The Surgeon: articles

Nicholas Bell, Justine Clarke, Sam Worthington and Matthew Zeremes

Clean cut ... from left, Nicholas Bell, Justine Clarke, Sam Worthington and Matthew Zeremes in The Surgeon.

Out on a limb

Ten takes a punt with a new format and raw realism in the medical drama The Surgeon.

Over the past few months, while many were reading Australian drama its last rites, The Surgeon was quietly taking shape, unhindered by the blather of hype that tends to accompany new local productions. It's been a low-key process at odds with the profile of those involved - producer John Edwards (The Secret Life of Us, Love My Way), writer and co-producer Judi McCrossin (The Secret Life of Us) and actors Justine Clarke, Sam Worthington and Nicholas Bell.

Edwards originally pitched the half-hour drama to Channel Nine, but there was no money for it in this year's budget so he took it to Ten. That network was looking for a drama and jumped at the project. It was ordered and in pre-production a week and a half later, with the eight episodes shot over 24 days in August and September. When Ten programmer David Mott saw the first episodes he liked them so much he rushed the show into this year's schedule.

Edwards is as surprised as anyone at the speed of the process, although he says it was an easy show to pitch because it was so clearly about something. "Everyone who's read that story goes, 'I get it.'... It's about a woman in a man's world."

Clarke plays the titular surgeon, Eve Agius. In her final year of training, she struggles with sleep deprivation and the relentlessly blokey hospital culture. She has a prickly relationship with her colleagues, including her womanising superior, Dr Sierson (Bell), troubled anaesthetist Dr Dash (Worthington) and a bitchy younger nurse, played by Katie Wall.

"Each episode is based around a certain operation, so the focus of the drama is really on what happens to the patient on the table," Clarke explains. "It's not really about people's private lives or their sex lives. It's about their working relationships."

"You never go home with the characters," Edwards says. "Right from day one that was the concept."

The seed for The Surgeon was planted after Edwards and Claudia Karvan left The Secret Life of Us. "Claude and I looked at doing 'Dr Alex and Dr Rex' - the surgeon and the anaesthetist. We decided to do Love My Way instead," Edwards says. "Some of the research for that just stuck with me for ages."

Edwards was also toying with another idea - to make a cheap, commercial half-hour drama, with the format dictating the momentum of each episode. "I kept on thinking you can make a show of half-hour episodes in a hospital situation and make it like little thrillers, so that your first commercial break's one big cliffhanger, the second commercial break's another one. And we figured if you did an ultra-real series and you were really dogmatic about the reality, you might get this really exciting show in half-hour eps."

When it came to finding a writer, Edwards immediately turned to McCrossin, with whom he'd worked on Secret Life. "Jude comes from a completely medical family - her brothers and sisters are all doctors, her father's a doctor, her mother's a nurse," Edwards says. "She just loves real stuff."

McCrossin, who has kept a low profile since Secret Life, jumped at the project, signing on as head writer and co-producer. She knocked out the pilot script in two weeks, but admits it was difficult. "Choosing a disease was hard, everything was hard - it's just a difficult show to write. And also first episodes are hard because you don't know your characters."

Did her family help? McCrossin laughs. "They were very annoying, very annoying. They always say the same thing: 'Who told you that?' None of them thinks I should be doing a show about surgeons. They think surgeons are weird."

The Surgeon has an understated rawness and realism that recalls Love My Way, although it is a very different beast. Think ER without the soap and melodrama and with a distinctly Australian gallows humour.

Asked to compare it with medical dramas such as ER and Grey's Anatomy, Clarke says: "It's bleaker and it's more real. I know Judi wanted to explode a lot of myths that get created from medical shows, so we've tried to be as true to life as possible [while] still making it entertaining."

"I wanted to make it a medical show," McCrossin says. "Not Young Doctors, even though I loved Young Doctors. I wanted to make a medical show that focused on work."

McCrossin wrote five of the eight scripts (one with journalist Roy Moynihan), with the other three written by Fiona Seres, who also worked with Edwards on Love My Way. "[Seres] was particularly tuned for this because her husband died three months ago in medical circumstances," Edwards says. "So it's very close and it's very raw.

It's a very intense kind of show."

To ensure the kind of realism Edwards and McCrossin were after, a doctor worked on each script and was on set at all times. Clarke researched heavily for her role, talking to surgeons, watching operations and reading as many books as she could. "She's like a girly swot," McCrossin jokes. "She could operate now," Edwards says admiringly.

Clarke laughs when told this. "Yeah, I think I could, too. It's quite thrilling really. Of course, I only worked with prosthetics, but I can see how people have a passion for it. They don't call it an operating theatre for nothing."

Contributing to the show's realism is the set - a decommissioned ward at Ryde Hospital. You wouldn't know you'd left the real wards if it wasn't for the cameras. Actors and extras, some of them nurses, wander the halls in scrubs and real equipment fills the operating rooms. Creepily realistic prosthetics limbs and body organs lie about on trolleys.

It's a big place, allowing for long tracking shots as actors move between halls, wards and storerooms. It also has a slightly run-down appearance that mirrors the show's understated mood.

For the actors, having the set in a real hospital was a mixed blessing. Clarke jokes about leaving the set and walking through emergency with her head down hoping no one would call on her. Clarke also recalls how one actor, Betty Lucas, was stopped by staff while trying to find her way back to the set, dressed in a nightie. "She's saying, 'I'm an actress,' and they were saying, 'Of course you are, dear, come this way.' "

Standing on set with Edwards, his enthusiasm for the project is obvious. He raves about the look of the show and is already looking ahead to a second series. That decision, however, lies with the viewers. Although the format is designed specifically for commercial television, the show is grittier and more downbeat than your standard commercial fare. It will be interesting to see how viewers respond.

Edwards is happy to take the risk. "Everybody's sick of everybody doing safe stuff that isn't working," he says. "Let's have a go; let's have a crack like we did with Secret Life and see what comes out."

The Surgeon begins on Ten on Thursday at 9.30pm.

By Greg Hassall
October 10, 2005
The Sydney Morning Herald