The Secret Life of Us: articles

2004 cast photo

The Secret Life of Us cast.

Revealing secrets

With five new characters, a refreshed creative team and a mid-week timeslot, The Secret Life of Us hopes to regain its must-see status. Kylie Miller reports.

It started out as fresh and sexy: a new Australian drama set in vibrant bayside Melbourne; a shift away from the usual hospitals, courts and cop shops; a vigorous series filled with contemporary urban characters appealing to Ten’s favoured youth demographic.

But The Secret Life of Us is at a crossroads. Audience numbers fell last year as the series lost its must-see status. And after three years on air, its creators and most of the original cast have left.

When the drama returns this week—to a 9.30pm Wednesday timeslot—many familiar faces will be gone. There also has been a shake-up behind the scenes with the departure of creator and producer Amanda Higgs and original writers Judi McCrossin and Christopher Lee. Ross Allsop and Peter Millington, who has worked on the show since its inception, have stepped up as co-producers, along with newcomer Liz Packett.

“The end of the third series was a turning point for a lot of the cast,” Allsop says. “They were basically out of contract with the show, so it was certainly their choice to go.”

While the producers are focusing on the benefits of renewal it is undoubtedy a blow for the show, which last year suffered its lowest ever ratings after peaking in its first year with a national audience of 1,394,262.

Some critics also were less than generous, arguing the series had run out of steam with a soapy dependence on romance, constant bed-hopping, a flurry of single episode guests and a lack of character development among the central cast. It lost another strength mid-season with the departure of Claudia Karvan. By year’s end, fewer than a million people were watching, 200,000 less than the previous year.

But the producers believe they have cooked up a spicy mix of old and new to secure the drama’s future. Again following the lives of eight 20-something characters sharing apartments in St Kilda, the writers also will mine drama from sibling relationships, a bachelor pad and inter-apartment conflict.

“It’s given us a great opportunity to write new stories and also to include the previous cast in those stories,” Allsop says. “I came from Stingers and I think that was one example where the new cast really picked up and the show kicked on. I think the new cast can give a really strong injection of life into a show.”

Those who have left include original cast Spencer McLaren (Richie) and Sibylla Budd (Gabrielle) and last season’s additions Gigi Edgley (George), Nina Liu (Chloe) and Dan Spielman (Tidy). The departures were carefully mapped and an exhaustive search made for replacements.

To develop the characters, the producers went back to the drawing board, watching early episodes and working to tap their strengths. In this series, they hope the pace and humour of the first series will return.

“With that foundation of all the friends living together under the same roof you can do so much,” says Millington. “We looked at all the things that we loved and said let’s do more of that.”

When we return to St Kilda on Wednesday, we find Kelly and Evan searching for a flatmate—a nod to the drama’s telemovie debut in which Evan and Alex (Karvan) found Kelly. By the end of the first episode, apprentice hairdresser Bree, played by Brooke Harman, has moved in.

Apartment nine, initially the domain of Christian and his girlfriend Tahlia (Pia Miranda), becomes a bachelor pad—and a source of comic moments—when Christian is joined by Stu (Stephen Curry), an old mate from Geelong.

The third flat, number 11, is occupied by three newcomers: commitment-phobic stockbroker Adam, played by recent NIDA graduate Nicholas Coghlan; Lucy, a teacher, played by Alexandra Schepisi (MDA); and Anna Torv (Young Lions) as Nikki, an administrator in a city office. Also in the apartment is Lucy’s undisciplined moggie Orlando.

As the cast departures are left unexplained, so are the arrivals. “Basically we’ve said that apartment 11 has been there all the time, we just haven’t seen them,” says Allsop. “We’ve just moved on, saying this is our new gang… We took the opinion early on that it was best to move forward and give these new characters new stories. We’ll go into the stockbroking firm, we’ll go into Nikki’s workplace, we’ll go into Lucy’s school. Lucy has a fiance overseas. Eventually he’ll come over.”

While the story mix would continue to explore the “big-ticket emotional issues”—sexuality, careers and life-changing choices—and the minutiae of apartment living, the departure of so many players, on-screen and off, gave the producers a chance to introduce new dynamics, says Millington.

“We had the mandate to sit down and say, ‘What dynamics have we not seen on Secret Life before? What dynamics would we like to see?’” he says. “That gave us the opportunity to say, well, we’ve never seen a sibling relationship, we’ve never seen those kind of family things that place an influence on anyone’s life.”

So Adam and Lucy are brother and sister. Minxy Nikki is Lucy’s best friend and an object of desire for Adam.

“The three of them form a triangle where you are never quite sure who’s on each other’s side. Even though they are very tight, they do fight. The ground’s constantly moving on who’s taking sides with whom,” he says.

Not unlike the Will/Miranda/Richie relationship in the first series. “The other big dynamic that we really wanted to explore was a bachelor pad. Two guys living together and getting up to no good basically. That’s where Stephen Curry’s character, Stu, came in.”

The introduction of Stu also enables the writers to explore Christian’s history. When Christian moved into the flats after the departure of Will (Joel Edgerton), early in series two, he quickly slipped into the circle after befriending Evan at a bowling green. Viewers never learned much about him.

“We always had Stephen in mind for that role,” Millington says. “The two of them, the way we’ve written it, was always going to be pretty laconic. It’s not Men Behaving Badly, but it’s watching a couple of Geelong boys trying to find their way in the big city. It’s just added such a great dimension to Christian’s character and to the show.”

Most importantly, the producers wanted to avoid a “revolving door feeling” where the new and established characters became friends too quickly. Instead they start the series with a “full on domestic barney”.

When we rejoin the drama, the occupants of two apartments are at war, the battles fought over issues that will bring smiles to the faces of those familiar with apartment living: the behaviour of Lucy’s recalcitrant cat, shared facilities and the trickle of water that results when two residents shower simultaneously.

“They’re having fights over the communal washing machine. They’ve got a cat that belongs to the new apartment wandering the building and crapping on Kelly’s doona and leaving fur all over the place and basically giving everybody except the cat’s owner the shits,” he says.

“We wanted to have that conflict right from the start. That’s another thing on Secret Life we haven’t really seen before, people not getting on. Generally speaking the guys in the apartments have all been friends with each other.”

Eventually the dust settles and bonds form. But while steps are made to resolve the dispute at the end of the second episode, it is a slow burner, with conflict between some characters continuing throughout the series.

“It’s nice for another character to dislike Kelly,” Mailman says, of her character’s ongoing row with Nikki.

“That’s been really interesting. All the characters seem to like Kelly because of her character, she’s that loveable open person.

“I don’t think she’s ever had conflict with another character so it’s really interesting to have new people come in and misread Kelly completely and not know who she is and go, ‘Oh I really don’t like this girl’.

“It’s interesting to play. It’s a mirror image, two people not clicking. To the point where she doesn’t bother to try to make it work.”

In coming weeks we’ll see Kelly continuing at university and struggling to overcome the humiliation of being caught cheating on an exam. Rhys Muldoon returns as her lecturer and potential love interest, Frank, and Sullivan Stapleton continues as a fellow student, Justin.

Evan is finishing his second book and struggling in his relationship with Jemima, who first appeared in series two as a journalist and is now editing his book.

“Evan’s going to be growing up in this series,” Millington says. “We try to make him more mature about love… He goes from being a serial polygamist to learning.”

Personal growth will allow Evan to move on—along with actor Sam Johnson, who has only signed on for six episodes. “Growing a character up is probably, in Secret Life terms, the way you can best exit them from the show without being melodramatic,” Millington says. “You can exit characters in big dramatic ways like we did with Sam on the first series, Will’s girlfriend, when she got killed. Or you can do what we’ve done with Alex and Rex, and Evan, on this series, and grow them up and make them look for things that are outside of our world.

Secret Life’s got to always be about your 20-something years and the mistakes you make and the testing the waters that goes on in those years.

“It’s not necessarily about people settling down and working out what they want from life. I think the process of working out what you want is what our guys do. They’re trying all sorts of different things… I think it’s about making mistakes and learning from those.”

“It’s a big change,” says Mailman, of the new cast and crew, “and I think they’ve all stepped into it with such confidence and enthusiasm that it’s hard not to be infected with that.

“Am I worried? Yes and no. I felt that it needed to be. There had to be some sort of shake-up, I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to happen.

“I think after a while when you bed that many people for so long, it just gets to the point of ridiculous. They were kept in this very insular sort of world. Very rarely did we see an influence outside of that circle and I think it started to repeat itself. Finally we are seeing an outside energy coming in to almost shake up the little world of theirs.”

As long as the viewers agree.

By Kylie Miller
February 12, 2004
The Age