australian Film Institute awards paid such homage to Love My Way, which star Claudia Karvan produced with pay-TV network Foxtel. At its best Love My Way, which returns for a second season from February 5, was a well-made, well-acted drama focused on a group of thirtysomethings (Karvan, Asher Keddie, Dan Wyllie, Brendan Cowell) and with superb supporting performances from older actors such as Gillian Jones and Max Cullen.

It had an attractively flexible style. There were some quite dashing diversions into near surrealism and at every point it at least sizzled with style. I'm not sure, though, that this upper-level soap is the Berlin Alexanderplatz of recent Australian TV or the Six Feet Under.

You also have to ask why on earth a show as stylish, at times as powerful, as Love My Way ended up on pay TV rather than on the commercial networks. One answer to this, a crass and commercial one, is that the gut-wrenching death that becomes the focal point of the first series would scare off the networks.

Yes, but it is also the point where Love My Way becomes, I'm afraid, hysterical and absurdly self-involved. The death is shocking and the collective grief is both realistic and harrowing. And then, just as you're wondering what can come out of it in dramatic terms, there is more of the same. And then more. A relentless, crazy, boo-hooing that would try the patience of any viewer and would have had thousands of punters switching off.

It was as if this viable piece of Australian TV drama - not a masterpiece but a gutsy and unpredictable saga - first of all has the courage to do something shocking but then takes itself so seriously, is so enamoured of itself as a potential work of art, that it can't let it go and so dissipates the moody entertainment value of its own enterprise. A lot of people will disagree with this but Love My Way seemed to me to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory by taking itself so seriously.

Of course the wasteland of Australian TV drama was an open provocation to do this because there was so little that set a precedent for doing the job sanely and at a high level.

MDA, after all, was the ABC's bright shining star. Well, it might have brightened whenever Shane Bourne was on screen, even glowed when graced with guest stars such as Thornton and Wendy Hughes, but is this the best a national broadcaster can do? Something notably inferior to The Bill even in its long decline?

How much mediocrity is a nation of 20 million supposed to sustain? There are all sorts of reasons why Australian TV is unlikely to hit on anything as white hot in its viability as Desperate Housewives or Law and Order, but is that any reason for throwing in the towel?

Think of what we can achieve in comedy, such as Kath and Kim, and think of how that might be transferred. Think of the sheer expertness, as well as the kinkiness, of something like Clarke's The Games, how well it was made, the lack of glamour, the adherence to a vision. Clarke is an admirer of the early '60s BBC policy of commissioning one-off TV plays from which a series might originate rather than indulging in a set of expensive pilots that just pave the road to perdition with dead turkeys.

And there are so many obvious precedents that point towards the possibility of decent TV drama that go ignored. Watching the handsome shenanigans of Ten's expensively co-produced flog opera Mary Bryant I wondered why on earth we weren't getting a version of Tom Keneally's much more dramatic convict novel Bring Larks and Heroes.

We used to know a bit more about this.

You could see Ray Barrett as governor Phillip in an ABC dramatisation of Eleanor Dark's The Timeless Land or Hughes in Martin Boyd's Lucinda Brayford. Some of us can remember back to the ABC version of Frank Hardy's Power Without Glory, which captivated the nation. Are we such a nation of cultural losers that we don't realise we have a literature that at every level from the classical to the commercial and popular could fuel our TV drama?

None of Patrick White's novels has come within cooee of TV screens in living memory despite the fact that his work cries out for dramatisation. Boyd is an Australian Forsyte Saga waiting to happen. Contemporary novelists such as Helen Garner, Kate Grenville and Frank Moorhouse have strong dramatic elements. Henry Handel Richardson's The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney could be an Australian TV Gone with the Wind. Not to mention John Marsden's children's books or Peter Temple's detective stories.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. What about playwrights such as Hannie Rayson or Stephen Sewell? Don't the people in charge of TV drama realise that some of these skills, some of the time, are transferable? Are they too unimaginative to realise TV can sustain something like the monologues Alan Bennett wrote for actresses - the likes of Maggie Smith - years ago? That you can, with very little money, just a decent script, a good actor and director and crew, create captivating drama?

We need every kind of TV drama from the most popular to the most classic. We need to see our best-known actors in material worthy of them, whether it's our own version of Desperate Housewives or whether it's Chekhov and Shakespeare. Would Cate Blanchett or Judy Davis or Russell Crowe do local TV? Has anyone asked them? It's merely sheepishness and stupidity that stops us from getting an Australian drama worthy of the name.

By Peter Craven
January 28, 2006
The Australian