Office mugs

2014-08-10_2013It would be easy to think of Utopia as an Australian take on The Office.

After all, there’s a lot of inter-office double-speak by bureaucrats working for the Nation Building Authority.

But as co-creator Rob Sitch knows, Working Dog’s body of work preceded Ricky Gervais’ UK hit, even if he is too polite to put it so blatantly.

“Ben Elton pointed out that Frontline was one part current affairs, and one part a satire on an office. So I feel we might have been there for some of those things half a lap ahead of various shows. A lot of Frontline that we loved was the comedy of an office,” says Sitch.

Together with political backroom satire, The Hollowmen, this is arguably the third Working Dog comedy set in an office, and the third to film in an actual office rather than building a studio set.

This one is set in the former ICI building in East Melbourne, listed on a National Heritage list as one of Australia’s first skyscrapers.

“Offices have one advantage which is that everyone acts like they’re grown-ups and knows what they are doing and everyone proceeds as if what they are doing has a rationale and is a good idea. So it’s easy to tweak that.

“When we started (filming in actual offices) with Frontline it was at the innovative end, whereas now lots of people do it. But I still love it as a way of shooting. It avoids the need for a set.”

Sitch describes the comedy as being “about government and public policy, and where dreams meet reality.” He is the only member of the Working Dog troupe to take a key performance role in their latest venture. But Santo Cilauro is on camera, Jane Kennedy oversees casting, Michael Hirsh is producing and Tom Gleisner is a co-writer with Sitch and Cilauro.

The idea emerged from observing modern absurdities, and Sitch collated many anecdotes, many of which were office-based.

“Someone once said ‘Everyone is good at performance reviews but often very poor at their job,'” Sitch explains.

“And someone said they had to have gluten-free muffins in the office but the person who was gluten-free intolerant left three months ago. So they had a meeting about putting the gluten back in. On one level it was very sophisticated, but on the other it was quite ridiculous.

“So we played with that. Then the scale of what we looked at became bigger and we looked at both the microscale, where it’s personal, and then the macro-scale, such as the National Broadband Network.

“In Victoria we built desalination plants for billions and billions of dollars and they day they started the drought finished and the construction of the desal plant was delayed by flooding.

“So it’s when big projects meet unintended consequences, I guess.”

Sitch effectively dons an ‘elder’ role in the comedy alongside several younger comic performers including Celia Pacquola, Dave Lawson, Luke McGregor, Kitty Flanagan, Anthony ‘Lehmo’ Lehmann, Emma-Louise Wilson, Michelle Lim Davidson and Toby Truslove.

“Everytime we do a project there’s a half or a whole generation of people who become available,” he explains.

“‘Lehmo’ has such a comic style that it didn’t matter to us that he hadn’t acted before. I knew he would get used to being on a film set. His comic persona is almost unique. It’s happy-go-lucky, he’s never in pain, but he causes pain.

“Luke McGregor is probably the youngest and we’ve had him in mind to cast at the first opportunity.

“With comedy it’s such a bonding point that when you work with someone who has (the same) comic sensibility, age suddenly doesn’t matter.

“Comedy is like an instant language.”

The other key difference with The Office is the performance style under Sitch’s direction. All the lines are scripted and rehearsed, without any room for Mockumentary.

“I often find the better you can write something, the less you want it to be a Mockumentary. Mockumentary is often signalled by the characters in the scenario talking to camera, after the scene,” Sitch insists.

“When we originally did Frontline, we were thinking of doing that, but the better you wrote the half-hour, the less it was helpful and the more you wanted it as a Dramedy.

“We’ve never resorted to Mockumentary. It helps you a little bit, but not enough.”

So what genre would we call this one?

“Someone invented the word Dramedy. But I’d call it a comedy with a conscience.”

That’s a statement that may require its own office meeting.

Utopia airs 8:30pm Wednesday on ABC.

8 Comments:

  1. Everything is overdone and unoriginal unless its from the same group of people that keep getting programs commissioned by ABCTV it seems.

    Everything else that has potential gets put on Iview

  2. Sorry – forgot The Hollowmen after The Thick of It. (The Hollowmen almost departed comedy entirely and was widely viewed as a straight documentary but its still brilliant in my opinion).

  3. I am always happy to see new Working Dog material but your comments about Frontline preceding The Office UK seem a little peculiar.

    In my opinion you could see the gradational development all the way back from The Larry Sanders Show -> Frontline (which is still brilliant) -> Spin City -> The Games -> The Office UK (which really brought on the mockumentary genre) -> The Thick of It -> The Office US (which is a different and sometimes better rounded comedy than the UK original) + Parks & Recreation

    • I haven’t suggested it was the only show to precede The Office. W Dog have 3 office-based comedies in their arsenal now, don’t think Larry Sanders is quite the same style but I did love it.

  4. Secret Squirrel

    Thanks for the review, David. I loved Frontline and enjoyed Hollowmen, and I’m looking fwd to this.

    I hadn’t even thought of comparing it with The Office as they seem to be different genres.I thought that this would be more comparable with The Games but prob with less overt absurdity.

    You don’t explicitly state this but I assume that this was directed by Sitch as usual?

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