It was cheap and cheerful TV when it premiered in 2000, but SBS series Going Home was arguably ahead of its time.
No other TV drama had been written, shot, edited and aired in a single day. But the McElroy All Media production churned out 130 episodes over a two year period, for a 7pm SBS timeslot.
The premise of depicting commuters on a train discussing daily headlines, gave the show an immediacy that was unrivalled. While it was never a ratings hit, Going Home broke all the rules.
Producer Hal McElroy recalled the way he and partner Di McElroy reimagined a leaner drama model after years of punishing schedules on traditional dramas such as Blue Heelers and Water Rats.
“When Princess Diana died we couldn’t (dramatise) that because the cycle on writing, shooting, editing on air was 6 months to a year,” he remembers.
“We thought ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could create a drama that was actually talking about what’s happening today?’
“So we just thought ‘Why don’t we just forget all that and think of another way?’ The key to it was improvisation. We didn’t announce that at the time because it kind of told you how the magician did the trick and at that time improv was seen as something when you can’t learn a script.”
The 9 member cast included Camilla Ah Kin (Here Come the Habibs!), Jason Chong (Janet King, Maximum Choppage), Lyn Perse (How Not to Behave), Brian Meegan (Devil’s Dust) and Arthur Angel (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries). McElroy says their characters were fashioned around the actors’ own interests, streamlined to abet the tight schedule.
“One of the actors played a Greek hairdresser in the show and as it turns out was an astute investor in the share market and traded on the market every single day, as an actor. So we had a Greek hairdresser talking about the stock market,” he explains.
“Then what if the Greek hairdresser sat beside a security officer? The conversation just (took off.)”
While it was set on a train carriage, it was a studio set, but the challenge was to give the effect of movement.
“The cameraman moved and the actors moved,” he laughs.
“It had to be at night because we couldn’t afford a green screen! We used disco lighting outside to give the flashy effect of riding on a train. The entire crew had to wear black so they wouldn’t be reflected in the windows.
“We had people say ‘Why don’t you have a derailment?’ Do we push the set over in the studio?”
Putting a camera on a cushion in a wok also helped give a sense of movement, along with ‘pogo-cam.’
An early adopter of interactivity, Going Home also invited the audience to participate, with storyline questions at the end of the episode. Similar to 1992’s Let the Blood Run Free, it asked the audience to vote on outcomes it could incorporate as well as story ideas.
“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if the audience could talk to the show?’ What about a ‘web-site?’ But who has a programme for a website?” he continues.
“So we figured out we could have a ‘chat room!'”
In TV terms, they were unfamiliar terms and concepts back in 2000.
But the show was not without its inherent challenges.
“We had a brave network who were able to do this,” Di McElroy recalls. “But if we didn’t deliver 5 nights a week by 7:00, we personally had to pay $60,000 a day. Needless to say we never defaulted! But I never had any fingernails for the entire shoot.”
“The closest we ever got was 5 minutes to air!” Hal adds. “Even 15 years later I don’t want to say too much about the process, other than to say we did it.”
The rapid turnaround also meant there was no material to promote the show each day, but McElroy says everything they learned could be addressed in a new or similar version if a network was bold enough to commission it.
“It would be three times better and we could set it anywhere!” he declares.
Indeed the show had adaptations in Canada, France and Italy, some at over 200 episodes, and he explored a pilot with Showtime in the US.
“Imagine a commute from NY to Connecticut where businessmen could sit down in a club bar and drink. Imagine doing that now with a bunch of comedians talking about Donald Trump and America today!”
For now Going Home lives on as YouTube nostalgia, for those smart enough to see how bold it was without being distracted by its dated production values. TV rarely takes as many risks as it did in 2000.
“It was a wonderful experience and there are people who still say ‘I loved that show, that was so innovative!’”