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If only 60 Minutes had learned the Australian Story principle: Keep the reporter out of the picture
David Dale meditates on patterns in popular culture. Twitter | RSS
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Anna Torv is Harriet Dunkley, rowing into trouble in Secret City
, the top-rating documentary series that celebrates its 20th birthday next week.
was about a fictitious “foot in the door” current affairs program and was so powerful it became a set text for the Higher School Certificate. The creators of
– ABC news director Paul Williams and founding producer Deb Fleming – used it as a model of what not to do. Caroline Jones, eternal presenter of
It’s a conscious effort for me to not do an American accent, not immediately go into what I’ve been doing 16 hours a day for the past five years - Anna Torv
was a very popular satirical program, indicating that the audience may have been getting very tired of the adversarial method of interviewing and the reporter being the star of the show," said Jones. "We thought we could add another dimension to current affairs reporting … We decided to draw out a person’s story in their own words so that in the finished result the reporter is not the star, the subject of the story is the star.
“All our producers were reporters originally and they had to learn a new style, because most of us were trained in the adversarial method and we had to learn to put ourselves in the background and become very good listeners.”
interview is not just a matter of letting the subject ramble on. “Our main interview is very long and the questioning is very probing and exhaustive and probably exhausting. You don’t see it and mostly you don’t hear it, but it happens.”
Deb Masters, who recently replaced Deb Fleming as executive producer, says the secret of
’s success is “the candour and the intimacy … People get an opportunity to see inside other people’s lives and see a commonality of the human condition, the love of our children, fear of death, struggling with disease or economic hardship, mental illness, loss.
“You see very successful people like Jackie Weaver talk about alcohol, or Mikey Robbins talk about how awful it is to be overweight and not a jolly person at all, or Hazel Hawke on dementia, or Kerry Packer and kidney disease, Garry McDonald on depression and anxiety, along with the people who have endured extraordinary hardship, people who have managed to fight cancer. We look for a good story that’s layered, that engages, that has a narrative, that’s going to move you and reflects your life.”
is its ability to explain big social issues. “To put a personal story at the centre seems to communicate an issue more powerfully than a series of experts on the subject. We’re all deeply interested in each other’s stories. Hearing someone’s triumph over adversity or struggle with adversity is very engaging. As I watch the program I reflect on my own life. I think, would I have that patience, would I have that courage, could I be capable of that degree of forgiveness?”
Another secret of the show’s success, says Masters, is Caroline Jones herself. “She’s got a wonderful understanding of the human condition. She has good input to the stories. Her impressions are worth listening to. She’s got incredible energy.”
Jones laughs at that. “I’m a behind-the-scenes familiar and experienced elder, I suppose. Sometimes an older head can lend a bit of hard-won wisdom when things are challenging or controversial.” Will she be there for the 40th anniversary? “I’ll stay there as long I’m useful and when the time comes that I am no longer useful, I will gratefully step aside, having had the journalistic experience of a lifetime.”
’s first 20 years starts at 8pm on Monday June 6.
In her adopted homeland of America, Anna Torv is a geek goddess. She’s recognised by every sci-fi fan as Special Agent Olivia Dunham (and her doppleganger from an alternative universe) in 100 episodes of the classic series
In her birthplace of Australia, a few viewers might remember her as Nikki Martel in
, back in 2004. But her local fan base is about to expand, as she takes on the role of crusading journalist Harriet Dunkley in
, a political thriller starting next Sunday on Foxtel’s showcase channel.
Torv lives in Los Angeles, and when she returned to Australia last year to make the new series, she initially found it difficult to throw off the uptight Olivia and resume her Australian accent and attitude.
“I still don’t think I’m over it,” she told me last week. “It’s not like you do a movie and then you move on to another job and you shoot for a couple of months, and your body’s used to letting go and changing character. You do something for five years and it becomes so second nature, at a cellular level. You go on set again and it’s a conscious effort for me to not do an American accent, not immediately go into what I’ve been doing 16 hours a day for the past five years. I think that’s the bit you have to work on.”
It helped that she got to film inside Parliament House in Canberra, as well as in a studio.
, published in 2012 by political journalists Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis. “Chris and Steve took us around,” said Torv. “We were actually there during the [Abbott/Turnbull] spill. I found that fascinating, the difference between the parliament, where all the ministers are walking around and then all of a sudden you get up to the media floor and it was just so vibrant, so alive, just pumping with energy. I got speak to lots of people and to see what it is like to be down there. The air changes as soon as you step onto that floor.”
From that experience emerged her take on the character: “She’s an absolute truth seeker with just a whole heap of integrity and will stop at nothing." The book was a satire that made sly digs at, among others, Bronwyn Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull (renamed and regendered). Torv says the TV series is much more serious. “It’s based on the book but we step away from it,” she said. “We certainly have a very different tone. The show that we’ve made is absolutely a thriller and is absolutely not satirical.”
Now back “just pottering around” in her “liittle place” in LA, she’s absorbed by American politics but not interested in any attempt to revive
. “I have fond memories, it was a huge part of my life but I’m recovered, if that’s the right word,” she said. “We got the opportunity to close that show, knowing we were closing it, which was great. There wasn’t anything unfinished.”
, it’s only the beginning. Torv looks forward to making more episodes and learning more about Australian politics.
Secret City starts at 8.30pm on Sunday June 5 on showcase.
Having sliced a bunch of underperforming dramas and comedies from their schedules two weeks ago, the US TV networks revealed last week how they’re going to replace them. The new hopefuls seem barely different from the old losers, despite big names such as Stephen Fry, Katherine Heigl, Famke Jansen, Helen Hunt, Matt LeBlanc, John Lithgow, William Shakespeare and our own Wentworth Miller and Miranda Otto.
Maybe it’s the way the networks write their publicity blurbs, or maybe it’s because this column has seen too many TV formulas over the decades, but most of the newcomers sound corny or ancient or just plain dumb. As
politely declared in its headline: “Networks mostly Playing It Safe with Fall lineups”.
The networks are going big on half hour comedies, thinking they are more likely to attract under-40 viewers than dramas.
, is described thus: "A contractor whose wife goes back to work starts spending more time with his kids and discovers the truth every parent eventually realises: his little angels are maniacs."
If you thought Stephen Fry was overexposed, you didn’t realise there was one platform he has not yet conquered – the US sitcom. To remedy this hole in his repertoire, Fry will star in
as “a world traveller, explorer, adventurer and charismatic founder” of a magazine which employs a lot of millennials (opportunity for generation gap jokes).
is described thus: “John Lithgow stars in this fish-out-of-water comedy about a New York lawyer heading to a small town for his first case.”
is "a period drama that picks up where the famous story of Romeo and Juliet ends, charting the treachery, palace intrigue and ill-fated romances of the Montagues and Capulets in the wake of the young lovers’ tragic fate."
stars Minnie Driver as “a mother fighting injustice and hoping to give a voice to her son with special needs”.
returns with the show\'s original cast, including our own Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller as "previously believed-to-be-dead Michael”. Miranda Otto is in a spinoff of
, as a defence lawyer who falls for a client; and Helen Hunt is in
, "a compelling event series examining the dangerous aftermath of racially charged shootings in a small Southern town."
Only two prospects spark any enthusiasm. There will be a spinoff next year of
, centred on Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), last seen slapping the face of her former colleague Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies). And Tina Fey is executive producer of
, about “what happens when a news producer finds out her mother has rejoined the workforce as intern at her station”. If anyone can add quirk to a corny premise, Tina Fey can.
The Tribal Mind column, by David Dale, appears in a printed form every Sunday in
, and also as a forum on this website, where it welcomes your comments.
David Dale teaches communications at UTS, Sydney. He is the author of
(Allen and Unwin). For daily updates on Australian attitudes, bookmark The Tribal Mind.
Comments are moderated and are generally published if they are on-topic and not abusive.
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