Tripping Over: articles

Worth the trip

Ten's new drama series is up there with the best television Australia has produced, writes Graeme Blundell

"YOU don't ever know where you are," says a bit of graffiti in a Bangkok toilet, as one of the leading characters in Ten's new drama series, Tripping Over, throws up.

"A door closes, another opens; the universe provides," says a character in the riveting first episode. "The way of true travel."

Then a catharsis of cosmic proportions violently engulfs him.

In this stunning six-part series, five young travellers from London and Sydney, all on different paths, meet in Bangkok, where a tragic accident irrevocably changes their lives.

The show follows the group, now without safety nets, as they travel to each other's countries or return home haunted by life's uncaring capriciousness.

An older but hardly wiser generation (Rebecca Gibney, Lisa McCune and Paul McGann are all excellent) -- their lives also in transition -- dodges painfully, and often hysterically, in and out of the younger's multiple narratives.

This Australian-British co-production between Corner Store Films and Britain's Five Broadcasting is as amusing as it is confronting, the compounding puns of its title emblematic of its sardonic wit.

The creative team comprised SeaChange writers and producers Andrew Knight and Andrea Denholm and Mike Bullen, creator of Cold Feet, the early 1990s cutting-edge British comedy-drama about a generation of young people also entangled in the sexual politics of love and friendship.

"We were serving two masters in Channel 5 in the UK and Ten in Australia and they both had their own agenda," co-executive producer Bullen says with a kind of amused laugh. "It was like picking a team. If a certain person got one role, it affected who got the other role. It was hard getting the team on the pitch."

The first episode, a straight-up gem of seamless plot construction and character development, features the younger cast brilliantly led by Australians Daniel MacPherson (Neighbours, The Bill) and Abe Forsythe (Marking Time); and Brit Alexandra Moen (Foyle's War), Kathryn Drysdale (Vanity Fair) and Leon Ockenden (Midsomer Murders).

Forsythe, wonderfully lugubrious as Nic, the accident-prone maths teacher on his way to London to surprise his girlfriend, steals the episode. "We like the idea of grand themes and little people," says co-writer and producer Knight. "All these people flying around and colliding with each other, then moving apart."

Probability, fate and destiny are the grand themes, along with the metaphysics of travel itself. The series demonstrates how, despite a shrinking world, travel still removes us from the everyday, enabling us to think more clearly about who we are and where our lives are going. And yet we remain ourselves, lugging all the psychological baggage and limitations that reality provides, and the home we leave becomes a figment of our imagination.

And the free-wheeling, highly cinematic but seemingly improvisatory style reflects the serendipitous nature of that experience.

"The lineal arc, the three-act structure of traditional drama series, becomes a bit metronomic," says Knight. "I think, with so many viewers drawn to reality TV, they are looking for something that's structurally different."

Bullen, Knight and Denholm wanted to deliver a show with the essence of a story, but in a different, more compelling shape.

"The camera wobbles about like it has Parkinson's disease sometimes," Knight says with a laugh. "But you feel like you are watching a more lateral narrative. It is the fickleness of things, which adds to the intensity of living. We've tried to capture that stylistically."

Like Love My Way and The Secret Life of Us, Tripping Over often uncomfortably navigates the confusions and complexities of extended families and the unlovely spaces of contemporary relationships. And the way that personal dealings with loved ones, and friends too, are really a parallel career for most of us; disconcerting, demanding, and only occasionally really satisfying.

At its core, I suppose, is the supposition that, no matter how unconnected things seem, there is a certain pattern to human experience. And a show as good as this brings us characters who, in talking about themselves, are talking about us all.

The language is crisp, sometimes thorny and abrupt, like real conversation. But the illusion of the everyday, demotic speech camouflages the contrived formal quality of the writing, its condensed brilliance.

Knight and Denholm are particularly good as writers at revealing information while slyly detracting attention from it, or tucking it away in a moment, before demonstrating its greater significance. This is a skill no writer is born with; a discretionary refinement is required that comes only from tedious practice.

"The dialogue seems minimal but there were once wads of it," Knight says.

"The actors were so good we were able to cut out about 90 per cent of it. We wrote scenes that were finished and rounded in the traditional way, then decided, at the edit, we could lose them.

"There are places where we have deliberately made the look ragged, even oblique. It's better to leave a scene with actors giving viewers four or five different messages before it's resolved."

This is the sort of show that, from the start, sets up a relationship with the viewer. As happens in only the best TV drama, the writers seem to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding and teasing with a kind of throwaway casual story-telling elegance.

Watching it becomes a kind of dialogue, or even a friendship, based on identification, understanding, and companionship.

Tripping Over is up there with the best series produced in this country.

Ten deserves congratulations for going out on a limb with a local product written, acted and produced with great discernment.

But the show's creators are nervous. "In the past I've done stuff aimed at people like me," Bullen says. "Here we're aiming at a younger audience and we're trying to hit two targets in different countries with one shot."

And Knight is delightfully blunt. "Of course, this show could die the death of a thousand dogs," he says. "I've been spectacularly wrong before. Everyone seems delighted about this show. They always are until it fails."

Tripping Over, Wednesday, 8.30pm, Ten

By Graeme Blundell
October 21, 2006
The Australian