Panic at Rock Island: a worst case scenario

One of Channel Nine’s next telemovies, Panic at Rock Island, will provide a point of difference from Nine’s other drama slate projects that are dominated by cops, crims, navy and emergency personnel.

To be produced by the team behind Scorched, the project is another ‘hypothetical drama’, as Nine’s Head of Drama Jo Horsburgh explains to TV Tonight.

“It’s based on the same kind of premise, that is a Worst Case Scenario. We call them ‘What If?’ scenarios,” she says.

Scorched proved to be contemporary, current content because of the fires, the desalination plant and the drought. So too is Panic at Rock Island. It actually explores all the different political, community and military departments who deal with crises that happen within the city.”

The plot for the telemovie unfolds on an island in Sydney Harbour. With tens of thousands of music fans in attendance, suddenly an ‘unimaginable disaster strikes.’

“It’s playing out a situation where you need to contain a population, but how do you do it? Who gets to live, who gets to die and who makes those choices?”

To be written by Matt Ford and directed by Tony Tilse it promises all the elements of a modern disaster movie, but Horsburgh insists there will be nothing B-grade about it.

Nine also has three ‘Underbelly movies’ in development, on armed robber Russell ‘Mad Dog’ Cox; the murders of Victorian police officers Silk & Miller; and Victorian policeman Colin McLaren’s infiltration of the Calabrian Mafia. But they won’t be continuing Underbelly characters, nor narrated by Caroline Craig.

“It’s not an extension of an Underbelly series. It’s produced by ScreenTime and the approach is certainly based on real crime. So all the research is the same sort of rigour that goes through the Underbelly series and the same approach of dealing with contemporary stories -stories that Australians relate to, about Australian characters. That’s still the nature of the beast,” she says.

Horsburgh says stylistically there will be some similarities to Underbelly but each telemovie will have its own voice.

“At the moment we are calling them the ‘Underbelly Movie Files’. But they’re different. The nature of the storytelling is inherently different because it’s all totally self contained in 90 minutes.”

While she wouldn’t be drawn on a delivery date, Horsburgh didn’t rule out the possibility of some airing before the end of the year.

Together with Underbelly, Sea Patrol, Rescue Special Ops and COPS L.A.C., Nine’s drama slate is certainly bouyant.

“It’s always been busy and you never do one drama at a time, they are always overlapping,” agrees Horsburgh. “A number of them have a process of financing that is also overlapped. So suddenly on top of the various series and series being renewed we’ve also got other things like the ‘Underbelly: Movie Files’ and telemovies like Panic at Rock Island also happening simultaneously.

“So it is a bit intense one could say, and also getting up a new show like COPS L.A.C. in the midst of all of this. Its quite astounding, but it’s all happening and it’s all looking great.”

COPS L.A.C. will also be Nine-produced under Tim Pye and Lisa Scott, effectively its first ‘In-House’ production since Canal Road.

But Horsburgh is reluctant to dub it ‘In-House,’ a production model that has proven very successful for Seven.

“I think we have a completely different approach than Seven,” she says.

“95% of all our production is always with Independent Producers. I think it’s like anything, that all Dramas that you collect are to do with the drama, to do with the best idea and what’s on offer at the time. And how all those things collide with financing and the slate and the Creatives who are available like Writers, Producers, Directors.

“It’s kind of a misnomer to call it ‘In-House’ because we have no In-House directors or producers. All ‘In-House’ is no different to Sea Patrol, Underbelly or anything else.

“Every drama in the universe, and in Australia, with a Freelance Producer is set up via the freelance community and COPS L.A.C. is no different. It’s exactly the same. There is no infrastructure inside Nine. We don’t have Writers, DOPs, Directors -we don’t have that structure at all.”

COPS L.A.C. focusses on “the fast-paced working life and complicated relationships of a diverse range of uniformed cops and plainclothes detectives”. The cast includes gary Sweet, Denise Roberts, Kate Ritchie, Martin Dingle Wall, Tom O’Sullivan, Ria Vandervis, Kelly Paterniti, Graeme Squires, Roy Billing and Damian de Montemas.

The series is currently shooting in Sydney.


  1. For those further interested in island talk, I grew up on the afore-David-mentioned Fort Denison.

    I certainly hope you don’t believe me to be ‘havin a go’ at you, David. My apologies if it was perceived as such.
    *adjusts monocle and squints at screen with a level of interest normally associated with Attenborough and pygmy possums*

  2. For those playing at home, the island in the photo of this article is Clark Island. Tens of thousands of music goers would be more likely to head to Cockatoo Island. *takes another puff of pipe, and eases back into the comfy chair*

    • And for those also playing at home Fort Denison was once also known as Rock Island, but as it’s not big enough to accommodate a shoot of this size I declined against using it. I also looked at photos of Shark Island, which can be rented for up to 500 people. Ultimately, it didn’t bother me, as the pic portrays the sense of story of a harbour island and the city drama which will feature so much in the telemovie. A photo of an island on its own doesn’t capture the same thing. If you think they will actually hire tens of thousands of extras for the shoot, I dare say you have…. rocks in you head?

  3. I really liked Scorched. I do hope this lives up to the same level of that movie – but I don’t like the idea of it being some type of spin off of Underbelly.

    I haven’t watched the Underbelly series. While I did like Blue Murder (ABC) when I finally got to watch it (thanks to being in NSW), the Underbelly series never caught my attention.

    There has to be more than just cop/detective/law shows on telly. That’s why variety is getting good ratings.

  4. Panic at rock Island i think is a Science fiction genere based on Terrorism

    Scorched was actually a Pilot for a TV series but it never got picked up i think it was going to be called “The Strike Team”

    Maybe Panic at rock Island is a pilot to?

  5. Neon Kitten

    “Nothing b-grade about it?” So, not on the level of “Scorched” then? 😉

    By the way, I can’t believe that after all this time they’ve stuck with the “Cops L.A.C.” title for that show. Shall we place bets now on who will be the first journo to take advantage of the obvious? 🙂

  6. i didn’t really like scorched, thought it was just too wierd. and it got nominated for an outstanding logie above shows that were so much better. but any australian drama project that is not crime based is a good thing nonetheless.

  7. This has the potnential to be good. Hope 9 delivers and keeps it in a loyal timeslot to build a following…

    Any idea when it will air?
    When will Rescue Special Ops Return?

  8. Well if it’s a concert then all the Justin Beaver fan should be the first to go LOL

    I like ‘what if’ shows, can’t wait to see what they do with it.

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