MDA: articles

Good medicine

It was one of those ironic—and oh-so-timely—twists of fate. Just as filming started on the ABC's new medical litigation drama, one of the country's biggest medical insurers went belly-up.

United Medical Protection's misfortune thrust medical litigation into the headlines—a public relations dream for the ABC, which is trying to revive its reputation as a network that nurtures quality production.

"UMP is the Sydney equivalent of the organisation that we are basing our series on," says Robyn Kershaw, the head of television drama at the ABC. "It is very exciting for us to have picked an area that is incredibly contemporary and one that affects us all because the health care that we receive will be impacted whatever the outcome of UMP is."

UMP's collapse has seen two major medical groups call for a nationally funded scheme to short-circuit multi-million dollar damages awards made against doctors.

And by the time MDA (Medical Defence Australia) airs, ordinary folk across Australia will be familiar with the intricate details of professional indemnity insurance.

Just eight months after the demise of the ABC's only Melbourne-based drama, Beyond Simpson Le Mesurier's serial Something in the Air, MDA promises to be an intriguing, controversial mix of drama.

It also represents a significant step for drama production in Victoria—a state that has in recent years watched a number of projects edge towards Sydney and Queensland.

Jason Donovan and Kerry Armstrong have been cast in main roles and will be joined by funny man Shane Bourne, Aaron Pedersen, Alice McConnell, Petra Yared and Angus Grant.

The 22-part series has also attracted top-notch directors Ray Argall (SeaChange), Kate Woods (Changi) and Cate Shortland (The Secret Life of Us).

MDA, a co-production between ABC TV and Screentime, also sees Donovan—who has not held a permanent television role since leaving Neighbours in 1989—return to the small screen as Richard Savage, a plaintiff's advocate for medical litigation.

Series producer Ric Pellizzeri says MDA is the first television series about the complex area of medical litigation.

And after seven years on Blue Heelers—four as executive producer—he is thrilled that there is not a sheep or cow in sight.

Pellizzeri says MDA was just another idea about a medical show until producer Greg Haddrick stumbled across the topic.

"Greg discovered it accidentally by having a conversation with a nurse or a doctor in his child's schoolyard," he says. "He told her he was looking for a medical show and she said, 'No one's ever done anything about medical litigation,' and his ears pricked up."

The conversation was a catalyst. No script, no actors but lots of drama. And, as Pellizzeri says, great drama is about emotion.

"What you're looking for in a drama are big emotional issues; a story that comes through the door and Medical Defence is one of those places.

It is based on true stories, which are incredibly emotional," he says. "It has all the areas that medical shows have with the trauma, but it's after the event, with people having to deal with the repercussions of an operation gone wrong or a bad decision being made.

"This genre has enough material to draw on as any cop show or any legal show does and it hasn't been done before anywhere in the world."

Filming started last month at the ABC headquarters in Elsternwick. The first day on set passed without a skerrick of nerves.

Inside the tiny set of Savage's office—sombre aubergine and olive walls stacked high with leather-bound legal books and tribal artefacts—a jumble of actors and crew shuffle around cameras and very long extension leads.

A muffled debate breaks out in the corner of the dark MDA set. Director Shawn Seet thinks the tissues on Jason Donovan's timber desk look too staged. After some hushed murmuring, the offending box is moved.

Live take. Hush down.

Donovan's gaze zeroes in on Norma Brown, who plays distraught widow Faye Selinger. She has dropped her husband into a hospital casualty department with a bleeding nose. When she returns from parking the car, he's dead.

"I need to know what happened to my Andy," she tells Donovan's character, Richard Savage.

Cut. Seet wants her to just bumble it out. "Don't worry about sitting down first," he says.

It is an intense scene. Two cameras focus on Brown's face as she bursts into loud sobs. But the intensity is interrupted when a camera cord gets snagged in a chair. Donovan taps his legs while the props are rearranged.

This scene will last for a minute and 30 seconds on screen but it takes over an hour to shoot.

Suddenly someone breaks into a blaring rendition of Come Fly with Me. It's so loud it seems to bounce off the walls.

It's Donovan, somewhere behind the set of his faux office.

"Quick," says Marshall Crosby, the first assistant director. "Before he sings again."

Hush down. Here we go.

MDA will screen on the ABC later this year.

By Elisabeth Tarica
May 16, 2002
The Age