The Secret Life of Us: articles


The warts-and-all slice of reality that is Secret Life of Us has proved to be more than a downunder copy of a foreign formula. Australian optimism has crept in to the series and taken it abroad, writes Jackie Dent.

When hairdressers asked Judi McCrossin what she did for a living, she would tell them she was writing a television show called The Secret Life of Us. McCrossin was a television-writing virgin. Hairdressers would shrug. The series wasn't on TV. Big deal.

"Now I'm working on a popular show!" says the talkative and playful McCrossin (who, when I point out that her blouse is undone, jokes that she was trying to crack on to me). "Like I went to the hairdresser recently up the road and I'm there, she's blow-drying me and she goes, 'What are you writing now?' And I go, 'Secret Life of Us'! I had to shout it really loudly because of the blow-dryer. Honestly, click, every dryer went off in the salon and this girl with all those streaks in, you know, turned around and said: 'Why did you kill Sam!' And that was so much fun."

For the first time, a whole generation of Australians are seeing themselves depicted in television, far, far, away from the usual caper that involves cop stations, hospitals and country towns. The twentysomething characters on The Secret Life of Us drink too much booze and sleep with the wrong people. They get frustrated with work and are stressed when they get home. They smoke the odd joint, lament the fact they can't find love and get shitty when flatmates don't buy the milk.

Alex the doctor is openly in love with her flatmate Evan the writer after a prolonged period of sexual tension. Too bad he has racked off to a writers' colony. Richie the actor is finally out of the cupboard while his ex-girlfriend Miranda is left to cope with the fallout.

Friends of McCrossin (who is related to broadcaster Julie McCrossin) are convinced she is writing about them. "Every single thing in that show that I write has happened to me or someone I know. How else can I know? But the thing that I get shocked about is that my friends all try to claim it," she says. "I've got about four friends who are doctors and they all think they are Alex."

With hearty ratings, all-important international sales and critics giving it the thumbs-up, The Secret Life of Us is what can happen when people in the television industry jump to the left a little. While Americans, the maestros of television drama, churn out interesting and addictive drama such as The West Wing, or the British can produce dramatically dark series such as The Lakes, Australian commercial television has long been stuck in a bog of cliches. The majority of the shows are not bad. They just don't move drama in any new directions.

"Every Australian show is basically 'here is the town' or 'here is the police station' and along comes evil every week," says John Edwards, a veteran of Australian television who is co-producer/co-creator of The Secret Life of Us. "Our characters beat up evil every week, chuck it out again and the world goes back to the way it used to be. God's in his heaven and the world continues. That's not the way I believe the world to be." In the past he has been responsible for Police Rescue, Big Sky and Echo Point (which he describes as the "Leyland P76 of Australian television".)

But The Secret Life of Us is not groundbreaking television either. It is a commercial, conventional drama about a group of young people living in a block of flats in Melbourne. It could easily be seen as a direct rip-off of the cult BBC drama This Life, which was about a group of similar young people in London. But The Secret Life Of Us has its own tone, its own new urban voice, where characters are allowed to sit on couches talking about life. While the characters might be riddled with angst, they are still kinda happy with their lot. Where Friends in America are bitchy, this Aussie posse is really quite nice.

"What surprised us is that when Channel 4 [in the UK] first read the script, they said, 'This is great, we've never had a show about middle-class people that is so optimistic'," says Edwards, who is sitting with McCrossin in a Bondi cafe. "What! We didn't set out to do an optimistic show but I think there is something in our nature that makes us tend to be optimistic, even though the show is about a much more morally grey place. It was not about having a positive spin on things 'cause I don't think we ever sat down and said let's be positive about this."

The project came about more because of commercial reality than late-night talks about great art. In 1999, Edwards says, there was "a prolonged structural crisis in hourly television production". Local drama was flopping because it was getting tougher to sell overseas. (It remains an endemic problem and the Australian Broadcasting Authority is currently conducting a review.)

SeaChange is a good example of how difficult things have been. The series was a hit, Sigrid Thornton was back on magazine covers and the theme of getting away from the big smoke entered the cultural imagination. But SeaChange was expensive and without sales in other territories, it died. Even if you could get sold overseas, as the popular Water Rats did, sometimes it wasn't enough to cover the budget. Faced with this, Edwards says he could have opted to make an expensive show that could compete on the international market–McLeod's Daughters and All Saints are recent successes–or he could go cheap. "If we wanted to go cheap, we wanted to go really interesting," he says.

With a premise that the show would be about moral ambiguity, that is, about how people screw up their lives and then try to sort them out, Edwards put together an eclectic team of old yellers and pups. Edwards co-produced/co-created the show with first-timer Amanda Higgs, 35. The original one-hour script was written by the highly experienced Christopher Lee (Police Rescue, Stringer et al) with McCrossin, in her mid-30s, who had never written for television before. A character-driven concept and script was born.

It captured slight interest from Channel Ten, who with a bad run of drama saw it could fit in with its youth-oriented schedule. To get the show to air, the creators turned it into a two-hour telemovie. And in what was a first for an Australian series, Channel 4 liked the script and pitched in. The creators now had enough money to make a medium-priced show.

A strong throng of new-blood Australian actors started showing interest too. Claudia Karvan, Deborah Mailman and Joel Edgerton, actors traditionally from a film or theatre background, signed on. Cate Shortland, a young director with little experience but a CV of impressive short films, was given a shot.

When The Secret Life Of Us eventually premiered in July last year off the back of Big Brother, about 1.3 million Australians tuned in. The numbers then slid, largely because it was up against Sex and the City–even The Secret Life of Us staff say they were switching over. McCrossin says she used to feel "sick" each Tuesday morning waiting for the Monday night ratings to come in.

But once Sex went off air, the ratings crawled out of a deadly black hole and averaged about 900,000 viewers for the rest of the season. While these numbers don't compare to Blue Heelers, which attracts about 1.7 million viewers, The Secret Life Of Us ended up being the no. 1 show among the wallet-opening 16- to 39-year-olds, a demographic that makes networks purr.

The production company Southern Star must now be having a good purr too. Channel 4 came on board as a production partner last year and is continuing to put in some cash for a second series which is costing $10m to make. The first series has since been sold to Trio, a minor cable network in the US, as well as to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, South Africa, Finland, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand and Iceland. It has won prizes too, which always looks good on the CV. In 2001, Samuel Johnson, who plays a Lothario writer, won best actor at the AFI awards. The series recently won a bronze in the television drama category at the New York Festival, coming third after the critically lauded Six Feet Under and The Sopranos.

"I think the show is a reflection of all the good elements of creative collaboration," says Higgs, sitting inside the run-down Vineyard Cafe, in St Kilda, Melbourne, which is used as a hang-out spot on the show. It has become something of a tourist attraction and spectators are outside watching the shoot. Victorian Premier Steve Bracks was among the rabble for a while, choosing the set as a backdrop to make a press announcement about funding for a new film studio. (The decision to set the series in Melbourne came about after Channel Ten suggested it: the theory goes that Sydney people will watch a Melbourne show but Melbourne people would not watch a Sydney show.)

Before producing The Secret Life of Us, Higgs had spent much of her career as a script editor working on Police Rescue, Wildside and Water Rats. Higgs likes to talk about script. "The writing of this show is the cornerstone of where it all began and where it all starts for everyone," she says. Once a writer finishes their script, they have intense meetings with directors and actors, and do all their own rewrites. Actors often suggest changes to the script or possible plot developments.

This is quite a departure to how script departments normally operate on one-hour Australian dramas. "When I worked on Water Rats, often they would deliver a second draft script and there wouldn't be enough money to pay the writer for a third draft, so script editors like me would rewrite in-house. I am not a writer. I am not. You would be asked to rewrite people's work who you really respect," she says. "But you know they've got this whole machine and it's very driven by logistics, and it's driven by crime and it's driven by boat chases. It's a different beast, whereas our show is driven by characters. Every word is really important."

Higgs' attitudes about script were formed in 1995 when she went to the US on an Australian Film Commission script-editing fellowship where she had working attachments on the prime-time dramas Picket Fences, Chicago Hope and ER. "Primarily the script is what everyone works from. It's not just a document that once the director comes on board or the actors come on board, something gets tossed out of the window. It is something that is worked on with everyone and it's worked on a lot."

McCrossin had written Fetch, a successful short film, and produced two documentaries, including Susie is a Fish, the story of Susie Maroney's horrible swim from Cuba to Florida. While Channel Nine's Ray Martin may not think so, an interesting part of her background was her producing role in the hilarious and edgy John Safran pilot that never made it to air on ABC television. The show included the now legendary segment where Safran confronted Martin outside his house about dodgy journalistic practices.

"The better end of television–there is so little there," she says. "No young director doesn't want to do our show. They all want to do our show, not because they have changed their attitude to TV so much as they saw some TV that was worth doing. Why would you want to do [other TV shows]? You're groovy, you've come out of film school, you watch all these really hip films and suddenly you have to go do some turgid, bloody bullshit show!"

Spencer McLaren seems quite happy about leaving Home and Away to play an actor on The Secret Life of Us who realises he is gay. "I think they are trying to make [the characters] very human, very realistic and that's what's enjoyable… as opposed to the two-dimensional person who you think, well, hmm… You walk off set thinking this is pretty crappy but anyway you want to do it, people watch it, they buy it–but you would prefer to have a three-dimensional character."

McLaren did a fairly hot scene last season where he made out with another man in a locker room. He has had a fair amount of character development, to say the least: "It's been such a great journey. That's a gift as an actor for someone to give you something that meaty, and you think, great, let's go, from here to here, such a big jump."

But the creators admit they have made mistakes and they often have huge arguments about what should or should not go in the show. "I also hate the idea that we think our show is beyond criticism, because we just don't," says McCrossin. "I have seen lots of things that I have written, lots of scenes that I think feel flat. It was either my writing, or it was performance, or it was direction or whatever… we are always going 'that was a mistake we shouldn't have done that'. We are super critical."

And of course there are flaws. Problems between characters are solved a little too quickly. Where the women are strong, the men are at times quite wussy. While it is OK for the characters to drink a noticeable amount of booze, the creators have taken a moral stance against showing the characters smoking, which seems a little hypocritical. Young people drink and smoke.

But then, how can they win? At a meeting of young alcoholics in Melbourne last month, the show was singled out for sending a pro-alcohol message to young people. Perhaps it's a healthy sign that The Secret Life of Us is succeeding. It is reflecting contemporary society–a quality that has long been missing from Australian drama.

By Jackie Dent
February 13, 2002
The Bulletin