ABC’s crowning achievement in 2011 was undoubtedly The Slap, a searing portrayal of contemporary Australian life that resonated with audiences and critics, and last week scooped the AACTA Awards.
After years of languishing under budget cuts ABC Drama was back on the table.
In 2012 the slate will continue to serve up diverse offerings and ABC1 Channel Controller Brendan Dahill couldn’t be more proud, starting the year off with The Straits.
“I love it, I think it’s great,” he says. “Whether it rates as broadly as The Slap I’m not entirely sure. It’s a very different type of ABC Drama so we’re hoping that people will get that we’re trying to be innovative. We’re outside our comfort zone and we’re trying new things. Some of the performances are outstanding and it’s a really different take on Australian life. It’s not like something you can see anywhere else. It’s certainly not urban, you can’t swap Sydney or Melbourne into that.
“Brian Cox is unbelievable in it.”
The series was developed from an idea by actor Aaron Fa’Aoso, who appears in a lead role in the series.
“Aaron is a fantastic actor and it just shows that sometimes we pigeon hole people too quickly, because it was his idea and I applaud Matchbox Pictures’ ability to help him cultivate it without him feeling like he’s lost any ownership of it.”
In two weeks ABC1 premieres the period drama Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, starring Essie Davis. Boldly, Dahill has slated it for Friday nights while UK drama Midsomer Murders airs on Sundays. Some commentators suggest ABC is shrinking from the competition of Sunday nights.
“Half the people say ‘You’re mad’ and the other half say ‘That’s the right place for it,” Dahill admits.
“Sunday nights are so tentative at the moment that with some shows you just feel like you’re pushing them under a bus. Something’s got to go in there but given our lack of marketing money compared to our commercial rivals, do we really want to take on all of the big units on a Sunday night? Or do we want to find somewhere in our schedule where we can nurture it a bit more?”
Was there concern Miss Fisher could potentially be up against Downton Abbey?
“Those two shows head to head when they appeal to the same audience I think would be an act of insanity from me,” he says.
“But we’re launching the year with two powerful Dramas”
Also coming this year is Indigenous drama Redfern Now (working title) with UK writer Jimmy McGovern overseeing scripting.
“I’ve asked the team to have a look at the title again. I don’t know whether people outside of Sydney will embrace a title called Redfern Now. They’re looking at it, but to be honest with you I’d rather they spend time getting those scripts right rather than fussing about the title of the show.
“Once the scripts are locked down and shooting is in place I will ask them to look at it again, but if they think that it’s still the best title, then I’m happy to go with it. But there’s a lot in titles and what they say about the show.”
Then there are two Jack Irish telemovies starring Guy Pearce.
“Jack Irish has finished shooting and we’re looking at the first rough cut which is very exciting. I think it’s going to be amazing,” he says.
“Getting Guy Pearce is a great coup, and getting him to commit to making more if we want to make more, it’s not just a one-off appearance in these. If we turn it into a continuing franchise he’s going to come back as Jack Irish.
“We have Mabo and Devil’s Dust also for this year, both about outstanding characters, and we’ve just announced Cliffy (2013). It’s taking stories of ordinary Australians doing extraordinary things.
“It’s the 20th anniversary of the Eddie Mabo judgment this year so we wanted something that would commemorate that moment. If you think The Straits looks stunning, wait until you see the rushes for Mabo. They’ve done an amazing job on capturing the essence of Far North Queensland.”
Devil’s Dust dramatises the legal battle over anti-asbestos campaigner Bernie Banton and James Hardie.
“The story of Bernie Banton was ripe for the telling. He was an extraordinarily brave and iconic character who took a corrupt company to the cleaners and good on him for doing it. It took real fortitude.”
Crownies, which didn’t meet expectations, will return in another form for either 2012 or 2013, with less soap and more focus on legal cases.
Dahill also exclusively announces new Drama projects.
“The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was the first detective novel ever written in Australia and it pre-dates Sherlock Holmes,” he says.
The story, filmed three times as a silent movie from 1911 – 1925, will be produced by Margaret McDonald and directed by Shawn Seet as a 2 hr telemovie.
There will also be The Homicide Franchise,
“It’s about a Scottish doctor who was working in Victoria in the 1980s and how he whistle-blew on the Victorian Police who were running an abortion racket,” Dahill says.
“It’s coming up later in the year.”
Craig MacLachlan has been cast in The Doctor Blake Mysteries from December Media, a 12 episode drama about a keeper of secrets, a solver of mysteries who returns home to 1959 Ballarat to take over his deceased father’s general medical practice.
In Light Entertainment ABC is not without it challenges this year.
“It’s a moment of change in terms of entertainment for ABC1 because we don’t have Spicks and Specks, which I’m very sad about. I understand their reasons for going but for me it’s a completely different Wednesday night, especially after Gordon Street,” he says.
“I’m obviously carrying a lot of jeopardy for Wednesdays because Spicks has been a fantastic show for the ABC and lots of other things were launched after it.
“Adam Hills is and remains ABC1’s #1 face. If he was on any other network he would have won 3 Gold Logies but he likes working here and he likes working with us. Gordon Street had a cracking first series and as long as he wants to make it, I’ll make it.
“There’s Randling (hosted by Andrew Denton) and Shaun Micallef is Mad as Hell. Two people that I’m just delighted have agreed to come back on air. Just delighted.
“I think the shows we’ve got planned are strong, and will appeal to a broad audience, but you’re never quite sure until they start playing.
“So it’s one of those ‘suck it and see’ moments.”
Randling will air Wednesdays at 8:30 after Gordon Street finishes and Micallef returns in the middle of the year. There are new offerings from Josh Thomas, Myf Warhurst, plus Outland, Woodley, Laid, Lowdown, Agony Aunts, Agony Uncles and This Christmas from the team behind Review with Myles Barlow.
While two of the former Spicks cast have gigs, what about Alan Brough?
“Alan is in the process of making a 3×30 show for us for Artscape about music. I can’t actually remember the name because it’s changed so many times in the last few months I can’t keep track of it. The last version had the word ‘Gnome’ in it somewhere, but it’s a kind of the ‘Soundtrack to your Life’ show.”
Poh Ling Yeow will return with one commissioned series, and a second is proposed.
“Poh is making another series or two this year. It’s more Poh on a mission rather than Poh on the road, so it has a little bit of a social conscience, much like Jamie Oliver has,” he says.
“I’m very aware that in the last 18 months there’s been a lot of cookery for the sake of cookery without actually having any enduring good. I don’t want viewers to fatigue of cookery on the ABC. So we want it to rise above just being about the Recipe of the Week.
“We’re trying to evolve the show around her charm and personality and learning about the world around her, and making a difference. She’s working with a collection of charities and various causes for 2012.”
Foreign Correspondent resumes in 4×6 episode blocks. Dahill says the change will consolidate the budget “so it punches a bit more,” but stresses there is no change to the show’s total budget.
“There are 24 episodes with the potential for a couple of hour-long specials which will be subject-driven, but we’re waiting for the right subjects to come up. I’ve got two hour-long specials in the schedule at the moment and one is likely to be about the Olympics.
“Foreign Correspondent also celebrates its own anniversary this year, so there may be an anniversary show in there.
“The show has been a combination of programmes commissioned by Foreign Correspondent and bought-in programmes, but we’re looking to consolidate and make sure more and more programmes are made by us.
“We’re planning on making the majority of them being Australian-made.”
Plans to trial The Drum on ABC1 as well as on ABC News 24 got a rude surprise from TEN.
“After we decided to have a run on ABC1 The Project moved to 6:30 and changed its name, then before we’d even gotten on air (on ABC1) they moved to 6:00,” says Dahill.
“I’d always said it was a 6 week experiment and at the end of 6 weeks we’d review whether it worked on ABC1 and whether we were providing something to viewers that was unique.
“Certainly it makes life difficult for both shows having The Drum and The Project at 6:00, but The Drum team have done a fantastic job. Steve Cannane’s a real talent.
“If The Drum doesn’t work out then it will be largely acquisitions in that slot because we simply don’t have the resources. I’ve got an absolute drawer-full of ideas for that slot if I had the money, but I just don’t.”
Amongst the profile UK shows, ABC will be farewelling Spooks very soon.
“I love Spooks isn’t it sad? It’s been a great show. Fortunately for all of us –and I don’t know which channel it will end up on– the team that make Spooks are going on to make Nemesis and Melissa George has been cast in the lead.
“There are a couple of channels including me that are interested in that show. Hopefully it pans out but even if it’s not on ABC1 the people who love Spooks will have a new show that will be Spooks for the 21st Century.”
After Seven’s success with ITV’s Downton Abbey, there are signs ABC is increasingly being outbid on content that used to be its domain. Dahill says Seven’s NBCU deal ensured they would land the series.
“Once Seven were interested it wasn’t even a contest. I would have loved to have had Downton Abbey, but credit where it’s due I would never have brought 2 million people to Downton Abbey. It would have been a hit but it wouldn’t have been 2 million people. They had a fantastic campaign on the back of Dancing with the Stars,” he admits.
“There is now a lot more competition for content that you would normally have thought was ABC content. We lost Graham Norton to Channel TEN and that highlights the point as well.”
With Nine nabbing some BBC content too, is the ABC at risk of losing traditional content?
“There will be some announcements soon but I’m pretty confident our relationship with the BBC is solid,” he says.
Finally, in 2011 7:30 saw the passing of the baton from host Kerry O’Brien to Leigh Sales and Chris Uhlmann. How does Dahill rate the change?
“After Kerry was at the helm for so long you have to try new things, but they don’t always work. But I absolutely applaud the team for trying to find a way of recreating the show. I think in the second half of last year it was a cracking show. I think they tried some things in the first half of the year that didn’t work, but equally people would have thrown rocks at them if they hadn’t tried new things,” he says.
“7:30 is under no jeopardy, it’s a fixture of the ABC1 schedule. Things in TV wax and wane and some things are ever-present. 7:30 is always going to be there and the audience will return.
“In news and current affairs people don’t really like change. They form a relationship and a trust that is hard-earned and the new team need to earn that trust and respect.
“With Leigh on maternity leave, and congratulations to her, Chris will be stepping up to the limelight and it will be another change. When the news cycle is hot and people are looking for a place to go for a good dissection of the headlines, people know it’s 7:30.
“It’s part of our role as a public broadcaster. We’re not about numbers all of the time.
“We want to remain the most trusted place for news and current affairs in Australia and how people rate us on that scale is much more important than the ratings.”