When Heather Ewart got the call from then-managing director Mark Scott for a show about rural Australia there was not much other enthusiasm within ABC for the idea.
Ewart, a journalist with a long track record in political and foreign reporting, had just completed a 3 part profile on the National Party.
“He said, ‘All the ABC board and I would like you to come up with another idea about the country. Anything as long as it’s different to Landline,” Ewart tells TV Tonight.
“So that was a pretty blank canvas.
“I grew up on a farm in Murchison, in country Victoria, and my old man was a real character. I grew up with a lot of old, bushy characters. I thought, ‘One thing that hasn’t been done is what happens in these little country towns.’ I thought what goes on in my hometown must happen in other towns.
“The theme that we gave it in the early days was ‘You never know who you’ll meet, or what you’ll find, if you take back roads.'”
“In the early days it wasn’t like we had a lot of support.”
Right out of the gate, Back Roads found an audience. That quickly changed the show’s standing within ABC.
“It’s now one of the highest rating shows on the ABC. In the early days it wasn’t like we had a lot of support. It was quite a fight to get it up and keep it going.
“But the very first night, it rated well over a million viewers and everyone was like, ‘What the?’
“And it just took off from there. So we have been pretty much left alone.
“The thing that has changed is that we were doubled, so now we get we have a summer and winter series.”
Now in its 5th season, the show profiles rural communities, characters and facing adversity in the bush, but is more documentary in style than a mere travel series. Each season includes at least one town per state, and sometimes two. With a land as big as Australia there’s no shortage of suggested destinations. Ideas have been forthcoming from viewers, local ABC radio and even Ewart’s political contacts keen to showcase their electorate (the show has a blanket ban on pollies on camera).
“Bill Shorten said, ‘Have you ever thought of travelling with the show people?”
“Bill Shorten when he was opposition leader, rang me out of the blue one day and said, ‘Have you ever thought of travelling with the show people? One of them has a house next door to us and they have this traveling show school that teaches the kids wherever they go.’ I thought it sounded amazing,” she cites as an example.
“It’s a whole window on another way of life. You think of them camping out and being as rough as guts. But they had state of the art caravans with Miele dishwashers and boats!”
Another episode in Omeo demonstrates the show’s approach to storytelling.
“You see a lot and hear a lot about the men of the high country, but really, the women have always been the backbone of that area. This is what you find when you when you start digging around, which we all do, because we are a small team. And then you get a theme going,
“(Back Roads) is mainly based on resilience and what surprising things people achieve in these small communities.
“We do everything in a very subtle kind of way.”
“It’s certainly not hard news but there are news themes that run through it: mental health issues. youth suicide. We do everything in a very subtle kind of way.
“ABC had A Big Country in the ’70s, but we probably didn’t do anything like it after that wound up. So I think this does fill a very big part of ABC’s Charter.”
But filming with her small team does not come without its challenges. The show stretches its budget by driving wherever possible, mostly from Ewart’s Melbourne base into Victoria, South Australia & New South Wales, or filming two episodes around interstate trips. Travel does not come without the unexpected and the harshness of the elements.
Ewart recalls one trip to Suplejack Station, NT’s most isolated cattle property.
“That was bloody hot. We were staying in the huts where their roustabouts stay, and it was almost impossible to sleep. You could only film early in the morning or later in the day because it was too bloody hot.
“We get flat tyres a lot…. I’ve been bitten by dogs”
“Things go wrong,” she explains. “We get flat tyres a lot. We had a puncture on the Tanami Track last year which is totally in the middle of nowhere. You don’t want to get a puncture there, I tell you. Luckily a road train stopped and helped us.
“I’ve been bitten by dogs. I stood on a bull-ant heap where my foot swelled up for a week and I couldn’t put my boot on. All sorts of things go wrong. And the accommodation is not five star!”
This season begins with an episode filmed in the peaks of Victorian and NSW snowfields, arriving during a blizzard in Dinner Plain.
“I was actually dreading doing this one because I can’t ski. I thought ‘I’ll be falling over everywhere,’ but it was fantastic,” Ewart insists.
“We film the annual snow dog races which was fun, and we travel all the way down through Gippsland into Jindabyne and Charlotte Path. The beauty of that is if you’ve never had a white Christmas, this just looks gorgeous.
“And Clunes near Ballarat has an annual book festival which has totally taken off, just created out of nothing because they thought their town was dying.
“The other one I love is, Koroit in Victoria, which was basically settled by the Irish. They have a festival every year. You could go back to that place and feel like you’re in Ireland.”
Ewart maintains the Back Roads has found an audience in the city as well as the country and now has solid support from within ABC.
“To be honest, at the beginning I don’t think the programmers at the time really thought anybody would want to watch a show like this,” she suggests.
“It wasn’t a program idea that originated with them.
“But I think it was a victory for country people, in a way because the stories were actually interesting to city viewers.
“It’s almost reminding people of what their country is.”
“I find travelling around I get enormous feedback from city viewers saying ‘It makes us want to get off the couch and go somewhere.. we always go overseas .’ So it’s it’s almost reminding people of what their country is.
“I hope the show has longevity.
“Obviously, I can’t go forever. But what I hope is that it becomes like Australian Story. A fixture of ABC programming.
“That’s my wish. I think we’ll get there.”
Back Roads returns 8pm Monday on ABC.