Remote Area Nurse: articles

Susie Porter

Susie Porter as remote area nurse Helen Tremain. The SBS mini-series is being filmed on Masig, in the Torres Strait.

Stars, crew feel the heat in new mini-series

With no mobile phones and limited email access, many are homesick. They work 12 hour days, six days a week. Kylie Miller reports from Torres Strait.

Lost beneath a broad straw hat and brightly printed cotton smock that island women favour, her dusty feet jammed into practical rubber sandals, Susie Porter is far removed from the hip London-based actor she is now.

As the star of a new SBS mini-series, RAN: Remote Area Nurse, Porter is among a cast and crew of about 70, halfway through a 16-week shoot on the remote Torres Strait island of Masig, best known as Yorke.

Penny Chapman, a former head of ABC Television whose credits include Brides of Christ and The Road from Coorain, is producing the $6.3 million mini-series, which was inspired by her sister, a former Masig nurse.

Current nurse Robyn White, who has worked on Masig for 12 years and is consulting on the scripts, recalls not-so-distant days when the poorly resourced health centre relied on a wheelbarrow as its only patient transport. Things are marginally better now—patients are transported on a temperamental six-wheeler known as a “gator” or, in emergencies, are flown three hours to Cairns.

Filming in the Torres Strait, a first for any production, also brings challenges. There is limited power, only cold outdoor showers, and the crew live in a village of small tents. The tiny coral cay (about 2.7 kilometres by 800 metres at its widest) is dry—no alcohol permitted. A barge delivers fresh food weekly. With no mobile phones, limited email access and one pay phone, many crew are homesick. They work 12 hour days, six days a week in scorching heat. And the two months before the onset of the December wet season will bring an unbearably steamy calm.

But for the substantial islander cast, many plucked from non-acting fields, hardship is part of the drama’s message.

Aaron Fa’Aoso, a health worker in his remote Cape Yorke community of Seisia, relishes the responsibility of depicting the issues faced by Australia’s poorest and most isolated inhabitants; alcohol abuse, domestic violence and diabetes. Much of the dialogue is delivered in the islander language, Creole.

“It’s a huge privilege to be part of that, to know that these issues are going to be put out there on the television screen,” Fa’Aoso says.


There is limited power on Masig, only cold outdoor showers, and the crew live in a village of small tents.

The series is a big commitment for SBS, its first major drama in many years and one that SBS Independent chief Glenys Rowe says fills a “gaping hole” in programming. “We are the one television network in Australia that would not be afraid to use a bit of Creole language,” she says.

For the Masig community, with its fluctuating population of between 200 and 300, the shoot brings welcome cash.

Elder Dan Murray Mosby, who has leased land to house the crew’s “tent city”, says 80 per cent of the island’s income comes from the community development employment program, the equivalent of work-for-the-dole.

As well as the licence fees paid to traditional landowners, islanders are being paid as extras, to make traditional props and costumes, to teach traditional hymns and dance. Several have rented their homes to house the actors, and each production department has a local “attachment”. Everywhere you look, people are smiling. “Now I’m happy,” Mosby says. “I get paid for this place, I get paid for my acting, I come and eat here every night.”

By Kylie Miller
Photos: Jimmy Pozarik
October 16, 2004
The Age