Packed To The Rafters: articles

Male characters outnumber the females in Packed to the Rafters.

Making drama from male angst

The Rafter men talk about giving blokes a voice, writes Paul Kalina.

THE Rafter family lives in a recognisable slice of middle-Australian suburbia. The sprawling weatherboard that four generations of Rafters call home says much about them: it's solid but stretched, functional, slightly outdated and in need of some TLC, unglamorous yet moulded for comfort. It's a place full of wholesome values and homespun advice to which family members can safely return when they need a buffer against the harshness of modern life.

"Every home is a haven of hopes and dreams, secrets and stories; this is the story of ours," Julie Rafter (Rebecca Gibney) said in a voice-over at the start of the classy soap opera three years ago.

It's a reassuring parable of familial love with a hefty quotient of soap-opera staples: weddings, births and heartbreaks, which in turn have generated a forest of magazine articles.

The typical soap-opera world is dominated by women. Usually, a loyal wife and mother provides the glue that binds the family and serves as a moral compass. That description easily fits Julie Rafter's character but much of the show is taken up by the male of the species, whose various crises, trials and rare tribulations provide the show with its heady brew of male angst, anxiety and melodrama.

Consider the evidence. Two of the Rafter men are widowed: patriarch Ted (Michael Caton), who lost his wife as they were to embark on a retirement trip, and 23-year-old Ben (Hugh Sheridan) was left reeling from the death of his new wife, Melissa (Zoe Ventoura), who died in a car accident no viewer could have anticipated during the show's third season.

Julie's salt-of-the-earth husband, Dave (Erik Thomson), has wrestled from the outset with the circumstances of his adoption and the succession of foster families he grew up with. What should have been the prime of his life was marked by losing the job he thought he would hold for life, depression and the unexpected arrivals of a fourth child as well as his birth parents.

A main story arc of the fourth season, which began this week, has Dave trying to reconcile with his ne'er-do-well father, Tom Jennings.

Tom, serving time in prison, is "definitely not a good man", in the words of the actor who plays him, John Howard. Youngest son Nathan (Angus McLaren) nurses a broken heart since his blue-blood girlfriend left and is torn between the pull of his parents and his determination to make it on his own.

Although the show's female characters seem determined to push through the many obstacles before them, the men are very much burdened by problems.

It's one of the rare Australian dramas focused on men who aren't cops, medicos or lawyers — and it places their problems front and centre.

"What they're doing with the male characters," Gibney says, "is allowing vulnerability and everyday problems that a lot of Australian males feel come to the surface.

"Generally, there's the she'll-be-right attitude not just with Australian males but the public in general. But it's actually nice to explore depression and things we all face but don't talk about. Now men have a voice for it."

Packed to the Rafters, Thomson says, is frothy and light on the surface but anchored by serious topics. "That's the way it's been since day one. Having men with issues, we've had to be careful to not get sucked too far into it, becoming dark and heavier than it needs to be.

"It's a fine line the writers walk and we have to walk it every day with the characters." Even in its embryonic stages, series producer Jo Porter says, the show's creators were intent on overturning one of the staple cliches of the domestic soap, the "buffoon father".

"We explore what it means to be a man of his age," Porter says, referring to knockabout Dave, who had turned 40 and lost his job when we first met him.

As the show progressed, he battled depression and became a father again just as he met his biological family.

"What we've tried to do on every level is find truth," Porter says. "As part of that we try to find truth for men of all ages.

"There are more male than female characters in the show, so that drives the storytelling."

Indeed, Dave meeting his biological family grew out of a storyline about his son Ben's illness and the need to find a genetically matched donor.

Porter says the actors bring to the table many ideas the scriptwriters use as springboards.

In Dave's case, Thomson deliberately opted from the outset not to play him as the cool, calm leading man who seethes but doesn't reveal much.

"It's much more interesting to set your emotional parameters as wide as you can because it gives the writers the licence — they know you can go wherever they want to take you," he says.

There are still question marks over Dave Rafter. For example, who is this mysterious family whose name Dave inherited?

"I don't know if it's a master plan from Bevan Lee [the show's creator and network script executive] to have all these skeletons in the closet," Thomson says.

The reason for not introducing Dave's adopted family, Porter says, stems from having so much to explore with the characters we've met already.

What interests University of Wollongong media academic Sue Turnbull is the way Packed to the Rafters plays out male melodrama in what is traditionally considered a female space.

"The [soap opera] genre is usually associated with a female audience and therefore focuses on the female side of the equation," she says. "It's unusual to have so much attention paid to the men, not from the women's perspective but from the male perspective.

"You get to see men emoting in situations that are not about sport or action but in relation to the family.

"The way that soap opera creates a space for people to talk about their feelings on a TV show is quite liberating and wonderful. I think it might actually reflect the reality."

Based on Turnbull's own experiences, she notes that her 23-year-old son is very good at analysing and expressing his feelings. "I think he got it from watching teen dramas, which has always been a place where the boy's point of view has been explored."

She cites youth-focused drama Skins as well as Packed to the Rafters as shows that engage a generation of young men.

"All the men have a comic element to them but also a lot of dignity," she says.

As with all successful Australian dramas, Packed to the Rafters has a predominantly female audience. Female viewers outnumber males by two to one.

Thomson believes women enjoy the show's exploration of males and their problems, not least because they watch it with male partners and children.

Although the show's trademark is an ability to give a velvet-glove treatment to what might otherwise be weighty, serious topics and always to blend the light with the dark, its representations of blokes and their world is far more enlightened than the "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" stereotypes television usually generates.

"It's not a high-concept show," Thomson says. "It's not about people you aspire to be or watch from a distance. These are your next-door neighbours and our viewers.

"Dave Rafter is an everyman, a happy-go-lucky tradie who has a few things he has to work through. That's where the identification comes from."

By Paul Kalina
August 25, 2011
Sydney Morning Herald