The Australian 10 May 2014
“THIS kind of drama can be done commercially in Australia,’’ Matthew Weiner was saying excitedly, leaning over the hotel room coffee table like a naval officer at the rail of a ship. He is, of course, the creator, writer and producer of the hot, critically acclaimed US period television series Mad Men, the seventh season of which is currently airing on Showcase.
We spoke at a screenwriters conference in Sydney a couple of years ago. He was as fascinated by Australian TV shows like East West 101 as I was by the genesis of his hit series.
“It’s completely dependent on having respect for the audience and finding artistic voices and not trying to adapt them to the mass market,’’ Weiner said. “I believe in the specificity of storytelling and a show like this hopefully inspires people in Australia that there is actually money to be made in the individual voice.”
His comment could not have been more prescient given the huge success of Bevan Lee’s A Place to Call Home, Seven’s singular narrative-dense romantic melodrama, created in the mold of Douglas Sirk’s Hollywood movies of the 1950s, such as Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows. The second season starts this week and this series is proving to be a monumental piece of storytelling, the first averaging just on a million and a half viewers each week. It was the most-watched Australian drama series of 2013 and the most popular new program of that year.
“I want to fight the rise of melodrama being viewed as a somehow lesser form,” Lee said when the first series was released. “To me a good melodrama is a big plum pudding of a show, full of fruit, flavour and the odd surprise threepence.”
He succeeded admirably, his show proving to be a banquet for the eye and nourishment for the heart and mind. It also proved to have some fascinating parallels to Weiner’s Mad Men, a series that continues to enshrine the notion in the popular imagination that TV can measure up against the best of any art form.
Mad Men of course is famously set in the advertising agencies in the early 1960s and looks at the ruthless profession that shaped the hopes and dreams of contemporary America.
Yet while the gorgeously realised period of the show appears to be a time of conservatism, conformity and consensus, fear and distress are carving out positions of their own in the lives of the show’s characters.
Lee’s series begins a little earlier, in 1953, in an Australia still raw from the horrors of that terrible conflict that left 12 million people homeless in Europe. He and his collaborators continue to deliver a stylishly visual realisation of cultural history, dramatic action and writerly detail converging in a lush but dense form we’ve not seen in our TV drama before.
This first episode of the second season, “No Secrets, Ever”, written by Trent Atkinson, and again elegantly produced in-house for Seven by John Holmes and Julie McGauran, is directed by veteran Mark Joffe with a kind of almost architectural precision. You can sense the influence of Sirk in his attention to space, and how people get trapped in it without realising it.
At the beginning of this wonderful saga, a mysterious woman (Marta Dusseldorp) carrying two suitcases returned to what was formerly her home in The Rocks in central Sydney after 20 years overseas. She left Australia to find the grave of her father, who died at the battle of Fromelles in World War I, her brothers perishing in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Death, therefore, was no stranger to this woman, who continues, as season two begins, to carry her own scars from the war and who harbours many secrets she is loath to share.
Until recently a nurse in a London hospital, she had escaped the hold of her mother who had promised her to God as a nun. After the war, working her way home on an ocean liner to an Australia poised on the cusp of social change, the woman we quickly came to know as Sarah Adams became intimately involved in the lives of the Blighs, a wealthy pastoralist family.
Nursing the uncompromising matriarch, Elizabeth (Noni Hazlehurst), she was romantically drawn to Elizabeth’s gentle widower son George (Brett Climo), but also inadvertently became involved in a family secret that linked her future inextricably with the family. After the failed attempted reconciliation with her fierce Catholic mother, Sarah accepted an offer from George Bligh, with whom she falls in love, to work in rural Inverness at the hospital near his family estate, Ash Park. But she had the doughty Elizabeth to contend with, as well as unwanted echoes from her past.
Now as the second season begins, she moves into a modest room at Ash Park and must work to prove herself a fitting wife-to-be for George, sleeping separately, while Elizabeth, obdurate, suspicious and scheming, plays a devious waiting game to see what might be unearthed about Sarah’s past during the European war.
Lee’s resonant tale is proving to be about the destructiveness of family secrets and the awesome if paradoxical power they have to unite and divide people, and how they are perhaps most destructive when kept in the home. (In a not completely dissimilar fashion, Mad Men is about disguises and how, in creating and maintaining them, we become more and more resistant to change. Weiner told me the key line in his series was: “Wear a mask long enough and eventually you will become it.”)
In this first episode of the new season, there’s a murder to be covered up and a body concealed and the seemingly kindly Doctor Stewart (Andrew McFarlane) is secretly attempting to cure James Bligh (David Berry), son of Elizabeth and married to the stoic Olivia (Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood) of his homosexuality — “all in the name of normalcy” — with electroconvulsive therapy treatment: “That’s what you want isn’t it? To enjoy your wife and family without the spectre of perversion hovering.”
You sense that the refinement of Ash Park is maintained on the razor’s edge of an abyss, and that Elizabeth will ensure — to paraphrase Shirley Hazzard, whose The Transit of Venus also portrayed an enclave of Sydney bourgeois respectability, embattled by the wilderness of humanity outside it — that if the walls collapse, somehow nothing will be exposed. Proper etiquette will always be observed and any aberrance kept under wraps, regardless of the human cost
Meanwhile in Sydney change is everywhere — glimpsed during Olivia’s sad visits to see her husband in the city — the hordes swinging by in what Hal Porter called the disguise of the 50s, “the spike heels and Audrey Hepburn hairdos, the beehive coiffures, high and black as busbies, and the fake breasts, pointed like pine cones: the outline and gewgaws and catchwords of the moment.”
In some ways this blue-stocking romance (to borrow a phrase Patrick White used to describe The Transit of Venus) is Lee’s love letter to an Australian society superficially very different as it struggles out of a terrible war but as deeply complex and as richly layered as today’s. Lee’s deeply romantic narrative reveals many of the foundations on which contemporary Australia was built — personal sacrifice, an understanding of remoteness, fear of the foreigner, and uncomplaining, dedicated hard work.
But in the wonderfully enigmatic Sarah Adams, tolerant but always quizzical, Lee gives us a character who represents a murmuring of dissent, an eccentric gleam of defiance against the rigid rules of custom.
This is superbly set in this first episode as Sarah settles into Ash Park, confined to a small room, by agreement not yet sharing George Bligh’s bed, and a form of polite war begins between her and Elisabeth Bligh to secure the future. In her steely way, Sarah is determined to shape the events and influence the emotional environment of the world in which she finds herself and so escape its tragic narratives.
Like Mad Men, this series is so tantalising to watch because the show never quite goes where you think it’s going, yet heads in that direction all the same.
A Place to Call Home, Sunday, 8.30pm, Seven