Something In The Air: articles


Seeing change: Ulli Birve moves from the stage to TV's Something in the Air.

Southern exposure

A pearl clammed shut in a shell of privacy, Ulli Birve, the 35-year-old fresh face of Something in the Air, is every bit as reluctant to reveal herself as her screen character. Birve’s performance is thoroughly engaging as the vulnerable yet confident radio station manager, Helen Virtue.

With a background in theatre and after a smattering of “tiny” roles in feature films such as Kiss or Kill and Bad Boy Bubby, this is Birve’s first central role in a television series, and she is bashfully unprepared for the interest her newness and obvious talent excites.

“I’m really wanting to stay private,” she appeals. Besides, what’s the good of being famous when no one can pronounce your name? Oollee Beervay. It’s of French-German extraction, she offers.

Birve was about to tour with her latest show, Secret Bridesmaid’s Business, when her audition for the Something in the Air job came through.

“I have a great respect for the ABC. The scripts are fantastic,” Birve says. “The cast are delightful and the crew make going to work a pleasure.”

It is a difficult transition from theatre to television, she admits—hectic shooting schedule, minimum 12-hour days, weekends reading scripts, adjusting to different directors—and is surprised to hear she looks well on screen. When we spoke, Birve had yet to see her work in the series.

“I think I’d rather let the character develop internally and from the direction I’m given than from my own objective criticisms. In theatre, you don’t get to see yourself. I may be wrong, perhaps I should be looking at what I do. Maybe in time I will, but not for now.”

Birve sounds genuinely repentant for her unwillingness to discuss personal details. In Helen Virtue, however, she finds a buffer zone and echoes of her own life. Birve grew up in the country, “somewhere in South Australia”, on a diet of ABC and BBC drama and left to pursue an acting career in the city after completing an honors degree at the Flinders University Drama Centre in 1987.

“Helen is a humanitarian and strong-principled; sometimes, perhaps too much. She can afford to ease up on herself, but I think she’s been very much in denial since the death of her husband. Losing a loved one suddenly plunges anyone into thinking about those bigger issues of life—loneliness and who your true support people are. She found, in the corporate world, it wasn’t there for her, so she returned to what she remembered as real and honest.”

In the vein of Northern Exposure’s duelling hearts, Maggie and Joel, Virtue finds her hackles raised by the arrogant, big-city talkback host, Tom Dooley. “There’s a great cerebral wit shared between them but whether it develops into anything, I don’t know. Helen’s a very independent woman, I don’t see that because they’re a single woman and single man, they’re destined to be together. Hopefully Something in the Air isn’t formula and we’ll challenge formulas.”

Since shooting began last September, Birve’s greatest sacrifice is losing four hours’ sleep a night. Her preferred bedtime is 8.30pm. Any celebrity that comes from the show will be discarded until she develops a routine and finds time for life between studio and scripts. “I’m a workaholic. I’m disciplined. Tragically so. A bit of a loser that way,” she says.

Something in the Air is on the ABC Monday to Thursday at 6.30pm.

By Lisa Mitchell
March 23, 2000
The Age