ON SET : Behind the scenes (and in the pubs) of Australia's most popular TV show
Martin Sacks and Lisa McCune, two stars of Australia's most-watched television program, Blue Heelers, are lying head-to-head on a patch of grass outside Melbourne's Williamstown scout hall, sated after a location lunch of grilled Cajun trevally and red mignonette salad with avocado, cherry tomatoes, spanish onion and pine nuts. A gentle sun kisses their handsome faces. What a picture. What a metaphor.
"It's been the best time of my life," fresh-faced blonde McCune, 25, says of her stint on the three-year-old cop drama. She plays Snr Const Maggie Doyle, the will-they-won't-they love interest of Sacks's Snr Det P.J. Hasham. "It's such a good feeling." The hours could make real policing look like a day at the beach — Monday and Tuesday in the Seven Network's Melbourne studio for 12 hours, rehearsing all day Wednesday, and Thursday and Friday on location in Williamstown or rural parts further west. Yet McCune says turning up for work on Heelers is "like going to a party".
As a couple of real local cops sit talking in the scout hall, the sleepy stars and the rest of the Heelers juggernaut — around 35 people are involved in shooting location scenes — move across the road to a rundown timber house, ostensibly in the show's fictional setting, Mt Thomas, where P.J. and Maggie will question local identity Jay Rigby (played by semi-regular Broderick Smith) about an unregistered firearm. Tasma Walton, 23, who joined the cast last April to play Const Dash McKinley, sits under a tree reading the script while a make-up artist dabs at McCune's watering eyes.
Watching the scene from a director's chair in the overgrown front garden is the show's firearms expert, John Bromley. Though the pistols peering out the top of the Heelers' holsters are fake, real police-issue Model 10 Smith and Wessons are used in scenes where guns are drawn. "I show the bad guy what's in the gun, that it's dummies and there's nothing to be fired and he's quite happy," says Bromley, a licensed gun dealer who is required by law to be on the set. "If you don't have any dummies in a revolver and the camera gets very close to it, the average person can see that the gun's empty and it looks foolish."
And nobody wants to look dopey, particularly to a gang of beefy bikies lounging on Harley-Davidsons outside the abandoned Willy Tavern, used as the exterior of Mt Thomas's less reputable pub, the Commercial Hotel. The guys are extras in the day's next scene where Rigby's son Glen (Sam Johnson) is evicted from the hotel for being under-age. As the crew sets up, Sacks strides into the menacing scene devouring a chocolate-topped cone he'd bought from an ice-cream factory down the road. With scores of envious eyes upon him, Sacks heads back to the factory and forks out for dozens more. "It's more important as a detective," he deadpans, "to get some choc-tops."
Sacks clearly revels in location shoots. "It's like Play School," he says as McCune, waiting for director Grant Brown to call "action!", breaks into a low-key tap dance and an impromptu rendition of "I Wanna Be Loved by You". "You only have to do a couple of scenes," he continues. "Like today, it's a great day: You can wander around, eat choc-tops, have a laugh, say a few lines and go home."
Not yet, P.J. You've got a burned-out car outside this bloodhouse to investigate. As "smoke" billows from the wreck, watched over by officers of the Country Fire authority's Werribee station, William McInnes (Snr Const Nick Schultz) arrives, clutching the hand of his 3-year-old son, Clem.
McInnes, 33, is the joker of the cast, a towering man in perpetual motion, mock-punching cast members and wisecracking through the endless, boring breaks. "If there's tension," says second assistant director Margie Beattie, 26, "he can break it." He can also do the police thing pretty convincingly. "A lot of coppers have said to me, 'Is William McInnes an ex-copper?'" says full-time Heelers police adviser Peter Haddow, himself an ex-policeman. Laconic McInnes, he says, "is probably streets ahead of the rest as far as generating the actual police attitude and mannerisms".
As real boys in blue direct traffic away ("their support and their input is integral," says McCune), McInnes rehearses the last scene of the day with Damian Walshe-Howling, 25, who plays Const Adam Cooper. Walshe-Howling, dubbed 'Guru Dame' by the crew for his overt spirituality, is also not averse to off-camera tomfoolery. "I think that's one of the show's strengths," he says during a break. "We get the work done but at the same time try to have as much fun as we can and I'm sure that overflows into the dialogue." On and off camera. When somebody's mobile phone rings mid-scene, the cast and crew cry out "Two slabs!" (two cases of beer), which is the fine for such transgressions.
Shooting over, everybody disperses to scrub up for Sacks's house-warming party. "We socialise fairly rarely," says Heelers patriarch John Wood (Snr [sic] Sgt Tom Croydon) at the studio on Monday, "and when we do it's always a lot of fun."
In the studio, Commercial Hotel publican Carla Bacci (Julie Thompson) stands at the counter of the police station with Snr Const Schultz (McInnes). Young Rigby is in Snr Sgt Croydon's office. They rehearse. "That sounds stupid, doesn't it?" says McInnes to Brown, one of six directors who work in rotation on Heelers. "'MCD [the pub's band] have already come to the attention of the police.' We are the police." Brown is unmoved. "Don't start questioning the script now."
Scripts are on John Wood's mind, too, for a different reason. "This is the only script in three years that I would actually say is very bad," says Wood in the studio foyer. "We've had average scripts and we've had extremely good ones but it really pisses me off that all those good ones are totally ignored by the industry, by the Writers' Guild and by the AFI [Australian Film Institute] people ... It's just that snobbery angle, it really shits me to death." Whoa. "You've caught me on a bad day," admits the TV and theatre veteran after describing his Croydon character as "a boring, reactionary old fart". "He's actually painted in a much more reactionary light in this episode than usual, but given his age he is surprisingly conservative."
Back in the studio, cameras rolling, Wood is trying to tell the lead singer of the band that he's not being charged with an offence. But blooper-magnet McInnes, standing behind him, is acting up. "Will you stop leaning on me?" Wood laughs. The pair banter a lot between takes. "The thing that constantly surprises me," says Wood, one of the original cast members, "is how much I enjoy coming here and how much I enjoy the company of the people I work with." It shows. "Look at everybody," says Guru Dame. "Everybody's smiling, you've got smiles all over the place. It just tends to be that way."
We're getting the drift. Outside the studio in the loading dock, where the following day McCune sets up a pen for a couple of doomed ducks she'd rescued on an earlier location shoot, Sacks and McInnes are playing cricket. "They are actually lovers," quips McCune later as Sacks puts his playing partner in a headlock on-set. She's joking, but seriously: Are P.J. and Maggie ever going to do the business? "I think the biz is due, don't you?" laughs Sacks. "It's been three years of foreplay. I think it's about time to do it." Real-life buddy McCune agrees. "We don't ever want them to be happy and married, the 2.5 kids, the nice house and the Holden, but I think that we know that it has to come to a point now because people want that."
Appropriately, perhaps, shooting for the day ends at the Imperial Hotel. Though its exterior is a pub in the Victorian goldfields city of Castlemaine, the Imperial's Seven Network set, down to the AWA Radiola wireless, an old Four 'n' Twenty pie warmer, beer barrels, drip trays, lodgers' register and racing pictures, is modelled "inch for inch" from a real pub in western NSW, says Julie Nihill, who plays publican Chris Riley. "It's a really good feeling in there," she says, "even the smell of beer to boot." (That's real Foster's Light beer Chris serves on the show.) Selections on the juke box, courtesy of a wit on the crew, include "Head Job City", "Dicky Boys", "Leslie, We're Into Bondage" and "Ray Don't Drop Your Folder."
At a pub table between takes, Walshe-Howling munches chips and rubs Walton's leg. Sacks plays darts. "I'm probably the quietest one," says Walton. Though like everybody else, she is "loving the show and I'm loving the crew and the cast," Walton says she finds series television hard. "It's so quick and it's so constant, relentless, and I find it a bit tiring and draining. Sometimes you get an ep where you're just a warm prop and I find that really frustrating," she says. "But you also get the odd ep where you have a really wonderful emotional journey to follow and your character has a lot to do so it's a bit of give and take."
"You'd be a bullshit artist if you didn't say you got bored occasionally," says McInnes, who starred in a Melbourne Theatre Company production of Private Lives in the 1995 summer break (McCune is playing the lead in the MTC's A Little Night Music this summer). "This is the first role I've ever had in uniform and you suddenly think, 'Oh, jeez, I don't want to become the Leonard Teale of my generation ... I don't want to be just the guy from Blue Heelers.'"
Sacks doesn't want to be P.J. either. "He's a bit more hard-nosed," he says. "I'm a bit goofier and klutzier and dopier than P.J. basically. He's a bit more on the ball. I think I'm happier being me."
"None of them have got tickets on themselves," says police adviser Haddow of the cast. "They're all really good people." Even if their characters are a tad dysfunctional. "None of them have got a stable relationship," says McInnes, cracking up. "Lisa's mother's dead, Damian's mother's dead, Tasma's mother's lying in a state, her father's dead, her brother got killed in a motorcycle accident. It's lunatic time, you know what I mean?"
Sure do, William, so how come it's rating its lunatic head off? "It's a good show," says Wood, "that's the bottom line." Nihill can't stop thinking like a publican. "If we all knew," she says, "it would be bottled."