Young Lions: articles

When crime becomes personal

In a dimly lit interrogation room, actor Anna Lise Phillips, sheathed from her springy blonde ringlets to spike-heeled boots in black leather and lace, speaks softly to a man wearing a taxi driver's garb.

A cameraman holding a steadycam circles her slowly as Phillips questions the man, suspected of being a serial killer.

Bemused, he takes in her appearance. "Are you a detective?" he asks. "Why do you dress like that? Why do they let you dress like that?"

"Don't you like it?" Phillips teases, perched on the table above him. "I think you do."

She ignores his denial. "There's nothing wrong with it, John," she coaxes. "We're not angels. We're not far from animals. You're not evil, John… We're alike you and I. I wouldn't condemn you, because I have the same thoughts. Tell me, John. I know you want to. I wouldn't think you were evil, just tell me."

Earlier in the episode—number nine of Channel Nine's new drama series Young Lions—Phillips' character, Detective Cameron Smart, callously brushed off a former lover while working undercover in a nightclub. Within hours, he has been murdered.

Smart, feeling responsible for the death, is wracked with guilt and self-loathing. At her lowest personal ebb, she confronts the killer.

According to series creator Michael Jenkins, the scene encapsulates what his latest drama is all about: the personal blending with the professional to shape the way characters respond.

Jenkins, whose credits include The Heartbreak Kid on the big screen, and Wildside, Blue Murder and Heartbreak High for television, is thrilled with the early episodes of Young Lions, claiming a level of sophisication not attained in his previous work.

"In this series we are reaching for new levels of personal story," Jenkins says. This is not achieved in a "soapy" way, but expressed through the professional lives of the characters.

"In other words, the crimes they are involved in impinge on them and change their lives. With this show, 70 per cent of this show is personal and 30 is police. Shows like Wildside were probably 30-70 the other way."

The two-hour curtain-raiser, screening on Wednesday night, opens as country cop Donna Parry transfers to the city and meets her new partner, the brooding and difficult Detective Eddie Mercia. His story, and an explanation of his intractable behaviour, unfolds during the action-packed premiere.

The main characters are introduced: young senior constables based at a gritty urban station known as Southwest 101.

Alex Dimitriades is Mercia, Alexandra Davies is the larrikin Parry, Tom Long is the mysterious Guy "Guido" Martin and Phillips plays party girl Cameron Smart. Katherine Slattery, as Mercia's sometime lover, defence lawyer Madelaine Delaney, and Penny Cook as Chief Inspector Sharon Kostas, round out the cast, while Terry Serio and Peter O'Brien have substantial guest roles.

The production emulates what Jenkins considers to be the best of American television writing—long-running series such as The Practice, E.R. and early seasons of NYPD Blue—where audiences tune in week after week to see what is happening to the main characters, how they cope with their professional lives in medicine or law or crime.

"Your memory of those shows each week is not, by and large, the crime or the medical case or the legal case, it's what's happened to them each week," he says.

"That doesn't mean they've gone home and had a scene around the dinner table discussing the affairs of the day. What it means is there's a complete integration of their personal welfare with their work."

As Young Lions unfolds over a 22-episode season, viewers learn more about what drives the characters. "But you never find out everything about them," Jenkins says. "You keep finding out things as the series goes on."

Deep into the series, critical facts about Eddie Mercia's past still dribble out.

We first meet Dimitriades' Mercia as he gazes out over the sleeping city, the words of his droning narration gripping your attention: "You start out with nice clean lines, good and bad, black and white, then you end up wanting a man dead and you look at yourself and you wonder, 'Will it be today?'"

Dimitriades, first seen by Australian audiences after being plucked from high school to star as a lovestruck Greek teenager in Jenkins' 1992 feature The Heartbreak Kid, was attracted to Young Lions by the depth of Mercia's character.

"We are trying to cover a lot of ground in this show and I think it has interesting stories and characters who are developed on several different levels," he says.

The chance to work again with dramaturge Nico Lathouris was also appealing. The pair worked together in the same capacity on Heartbreak High, Wildside and Blue Murder, and Lathouris was nominated for an AFI acting award for his performance as Dimitriades' father in Heartbreak Kid.

The dramaturge, a luxury in Australian television, bridges the writing and acting process, rehearsing intensely with the cast. Lathouris works with writers, producers, directors and actors to determine each character's path.

"I see my role as two-fold," Lathouris says. "Firstly to aid in the exposure—or release—of the drama. And secondly, helping the actors to resolve the conflict in the drama."

Dimitriades jokes that a dramaturge's role is like that of a priest.

"A high priest of drama," he laughs, setting standards for the actors to meet.

"He's almost presenting a challenge for you to present the truth of your character… Once you are presented with the theory, it really is a challenge for you to be truthful in order to create the purist sense of realism for the character. It's quite difficult stuff. It is very challenging and demanding and exhausting."

Working with a dramaturg held similar appeal for Tom Long, the only Melbourne-based actor in the cast.

After playing a string of dozy characters—the surf-mad Angus Kabiri in SeaChange, cardigan-wearing Glenn in The Dish and a Scrabble-playing thug in Two Hands—Long was keen to stretch his range.

Guido is dark, with a dangerous edge. His lover, whom we meet in episode two, is the drug-dealing, coke-snorting daughter of a mobster.

"I love Guido," Long says. "He's the sort of person I'd have a beer with. He's a bit unpredictable, there are lots of shades of grey, he's not very consistent, he can bend the rules a bit."

Unpredictability is also a trait Jenkins sees in Long, with whom he had worked in Long's first television outing, The Leaving of Liverpool.

He says the actor brings a "great electricity" to his work, "a kind of sense about his work that when he's playing a character you don't know what his character is going to do next. Kind of a danger about him."

Jenkins and Errol Sullivan, the head of production company Southern Star, took the idea for Young Lions to the Nine Network's head of drama, Kris Noble, nearly two years ago when cop shows were dominating local production.

Southern Star was already making Blue Heelers in Melbourne for the Seven Network, but its Sydney-based series, Water Rats, was drawing to a close. The pair pitched the idea of making the series off the back of Water Rats' conclusion, keeping the same crew in work. Nine agreed straight away.

The result is a slick, stylish urban drama, shot on film and at the high-cost end of Australian television.

"When we designed it, everyone was saying the last thing we want to see is another police show," Jenkins recalls. "But, we thought at the time, that situation won't prevail in a year or so and of course it's all turned around."

To the casual observer, there are obvious differences between this and Australia's continuing cop dramas, Stingers and Blue Heelers. This is a glamorous, youth-driven show. With the exception of Penny Cook's chief inspector, none of the characters is older than 28—the producers have kept their commercial audience in mind with a young, beautiful cast.

But Jenkins believes the real difference is in the scripts.

"What's often missing on Australian television is the kind of drama that can intellectually engage you," he says. "I don't think that's anybody's fault, its just that we've never really put sufficient development money and time into the creation of scripts. (For Young Lions) we've spent a lot of time on the scripts. We rewrite them a multitude of times to try to get them right."

While well-written American series tackle moral and social issues, they are deeply buried in character so audiences don't feel like they are being lectured, he says.

Co-producer Peter Schreck, who has worked with Jenkins on and off for more than 20 years, anchors a team of writers including Tony Morphett (Blue Heelers, Water Rats), Shelley Birse (Love Is a Four Letter Word, Wildside), Deborah Parsons and John Banas.

Four police experts and a psychiatrist are attached as consultants and have helped inject a feeling of authenticity.

They deal with issues straight from the headlines: drug use, police corruption, mental illness and ethnic tension. In the series opener, brawls erupt between Vietnamese and Lebanese gangs and the cops struggle to prevent warfare using their contacts, intelligence, wit and negotiation skills.

"There's nothing rednecked about our characters and good detectives are not rednecks, they are intelligent," Jenkins says. "When our detectives interview somebody they talk with them, they don't start hitting them with phone books… They are really engaging in society in the way a true professional can do, be it a doctor or a lawyer or a policeman."

And they include the character flaws that make them human, such as that displayed in episode nine by Cameron Smart.

"She's been wrestling with her own sexuality and a young man with whom she's had a casual encounter ends up being a victim of the serial killer," he says. "She didn't give him five minutes in the middle of the night when he wanted it, while she was a cop, and an hour or two later he's dead. And this affects, very much, the interview she eventually has with the serial killer."

And so a conflicted character brings her personal life to work, twisting it to her advantage to solve a crime.

Young Lions premieres on Wednesday at 8.30pm on Channel Nine.

By Kylie Miller
July 11, 2002
The Age