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City grit: writer Christopher Lee has developed a hotshot Aussie cop drama that runs in real time, a la 24 Hours. Photo: Annabel Moeller

Secret agent

With a cult series under his belt, a leading TV writer is making a cop show with a difference.

If you ever wondered whose novel the character Evan was writing in The Secret Life of Us, well, finally, here’s the answer: it was the scriptwriter Christopher Lee, one of the originating writers of the hit series.

Lee was part of a two-decade working relationship with Southern Star producer John Edwards, which included television milestones such as Police Rescue, Cody, Big Sky and the relatively short-lived soapie Echo Point. His other writing projects notably include an hour of Bodysurfer, for which he won an AFI award, co-writing the telemovie Secret Men’s Business, as well as therush mini-series Do or Die.

But it was his 1980 novel, Bush Week, about ‘60s university sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, that, in a roundabout way, launched the 57-year-old former print journalist’s television career.

Like all good Aussie novelists, he wrote the “slim volume” during three months on a Greek island while his wife, Annie, “made a baby”, the first of their two sons.

“After Bush Week came out, one of my friends said to me, ‘I read your book. You know, I didn’t notice that you were watching,”’ Lee says.

Later, when writing Secret Life, despite the age difference between him and the characters, he found they shared the same problems and issues. And the parallels between Evan and himself were stark because he’d spent so much of his own youth writing about his life, surrounded by his friends.

Now Lee’s at it again, with Edwards, developing a new weekly drama series, known as Rapid Response, about a Melbourne special operations police squad, to be seen on the Ten Network next year.

The style of the show is quite different. While most cop shows run over three to six days and follow the characters home, this one is written in “real time”, with the elite police (played by Libby Tanner, Steve Le Marquand and a bunch of “hot and fresh” young actors) going at a rate of knots through the same amount of time as the audience experiences.

“This is pure television because we’re writing it to the commercial breaks and it’s fresh in that a phone call comes in and this little elite unit of young hotshot cops immediately dash out to do the business, and 50 minutes later it’s all over. So we take the drama up at each commercial-break point, so it’s television made such that you cannot look away.”

Edwards thought of the idea before September 11, 2001, then discovered that there were sophisticated anti-terrorist or highly trained special operations units being developed all over the world, including Australia. It was a case of life following art.

Members of such units are taught psychology and survival techniques as well as weapons and forensics skills. Their brief is to resolve an incident without anyone getting killed.

“If Secret Life was about insights and little thematic truths of people’s lives, Rapid Response is, in a way, about the same thing, except it deals much more on the surface, such that you don’t tend to understand the insights it might bring until the show’s over, until the bad guy’s caught or not caught. When it ends, we want there to be a little moment of silence, like at the end of a symphony. We’ll have pulled that show off if we can manage that.”

He sees no conflict between writing gritty city stories and living on a 65-hectare sheep property in the tiny community of Laggan, near Goulburn. He and Annie moved from the Blue Mountains last year into a 100-year-old brick house, but only after the former owners had approved them as buyers.

He writes in the morning then works on the farm in the afternoon, planting trees and tending the sheep and chooks. It’s his “heavy lifting” or brewing time, and it allows him to mull over his words.

Lee, the son of a country doctor, grew up in western NSW and he’s thrilled to be back in dry hills and dam country, even if these days it’s becoming increasingly populated with city refugees.

Explaining his background, Lee says that on the strength of Bush Week he was given a year’s fellowship by the Literature Board of the Australia Council in 1981. This gave him the “permission to get out” of journalism, having worked for eight years for the Australian Associated Press news agency, including stints in Sydney, Darwin, Papua New Guinea and London.

But he abandoned the new novel when he got into the Australian Film and Television School and found scriptwriting was his forte.

From there, he “just went into TV” with his first series about—what do you know?—a journalist. Called Stringer, it was produced by Edwards for Southern Star and ran on ABC TV, which led the then head of drama, Sandra Levy, and Edwards to invite Lee to be head writer of Police Rescue.

Lee is also on the national executive committee of the Australian Writers’ Guild, which had a high profile in the US free trade agreement talks. He confirms that Rapid Response is one of the few new TV dramas being made here.

“Statistics show that the film and television industry is way down in production and anecdotally there’s not a great deal of quality around. But then the industry’s one that is in perpetual crisis anyway, so sometimes the crises are critical, like now, and sometimes the crises aren’t so bad. But it’s always very, very tough.”

Lee begrudges the fact that the commercial stations are paying even less in licence fees for drama than previously and that they usually only fulfil the minimum requirements set by legislation.

The main difference between the quality of Australian television drama and that of overseas shows is, he says, simply money. In the US, a writer’s soul can be bought for a period of time, which leads to a strong commitment to a show.

Here, because there’s not enough money for TV writers, most tend to work on more than one show at a time.

“If you have a look at a well-made British BBC drama or a well-made Hollywood movie or a well-made American show like Six Feet Under or The Sopranos or The West Wing, they get the scripts absolutely right.

“Then they get the casting absolutely right, then they get wonderful directors, then they get everybody working on that show 100 per cent, then they get the music beautifully done. The Americans are very good at maximising every aspect of the show: the editing, the marketing—it’s all done very slickly, whereas in those six or seven aspects of a film or TV show, Australia tends to trip up on two or three or four of them. It’s not very often we get them all exactly right, unfortunately.”

And the most important ingredient of a good TV drama? “It’s the script initially, that’s what we writers claim, and we’re not going to be talked out of it,” he says.

Lee also has another novel ready, this time about a journalist’s travelogue through the ‘70s called Warm Ride. He’s also working on film scripts.

“I find that, immediately after episodes in my life, I can’t turn them into fiction because it’s too close, but after a few years something happens and I think, ‘That’s a good story.’ It’s finally got into a fictional perspective and I’m able to write it.”

Although he’s not too sure journalists work well as TV and film characters, he’s found his own journalistic training has been beneficial for his scriptwriting. In fact, he wishes there were more former journalists in the television industry rather than fresh-out-of-film-school writers.

“You meet prime ministers and criminals and desperadoes and injured people. So it seems to me really good background for screen fiction. And the other thing it teaches is the value of a deadline.

“When I arrived, I always delivered on time, always. And [as head writer] I got calls from writers saying, ‘I can’t deliver because the dog ate my homework’ [or] ‘because I’m blocked’.

“I thought: ‘Imagine if a journalist rang the editor and said, “I can’t deliver my copy, I’m blocked.” The editor would say, “Well, block yourself out the door.”’

By Diana Plater
October 9, 2004
Sydney Morning Herald