Tripping Over: articles

Stumbling and fumbling

Mistakes and missteps are part of the emotional baggage in Tripping Over. By Debi Enker.

ANDREW KNIGHT has always been more interested in his characters' quirks than their qualities. It's the flaws that excite his whimsical imagination, the messy bits, the mistakes. He likes to refer to it as the emotional baggage that clatters along behind people, weighing them down, interfering with their relationships, mucking up their best-laid plans.

Over the years, Knight and a number of co-writers, including John Clarke and Deb Cox, have given us a gallery of endearingly idiosyncratic types: hapless detectives Ken and Bryce in The Fast Lane; nervy Laura, laconic Diver Dan and the wobbly Jellies of SeaChange; battling marrieds Rosie and Ben in CrashBurn; the troubled trio of brothers in After the Deluge.

An appreciation of human frailties is clearly something that Knight shares with his current writing and producing partner, lawyer Andrea Denholm (SeaChange, Worst Best Friends, After the Deluge, CrashBurn). Even the title of their latest project, Tripping Over - a $9 million, six-part co-production between Channel Ten and the UK's Channel Five - announces an interest in missteps.

The series tracks the journeys of a loose collection of family and friends as their lives obstinately fail to conform to the courses they have planned. As they stumble about, they're buffeted by surprise announcements, accidents and brief encounters that could alter the course of their lives. For some, the state of flux is exacerbated by the fact that they're travelling, away from home and removed from their comfort zones. That's the way that Knight and Denholm pitched the idea for the production to Ten's drama chief, Sue Masters: "a show about Brits living in Sydney and Aussies living in London". Denholm recalls Masters' response as: "I like it, but can I have a bit more?"

With Cold Feet creator Mike Bullen, Knight and Denholm retreated to a house at Airey's Inlet, spent three days brainstorming and emerged with 10 characters and a framework for their stories. Their comedy drama has a handful of 20-somethings travelling from Australia to Britain and in the opposite direction. They're following different routes and seeking different things.

London lawyer Tamsin (Alexandra Moen) is, with some puzzlement, fulfilling her mother's dying wish by taking time out from her brilliant career and impending marriage to visit an old friend, Lydia (Rebecca Gibney), at her Sydney pub. Tamsin's pals, Lizzie (Kathryn Drysdale) and Callum (Leon Ockenden), who have been travelling in Asia, plan to meet her in Thailand.

Lydia's son Ned (Daniel McPherson), star of the Aussie TV soap Next Door, is aiming to improve his acting chops by scoring some serious roles on the English stage. His maths teacher pal Nic (Abe Forsythe) is going along for the ride and to reunite with Felicity (Brooke Satchwell), the girlfriend he hasn't seen in eight months. Meanwhile, their parents are dealing with their own stuff. Lydia's ex-husband and Ned's dad, lawyer Jeremy (Paul McGann), is going through bureaucratic hoops to organise an adoption with his second wife, Annabel (Lisa McCune). Elsewhere, Jeremy's brother James (Nicholas Bell) is leading a happily uneventful life with his family in the English suburbs. Until . . . well, it all unravels, for each of them, in different ways.

IN TRIPPING Over, life is an untidy and defiantly unpredictable business. What becomes apparent from early on is that Knight and Denholm, script editor Bullen and contributing writers Anna Funder (Stasiland) and Matt King (SkitHouse, Jimeoin) have a real affection for their characters as they behave badly and try to find their feet.

Knight fondly describes Ned as "a five-year-old dressed up as a leading man. He's a soap star who feels that it's necessary to become even more famous and more successful, and he'll be sorely tested. He's a rather sweet, damaged young thing and he's like one of those push-over dolls that comes straight back up. He's completely appalling in almost all regards except you can't not like him."

The exuberant McPherson, a Logie winner whose own career - Neighbours, Godspell in the West End, The Bill - is perhaps uncomfortably close to that of his character, would initially have preferred to audition for the role of Nic.

"Before reading the scripts, I cringed," he cheerfully recalls. "I thought, 'I can't play an ex-soap star who goes to London to be a proper actor 'cos dammit, I am an ex-soap star who's gone to London to be a proper actor.'

"Luckily I think that's where most of the similarity ends."

McPherson describes Ned as "a loveable wanker", adding that, "What others may perceive as arrogance or self-importance comes from a well-meaning place. His identity is formed from him being a soap star.

"His head is perhaps a bit big and he has a slightly warped view of the world where he truly is the centre of the universe. But he does all that in a really good-hearted kind of way.

"He's like one of those naughty kids that could do a million things wrong and get away with everything 'cos he just doesn't get it.

"He just smiles and trips his way through life."

McPherson sees Tripping Over as the tale of "a bunch of people in their mid-20s, in the time post-growing up and pre-mortgage and kids, making mistakes on a global scale. Then you've got their parents, who are pretty much paying for the mistakes that they made at the same time in their lives."

He's understandably keen to put some distance between him and his character, and Knight and Denholm agree that while he's the perfect actor for Ned, he's also "much cleverer than the character, a much better actor, grounded, very even-tempered and a good team player".

But McPherson does have Ned's enthusiasm and infectious high spirits and they're evident even as he tends to a recurrent back injury by rolling around on the floor of his trailer on his final day of the three-month shoot. It's day 55 on a production that has taken in four cities on three continents.

Early in August, the location is the St Helier's convent in Abbotsford, which houses a number of sets, including the interior of Tamsin's London flat, Lydia's Sydney pub and the courtyard of an English rehab facility. McPherson is deliberately avoiding the wardrobe department sale that allows cast members to buy their character's clothes: he wants nothing to do with Ned's clobber beyond the requirements of the fiction.

Meanwhile the more soft-spoken Forsythe (Marking Time, Always Greener) is contemplating going out for lunch as he's finished shooting. Like Nic, he's thoughtful, a bit scruffy and quietly funny. Knight says Nic is "funny but melancholic, one of those supremely intelligent beasts who sailed through university". Now, adds Denholm, "he doesn't know what to do with his potential". The problems in his love life serve to confuse matters further, although they did allow Forsythe to have some fun. "I got four sex scenes with three different women," he notes happily. "Dan didn't get any. I'm the cast bike!"

Forsythe neglects to mention, however, that in a slightly less appealing aspect of this exotic showbiz life, one of those scenes was shot in Bangkok, while he was suffering from a nasty bout of noodle poisoning.

IN HER trailer, English actor Alexandra Moen is, fittingly, planning her post-production travels. Her coffee table is piled high with books about great Australian destinations. She plans to see more of the country when the shoot wraps, going back to Sydney then Port Douglas.

For her, Tripping Over is about "five people in their late 20s who have to make adult decisions for the first time in their lives and ask themselves whether what they're getting out of their lives is really what they really want". Her character "is a control freak and nothing's ever gone wrong for her. Her life changes dramatically and by the end of the series she's unsure of where she's going. But that's what she has achieved: the confidence to admit being fearful."

The actors speak glowingly of the scripts, of the richness of their characters and the care that has gone into Tripping Over. And the creators feel an affection for these characters as they try to make sense of their lives and find their place in the world.

Everyone involved is hoping that the initial six episodes will grow into a second series and even a healthy future beyond that. But the current climate for local drama is a ruthless one. Networks have no patience with shows that don't perform to expectations from the get-go, and producers are anxious.

Amid that pre-launch anxiety, Knight cherishes the memory of the first time the key cast assembled in Bangkok for a read-through of the script. They were staying in a lovely hotel overlooking a river. A storm was rolling in. The table reading began in a big, beautiful room and the writer-producers were struck by how well their characters were cast: the actors fit their roles and the chemistry was palpable.

"With this one, we got it right," Knight says. "They really are terrific. So if people hate it, don't blame the actors. It is completely random what happens to a show: they can be good and never work, or they can be bad and work massively. That's beyond our control. But there are moments when there is just pure creative energy in the room and it's just wonderful."

By Debi Enker
October 19, 2006
The Age