The Secret Life of Us: articles

The secret is out

Goodbye blokey cops and medicos, hello sexy, flawed twentysomethings. Channel Ten kicks off its local drama push in fine style, writes Debi Enker.

It's one of those fierce summer days in Melbourne and by mid-afternoon, up on the roof of an old-style block of flats in St Kilda, the sun is relentless. The atmosphere on the roof is congenial and businesslike, but these aren't easy working conditions. Heavy equipment must be lugged up and down three flights of narrow wooden stairs, and the cast and crew are working through a handful of scenes over five hours in the blistering heat.

"It's diabolical up there," sighs actor Claudia Karvan. "The characters we're playing are having lots of fun, drinking and having parties, but every time we shoot there, it's about 35 degrees ... It looks beautiful but it requires a little more effort."

The effort is rewarded by striking views of this sexy, slightly shabby beachside suburb. The look is funky and fun, a mix of retro charm and urban contemporary. It's exactly the feel the producers of The Secret Life of Us are trying to evoke for Ten's new local drama.

"Rooftops are intrinsically sexy things," muses co-producer John Edwards, a veteran of Australian TV drama. "Long ago, when I was at that age, we used to have a really great rooftop and the best educations took place there. It felt very romantic—public-place sex where you think you're safe."

There are lots of liaisons, dangerous and safe, in The Secret Life of Us as its tribe of twentysomethings move between beach, bar and bedroom in a messy, funny, anxious dance of life. The 22-part series—the flagship of Ten's renewed commitment to local drama—charts the relationships of nine central characters, eight of whom occupy three apartments in the same block.

There's Alex (Karvan), an unlucky-in-love doctor who shares her flat with a laid-back writer, Evan, played by Samuel Johnson. ("He's a slut," says Johnson with a grin.) In the telemovie that opens the series, they're looking for a flatmate. Cue the arrival of the exuberant Kelly (Deborah Mailman).

Upstairs lives Alex's best friend, Gabrielle (Sibylla Budd), and her boyfriend, Jason (Damian de Montemas). She's a political staffer and he's a lawyer. Scaffolder Will (Joel Edgerton) and actors Miranda (Abi Tucker) and Richie (Spencer McLaren) occupy the third apartment. Simon (David Tredinnick), a bartender at the local bar, completes the core group.

While this is ostensibly an apartment-block drama, its sensibility is far removed from such soaps as Number 96, Above the Law or Aaron Spelling's hammy Melrose Place (all of which screened on Ten). Its scripts are witty and insightful, its characters vibrant and engaging, and it conveys an authentic sense of city life. The conversations between the female characters sound more genuine than those on such allegedly female-oriented shows as Sex and the City or Ally McBeal.

Claudia Karvan, whose film credits include High Tide, The Big Steal, The Heartbreak Kid and Risk, was cautious at first about making a six-month commitment to a TV series. "The only television series I've ever done was at the ABC when I was about 15—The Last Resort—so you can understand why there was some trepidation."

She says what swayed her was the quality of the scripts. "I committed to four episodes, but when I saw the telemovie and I read the four scripts, I decided I'd like to do the whole thing ... I don't think I'd ever seen anything like this on Australian television. The characters have flaws, they're not perfect, and these aren't moralistic stories. There's a sense of humour."

Shows about the lives and loves of (demographically desirable) twentysomethings have come in a rush over recent years: comedies such as Friends, Coupling and Spaced; dramas such as This Life and Love is a Four Letter Word.

Edwards and co-producer Amanda Higgs were keen, however, to create a new style of Australian television for a new century. "We were trying to do something that wasn't a traditional medical drama, legal drama or police drama," says Higgs, for whom Secret Life represents a first big gig as a producer.

"I was a big fan of This Life—John less so—but I thought that it was really about good storytelling, good scripts and good actors. And I thought that was something that we could do in Australia: it didn't rely on special effects or big budgets. With good scripts and a good cast, we could do character-based drama that wasn't necessarily about the world of cops."

Edwards, who describes Secret Life as "This Life with a sense of humour", agrees that it's time for a new style of drama in this country.

"In Australia, we've been making old-fashioned shows," he says. "They've been, philosophically, shows of a small town. Here is our world, evil comes along every week, bumps into our world, we beat up evil and throw it out again and we go on happily ever after. That's the Blue Heelers paradigm, which applies to most of our drama. But there's a new wave. On American television, Buffy ain't that, Dawson's Creek ain't that, even Party of Five ain't that. They are much more morally ambiguous."

Christopher Lee, one of the show's two writers, also sees this as a new chapter in Australian drama. "What we were trying to avoid was what you could almost call the television of last century: blokey cops, doctors and lawyers, a plot-driven show with superficial characters. On Secret Life there's no plot, as such. There's just the depth of the characters and the questions that we ask them, the problems that we put in front of them. We treat each episode thematically: there's a theme that we deal with, and we use that theme to dig into the characters, rather than working out some sort of three-act structure where a plot is developed.

"Aussie television has been very blokey and we have consciously tried not to make this show blokey," Lee continues. "It was really something worth trying to do, and I think it's got a whole new sensibility."

Lee credits Higgs and co-writer Judi McCrossin with honing the show's female perspective, and their involvement in the creative mix illustrates what Edwards refers to as an "old-head/young-head" strategy operating behind the scenes.

There has been a conscious effort to team experienced practitioners with up-and-coming talents: McCrossin, who wrote the 1998 short film Fetch, paired with Lee; director Lynn-Maree Danzey, who directed Fetch, worked on the telemovie with estimable director of photography Ellery Ryan; Edwards paired with Higgs.

When Edwards and Higgs approached Ten with the project late in 1999, the network had just given the green light to the ill-fated Above the Law. Although enthusiastic about Secret Life, Ten was reluctant to commit to another series.

"We pitched a show about moral ambiguity," recalls Edwards. "I did the whole philosophical thing about how we have to break new ground and they gave us sixpence to go away and start and we came back with a bunch of characters. They were preoccupied with other stuff, so they let us experiment for a while—they let us play."

Ten was not entirely hands off. It was the network's executive producer for creative development, Rick Maier, who suggested shifting the show's location from Bondi to St Kilda.

"Rick has always had the view that it's really tough to get a drama to work on Ten; they've had a bad track record in recent years," says Edwards. "But Melbourne viewers will often stick with a Melbourne show a little bit; they'll give it a go. And in that first year, the death year, when it's so hard—if you've just got that little bit of home-team support, that might be enough to get you over the first-year hurdle."

In something of a coup, the producers stitched up an unprecedented financing deal with Britain's Channel 4. Also raising backing from Optus and Southern Star, the producers shot the telemovie in a lightning-fast three weeks on a shoestring budget. Channel 4 loved it and committed to a series, affording Secret Life a prized sale to a prestigious network in a major international market. The UK deal also provided sufficient funding to shoot on film rather than video, and to stretch production to six days an episode rather than the usual five.

The show's solid financial foundation is a big bonus. "From a hard-nosed business point of view, no Australian show has worked since Blue Heelers," says Edwards. "Eleven hour-long shows have been ordered since Blue Heelers. Some of them have worked domestically—Water Rats and SeaChange have—but they are still carrying huge deficits; they haven't got their money back. But there has not been an Australian show succeed in primetime in a major territory outside Australia since Police Rescue."

The Channel 4 deal means that Secret Life, which premiered in the UK on July 3, starts its screen life in the rare position of being in the black.

Back on the roof, Karvan and Budd are baking on the banana lounges as their characters mull over the latest twist in Gabrielle's love life. Karvan was the last actor to be signed for the show and from the producers' point of view, her involvement is a major asset: apart from being an accomplished actor, she's highly promotable.

Karvan, for her part, is having a wonderful time with her spiky, vulnerable, shoe-loving character, and is enjoying being a part of a talented ensemble. "To be in Australia and to work for a whole six months, with great actors and fantastic directors, it's a godsend," she says. "I'd be happy to do something like this every year."

If Secret Life gets the attention it deserves, she might just get the chance.

Who's who in The Secret Life of Us

Evan (Samuel Johnson) One of the show's narrators, Evan is Alex's good friend and flatmate. He's also a very laid-back writer who spends more time chasing women than slaving over his stories. A publisher is gagging to see his first novel. Now he just has to write it.

Kelly (Deborah Mailman) Evan and Alex's exuberant new flatmate has an inability to hold down a job or a relationship. As one of the show's narrators she offers plenty of philosophies on life.

Gabrielle (Sibylla Budd) A political staffer, Gabrielle is Alex's best pal since primary school. She lives upstairs with her lawyer boyfriend, Jason, but it's not all domestic bliss.

Jason (Damian de Montemas) Gabrielle's live-in love and a lawyer who wanted to make a difference but is disenchanted with his life. A passionate impulse puts his relationship in jeopardy.

Simon (David Tredinnick) The enigmatic bartender at the local watering hole, The Fu Bar, Simon listens to everyone's problems, dishing up advice and liquor.

Richie (Spencer McLaren) An aspiring actor on the road to success, Richie is the partner of Miranda and flatmate of Will. He struggles to remain grounded as his acting career soars and Miranda's goes nowhere.

Miranda (Abi Tucker) Ambitious, beautiful and insecure, Miranda is also an aspiring actor who lives with Will and her boyfriend, Richie. Can she keep it together as she watches Richie climb the ladder to fame?

Will (Joel Edgerton) A down-to-earth scaffolder who thinks Hamlet is crap and shares a flat with two actors. He's still nursing a broken heart courtesy of Leah (Tasma Walton) when she waltzes back into his life.

The Secret Life of Us premieres on Monday, July 16, at 8.30pm on Ten.

Debi Enker
July 09, 2001
Sydney Morning Herald