Small Claims: articles

Claudia Karvan and Rebecca Gibney

Claudia Karvan and Rebecca Gibney in Small Claims.

Gibney stakes her claims

Rebecca Gibney is at peace with her roles at home and on-screen, writes Peter Craven.

Small Claims sounds like an idea made in heaven. A set of detective story telemovies with two of the country’s best-loved actors, Rebecca Gibney and Claudia Karvan, as a sleuthing duo of down-to-earth women. Karvan is a brisk, unbutch, 30-something policewoman; Gibney is a one-time lawyer, at the cusp of middle age, helping to nurture husband and kids by running a catering business.

It’s directed by Cherie Nowlan, who made a splash some time back with the Frances O’Connor/Cate Blanchett girl comedy Thank God He Met Lizzie, and the idea is clearly to entice the mums and daughters into seeing Chrissy Hindmarsh (Gibney’s cake-baking solicitor) and Jo Collins (Karvan’s cop as dutiful daughter) as mirror images of ordinary women.

When I spoke to Gibney she was sounding blissed out by her 16-month-old baby and the beauties of the Tasmanian landscape. The voice that had oozed glamour and authority as Halifax f.p. was sounding laid-back and easy, as if life could be a lot worse, when we spoke on the phone.

“It’s Desperate Housewives without the Botox,” she says of Small Claims. “And with, I hope, a bit more reality thrown in.”

Reality sounds like a dimension in which she’s happy. Small Claims looks as though it may become a regular series. So far it’s a trio of telemovies, with one made 18 months ago and another to be shown later in the year. Gibney says that motherhood was something looming ahead of her. “Now reality’s caught up with the character I play. I turned 40 recently and I had my first baby. I live in a deeply pleasant environment in Tasmania. I love it all.”

She says that, yes, Small Claims is a bit of a Thelma and Louise thing, that’s part of its appeal to women and she believes that women are the TV-keepers of the world. “A lot of women control the remote in the households they run. The husbands and the boys might get their hands on it at the weekend with all the sport but most of the time television is a woman’s domain. A lot of my friends are very strong females and I think a lot of women are going to respond to the suburban setting in Small Claims.”

The episode White Wedding involves murder and fraud and a pretty blonde horror (Karvan’s half-sister Kiara, played by Alyssa McClelland) who seems to have got mixed up with some dodgy characters. There’s Michael Dorman (the blond boy from the last year of The Secret Life of Us) who’s also in trouble, but with old-timers such as Deborah Kennedy as the mother and Brooke Satchwell in the wings - and an actual hen’s night in the middle of the movie - this is very much a women’s suburbia that is disrupted by murder.

“I think we underrate suburbia,” Gibney says. “A lot more goes on in it, it’s a much more powerful world, than we sometimes imagine. I mean there’s plenty of drama out there. Suburbia. It’s a cesspool.”

As Desperate Housewives testifies. She likes the American soap but she’s bemused by the fact that Chrissy Hindmarsh is sometimes thought to show the influence of the Felicity Huffman character in DH. She thinks Huffman’s character is brilliant but says that Small Claims got there first. They arrived at the idea of the hassled, stay-at-home wife and mother who’d once had a career long before Desperate Housewives took up the theme.

“And, you know, when Claudia and I were approached we both insisted that we wanted to play ordinary recognisable women. I mean I’d done the Halifax thing and that was great fun with all the Armani suits. And, of course, everyone enjoys escaping into that fantasy life. They enjoy watching it and identifying with it and I certainly enjoyed playing that person with all that flash stuff.

But then there’s the world of having a baby and discovering that you’ve got fleshy bits under your arms and you’ve got a post-pregnancy pot belly. I think it’s a fact that particularly after the age of 35 most women start contemplating the fact that they will be overlooked for the nearest pretty 23-year-old.”

Obviously Small Claims and Desperate Housewives are reflecting something in the Zeitgeist, which is making women who might well have had lives elsewhere reclaim the suburban worlds they have deliberately chosen.

Gibney says that the third of the Small Claims telemovies has a parallel storyline to what happens to Huffman’s character in Desperate Housewives. “In the third episode she runs into a lawyer who knew her when she was a solicitor. There’s trouble-making and this makes her question some of the choices she’s made in life and where they leave a woman who’s a mother of 35 or 40.”

Whether or not Small Claims goes from being a moveable feast of occasional telemovies to being a series is in the lap of the gods.

“It’s very much up in the air,” Gibney says. “It depends on the ratings. It’s a terribly unfortunate thing though, the lack of Australian drama. We had decent TV drama once upon a time and we lost it. I’m very supportive of the idea of Australian drama. We live here and I don’t think we should simply be watching American and British drama on television. That’s why you have to support things like The Alice and hope they work.”

She points to the lack of resources invested in Australian TV drama compared to the American model. “Unfortunately we don’t have the money. Desperate Housewives would have 20 very good writers working on it to punch out a script. It has production values we can’t dream of affording. It has a string of directors.”

What’s the solution? “Well, I think the government needs to get behind television drama and provide some financial incentive for it.”

I asked Gibney if that was why some people refused to be involved with a full 22-week series, as opposed to a 13-week series (which is what she wants for Small Claims). The woman who was a star on Flying Doctors almost 20 years ago and who won an AFI award and a Logie for the very ambitious adaptation of Come in Spinner knows television like the back of her hand.

“They’re right to insist on 13 episodes when there just aren’t the resources for anything else and everything is likely to become threadbare. Though we used to do 22 episodes a year of Flying Doctors. But we were lucky with Flying Doctors. We had 14 days to do two episodes. Most Australian shows these days are expected to shoot an hour of television in five days. When you look at the circumstances under which something like Stingers was made it has to be commended, the results are fantastic. But think of what it could have been if it had been given a bit of money.”

Co-star Karvan is off producing and acting in the second series of her saga of love and pain among the young married and once married, Love My Way, which riveted pay TV viewers a few months ago with its sophisticated representation of young couples and by showing collective grief at the death of a child.

What did Gibney think of it? “I thought it was terrific. It had fantastic performances and it had a lot of appeal to younger people, I think. She’s incredibly gifted and brilliant, Claudia. It had great-looking production values even though I don’t think there was a huge amount of money involved, but the crucial thing was that Foxtel were really behind it and they gave it the time and money it needed.”

Gibney looks back fondly on Halifax and the luxury of making three telemovies a year and spending the time needed to make them properly. “I loved Halifax,” she says.

She sounds contented, almost dreamy as she looks back on it all, though her voice becomes intense when she talks of Come in Spinner: “It was my first, my only AFI award and it was a wonderful thing to do. It was so detailed. Every bit of the underwear you wore in it, things no one ever saw, was made in keeping with the history, it was absolutely accurate. It also allowed me to work with my very dear friend Kerry Armstrong.”

Then she sighs and digs further into her past. “And going back, well, there was Flying Doctors. I was a little New Zealand girl who’d just come to Australia and it took me to Paris and Cannes. You know I still get mail from Holland and Germany because of Flying Doctors. No one else in the world writes to me but the Germans are still fans.”

She sounds bemused when we talk about the remake she did of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, shot in Melbourne with Donald Sutherland and a cast of many Australians in bit parts sporting American accents. “Well, it was an interesting experiment.” She clearly wants to move around in her profession. “I did an interesting film recently called Lost and Found, in which I played a battered wife.”

So, she’s intent on playing roles that are not as glamorous as Halifax?

“Well, not as glamorous or more glamorous,” she says. “I wouldn’t mind playing a Sharon Stone-style serial killer.”

She sounds like a person who is looking out on a world of acting possibilities from the perspective of someone who has found what’s centrally important to her. She talks about how she’s soon to play the alcoholic mother of a teenage boy. “She’s a fine woman. She tries to encourage her son by getting him maps and globes. It’s just that she drinks.”

She’ll film it early next year. But for the time being it’s motherhood and domesticity.

“Now I’m focused on being a mum and doing that ridiculously idyllic thing. You know, growing organic vegetables and fishing in the river.”

Gibney and her husband Richard Bell live 40 minutes from Launceston. She loves the country. It reminds her of her native New Zealand. She says she could stay there forever as long as they can stop the plans to put a pulp mill down in the middle of things.

“It’s quite extraordinary,” she says. “We’ve learnt so much about not cutting down trees. Why in the name of God you would want to put a great bloody paper mill on this waterway, which would not only pollute Bass Strait but would pollute Launceston, which is already polluted, even more.”

It’s a flash of anger. There’s a hint of the same thing when she talks about the way the Americans are killing off the British film industry.

But then she talks wistfully about the rare films from this part of the world that work, Whale Rider in New Zealand, Lantana in Australia - was that the last Australian film she liked?

“Most of the time,” she says, “if a film has any commercial potential, if there’s an idea that people might actually want to see, it gets killed off.”

She’s concerned she sounds untouched. There’s the baby and the river. Gibney at 40 sounds like a woman who’s happy to be growing older.

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

By Peter Craven
August 13, 2005
The Age