Written by François-Pier Pélinard-Lambert (Le Film Français)
Since its beginnings, Series Mania has always had a special relationship with Australian drama. Cult series such as Please Like Me and ratings hits like Mystery Road have been premiered at the Festival. A special bond has been forged with the local industry which led to the launch three years ago
of Series Mania Melbourne. The Australian Center of the Moving Image and Film Victoria, the most powerful state agency in this sector, work every year with the French teams to produce the Antipodean version of the event to put the spotlight on talent from down-under.
A LITTLE HISTORY
One cannot talk about the specifics, trends and changes in Australian drama without taking a look back on its history. The first developments
began in 1956, first in Sydney, then Melbourne. The Olympic Games were taking place in the city, giving a decisive boost to local channels, who
were divided from the start between the public broadcaster ABC and two commercial networks, Seven and Nine. In the 1950s, Australia was caught between two influences. It was still closely linked to the former colonial power, Britain, but was also in thrall to the United States, which, since the
Second World War, had become both a protecting power and elder brother whose presence was at times bothersome. The emerging television scene was also affected by this dual tutelage. Strongly influenced by British
and US series, Australian drama had to fight hard to impose its own identity – as was the case in other artistic fields. To begin with, there was a steady stream of US and British films. Local content was mainly news programming and entertainment known as variety shows, which drew on rich talent pool of Sydney cabaret and the Melbourne theater scene. In 1957, Take That aired, the country’s first sitcom, followed in 1958 by the first soap (Autumn Affair), then in 1959 by the first medical series (Emergency). 1964 was a pivotal year for Australian drama, with five series in production and the arrival the first cop serial (Homicide). This series allowed a slew of screenwriters and directors to cut their teeth, giving rise to numerous sequels and spin-offs.
FOUR CREATIVE PILLARS
The first time the rest of the world heard of Australian drama, it was thanks to a kangaroo called Skippy. The story of the friendship between a marsupial (in fact, around 10 were used in the series) and a boy called Sonny ran to 91 adventures in this show made from 1968 to 1970 and which sold worldwide, even being shown in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It helped spread the myth that kangaroos are much nicer
than they really are. After a period of event mini-series which met with
considerable success in the 1980s (including the cult show Return to
Eden), Australian drama in the 1990s was based on four main elements: Soaps, like Home and Away and Neighbors, which became a daily feature of many people’s viewing and produced a string of future stars (the latest
being Margot Robbie); family drama series (Sea Change, Packed to the Rafters, McLeod’s Daughters, The Secret Life of Us, Offspring); fairly trashy sitcoms (Kath and Kim, Summer Heights High); and regular shock series, such as Underbelly, a sort of Antipodean Sopranos in the form of an anthology exploring the rich criminal history of contemporary Australia.
MIRROR EFFECT ON SOCIETY
In the past few years, Australian drama has been notable for a new awareness of the country’s multiculturalism, as seen in hit shows like
Heartbreak High, accompanied by the emergence of Aboriginal talents. Having long been ostracized, the culture of First Nation Australians
helped revitalize local drama, whether through societal topics (Redfern Now), comedy (Black Comedy), the thriller genre (Mystery Road), fantasy (Cleverman, Glitch), political drama (Total Control, selected at Series Mania 2020 as a special screening), or teen drama (Mustangs FC). Australian producers have also probed many aspects of society and history, ranging from racism (The Slap), school violence (The Principal), the rise of neo-Nazism (Romper Stomper), sexual abuse in the church (Devil’s Playground), illegal
immigration (Safe Harbour), the end of life (The End, International Panorama, Series Mania 2020), nuclear testing in the outback (Operation Buffalo, International Panorama, Series Mania 2020), to impending climate disaster (The Commons). They have also cultivated a strong taste for the fantastic,
illustrated by two other series previously presented at Series Mania; The Kettering Incident and Lambs of God. As elsewhere in the world, Australian drama has to face growing competition from global online platforms. The
public sector (ABC, SBS), private broadcasters (Channels 7, 9, and 10), and pay-TV (Foxtel) are now accompanied by local platform Stan, giving
rise to a major rethink on editorial approach. But the upcoming projects show that the talents involved clearly want to continue having their Aussie voice heard.