The new jewel in Seven’s crown
Bevan Lee, creator of Seven’s period drama A Place To Call Home, says the series is like nothing we’ve seen before. Lee Zachariah looks at how it came together with additional reporting by Georgina Pearson.
It all began with the image of a woman standing on a ship.
Bevan Lee, creator of Packed to the Rafters and Winners and Losers, decided he was at a stage in his career where he had two choices: “I could either retire, or I could do something different, because what is the point in being a tired old fart trawling out the same stuff all the time?”
Keen to move away from his self-described “trilogy of domestic and suburban happiness” (which, in addition to Packed to the Rafters and Winners and Losers, includes Home and Away for which he wrote the first episode of the series as a favour to long-time producing partner John Holmes), Lee wanted something darker, with a stronger narrative.
“I was thinking about it and I just got the vision of a woman. I didn’t know who she was, knew nothing about her. She was standing on a ship going from somewhere to somewhere. And I suddenly thought 1953 was an interesting year; it was the year the Queen was crowned, it was the year the Japanese embassy opened in Australia after the Second World War, and it was a turning point between the memory of war and optimism possibly changing Australia at the same time.”
As Lee researched 1953, the details of this character gradually emerged. “I decided that this woman was looking for a place to call home, because in ’53 there were a lot of displaced people,” he says. “Many of them were refugees, or displaced in a sense of not necessarily feeling part of the changing social landscape.” And so the idea for A Place To Call Home, which premiered this Sunday to an audience of more than 1.7m, was born.
When Lee came up with the idea, he shared it with Seven’s production department.
“I said ‘I’ve had this idea’, and they just said ‘go for it’. Obviously, I had to give them strong creative to convince them to put a large amount of money into it, but I convinced them all the way through that this has merit.
“Kick-starting a project overall tends to be easier, because I have this track record of success with them.”
It was fortuitous that Seven liked the idea, given Lee’s contract as a network executive means he is exclusive to them. “I have to present my ideas to them; I can’t take it to anybody else.”
The first season order was for 13 episodes. According to executive producer Julie McGauran (also Seven’s head of drama), the funding for the project came entirely from in-house and while those Encore spoke to are tight-lipped about the exact budget, Lee is coaxed to reveal a ballpark figure.
“It is certainly about a million an hour, and I don’t think that is giving away any secrets,” he says. The large budget was necessary to realistically recreate a period as specific as 1953.
Producer Chris Martin-Jones describes a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to period detail. “We have gone to an awful lot of trouble to make sure that all the departments are scrupulous in making the details correct.”
Production designer Tim Ferrier insists this obsessive approach was far from constricting and he worked closely with director Roger Hodgman to pull off the feat. “Very early on, Roger and I, along with everyone else, thought that it was important to get the period right,” he says. “That sounds like a silly thing to say, but there are a lot of occasions when people are pretty fast and furious when they do period stuff.”
One of the biggest challenges, says Martin-Jones, was finding exterior locations from the 1950s. “It wasn’t an era that was celebrated architecturally.” Ash Park, the house of the Bligh family that features prominently in the show, has been the fictitious family’s home for generations, so the architecture had to be much older. “There aren’t a lot of locations of that era that don’t have modifications. It hasn’t been a huge impediment, but we have had to rely on visual effects to help us.”
From the first script, it became apparent that much of the show would take place in Ash Park. The house’s exterior is located in Camden, and had to be carefully measured so the interior could be recreated back in the studio. Set designer Brian Nickless worked closely with designer Ferrier to create the look of the locations.
“We were limited to a smaller physical setting because of the nature of the studio we had,” says Nickless. “From photographic references, measurements and design input and artistic interpretation from Tim Ferrier, we matched it left, right, tweaked it a bit to suit the needs of the drama.”
The majority of the props and sets in the show are either sourced from antique or second-hand shops, or built from scratch. When filming heads outside, computer-generated imagery is employed to adjust even the most mundane details, such as the yellow traffic lines on the road.
And it wasn’t just the physicality of the world that required close attention. Much of the research was devoted to the etiquette of the time. “The simple idea of the men standing as the women come in the room,” says Martin-Jones. “And how you eat your dinner; particularly as we are dealing with a family, a very wealthy family, to whom etiquette means a lot.” The production used books from the time that describe proper behaviour. This included such bygone rules as when a man puts his hat on and when he takes it off, and when a lady wears gloves and when she doesn’t – clearly noticeable in the first episode. The higher up in class you get, the more rigorously the dress codes are enforced.
From old world to new world, the series was the first to be shot on Sony’s 20 megapixel F65 camera under the watchful eye of director of photography John Stokes.
Local talent migrates
The show centres on Sarah (the aforementioned woman on the boat) as played by Marta Dusseldorp, best known to Australian audiences for her roles in Jack Irish, Crownies and Devil’s Dust. The supporting cast is a mixture of new faces and established talent.
“We have got a really good balance,” says Martin-Jones. “Obviously, some of the senior cast members are terribly experienced, very accomplished actors, and to balance them, we have a few newcomers, talented young actors who haven’t had a lot of experience. Most of them are just out of NIDA; they have done a bit, but this is the big break.”
Martin-Jones says they did not deliberately pursue newcomers, but kept themselves open to the idea of a mix.
“There is something about having fresh faces on screen, and they don’t carry the baggage of other roles that they may have had. We tried to keep our minds as open as possible, but these people just genuinely jumped out as the best for the job.”
There are a number of very recognisable faces among the new blood. These include Noni Hazlehurst, whose 40-year on-screen career spans The Sullivans and Play School to gritty drug film Candy; Brett Climo, from Sons and Daughters, A Country Practice, The Flying Doctors and All Saints; and Craig Hall, from Underbelly, Howzat! and the upcoming Hobbit sequel.
Lee has been vocal in the past about Aussie actors migrating to the US after getting their break on local shows.
Given he’s clearly hoping for more seasons – the first, he reveals, ends on something of a cliffhanger – does he know what he’ll do if any of his cast gets scooped up by Hollywood?
“Every character has got a ‘what I would do if I lost them’ thing built in at the conceptualising stage,” says Lee. “Although it would break my heart to lose any of the characters, some would do more damage to the show than others. All of them have an inbuilt natural reason to leave.”
The actors are all signed to three-year contracts, but Lee is looking beyond that.
“After three years, one hopes one doesn’t lose them. You can’t tie people down and beat them and force them to stay. If we do lose them, well, you just have to give them a hug and wish them well, and work your story to try and make it alright,” he says.
Although it’s an ensemble piece, the show centres on Sarah’s arrival, and her effect on the Bligh family making at least one actor integral to the project continuing on.
“I’m not sure what would be do if we didn’t have Marta after three years, but you sort of can’t think like that. You just have to get down at the altar with all the deities possible, and beg them that they don’t leave after three years.” When asked about its place in Seven’s lineup prior to the premiere, Lee immediately offered this: “It’s going to be the jewel in our crown.”
With the first episode premiering to a metro audience of 1.768m viewers, up against stalwart 60 Minutes, A Place To Call Home will be one to watch.
While Lee is not short of hyperbole, he quickly qualifies his statement.
“I’m a pretty practical old thing about my work and the work that I’ve done that hasn’t been successful. I’ve always known when [shows] came out the gates that they were wrong and that we didn’t get there for various reasons.”
Citing his previous successes with the network, he thinks A Place To Call Home compares favourably.
He says: “In my bones, this is infinitely superior to anything I have ever done before.”
This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.