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Coast and Crew

By Michael Idato
Sydney Morning Herald
June 25, 2007

Understanding the air of anticipation surrounding the new Nine Network drama Sea Patrol, executive producer Hal McElroy says, is as simple as the powerful allure of the sea. "The sea is elemental and when we look at it we know that it's bigger, stronger, deeper and darker than us. We can't beat it and we also know that anyone who goes out to work at sea is a brave person."

Sea Patrol is a 13-part drama series about the officers and crew of a fictional Royal Australian Navy patrol boat, HMAS Hammersley, which is responsible for "security, surveillance, protection, support and relief" along Australia's coastline - at 35,877 kilometres.

The imposing silhouette of the Hammersley could be seen as a metaphor for the entire project - big. Sea Patrol's budget is reported to be about $900,000 an hour, a record for an Australian drama. It has big boats, the biggest being the 220 tonne, 42-metre HMAS Ipswich, which stands in for the Hammersley. And it has big boys - a crew of 24, including the fearsome Buffer (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor), Charge (John Batchelor) and Swain (Matthew Holmes).

Filming on Mission Beach and the Gold Coast for almost three months, the production, with navy muscle behind it, shifted a crew of 60 people and six tonnes of equipment on and off boats almost every day in open water. The project's floating production office, dubbed "the mothership", was a 22-metre catamaran.

"It's the toughest shoot I've ever worked on but the most enjoyable," says McElroy, who, with co-producer and wife Di McElroy, has impeccable credentials. Most prominent on a long list of hits are Return to Eden, Blue Heelers and Water Rats.

His greatest talent, says actor Lisa McCune, who starred in Blue Heelers and has a lead role in Sea Patrol, is "an instinct for putting together a great team" - in this case, directors Chris Martin-Jones and Geoff Bennett and writer Tony Morphett. Morphett played an important role in shaping both Blue Heelers and Water Rats and wrote the first two episodes of Sea Patrol.

The McElroys had talked about a patrol-boat-themed series for several years. However, the recent interest in border protection and national security issues generally, and perhaps the ratings success of the Seven reality series Border Patrol in particular, lit the fuse. "Success in popular culture is all about timing; are you on the right spot on the wave as it is approaching the beach? Everything seemed to line up," Hal McElroy says.

The heart of the show's appeal, he says, lies in the navy's "absolute certainty" in the way it operates. "They've been doing this since Trafalgar," he quips. "There are rules and regulations but they're all there for the right reason. It's reassuring when you see people saying 'Yes, ma'am' and 'Yes, sir', to see that there's order in the world. It's a glorious tradition in a world that is short on tradition, discipline and self-sacrifice."

The navy, for its part, clearly understood the marketing value of a television co-production - the much-loved ABC drama series Patrol Boat, produced in 1979 and 1983, was made with navy co-operation. The McElroys signed a five-year exclusivity agreement with the navy that ensures the series has access to ships, personnel and equipment, library footage and technical advice. This lends the project, for little actual cost, the sort of cinematic look new Australian dramas will need in order to fit seamlessly into TV schedules featuring US programs with episode budgets four or five times bigger. (In a curious cameo, the HMAS Wollongong, one of five ships used as HMAS Defiance in Patrol Boat, was used briefly in Sea Patrol when the Ipswich was unavailable.)

In some ways, Sea Patrol seemed a curious pitch to a commercial network, where police stations and hospitals are the preferred settings. But Nine liked it. Drama executive Jo Horsburgh steered it through development and script producers Vicki Madden (Water Rats, Halifax f.p.) and then Susan Bower (The Alice, Little Oberon) developed the overall story arc.

Each episode is written with a stand-alone story but the series is linked by one thread, a developing mystery surrounding the unexplained death of a scientist on the isolated (and fictional) Bright Island - a dramatic concession that allowed the project to secure funding as a miniseries.

The first episode introduces McCune's character, executive officer Lieutenant Kate McGregor, to the crew of the HMAS Hammersley, teases the audience with hints of a previous romance between her and the captain, sends the crew off on a boarding action to detain an illegal fishing boat and then a rescue operation on Bright Island, where the first clues in the show's mystery thread are introduced.

Ian Stenlake, best known to TV audiences as an undercover cop in Stingers, was cast as the boat's captain, Lieutenant Commander Mike Flynn. McCune, a perennial audience favourite, is his second-in-command. "The test is always, can you imagine anyone else playing them?" Di McElroy says. "Who else could play the XO like Lisa? Who else could play the commanding officer like Ian? It's on the money."

As well as Buffer, Charge and Swain, the ship's crew includes Nav (Saskia Burmeister), ET (David Lyons), Chefo (Josh Lawson) and Spider (Jay Ryan). Naval Command is manned by Commander Steve Marshall (Steve Bisley) and there are two other characters: Dr Ursula Morrell (Sibylla Budd), a scientist enveloped in the Bright Island mystery, and federal agent Greg Murphy (Christopher Stollery), who is investigating it.

McCune says she signed on because the tone of the show was heroic. "These people are all heroes and we live in a time when we need heroes," she says. "Love My Way, for example, fills a certain space in drama; other dramas fill other spaces but we are lacking a heroic drama, and one which appeals to the family. It's simple and it's not gratuitous in any way."

Once assembled, the cast was sent for "orientation" with a real navy crew on an operational patrol boat. "They didn't get us at first; we didn't get them at first," McCune says. "They laughed at us while we were all going green. We said, 'Why don't you understand what we're trying to do here?' and by week two it all sort of worked out.

As bad as orientation was, the first day of shooting made it look like a walk in the park. "Day one was extraordinary," McCune says, pausing to laugh, of the 80-knot winds and four-metre swells that left the cast and crew stranded and unable to travel even to the Ipswich to start filming. "It was a disastrous start and we had to pull the pin. That bonded us," she says.

The bond is so strong, the McElroys say, that everyone has asked to return for a second series, ratings permitting.

"Everyone wants to come back. We're very close to them and we understand how hard they worked on the series," Hal McElroy says.

"The producers' job is to put the ingredients in close proximity and hope something happens. Lo and behold, all these elements came together and the energy they have generated is, I believe, 10 times greater than the sum of the parts."