The Embassy’s reluctant star

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Should you ever get in trouble overseas, pray you have somebody like Trudy McGowan on your side.

McGowan (until recently the First Secretary and Consul at the Australian Embassy in Bangkok) is one of several Dept. of Foreign Affairs & Trade staff featured in the Nine observational series, The Embassy.

When the first season aired in 2014, McGowan and her staff received plenty of accolades for their heart in what is usually a fairly thankless role and somewhat-dry TV genre.

“I was so flattered by not only the compliments I personally received,” McGowan tells TV Tonight. “But also that the show, DFAT and the work received. I’m sure there was bad feedback, but I haven’t heard a single bit.

“I think the staff were nervous at first, about what they were going to say but they quickly realised they were already were saying all the right things, so there wasn’t anything to be worried about.

“A lot of consular work is on instinct and gut reactions. At first, everyone says, ‘Oh, what am I going to say in front of the TV show? I have to think about it. I have to be really careful.’ But after a while we realised, we’re doing a good job anyway. What’s on TV is right, it’s good -so just relax and be comfortable.”

Since joining the Australian embassy in Thailand in 2011, McGowan has seen it all. From helping Aussies with lost passports, to those in reckless accidents, sham marriages, police prosecution and even repatriation of deceased Australians to their families. Trouble can hit at any time and she is constantly on call.

It’s a great lifestyle. I always think that it’s like getting chosen for the Olympics but you don’t do any sport. You are in another country representing your country, so it’s awesome. I live close to The Embassy because I need to be able to come to work quickly if there’s an emergency. I have a good lifestyle -my children got to school here, my husband works here. But by the same token I work very, very hard,” she explains.

“This kind of work is my passion. This is what I love to do and this is the place in the world where we have the most work. So this job, at my level, is the pinnacle. The most cases, the most Australians, we have a million Australians come to Thailand every year. We’ve got 170 Australians dying here every year. The variety of work here is amazing.”

“We need to respect their culture even though we are on holidays.”

Thailand, which has also featured recently in Seven’s What Really Happens in Thailand, was also the perfect choice for a series on Australians getting into trouble overseas. While is is out #4 favourite international destination, it is #1 for those seeking help from an Australian embassy.

“Because Thailand is so fun and there’s such a good side to it … you don’t realise it’s still real life. You can get hit by a car while you’re having fun in Thailand and it’s the same as hitting by a car in Australia: you might die. If you doing something wrong, it’s real police. It’s not a game and for the Thais, it’s not holiday for them. So we need to respect their culture even though we are on holidays. I think that’s the big mistake.

“You steal some sunglasses at the airport because you think it’s funny but for the person who owns the sunglasses shop, it’s not funny to them and they can get you charged by the police. It’s not funny to you when you’re doing two months in jail and you missed your entrance to your Uni and you can’t take any law degree because you have a criminal record. It all fun and games but as soon as something goes wrong, you have to take a bit of responsibility.

“Everything that goes wrong isn’t usually Thailand’s fault –most of the time’s it’s Australia’s fault.”

McGowan, who has lived and worked amongst the Thais, sees beyond the beaches and nightlife. She is a strong advocate for a Buddhist nation and their remarkable acceptance of lifestyle choices.

“There are things that I love about Thailand that I’ll never stop loving. They are so tolerant. I mean, there’s elements of intolerance too, but there’s special bathrooms for boys, special bathrooms for girls, and special bathrooms for ladyboys. Where else in the world could you just be who you want to be?” she asks.

“And it’s really nice to be part of the country where they do believe so much in their King and are so patriotic. I always get a tear in my eye when you have to stand up for the movies for the King’s anthem! It’s not my King, but I feel like I’m part of it.”

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“If someone says,…‘I don’t want to be filmed’, the crew totally leaves them alone.”

Nine’s series, produced by Fredbird Entertainment and Southern Pictures enjoys remarkable access from DFAT, but camera access does not take priority over Embassy cases.

“They pretty much have access to everything but they need to have consent from the people who are involved with stories. If someone comes in for assistance and they say straightaway, ‘I don’t want to be filmed’, the crew totally leaves them alone and they still get the same assistance from us,” says McGowan.

“It’s definitely a new direction for DFAT and a different kind of media strategy than we’re used to, but we had a lot of confidence in the producers. We knew that they want to just send the same kind of message as us and that they wanted it to be an authentic show that really showed the work we do. DFAT is so confident in its Consular offices all over the world and know that we are doing such a great job. So it was a risk but it was a safe risk.

“We are doing a great job and really this gave us a window just to show what we’re doing, to the world. We’ve got advertisements, posters and information on flights in the website (advising travellers) to insure, register -all those things. But to actually see in practice, a story of someone who does get into trouble, doesn’t have insurance and what actually happens is the really good way to put a human touch to these messages that we’re trying to get honed into people.

“Sometimes people say, ‘Well, actually I’m really proud that I’ve got this help from The Embassy and I want people at home to see what The Embassy has done for me. So I’ll absolutely consent to being filmed.’”

McGowan, who will next join the Australian Embassy in Dubai, says this season also includes cases from Laos and Vietnam.

After the success of the first season she is now relaxed about her public profile, no doubt due to the series showing the human side to public service work.

“A lot of people don’t think of diplomats or government employees as being human. I think it’s important that people realise these people who do this service are not robots. I couldn’t help myself but break down on camera after I spent three days with people who’d just lost their baby. I’m not a robot. I’ve got children,” she insists.

“If you were a robot you couldn’t do it.”

Casting is everything, even in the Observational series.

And Memo to Nine….  she is also hoping for an invite to the Logie Awards.

“How do I get the Gold?” she laughs.

The Embassy returns 8:30pm Wednesday February 3 on Nine.

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