The Secret Life of Us: articles

New Secret for old

AT FIRST glance, the set of The Secret Life of Us is impressive in its realism and detail. The books, CDs, posters and furniture that deck out the rooms in the warren-like St Kilda warehouse tell their own stories about the inhabitants.

I peek into a chest of drawers, looking for a useful metaphor. And the drawer is empty, apart from a chewed-up apple core and a crushed can of Red Bull.

Have all the drawers been emptied at SLOU HQ? Has this groundbreaking drama for 20-somethings lost its flavour?

The signs were bad last year. Audiences drifted away from the rather repetitive bed-hopping and angst of series three, as the talented cast endlessly asked themselves the same questions, and got no closer to the answers.

This year sees big changes. Most of the original cast are gone, along with the producer and two main writers. Lots of new characters arrive. Evan (Samuel Johnson) and Kelly (Deb Mailman) get a new flatmate and neighbours, Christian (Michael Dorman) teams up with his blokey friend Stu (Stephen Curry), and the guest role of Justin (Sullivan Stapleton) becomes a regular character.

Mailman, who has been there from the start, happily agrees that the previous series lost its way.

“I was excited by the changes this year because I thought that’s what it needed, some sort of reinvention,” she says.

“It was getting into a sort of a pattern. There are only so many triangles you can do in a relationship before it becomes a bit boring.

“Secret Life is character-driven, we don’t have the luxury of falling back on stunts, or hospital or cop dramas. We rely on the writers’ invention.”

One of the most nerve-racking things for Mailman was becoming the “senior” actor, taking the reins from Claudia Karvan and Johnson (who leaves early in the new series). She also becomes the “voice” of the show—the reflective narrator previously played by Johnson.

The excitement has returned for Mailman thanks to this challenge and the new faces, voices and directors.

One of the new faces, Stapleton, lives down the road and has been watching the cast play soccer outside his house for years—while working as a brickie’s labourer between acting gigs.

He says the fourth series is strong because it has returned to its roots.

“Naughty, nitty-gritty, dirty stuff going on,” he says. “Lots of sex and alcohol and drugs and naughty behaviour. There’s still that element of drama but with the likes of Steve Curry and Michael Dorman and their friendship, I think it’s got back the raunchiness with a comedy aspect.”

Ross Allsop started working on series one, and worked closely with Amanda Higgs as associate producer, bouncing ideas around in edit suites.

This year he graduates to the producer’s chair, replacing Higgs. He denies that SLOU lost its way last year.

“I think we were suffering from our own success. People expect so much,” he says. “They expect it to keep going up and up.

“You’d get a criticism, ‘Secret Life seems a bit boring or repetitive’, but on the next line the critics would write, ‘This is still some of the best writing on Australian television’.”

The new writers’ team is bigger, and with a stronger male and comedy element, according to Allsop. He says the cast changes were driven by necessity. “These are some of the most ambitious and talented young actors in Australia,” he says. “It’s always going to be hard to keep them saddled to one job.”

Other characters had come to the end of the line as far as the story was concerned, he said.

When they put their plans for series four together, they asked what stories had not been explored.

“We hadn’t seen a bachelor pad, men behaving badly,” he says. “We really wanted to explore that dynamic, and we came up with the character of Stu and thought about Stephen Curry almost straight away.

“The other thing we hadn’t seen was a brother and sister. A lot of people live with their brother or sister when they leave home, and it’s interesting to see that vibe.”

At writers’ meetings, they often just talk “about our weekends”, Allsop says. “It’s a show about the family that you create around you once you leave your family.”

For SLOU, cast and crew, that family is the show itself.

By Nick Miller
February 18, 2004
The West Australian