100 episodes: Wentworth end of an era
"I just can't imagine there'll ever be a drama series that runs that long," says Foxtel's Brian Walsh.
When Wentworth won both Most Outstanding Drama and Most Popular Drama at the 2018 Logie Awards, it formalised what everybody knew already -the Foxtel series had long been loved by both critics and fans alike.
It was a ground-breaking win. No other drama in Logies history had picked up both accolades in the same year.
But for Foxtel’s Executive Director of Television Brian Walsh, it presented a happy problem.
Weeks earlier he had told the cast the show was concluding at 7 seasons.
“The Logies was the catalyst that started the rethink,” he reveals to TV Tonight. “We deliberated for weeks about ‘Have we made the wrong decision?’ I had flown to Melbourne, I had sat with the cost, I had given them the news. But it was the Logies win and then someone had a drone and took some aerial shots of the set being packed. That resulted in a story.
“Fans just went ballistic”
“That’s when the fans just went ballistic. They just bombarded our emails and inboxes and call centres and drummed up all of this unbelievable hysteria about the show. Fremantle came back to me and I said, ‘Do we have story?'”
Producers were able to finance a continuation through 20 new episodes (which was screened across two years).
“We wanted to get to 100 episodes”
“There was a little part of vanity too. We wanted to get to 100 episodes, and we wanted to eclipse the episode count of Orange is the New Black (91 episodes).”
Both shows had debuted in 2013 with Wentworth‘s roots firmly planted in the iconic 10 series Prisoner (1979 – 1986), created by Reg Watson. While Lara Radulovich and David Hannam created Wentworth, the series was pitched to Walsh by Fremantle CEO Ian Hogg in Cannes, following development by Executive Producer Jo Porter and Fairfax critic Michael Idato.
“Michael was my ‘Prisoner whisperer.’ He educated me on all things Prisoner and the authenticity of how we should approach Wentworth based on all the characters because he just knew it so well,” he continues.
“It’s Lord of the Flies. How does human behaviour display itself when people are in confined spaces?” he continues, noting similarities with Brides of Christ.
“You get the best and worst of women”
“You get the best and worst of women, when you explore their behaviour when they’re in a captive space like that.
“I think it’s rare that you get a television show, where all of the energy, and all of the focus, and all of the participants are the best in the game and the best in class. Wentworth has assembled all of them, from the writers to the brilliant directors, the art direction, the post production, the extraordinary stellar cast. The performances were so sharp, and it has just improved, season after season and became the show that every accomplished actress wanted to be part of.”
And what a roll call… Pamela Rabe, Leah Purcell, Susie Porter, Kate Atkinson, Danielle Cormack, Nicole da Silva, Kris McQuade, Katrina Milosevic, Kate Box, Kate Jenkinson, Rarriwuy Hick, Celia Ireland, Shareena Clanton, Tammy MacIntosh, Zoe Terakes, Jacqueline Brennan, Libby Tanner, Lynette Curran, Jane Hall, Marta Dusseldorp and Prisoner originals including Sigrid Thornton and Tina Bursill -and that’s just amongst the female ensemble.
“Everyone has wanted to do this show”
“We’ve never, in the whole history of the show, approached an actor and been knocked back,” Walsh insists. “Everyone has wanted to do this show because it really has redefined the quality of Australian television drama, and demonstrated that we can tell our stories, and they can be exported and shown around the world. Wentworth is the best example of that.
“People, quite rightly, laud Neighbours and Home and Away but that success has really only been enjoyed in Britain. It hasn’t had the global reach that Wentworth‘s had. It hasn’t had the penetration into so many foreign markets where English is not the first language. It’s a show that was one of the first pick-ups by Netflix. Its quality, and its standards are second to none. It’s the sort of show you can’t take your eye away from the screen for a minute. It is edited, and post produced with such precision and such punch that you can’t look away. There’s very few shows that you can say that about, but Wentworth, is certainly one of them. I just think it’s just one of those shows that will for evermore define a period in Australian television.”
The show also spawned 4 remakes in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey, based on Australian scripts and fan conventions in the US and UK.
While Episode 100 marks the show’s conclusion, it could also represent a major turning point in Australian drama. Outside of two long-running soaps, will we ever see another drama chalk up nine seasons? Remaining dramas at 3 seasons include Five Bedrooms and Mystery Road (Stan’s Bump is approved to 3 sesaons).
“We’ll never see that again,” Walsh agrees.
“I just can’t imagine there’ll ever be a drama series that runs that long”
“I just can’t imagine there’ll ever be a drama series that runs that long. I think certainly now, your ambition would be to get to three seasons. As I sit here and talk to you today and look at our forward planning in the Foxtel Group, aside from the one-off signature tentpoles that you only ever commission with it being one season, in terms of returning series, the story arc and the commercial plan is three seasons. I think that will become absolutely the norm. I think five seasons will be a rarity.
“There’s just too much competition. There is too much product out there. I would even argue that across scripted and non scripted the days of a 13 episode commission are over.
“People are time poor, they lose engagement. Even on our lifestyle shows I’m completely reviewing the episode order, because I think less is more. Certainly in drama, we used to shy away from projects that were four hours, five hours, but now that’s become commonplace.”
The final episode, which lovingly includes Prisoner cameos, has been kept under wraps from media and cast who are yet to see the final cut. Whether it satisfies obsessive fans remains to be seen, but Walsh is convinced the show is going out on a high.
“It’s been career defining for so many of us, including me, and I’m just so proud to have been a part of a great Australian television institution.”
Wentworth concludes 8:30pm Tuesday on FOX Showcase.
Tomorrow: Pamela Rabe