The Shark Net: articles

Inside the Shark Net

Images of Perth in the 1950s come to life in a television production of Robert Drewe's award-winning book The Shark Net.

It's Saturday arvo at the flicks, late 1950s. Barefoot boys with side-parts and V-neck pullovers are squabbling in the back rows, throwing popcorn at girls in pigtails and cardies. Suddenly the accusing beam of a torchlight pinpoints the offenders mid-raucous. They freeze.

A grim-faced theatre-owner leans over the pint-sized troublemakers, scowling. "Got a couple of hoodlums 'ere have we? You, you and you. OUT!" With one last fling of popcorn, the guilty trio skulk out and the remaining eyes return to the film amid suppressed laughter.

This quaintly dressed gaggle seem pretty pleased with themselves, and rightfully so. They have scored a day off school to muck about in the Cygnet Cinema as extras in the filming of The Shark Net, Robert Drewe's autobiographical story of boyhood in the '50s and '60s.

After several takes, with varying levels of noise, sweet-throwing and seat-pummelling, director Graeme Burfoot finally appears happy with the cinema scene.

Shooting for this scene began around 11am and continues past four. It's a long and tedious process, especially for a group of pre-pubescent children, but the promise of a slice of television history makes them obedient.

"Mime this one, mime," a crew member yells, as his cinema-goers get carried away with directions to create a din. With a cast of 123, a crew of more than 60, a budget of $5 million and more than 1000 extras, The Shark Net is the biggest television drama production to be filmed entirely in Western Australia.

Perth production company Taylor Media is behind the three-part miniseries, which has the backing of the ABC, ScreenWest, the Film Finance Corporation, Optus Television and BBC Worldwide.

The Shark Net is the tale of an idyllic childhood in Perth's western suburbs, centring on the beach and river, juxtaposed against the fearful paranoia that later envelops Drewe's world when serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke begins his murderous spree.

In many ways, Perth is the star of this show as much as the characters. Images of Drewe's childhood haunts around Dalkeith, Rottnest and Cottesloe will be beamed around the world.

Producer Sue Taylor says Sydney-based Drewe was adamant his tale be filmed in WA.  Taylor read the book two years ago but was not immediately convinced it could be dramatised. She bought the film rights anyway and enlisted Ian David to translate the narrative-dependent tale to screen. They opted for a miniseries as the most effective way of capturing the book's theme of paradise lost.

"I think the reason why we went for a miniseries was that we wanted to give it some room to breathe and let the themes and ideas grow," Taylor says.

"By going for TV, I felt that we could make a story that explored that loss of innocence and childhood from a personal and community point of view.

"It is important to first create that sense of paradise and then later the realisation that the kind of world you thought you were living in doesn't really exist."

David has broken the memoir into three parts, each dealing with Drewe at a different age. It moves from the subjective view of a boy to the objective stance of Drewe as a young journalist covering Cooke's murder trial.

Much of The Shark Net is uniquely Western Australian, but Taylor is confident audiences elsewhere will not be alienated.

The palpable sense of unease within the community while Cooke is at large and the struggle to control that fear is a theme Taylor believes is universal. And unquestionably applicable to a modern audience.

"It gives us our own sense of identity but I think others will find that interesting," she says. "It's a classic Australian story and it does have a very strong sense of place but it also has a very strong international resonance in the themes it explores."

Drewe as a young adult is being played by newcomer Tim Draxl while William McInnes has forsaken his full head of hair to play Robert's balding father, Roy. Other names include Leeanna Walsman in the role of Drewe's wife, Ruth, Angie Milliken as Drewe's mother, Warren Mitchell (Til Death Us Do Part) as police reporter Ralph Wheatley and Dan Wyllie as Cooke."

Many of these people actually lived and are still alive, so they need to be portrayed as accurately as possible," casting director Annie Murtagh-Monks says.

"It's a big challenge. This morning I cast two tennis players who had to resemble and be believable as Rod Laver and Lew Hoad.

"That was really tricky—not only do I need actors who can act and look like them but they also need to play tennis."

The Shark Net screens on the ABC next year.

December 19, 2002
By Melissa Kent
The West Australian