Small Claims: articles

Rebecca Gibney and Claudia Karvan

Rebecca Gibney and Claudia Karvan balance family life with catching the bad guys in Small Claims.

Bad guys and bubs

Small Claims deftly explores the domestic side of crime fighting. Debi Enker reports.

It started at playgroup. Amid the plates piled with fruit, the globs of playdough and the talk of teething trouble, writer Kaye Bendle discovered a diverse bunch of women united by their roles as mothers.

Nursing babies, chasing toddlers and changing nappies, these were people who had not so long before been arguing cases in court, running businesses, teaching classes and generally occupying a range of other equally responsible roles in their community.

Now they were trading tips on how to make mushed-up avocado look appetising and ways to bake a birthday cake that would look like a truck. Bendle went home and talked about playgroup with her husband and writing partner, Keith Thompson.

From the conversation that followed, Small Claims was born.

Commissioned by Network Ten as a trio of telemovies and starring Rebecca Gibney and Claudia Karvan, it premiered in May last year.

The first one attracted a healthy national audience of just under 1.2 million. The second, White Wedding, screens on Sunday, while The Reunion is expected to air before the end of the year.

Those who saw the 2004 telemovie, which deftly blends murder mystery with domestic drama and a touch of character comedy, will already be familiar with its accidental detectives.

Jo (Karvan) is a brusque divorced policewoman who’s seen her career sidelined since the birth of her now three-year-old son. Chrissy (Gibney) is a salt-of-the-earth solicitor and happily married mother of three.

They met at playgroup, where Chrissy was the easygoing stalwart who arrived with a plate of home-baked goodies while Jo was the uncomfortable newbie who’d really prefer to be chasing crooks than singing I’m a Little Teapot.

The case that united them involved another playgroup mum.

Co-writer and co-producer Thompson, who has previously worked on an array of award-winning productions, including Halifax f.p., Marking Time and Wildside, says, “The touchstones of the telefeatures are sex, money, career and kids.

It was important for us to show that bad guys can be parents too. Bad guys can have relationships with kids that are meaningful to them.

“The one thing that most of us have in common is our kids and the feelings that we have for them. We wanted to examine how crime is often prompted by those kinds of passions - jealousies about kids, wives, relationships, infidelities - as much as it is about the million-dollar bank heist.”

In White Wedding, the focus is on the messiness of Jo’s blended family and the problems in the lead-up to her step-sister’s nuptials. Kiara (Alyssa McClelland) is anxious that her dream wedding should be perfect. Jo’s mother, Trudy (Deborah Kennedy), and step-father, Ron (Roy Billing), are trying to keep the event on track and calm the skittish bride-to-be.

Meanwhile, brother Sean (Michael Dorman) is missing and there’s been a murder that appears to have a connection to the approaching event.

“We made a decision early on that, as much as possible, the crimes should illustrate elements of Chrissy and Jo,” says Thompson.

A wedding offered the ideal framework: to explore Jo’s failed marriage, her relationships with her parents and siblings, and the ways in which her police skills could help them in troubled times.

Weddings also come with built-in dramatic advantages, Thompson observes: “Wedding stories can be so potent. All emotions are heightened: there’s a princess for the day, there’s the possibility of fights and frictions, and there’s tears at the end. They also provide you with a natural dramatic structure: there has to be a wedding at the end. That’s your ticking clock. A wedding story can be a bit like a parlour game - every member of the wedding party could be a suspect.”

As the fraught family goes through the familiar rituals Jo and Chrissy are trying to decipher some nagging questions concerning a missing brother, blood in the boot of his car, and the groom’s past. So amid the talk of canapes, there’s also crime.

“The trick of the series is to marry the low-concept domestic with the kind of high-concept murder-mystery,” says Thompson.

“It’s the trickiest thing about the show because those two elements don’t naturally sit together. The two types of storytelling run at different tempos: a crime story usually gets along at a fair old lick and domestic detail moves at a slower pace, it’s more reflective and discursive.

“We need the domestic to feed into the narrative: the domestic elements have to advance the crime story. We can’t lose the sense of mystery or the motor of the story but we don’t want one to take precedence over the other.

“We have to integrate domestic detail, the fact that these women have lives to be going on with: they can’t do the car chase if the babysitter hasn’t turned up. We have to walk a line between having the thing become totally plot-driven and losing all the interest in terms of the domesticity, or having it become a bit of a soap and losing interest in the mystery.”

Thompson says that along with finding a desirable balance between the crime story and the domestic detail, he and Bendle were keen to examine the notion of multi-tasking.

“We needed the spine of a good crime mystery so that we could look at women and parenthood. Another touchstone of the series for us is that women multi-task in a way that I don’t think guys do. A man has a plan and follows it. But women, particularly mothers, have to multi-task.

“As detectives, they have to multi-task as well and, in our stories, the police are less successful in finding the bad guys than the mums because the mums have an intuition and a way of sizing-up relationships.”

As the mums apply their intuitive skills to these wedding woes and then move on to Chrissy’s law-school reunion for their next case, the future of Small Claims is up in the air.

Karvan is committed to a second season of Foxtel’s drama, Love My Way.

At the Cannes MIP television market in April, Ten was hawking a spin-off series starring Gibney. It’s currently in development and awaiting finance. If it goes ahead, Small Claims could be destined for bigger things.

Small Claims: White Wedding screens on Sunday at 8.30pm on Channel Ten.

By Debi Enker
August 11, 2005
The Age