My Place: history for families

Dan Wyllie, Penny Chapman, Susie PorterCapturing the essence of and recreating 220+ years of modern and indigenous history is no easy task, but Penny Chapman has turned a storybook My Place into a very special place for all Australians.

Trees are the oldest living creatures on earth and, in My Place, one of them bears witness to the stories of a community and, particularly, its children. Going back in time 10 years every week starting in 2008, the series presents a moment in the life of a local child and, most importantly, captures the issues and changes that have shaped our nation.

Based on Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins’ 1988 book, the first series spans 130 years and covers moments such as the apology to the stolen generations, the arrival of different migrant communities, and Vietnam and the two World Wars.

Chapman first thought of adapting the book in the early 90s, when she was the head of drama at ABC TV, but the interactive technology required for this type of program was not mature enough.

“The best we had back then was CD-ROM, and this is a program where, if you are able to develop a strong narrative, you get an incredibly rich informational and educational platform,” explained Chapman.

But by 2006, the online possibilities were endless, and Chapman started development. The ABC commissioned 13 episodes from Matchbox Pictures; financing came from the public broadcaster, Screen Australia, Screen NSW, Screen Tasmania, the Australian Children’s Television Foundation and the City of Sydney.

Chapman brought together a group of writers (Leah Purcell, Brendan Cowell, Greg Waters, Nicholas Parsons, Tim Pye, Alice Addison, Gina Roncoli, Blake Ayshford) to form a table brainstorming process. Simon Hopkinson joined the team as script editor, and warned Chapman she was about to deal with “her most difficult audience”.

“Our mantra was that we had to put aside our responsibility as historians and embrace our responsibility as storytellers. It was story, not history, what had to drive these scripts,” said Chapman.

Jessica Hobbs was chosen as set up director, devising the shooting style, the visual language of the show, and its sense of geography and community.

“She was an inspiration in terms of building the world we were trying to create; deciding that we would rely a lot on the back lanes, and encouraging us to develop the community much more than what we had in the script, with characters and places that could take us across the years,” explained Chapman.

Another four directors were chosen: Catriona Mckenzie, with whom Chapman worked on RAN; Samantha Lang; Shawn Seet; and Michael James Rowland, whose Lucky Miles Chapman admired because of how it dealt with a subject matter (boat people) that could “go wrong very easily”.

That was something that the producer considered essential, to find the right tone to avoid making a preachy educational piece, or one that would romanticise the past.

“We wanted it to be first and foremost an enjoyable experience, although parts are of the story are tough and sad. Two facts were significant when dealing with history: kids worked, and kids died.

“We tried to make it as immediate, visceral and palpable as possible for kids watching it today. We decided the kids all had the tendency to get in trouble, an idea about Australia being built by trouble makers, and also optimists in charge of their own destiny, no matter what kind of trouble.”



Creating a sense of geographical continuity through the decades was not an easy task, and neither was recreating a different era for each episode. Very few props and costumes could be reused, and every episode was almost like starting over.

“The further back you go the more logistical issues you have; you have to put dirt on streets, use horsedrawn carriages, etc. Felicity Abbott (production designer) and Emily Seresin (costume designer) were unbelievably pragmatic and creative, and Peter Lawless (locations manager) found some incredible places we wouldn’t have considered had we had more money.”

My Place was shot on location in Sydney’s inner west: Glebe (the front of the house), Haberfield (the backyard), Alexandria (the canal) and Newtown (the tree). The last episode of the series, 1888, marks the year the house where all the characters live was built, which means the production team will have to relocate for the second series, to [closed open air museum] Old Sydney Town near Gosford, and at least one of the episodes will take place before the arrival of the first fleet, which will require another location.

The past is also recreated online via a website produced by Blue Rocket Productions in Tasmania.

Blue Rocket’s David Gurney was one of the tutors when Chapman took a LAMP course a few years ago, and he was involved with the TV production throughout the shoot to generate the material for the website. The ACTF will also develop a curriculum-based history site based on the show, so both websites will provide children and teachers respectively with entertaining and educational tools to complement the episodes.

My Place is currently the jewel in ABC3’s crown, and it will also air on ABC1 next year. Apart from the ratings, healthy DVD sales, website hits and downloads by schools (monitored by Screenrights), Chapman believes another way to know if the show has been successful will be if it generates an interest in family and community history.

“It will appeal to different generations. This is a series that connects families and gets them talking about where they’re coming from.” ■


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