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Bush coppers show mettle

By Bryce Hallett
January 18, 1994
The Australian

It's been called A Country Cop Shop, but the creators of the police drama series Blue Heelers say it covers fresh ground. Bryce Hallett investigates

THE latest in a long line of locally made police dramas dispenses with the crusading heroes of the past and opts for a new generation of flawed and caring cops.

Already the series Blue Heelers has been dubbed A Country Cop Shop by critics and commentators, while its creators are adamant it will chart new territory. It is not, they argue, a shrewdly contrived amalgam of A Country Practice, Police Rescue, Matlock, Cop Shop and the like.

No one at the Seven Network, however, is denying the police drama has been programmed to fill the gap left by A Country Practice (the Ten Network is reinventing the series) or to recapture some of its ratings since Wandin Valley went up in smoke and Steve Vizard's self-elected demise.

The format and structure of A Country Practice—a mix of rural settings, timely issues and larrikin humour—has undoubtedly given rise to Blue Heelers. It is set in the fictional rural community of Mount Thomas and features a small cast of newcomers and well-known actor John Wood. Much of the success of the series hinges on character and story appeal.

According to executive producer and co-creator Hal McElroy, the series is the first to examine the stressful world of young police who are invariably "thrown into the deep end where they are left to sink or swim".

He and writer co-creator Tony Morphett believe Blue Heelers "has legs". Not only does it tap into the spellbinding genre of crime fiction, it also probes and compresses "real stories" of young cops caught in the crossfire.

"The life of young coppers is far more interesting and complex than we could ever invent," observes McElroy. "We wanted to use the country as a backdrop to stories which have an urban relevance. In the country, things are simpler and this will bring clarity to the storytelling."

The first hour-long episode covers plenty of ground, including rape, the shooting of a dog and an attempted suicide. McElroy finds the success of earlier police dramas a reassuring factor but he knows that the audience will decide the fate of the series.

The producer of the 1980s television mini-series Return to Eden and The Last Frontier, McElroy reckons that the "time is ripe" for a drama that deals squarely with contemporary issues and focuses on "young coppers".

Blue Heelers, which was initially titled Boys in Blue, was developed during the past three years at a time when McElroy decided to part company with his brother Jim McElroy and set up a joint venture with Southern Star Entertainment. He says his return to Australian television has come via "a wave of commitment" by the cast, crew and the Seven Network.

The show's starting point comes from the producer's own interest in the police force and his coming to grips with why young people are drawn to such a harrowing and potentially hazardous occupation.

"Sixty per cent of the police are under 26 and yet they are placed in enormously stressful circumstances," he says. "In the first three episodes, Blue Heelers tackles date rape, insurance fraud and child neglect. They are viewed from the perspective of young cops who face extreme situations and live on the knife's edge."

McElroy exhibits undaunted child-like wonder as he strolls through the Melbourne studio where the series is largely being shot. Surrounded by cameras, lights, cables, monitors and what seem little more than cardboard cutout sets, the producer turns off his mobile telephone to listen excitedly on the sidelines as the cameras roll.

The producer, ever commanding and confident, has every faith in the show and its small stable of actors, but baulks at the description of one commentator that the series is "purpose-built", or contrived.

Rather than "purpose-built", McElroy suggests the series is a composite of many elements, some more familiar than others, which ultimately seeks to relate stories with "a straightforward sincerity, humour and economy".

Filmed on location at Castlemaine in central Victoria and the Melbourne suburb of Williamstown, much of the character-based drama is played out on the interior sets of the police station and Imperial Hotel, which occupy part of Seven's Melbourne studios.

The series focuses on the lives of a close-knit bunch of officers who are depicted not as daring, gun-ho crusaders but people with fears, frailties and flaws.

"Much of the drama revolves around the strengths and inadequacies of the individual characters," says McElroy. "And unlike many police shows in the past there's nothing predictable about this one. The stories have been conceived to keep the audience guessing."

A spokesperson for Seven says Blue Heelers brings a 90s perspective to relationships and language, despite the apparent grip of rural conservatism. "The relationships between the characters modern dilemmas and sexual politics," she says. "The world of the police is steeped in chauvinism but this is not a heavy-handed or overdrawn feature of Blue Heelers."

For actor John Wood (Power without Glory, The Last Bastion, Rafferty's Rules), Blue Heelers has every chance of setting a new standard for local television drama. In the patriarchal role of Senior Sergeant Tom Croydon, the veteran actor is attempting to flesh out an old-fashioned "good bloke" who doesn't hold back. "The stories are direct and deal with vital and timely issues," he says. "They also yearn slightly for a simpler way of life and a community which values humanity.

"Blue Heelers is by far one of the best scripts I've read since I did Rafferty's Rules. They are intelligent and entertaining."

Starring Grant Bowler, Ann Burbrook, Lisa McCune, William McInnes, Julie Nihill and Martin Sacks, the show is intended to be intimate and real rather than unnecessarily complicated or larger than life.

Morphett, one of the country's most successful television writers, believes the characters and how they are fleshed out will be crucial to success. "I hope the audience like the people and respond to them because for me as a writer that is the key," he says. "Blue Heelers is very much a show for the 90s—it examines issues affecting people in the city and country today. It's about battlers who are proud and indefatigable."