Mercy Peak: articles

Going out at the peak of their game

It may have been all that good country air around the Mercy Peak vineyard. Or perhaps the complicated lives of the good people of Bassett—population still 5058 and growing—suggested life was never a dull moment on this side of the Tasman.

Whatever it was, Mercy Peak's Australian star Renato Bartolomei and his TV producer girlfriend Tina have bought their own piece of Godzone.

Now, while the arrival of Australians on New Zealand soil is not something to be encouraged—Tourism New Zealand be damned—Bartolomei gets a good leave pass for saying and doing all the right things.

The couple have fallen for us, he announces over coffee and cigarettes. So the decision naturally followed that they should base themselves in New Zealand.

In December they moved on to their 2ha lifestyle block in the wild, rolling green of South Head. It came with a farm house the same age as him—40—and flash views of the Kaipara Harbour.

"I've been living here six months a year for the past four years. The first year I stayed in Princess Wharf. The next year was Mt Eden, the following Muriwai. This year South Head.

"We fell in love with the place. It made our decision for us. And as an actor, you spend half of your life waiting for the next job. So you might as well wait somewhere beautiful."

Rather surprisingly, having spent so long in Mercy Peak's country-town drama, he was astonished at just how friendly country folk are.

"I was a little bit concerned about what we would do with the land when we went back to Australia [to work], with grass growing and three chickens pumping out eggs. But within four or five hours on our first day there the next door neighbours rocked up and solved all the problems."

They now have the neighbours' calves grazing on their land—the deal: free meat for grass—but that's not the long-term plan. Olives—well, he is half Italian—are apparently the go.

Certainly his days of growing grapes as Mercy Peak's proud, grumpy winemaker Kieran Masefield have come to an end.

The show, which premiered in July 2001, has not been renewed by TVNZ—despite good ratings numbers—and this series, the sixth, will be the last.

Bartolomei says he is baffled by the show's canning.

"To have planned to do 20 episodes and end up doing 60, we have to be happy with that. But I think the cast felt really sorry for [executive producer and writer] Rachel Lang, who maybe hasn't received enough accolades for what she has done.

"There is a finite time that you can keep a thing good—and that's a script thing. But I think Mercy Peak could have rocked on for quite a long time."

The show, he says, has suffered a little from the way it has been programmed in 10-episode lots with huge breaks in between. But there has been much more recognition of the show in the past year or so, he believes.

Certainly Mercy Peak picked two more gongs at the New Zealand Television Awards last year. And with TVNZ's charter firmly in place, it is rather hard to see how canning established, award-winning dramas like Peak and Street Legal fits with the Government's directive to put more of New Zealand on air.

TVNZ says while Mercy Peak has been a great performer, it was felt the storylines had come to a natural conclusion. Meanwhile, TVNZ's new drama commissioner, Chris Gist, is developing a number of new projects.

"It costs a lot of money to start a new show and it may not work," Bartolomei says. "There's a bit of a weird thing with film and television, everything can be right seemingly, but it doesn't work: 'Oops, oh well, we'll do another'. And a lot of money goes into that one.

"That [through New Zealand On Air] is costing taxpayers a lot of money when they already have shows that are running positively, rating well like [the also axed] Street Legal and Mercy Peak.

"Regardless of what you might think of them, if they're paying their way that's a better situation for taxpayers. Money-wise, even if it's bad, if it's rating [why can it]? You expect businessmen, who don't care about quality, to keep it going for that reason alone."

Bartolomei's frustration could also have a little to do with his character Kieran finally coming to front-stage in the last 10 episodes. We learn more about why Kieran and his estranged wife Amanda (Katie Wolfe) have had their odd relationship, and an unsolved local murder spices up his story, too.

Kieran was a well-drawn character from show one, Bartolomei says, though like any TV show that goes for any length of time, all the characters tend to be moulded by what the actors choose to do with them.

"But the ground work was set pretty solidly, that Kieran was a bit of a loner, a weirdo, moody kinda guy.

"It's taken quite a long time to reveal much about Kieran—which was the plan that Rachel Lang had. It's only this series that audiences get to learn quite a lot more about him and why he is the way he is. The audience also gets to see him happy for the first time.

"I would have hated it if he'd stayed this mono-dimensional, grumpy old bastard. There's a story arc for him—which is a brave thing to do in TV. Are the audience watching the arc or do they just tune in now and then?"

Bartolomei's mother, a New Zealand-born actress, was determined that he would never tread the boards. And it took a rather long time before the acting bug took hold.

Though he did drama at school, Bartolomei went to university for a psychology degree. To pay his way, he managed a hotel in north Melbourne, where he was spotted by a casting agent and asked to appear in a TV commercial. More followed and then suddenly he found himself with an agent and cast in a series called Family And Friends, in 1990.

"It was one of the most expensive disasters Channel Nine has ever had," he hoots.

It didn't kill his career. He went on to roles in popular Aussie shows like Flying Doctors, Blue Heelers, Water Rats and Halifax FP. But it was a four-show role in Xena: Warrior Princess that first brought him across the Ditch. He had a ball, he says.

"I found a real difference working in New Zealand. The industry is just more pleasant—that's the only way I can describe it. I went back to Australia feeling quite sad about leaving."

But it wasn't long before a phone call from our side of the Tasman drew him back here.

He was sent six scripts for Mercy Peak, but he was already half in because he wanted to come back here—the fishing's great, apparently.

"The scripts were incredibly good. I was really surprised.

I hadn't seen a lot of New Zealand TV drama. It was as good as it gets for that kind of television. It was certainly as good as anything in Australia."

It is also, he says, unusual to work with a group of actors and not have at least one ego maniac among them. Indeed, one important reason the show is what it is is because of lead Sara Wiseman (Dr Nicky Somerville), he believes.

"She had the bulk of the work to do on that show. She was pretty much 10 hours a day, five days a week, year in year out. For three years she was just so consistent, focused, positive and generous. She's a great actress and just a delight."

Great and humble talent! Beautiful scenery! Good fishing! It's no wonder after years of three-hour plane trips to paradise, he has finally settled here with the aim of working on both sides of the Tasman.

And the work keeps coming. He has finished playing a pirate in a kids' film shot here called The Secrets Of Treasure Island, made by Daybreak Pictures and starring Randy Quaid. And he is in negotiations for another role here this year.

"It may not work out in a couple of years. But worst case scenario is that we've spent those years in a beautiful part of the world."

By Greg Dixon
January 15, 2004
New Zealand Herald

Dramatic improvement

Mercy Peak is back, but the real local drama is going on at TVNZ. Will Judy survive without Richard? Is this really a plot to get rid of both of them, but slowly, so that we won't notice? A Save Richard campaign has already begun. It could be the Coronation Street riots all over again.

And alas, poor Breakfast. There is a certain bizarre chemistry produced by the pairing of Mike Hosking and Kate Hawkesby. The show may not rate well, but if the paparazzi interest is any indication, they're about as close as we've got to Posh and Becks.

The charter may have always been a bit of a joke. It's a whole stand-up routine now that TVNZ is axing its only serious current-affairs show, Assignment, altogether.

It's not reassuring that Bill Ralston has taken to talking about news and current affairs in junk-food metaphors. "Sunday worked best in the three-segment format like 60 Minutes," he told the National Business Review. "… so why would you mess with those secret herbs and spices?" As I write, I've just seen TV3's lamentable 60 Minutes piece on the Joel Hayward affair, an "investigation" that would have been more at home on Oprah. If that's what Ralston has got in mind, we might as well forget about intelligent coverage of complex issues on television.

So I guess we should enjoy Mercy Peak while we can, before someone at TVNZ decides it would work better as an infomercial. It's pleasing to see the new series following the lead of Australian successes such as Sea Change and Always Greener and going for more laughs, intentional and other.

It kicked off with an influx of not uniformly convincing Americans (they didn't all seem entirely familiar with the tune to "Home on the Range"), in partnership with local iwi to build a prison.

I began to suspect the episode might be a little anti-American when Chook and Todd beat them up almost on sight.

Chad: "This place is way better than the facilities on the Philippines."

Dana: "Did the locals try to beat the hell out of you over there?'

Chad: "Not at the welcoming party."

It turned out that the Americans brought the plague with them. Yes, the bubonic plague. (It's still carried by squirrels and chipmunks, as the writers helpfully had someone explain.) "Did you talk to the infectious diseases expert?" said a thrilled William. "Never heard her so excited!" chortled Alistair. "Have you started antibioics?" wondered William. "No," says Alistair. "I applied a course of leeches and tincture of mercury. And hooded priests surround his bed, praying for his soul."

They haven't enjoyed themselves this much since that paedophile tried to castrate himself in the back of his van.

The Black Death. How's that as a metaphor for colonialism? In case we missed the subtle symbolism, everyone took turns explaining it to each other. "The most advanced nation on Earth, or so they would have us believe," mused William, "and they come to us bearing the Black Death!"

Bassett's cop and resident intellectual, Ken, gave an entire lecture on the subject. "It's the new colonialism," explained Ken. "Poms last time, Americans this time. It's globalisation …" etc.

With the blokes too busy defining neo-colonialism to pay them any attention, it was little wonder that the Bassett womenfolk were soon succumbing to the Yanks' charms. "Guess it must be some sort of evolutionary thing," noted Ken, in another sermon. "New males with flashy plumage enter the tribe and the women-folk go all giggly and weak at the knees …"

Nicky was too busy reading books on step-parenting to care about evolutionary mixed metaphors. Smouldering winemaker Kieran's daughter Sascha is giving her a hard time. "Why isn't there a novel that tells us what happens after happily ever after?" wails Nicky. Well, there are, but Ken's probably got them all out.

An entertaining enough start, with plenty of classic local drama dialogue: "Piss off, Chook!"; "That's no way to handle a lady!"; "Chook, ya bloody moron!"

TV2's Sunday kidult Hard Out is a sort of Mercy Peak for a younger demographic, with more fart jokes and aliens instead of Americans. As with Mercy Peak, it's up to a clutch of bloody morons to stop the visitors from carrying out their fiendish plans.

One look at an average Kiwi family slouching slack-jawed in front of television gives the aliens a fresh idea for world domination. They will arrange for their sinister company, Neo (as in colonialism?) Corporation, to sponsor television sport.

All terribly far-fetched. Though, come to think of it, didn't Bill Ralston say he's considering sponsorship for the sports segment on One News? You could almost see Hard Out as a fiendishly subversive satire of the way television is shaping up in the post-charter age. Well, you could. Or you could see it as a local, vaguely sci-fi homage to Big Mama's Place (Rawiri Paratene plays the Granny) and Dumb and Dumber. Either way, like the new, improved Mercy Peak, it's good for a laugh and worth a look.

By Diana Wichtel
August 16-22, 2003
New Zealand Listener

Wiseman climbs beyond Mercy Peak

Who are you looking for?" someone asks me as I wander like a helpless patient through Mercy Peak's clinic.

"Sara," I say.

"Sara? Does she work in makeup?"

"Er, no," I mumble, "she's the star."

Oh dear. It's probably just as well Mercy Peak lead Sara Wiseman had legged it to her dressing room on this penultimate day of filming on the bucolic medical drama.

As soon as the director called the last "Cut!" at South Pacific Pictures' Henderson studios, she'd bolted from set and sight with the rest of the cast. This left the crew hastily unplugging cables, packing gear and singing along to some old ska song while I strolled about the rabbit warren of fake rooms talking to strangers.

However it seems likely that my hapless exchange with a mystery crew member is unlikely to bother the actress, who plays Mercy Peak's city-doc-turned-country-quack, Nicky Somerville.

Despite two-and-a-bit seasons of the show screening on TV One, a lot of people don't recognise her, the willowy 30-year-old tells me as she perches on a chair in her tiny dressing room.

Indeed her conversations with strangers quite often go something like this, she says:

"What do you do?

"I'm an actor."

"Oh, do you do anything?"

"I'm doing a show on TV."

"Oh what's that?"

"Mercy Peak."

"Who are you on that?"

"I play a doctor."

Wiseman hoots madly. But she seems to prefer things to be this way. Since the show launched on TV One last year, she hasn't signed a single autograph, though there have been encounters with complimentary fans on the street.

"Bless the people on Shortland Street [but] I don't know how they can deal with being pumped into people's living rooms five nights a week. They get the brunt of the celebrity, you're-on-TV thing.

"With Mercy Peak being on TV One one night a week and it being the kind of drama it is, people just sort of let you be. You do get recognised, that's part of being on TV, but I haven't been hassled at all."

Perish the thought. But if you spend half an hour with Wiseman you discover that the actress is unerringly upbeat about pretty much everything in life.

Her on-screen alter ego isn't quite so lucky however.

On next week's episode, Dr Nicky ends her relationship with social worker hottie Cliff Tairoa (played by Tamati Te Nohotu).

"The break-up is sad," Wiseman says, "but what I do love about it is that it's not a cliche break-up. There is a bit of feistiness in the episode, which is maybe the trigger to the final decision.

"But it's very soft. It's not the cliched, 'You were wrong and I was right' kind of thing. It's just not meant to be.

"When Tamiti and I were shooting the scene, it felt like a break-up because we're very good friends as actors and it felt so safe together, working with him. So [it felt like] the separation of the character and the actor as well."

But not for long. In a freak of television timing the pair will again be boyfriend and girlfriend in an upcoming episode of TV3's Mataku, also made by South Pacific Pictures.

In an episode titled The Heirloom, Te Nohotu plays a talented artist who fakes Maori artefacts. Wiseman plays his posh girlfriend, an art collector.

The Heirloom was filmed long before either Wiseman or Te Nohotu were cast in Mercy Peak, so it is, as it were, their first on-screen relationship.

"It was quite funny to find out we were doing the same on [Mercy Peak]," she beams.

With last week's end of filming, Wiseman has now spent 40 episodes (20 over the past six months) in the head of Dr Nicky. But despite the long period of filming — up to 13 hours a day, five days a week, with a sixth day spent learning lines — Wiseman says she has had no trouble keeping the part fresh on-screen.

"I think the writing is pretty amazing. We're working with several different directors, so that's new input coming through and really interesting storylines, so that keeps it interesting. You look at the script and think, 'Oh fantastic, I get to do that this time'."

And she's still in love with the character and the show, which she watches every week, along with an average of more than 400,000 viewers.

But like so many actors, she finds it a little difficult to watch herself. Ask her why and, after a long pause, she says she's really not sure.

"I think I remember back to that day when I shot that scene and what was going on at that time. Some things I really enjoy watching, some things [I think], 'I passed that one off'. But that's okay."

With a hiatus in filming until early next year (programme funder New Zealand On Air has approved another eight episodes with another 12 probable after that), you'd expect Wiseman to be planning a lie-down from this week.

She will take a break over Christmas, when she holidays with her sister in Queenstown, but she has a couple of film-related jobs lined up, though not yet signed.

She was keen to do more theatre — she's had roles in four Auckland Theatre Company productions — but there are few enough theatre gigs on offer over the summer and what there are have long been cast.

She misses theatre, she says.

"It's like a drug, it's challenging and it's passionate and it's unexpected. You get to go places because you're in such heated rehearsal process and do things that you don't have the time for, or the shot doesn't allow, in television."

"[Theatre] is more of a journey, a beginning to an end, and it's just you and a director so there's no down time."

Wiseman prefers not to say anything much about her future plans. She talks of visions and goals, but she has learned not to shut doors.

In the meantime it's a very special thing starring in a high-rating drama in the country she loves, she offers.

"I'm really, really grateful for the role of Nicky, but it's just a role and she has to end some time. But the next one, I hope, will be just as inspiring."

By Greg Dixon
October 24, 2002
New Zealand Herald

Small-town copper earns silver lining

Mercy Peak is a drama about the ups and downs of life in a small New Zealand town. Some characters have had more than their fair share of downs.

When the series returns tonight (TV One, 8.35pm), the tide could be about to turn for one of the show's more put-upon characters, married-to-the-job copper Ken Wilder. Romance is in the wind for the policeman who took a few severe knocks in the line of duty in the last season.

Actor Tim Balme, who plays Ken, agrees it's about time fortune smiled upon his character. "It's a good call because of where Ken's come from in his life. He basically hit the mid-30 mark and he hasn't had a lot of luck in love - probably due to him trying too hard rather than not finding the right person."

Mercy Peak fans will know, however, that with Ken's self-esteem deficiency the path of true love is not likely to run smooth.

"We know now that if Ken actually comes across someone who has been right in front of him all along, who has time for him and cares for him, then you know that road's not going to be plain sailing because chances are Ken may overcook things."

Ken may complicate his personal life but he sees his job as a cut-and-dried, good guy-bad guy affair. And the character has struck a chord with real-life smalltown police, says Balme.

"Ken prides himself on being professionally pretty good; he can deal with all sorts of situations. I think he's a good example of policing and it's been interesting getting feedback from that sector.

"They [the police] have been really pleased ... Ken is a real guy, a real cop, he makes some mistakes like any cop does but it's how he deals with them and accepts them. He's a realistic portrayal of a cop in a small town."

Balme, who won a New Zealand Television Award for best supporting actor for the role this year and who played memorable bad boy Greg Feeney on Shortland Street, says he was astonished when asked to audition for a policeman role. "I said to my agent, 'Have they made a mistake here?' Then I realised if they were looking for me, it meant they were looking for a different take on your stereotypical cop thing - they wanted something more down-home."

That down-home quality of Mercy Peak is the key to the show's appeal, he says. "Just the fact that it has been a genuine attempt to portray New Zealand as it is. We're not trying to emulate an American show or a British show, we're just saying, 'This is it."'

The show's return also sees change for the murderously mad Amanda, the character played by Balme's real-life partner, Katie Wolfe. No, says Balme, the couple didn't take the show home with them. "No, we've got plenty of other things to talk about."

The two characters' paths seldom cross in the small town of Bassett and that is a good thing, he says. "We've worked together in close proximity, been there, done that, and we're not particularly interested in doing it again."

Meanwhile, Balme says, his character Ken is gradually putting Greg Feeney in the shade in terms of public recognition. "Basically it comes down to whether I've had a shave or not, or how long my hair is."

By Frances Grant
September 28, 2002
The New Zealand Herald