EXCLUSIVE: Interview with ABC Head of Programming, Brendan Dahill.
- Australian Drama every week of the ratings year
- ABC to enter into co-productions with AMC in the US
- Event programming on Health, Education & Drugs
- Comedy Showroom inspired by UK’s Comedy Playhouse
- Dirty Laundry Live not returning
- Discussions continue on Gruen, The Ex-PM, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and Please Like Me
While some networks have no local Drama in their first quarter, ABC can proudly boast it has a locally-produced Drama across every week of the ratings year.
Beginning with The Doctor Blake Mysteries, quickly joined by Jack Irish, ABC has mapped out a strong year of new and returning titles. The output comes despite some concerns the broadcaster has had to stretch its Drama dollar a lot further.
“We’ve got 42 hours of drama in our dedicated Thursday night slot, plus we’ve got Dr. Blake (on Fridays). So we’ve got 50 hours of drama on this year, which is still pretty healthy. We obviously had a high 2 years ago, which was the end of the last triennial when we had dedicated drama money given to us. So it’s a little bit off compared to that, but it’s still a massive amount of Australian drama,” Brendan Dahill tells TV Tonight.
“The investment in Australian drama in 2016 is still huge and we are looking to make as much as possible, which has meant we’re looking at every budget, on every hour of every show to see how much further we can stretch it.
“We’re looking at co-pro partnerships, so later on this year we’ll be announcing some deals with AMC, for shows we’ve commissioned with them that will have an international feel, that extends our money a bit further.”
ABC’s first co-production with AMC is futuristic drama Cleverman, starring Iain Glen, Frances O’Connor and Deborah Mailman. It has its World Premiere at the Berlinale later this month and will screen in the US on the Sundance Channel.
“It’s definitely going to be the noisiest piece of our Drama and the bit that get’s a lot of attention. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen come out of our Indigenous department or our Drama department. We’ve tried to push out into that kind of genre space in the last couple of years and tried different things and taken a few risks in the drama area,” he says.
“You know the way Peter Jackson’s District 9 really got under the skin of immigration, but because the immigrants happened to be aliens from another planet and they called them Prawns, it was ok to go there? It exposes some real truths, but with enough distance that you get to say them without getting people offside.
“Two or three of the actors that come out of this are going to be new superstars”
“Cleverman is quite a clever piece, exploring a lot of contemporary things, but through a genre prism, which gives you that kind of distance to think about it, without being too ‘in your face.’
“I think two or three of the actors that come out of this are going to be new superstars on Australian TV.”
No date has been confirmed as ABC looks to a joint premiere with AMC.
“I think we’re quite keen to try and do a global launch, so it gets a bit of buzz about it from being on both sides of the (Pacific) at the same time. If we can get our stars to align, then what we might try and go with some kind of big global launch.”
Also new this year is Barracuda, based on Christos Tsiolkas’ unflinching look at Australia’s national obsession with sporting heroes. From Matchbox Pictures, it features Rachel Griffiths, Matt Nable, and in the lead role of a teenage swimmer, Elias Anton.
“He’s never been on TV before. So, he’s straight out of drama school,” Dahill explains.
“We thought it was a really good way of taking an iconic Australian book and giving it a relevance of an Olympic year, to look at how we treat our sportsmen. It’s a great book and it’s a great drama. It has that little bit more oomph -if that’s a technical term these days- in an Olympic year. So, that will be playing pre-Olympics.”
“Every young Australian actor should have to work with Craig McLachlan at some point.”
A swag of Australian favourite dramas begin this week with The Doctor Blake Mysteries, ABC’s most popular drama series. Dahill is clearly a big fan of star Craig McLachlan.
“This is it’s fourth year and it always comes back in the same spot, you know where Dr. Blake’s going to be. He attracts a regular audience every single year,” he continues.
“Craig’s made that role his own and his nominations obviously speak for themselves in terms of the quality of his performance in that role.
“I’ve spoke to quite a few of the guys on set and Craig is so professional. He turns up and he learns all of his lines and everyone else’s lines too. He demands a level of professionalism from people that are working with him on the set.
“Every young Australian actor should have to work with Craig McLachlan at some point.”
Jack Irish is back next week now expanded to a 6 part series. Brooding Guy Pearce is back in the title role while Marta Dusseldorp’s character will be found in Asia.
“There’s kind of a terrorist undertone to Jack this time around, She’s overseas as an investigative journalist, so she’s in it, but not in Melbourne with Jack. She kind of gives it a different flavour with her perspective on it,” he says.
After some two years absence, in demand-Dusseldorp will also return in the title role of Janet King in Q1.
“It’s great to have her back and it picks up on some of the threads from season 1, which slowly all come together and form a big, explosive storyline at the end.
“She’s appointed by a Royal Commission to investigate gun crime and in what seems like quite a simple case gets much, much more complicated the more you dig.”
Despite claims Rake would end at three seasons, Richard Roxburgh will be back as lawyer Cleaver Greene.
“I think he just loves making it so much, that he can’t bear to put Cleaver down! I can’t bear to put Cleaver down either, I love Rake. I think he’s going to be in the Australian TV pantheon for a long time, that character. I think he’s brilliant,” declares Dahill.
“It was definitely intricate, but it was deliberate.”
Ashley Zukerman, Dan Spielman and Adele Perovic return in The Code, filmed in Sydney, Canberra and Far North Queensland. He describes the show as being similar to the first, but “on steroids” and with more attitude.
“It’s still the two boys who have been co-opted into helping out again, not necessarily voluntarily. They’re co-opted by ASIO to help them solve crime, track down someone. Its reach is a bit broader than Canberra this time, so there’s international espionage and dark net stuff happening in this series. We’ve also added Anthony LaPaglia, which gives the series a certain darker tone. He’s great in it,” he continues.
“I heard what people said about series one being ‘convoluted’, but it was definitely clever and it was definitely intricate, but it was deliberate. It was supposed to be a really clever piece of drama, political thriller, unlike anything you’d seen in Australia before. That necessitated it being quite intricate. It did take a bit of watching, a bit of concentrating. This series will be equally complex in the issues it tries to get under the skin of. So it does require dedicated viewing.”
ABC’s Wednesdays are underway with The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, Black Comedy and Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery.
“Home Delivery has really grown over the last two years and it’s now kind of our number one interview show. Annabel (Crabb) does politicians, if you’re not a politician, Julia does you!” he suggests.
“Her interviewing style is really disarming and she’s got great access this year.”
The earlier timeslot of 8pm is one of ABC’s toughest spots to commission, with a broad entertainment show competing against rival networks.
“You’re hoping to hang onto the 7:30 audience and try and pick up refugees from Reality TV. So it is a very difficult time of the evening. Because we’re not on junction with anyone at that point in the night, you’re holding on to your own people and hoping to steal somebody else’s.”
“I think at least three of these Australians are going to love. “
Six new comedy pilots will form part of a Comedy Showroom in projects devised by Eddie Perfect, Ronnie Chieng, Lawrence Mooney, Gavin Tanner, Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan, and -in their very first sitcom- The Chaser team.
“Back in the 1970s there was a BBC Comedy Playhouse Season that spawned Porridge, Open All Hours and Steptoe and Son,” he recalls.
“Hopefully in 20 years time, somebody will be saying the best comedies of Australian history came out of this Playhouse Season, and I can plant that one on the mantle!”
Viewers will get to vote on their favourite via iview, with at least one proceeding forward to a full series.
“This is the beauty of TV, all six of them could become comedies or none of them could become comedy series. But hopefully at least one of them will turn into a series,” Dahill promises.
“I think at least three of these Australians are going to love. At least three.”
Amongst other comedy highlights this year, Dahill is excited about Luke Warm Sex featuring Luke McGregor.
“Luke is going to become a superstar on Australian television. He’s so disarming and so funny. I’ve watched the first three episodes of this, through my fingers, it’s hilarious and it’s cringe making,” he laughs.
“It’s brilliant. He has to talk to his mum and dad about sex and as a grown man, and it’s …just wrong.”
McGregor will also be joined by Celia Pacquola for Rosehaven a “rom-com” set in rural Tasmania. Also returning are Upper Middle Bogan, Soul Mates and Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell.
More Utopia is expected for 2017 and discussions are underway on The Ex-PM.
What about ABC’s most popular entertainment show, Gruen? Dahill is optimistic.
“We have an Olympic year and an election year. (So between) Gruen Sweat and Gruen Nation it’s a perfect Gruen year, isn’t it?” he teases.
Similarly, there are hopes for the Chaser boys to aim fire at the federal election.
“The Checkout is back and that will be Q1 and Q2 of their year and on the basis the election will be late Q3 or early Q4, we’re hopeful that we’ll have an election show from them. But, we can’t really confirm much until we know when election is.”
“Josh is obviously in enormous demand from Lena Dunham”
ABC is also discussing the future for Please Like Me with Josh Thomas, whilst conceding it didn’t have the right timeslot on ABC’s primary channel.
“Please Like Me is one of the most lauded and applauded shows we’ve made and everyone talking about the numbers as slightly disappointing, I’m not sure I agree. I think in a fragmenting world the Overnight numbers are only half the story and people are writing the whole story based on half the numbers. It’s a massive hit on iview. On Catch Up it doubles its audience, it’s just a small percentage of its audience choose to watch it live on TV,” he explains.
“We’re in discussion about a fourth season and when and how that might happen. Josh is obviously in enormous demand from Lena Dunham in most respects. I don’t think it’s lost on anyone having seen the tweets between the two that they’re trying to work on something together.
“We’re talking to Josh and Pivot about how we can continue the Please Like Me journey and when and where that journey ends.
“Maybe it should have played on a Wednesday night. It bounced around in the schedule a bit, trying to find the right spot for it and it was a victim of circumstance. I don’t think I got that one right, I’ll take that one.”
But it’s bad news for fans of Dirty Laundry Live.
“Dirty Laundry Live I really liked, but sadly we can’t afford another series of it at the moment.”
Turning to other genres, ABC has a big year of Factuals, Documentaries and Events.
Keeping Australia Alive uses 100 cameras to take a 24 hour snapshot of the Australian Health System, designed to be event television.
“We started with Mental As and last year we did Domestic Violence as well. So we’re hoping to do those things kind of “stop the nation, big talking point” moments,” he says.
“I’ve seen three or four of the episodes now and it’s breathtaking, it really is. I would say that, but it is breathtaking. It’s a hundred cameras in a bunch of locations all over Australia, showing the great diversity. You’re in Longreach and you’re in the Outback and you’re in metro hospitals, so you get a full sweep of the massive scope that our health system tries to deal with. I think in the intro it says, ‘No other health system in the world has to deal with the tyranny distance the way that we do.’
“It’s not a whinging political piece, it really is a kind of life affirming observational piece”
“It’s kind of your perfect 3 act play, where there’s always stuff happening. You’re in an accident / emergency ward as much as anything else, so people are born and people die and there are accidents and people recover and that’s part of the meter of the piece.
“It’s not a whinging political piece, it really is a kind of life affirming observational piece. People will draw their own inferences about what that means. But the point of our show is not to go, ‘It’s underfunded. Oh my God, look what we could do with more money.’ The point of the show is, ‘This is what it looks like, right now. Are you happy with that?'”
Ice Wars has unprecedented access to frontline police and health services to reveal the true cost of the ice epidemic while The Great Education Experiment puts education under the microscope in an election year.
“Melbourne Uni came up with this new educational strategy that’s much more about kind of teaching kids in a different way. If you teach kids in a different way, do you get a better result than just sitting there expecting them to learn by rote?
“This is an educational philosophy that you can apply to every school in Australia and every school in Australia will be better.
“What we didn’t want to do, which is quite the well-trodden path of ‘dream school’ is (show how) giving a bunch of superstar teachers to a bunch of dysfunctional kids makes dysfunctional kids better. Because, that’s obvious isn’t it?”
Also coming are Hatch Match & Dispatch and Afghanistan: Inside Australia’s War.
“It’s very much a kind of warts and all story of the war in Afghanistan told from the perspective of the people that fought it. The access is amazing,” he claims.
“When you’ve got soldiers talking about their experience on the front line, all the way from the politicians who sent them there, to the generals who came up with the strategy, to the soldiers that got shot at, it’s unbelievable.”
“Who better to counter our perceived ‘lefty’ bias?”
John Howard interviews profile Australians and international faces for Howard on Menzies including Rupert Murdoch, Barry Humphries, Clive James and more. But he insists it won’t be a hagiography.
“There’s some fascinating interviews with John Howard,where he’s interviewed other contemporaries and other Prime Ministers and there’s a hilarious interview between Howard and Bob Hawke about the Menzies years. It’s just brilliant.
“And who better to counter our perceived ‘lefty’ bias than someone with a right’ one? That’s a joke by the way.”
Silvia Colloca joins ABC for Silvia’s Italian Kitchen, David Stratton is back for David Stratton’s Story of Australian Cinema, while Stop Laughing… This Is Serious returns and Tim Ross presents Streets of Your Town.
But it wouldn’t be ABC without Attenborough. The legendary filmmaker returns with David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef.
“This may be Attenborough’s last piece -he’s obviously getting on a bit,” suggests Dahill, “He was very keen, because one of the first natural history docs he ever made, back in Zoo Quest day, was scuba diving The Great Barrier Reef. So he was quite keen to bookmark his career with what has happened to one of the most iconic locations, and significant in terms of his career.
“There is amazing footage of him in submersible, going to places on the Reef that haven’t been filmed before. He has his own unique style in terms of constructing the story that I don’t think you will have heard or seen before.”
2016 is reason to celebrate, 20 years for Australian Story and an impressive 5 decades of Play School.
“We’re playing the documentary 50 Years of Play School on the main channel as a big nostalgic piece, to remind people of their childhood and it will be a massive deal for ABC Kids.
“When Australian Story’s anniversary rolls around in the middle of the year, it will be the star of the network because it is one of the hardest working shows at the ABC,” he explains.
“All of our Monday night lineup last year actually did double digit growth in a fragmenting universe against all of the big units of Australian TV which I don’t think is an achievement that ought to go unrecognised.”
Of course, being ABC there are numerous other new and returning shows across a suite of channels too many to mention here (including profile UK titles). To discover them all, ABC invites you to “Catch the Wonderful.”
There is most certainly something for everyone.