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‘The values that Bondi Rescue represents are really important’: The return of Australia’s ‘heritage-listed’ TV show

Bondi Rescue returns to Ten tonight for its 18th season and, as the show's creators tell Mumbrella, after bushfires, pandemics, and wet weather, everything finally worked out this summer.

It’s often the boring days that end up delivering. Like the overcast December day a few years back when the beach was empty, the surf was flat, the sky was threatening storms – and a car crashed off the promenade and onto the beach.

Or when, while shooting the latest season of Bondi Rescue, a child casually handed lifeguards a bucket containing a deadly blue-ringed octopus that had been lazily flapping about in the crowded kiddies’ pool.

Last summer, much to the relief of the Bondi Rescue crew, there weren’t many boring moments in which to beg for such cinematic-style relief. The action was non-stop.

“A lot of things lined up for this season”, Michael Cordell, Bondi Rescue’s creative director, tells Mumbrella. This summer, international travel was back to full force for the first time since COVID cleared the beaches, and Sydney enjoyed three months of postcard-worthy weather.

There was the odd dull day, but even those would end with a deadly sea creature in a bucket. Or in “one of the craziest moments ever”, as Cordell puts it, where, on an otherwise drab day, a drunken member of the public randomly attacked a member of the Bondi Rescue crew.

There was also December 28, where seven lifeguards rescued 123 people from the raging surf in one single day. Or the heart-pounding day a man was found unresponsive in the ocean, and breathed back to life. No wonder Cordell bristles when the show they create is referred to as “reality TV”, with all the careful staging and falsified scenarios such a tag implies. Cordell sees it as a documentary series, and one that’s captured beautifully and truthfully.

“People often say things look staged, and that’s a testament to the crew,” he explains.

Credit: Cassandra Hannagan

The production uses some 40 drone cameras at one time, on top of the portable cameras manned by athletic crew members, who cover kilometres across a standard sandy shooting day. The amount of usable footage varies between stormed-out days when they won’t shoot a thing, to entire episodes being completely shot in a few hours over a single day. Each season is shot over a ten-week schedule.

With such variance in action from day to day, plus a recent run of natural events that have played havoc — bushfires filling the air with ash, the pandemic closing the beaches — there have been times where they were worried they wouldn’t get enough good action for a season. After 18 summers, they know that nothing can be relied upon, except, as Ben Davies, executive producer and creator of Bondi Rescue wistfully puts it, “that the beach will deliver”.

Ahh, the beach. With its pristine backdrop and endless opportunities for adventure, Bondi Beach offers the best TV set in the world – albeit one that’s almost impossible to move quickly around in when packed with thousands of tourists. This is a problem when your subject matter moves quickly, as rips and rescues tend to do.

As Cordell explains, if you miss capturing a few key seconds of a rescue, you can go from having a lead story for the week to not having anything useable. So the crowds bring the action, but also act an an impediment. Although, as mentioned earlier, it’s often the quiet days that deliver.

“Some of my favourite stories in Bondi Rescue don’t involve rescues,” Cordell explains. “Some of our favourite stories involve humour, or emotion, or are sort of quirky for some reason.” He recalls a storyline years ago when the north end shower was broken: “All the beach guys were pissed off that they couldn’t wash the sand off. One of the lifeguards at the time, Bisho, who was a plumber in a former life, went down and fixed it, and had a shower himself with his glistening skin under the water – and the crowd went bananas!

“It was just such a small moment, but it was really funny, and kind of quirky — and obviously you can’t build a whole episode around that, so you need drama — but I think part of the charm of Bondi Rescue is that we do cover stories that reveal the character of the lifeguards, the character of the beach – so when things are tight, we possibly look harder for those than we might normally.”

Ben Davies and Michael Cordell

Or, a venomous visitor might provide an easy plot point.

“We had a kid this year who found a blue-ringed octopus in the kids’ pool, which you may or may not know is one of the most venomous animals on earth, and the kids brought it up to the lifeguards in a sand bucket…

“You just never know – you could be sitting there and nothing’s happening, and something like that happens and it’s a great little story.”

That blend of charm, drama, and heart-stopping rction gives the show a broad appeal, which neither Davies nor Cordell takes for granted.

“The thing about it as well, is there’s always a new generation coming through,” Davies explains of the show he created some two decades back. “So there’s new audiences and kids that get onto it, and often those kids will want to watch it and they bring their parents to watch it as well.

“It’s got this great co-viewing opportunity that a lot of other shows don’t, in that there’s intense action and drama, but those colourful stories like the octopus and the plumbing. The ability to bring a co-viewing audience is unsurpassed with this show, because of the type of stories that are in it and, while they’re highly dramatic, and people can die, there’s also a great example of light and shade.

“For that reason there’s always a new audience coming through that find it, or an old audience that comes back to it.”

Credit: Cassandra Hannagan

Ciaran Flannery is the Network 10 executive producer, and while it’s in his best interest to promote the program, I have good reason to believe his enthusiasm.

“I moved to Australia because of Bondi Rescue,” he declares.

“It was, like, 12 years ago,” he continues. “We had decided to leave London, and I was working out where in the world to go. I’d never been to Australia but I used to love Bondi Rescue. I remember watching an episode while I was making that decision and just thought, ‘You know what, that looks good, I’m going to go there.'”

He jokes the other major impact the show had on him was “it made me much more wary of the ocean once I got here”.

Now, working on the show that pulled him across the globe, Davies is aware of the care such a franchise demands.

“It’s just a show that is beloved by Australians and it’s been around for so long now that it’s actually like it’s a heritage listed item, you know?

“It’s in the heart of Australian culture now, it’s a bit like a show like Neighbours, for example, it’s something that goes beyond just being a half hour of TV. It’s something that’s beloved, and when people talk to me about Bondi Rescue, they do it with a smile on their face.”

Ciaran Flannery, executive producer

In Australian culture, the beach is the great leveller. Bondi Rescue’s appeal also taps nicely into what Cordell calls the “egalitarian” nature of Bondi Beach.

“It’s a show that’s got great values,” he explains, “which is I think also one of the reasons it’s great co-viewing.

“I doubt there are many parents that wouldn’t be happy for their kids to watch Bondi Rescue, because the truth of it is, you go to Bondi, and it celebrates great egalitarian Australian values: It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich, poor, black, or white, whatever culture or religion you are, if you get into trouble at Bondi Beach, you know there’s a bunch of great guys and great women who will rescue you.

“I love that all-embracing theme, if you like, that great overarching story which is about a group of people who, in this iconic place, are doing a simple but heroic public service – and I think that’s a really wonderful, just a wonderful idea, particularly in an age where we’ve become so tribal and so locked off in our own little corners, and perhaps a little bit selfish.

“I think the values that Bondi Rescue represents are really important.”

Cordell is also pleased his show has a plum Wednesday night 7.30pm time slot in 2024, after being shunted around from pillar to post over its 18-season run.

“Bondi Rescue’s almost been a utility player,” he said, “sitting on the bench, and there’ll be a spot, a position on the ‘broadcast field’, and it needs to fit in, so we’ve moved around quite a bit over the years.

“This year we’ve got a great slot on Wednesday nights and you’ve got two episodes screening back-to-back, which we’ve never done before, sequentially like that.

“We’re really confident in the show itself. I almost kind of defy someone to start watching it and stop, because I think, once you get hooked into the stories, the drama, the characters, it’s very hard to switch off.

“If we can get people to the show, I’m really hoping it’ll do well.”

Bondi Rescue premieres Wednesday, July 10 at 7.30pm, on 10 and 10 Play.

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