According to Macquarie University associate professor of modern history, Michelle Arrow, co-editor of Small Screens: Essays on Contemporary Australian Television, Australian viewers will greedily consume glossy drama from the US or UK, but aren’t used to seeing themselves portrayed thus, except perhaps in political or true crime drama. However outlandish the plots might become on Neighbours and Home and Away, our staple soaps reflect a down-to-earth, suburban lifestyle.

“There has been a trend in Australian television, recently, for more interesting genre experiments, such as sci-fi series like Glitch, in a response to the streaming smorgasbord,” says Arrow, who has seen trailers of Between Two Worlds. “What Bevan Lee might be going for with this is something more generic and less ‘capital A’ Australian. Here is a world that perhaps not many of us are part of. I’ll be curious to see how people respond to it.”

In a way, Lee has come full circle with this series. He got his break writing episodes of classic 1980s Australian soap opera Sons and Daughters (on which Quast was a regular). Lee insists that his plots, even in that format, were “never kitchen sinky – they tended to be a bit heightened”.

He wrote Between Two Worlds aware that it might be his last series. “I don’t want to stay too long at the fair. I don’t want to stay that one show too long where people go, ‘Oh, the poor thing. He’s lost it.’ I want to go out on a high.” Which is why he chose to combine the two genres that have defined his work. His “domestic happiness trilogy”, Always Greener, Packed to the Rafters and Winners and Losers, was inspired by his relationship with his former partner and enduring friend, Jamie Buckton. The darker A Place to Call Home came after their separation.

“With Between Two Worlds, I created this hybrid where two shows start in the same hour of television. You could have two pilots for two totally different shows. People say, ‘We’ve got to have one genre’, and I wanted to technically see if I could have these two shows exist together. I don’t think it’s ever been done before. I guess I’ve taken all my old tropes and, at the end of my career, I’ve had them all dance with each other to form a whole new ballet.”

The multimillion-dollar project, which neither Lee nor Seven will put an exact figure on, has been a long time coming. A 2014 draft titled “Fearless” was rejected. Negotiations between Seven and an unnamed overseas investor to produce the current version fell over in 2016 due to disagreements over the budget. Then in 2018, the soon-to-be-outgoing Seven chief Tim Worner made, as Lee puts it, the “ballsy call” for the network to “bankroll the whole thing”. Originally expected to premiere in 2019, and then, to coincide with Seven’s coverage of the cancelled 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Between Two Worlds will perhaps now air at a time that is right for the viewership mood. The addictive, teasing plotlines, cinematic production quality and extravagant views of Sydney, inside and out, might offer exactly what the COVID-hit nation, and indeed the world, wants.

Brett Climo and Marta Dusseldorp in <i>A Place To Call Home</i>.

Brett Climo and Marta Dusseldorp in A Place To Call Home.Credit:

“In the pandemic moment, a lot of people are looking for warm escapism,” Arrow explains. “Maybe as it wears on, they’ll be looking for arch melodramatic escapism which is meaner. Melodrama has always been about excessive emotions. The clothing is over-the-top and the emotions are real but they’re exaggerated, and there’s an element of camp to that. Australians are very good at camp in a lot of ways, even though we don’t necessarily think about ourselves in that way. A Place to Call Home was very much in that mode – a sort of 1950s melodrama. This sounds more of a 1980s melodrama – that sort of Dynasty big soap, with people slapping each other across the face. You can delight in bitchy characters and people behaving badly. We haven’t had a show like that. We’re all expected to be on our best behaviour, and watching people behaving badly could be quite cathartic.”

As with A Place to Call Home, which was ignored by local industry awards, yet a critical and commercial hit in the US, there is some expectation that international viewers may have more appreciation for Between Two Worlds. Seven’s head of drama and the series’ executive producer, Julie McGauran, agrees that it “looks different to any other drama we’ve seen for a long time”, and feels confident that it can compete in the international market.

“Audiences are blessed to have a plethora of great drama around the world and I think it’s important that we stand out with those high calibre dramas,” McGauran says. “Bevan was clear, right from the outset, that the world the show is based in would have to be authentic. So when you see the billionaire side of the world, every piece of that world is extraordinary. It wasn’t a cheap show to make. We couldn’t cut corners because the audience expects to see high quality drama and those worlds come to life. The standard had to be truthful to what Bevan had written on the page.”

The series is the first that Lee has scripted alone, save for the penultimate episode, penned by emerging writer Trent Atkinson. “Our job was to facilitate Bevan’s vision,” says McGauran. “He’s like no other.”

Hermione Norris and Tom Dalzell in Between Two Worlds.

Hermione Norris and Tom Dalzell in Between Two Worlds.Credit:

For Lee, having autonomy over the dialogue was paramount. “This is such a passion project for me that I didn’t want to do the writers’ room,” says Lee. “I thought, ‘I’ve got the time and I’d rather not share it with other people. Just write like a novelist or a playwright would write.’ I wanted to truly make it my own for the first time in a 40-year career. And it was my privilege. I think when a narrative has as complex a set of strands, sharing out the thing often creates problems. Would Agatha Christie have written a good whodunit if each chapter had been written by a different person?”

Aside from the two leads and another big name whose role is shockingly short-lived, the cast is a refreshing departure from the regular faces that tend to dominate local drama. This use of accomplished, yet not overly familiar actors is a feature of Lee’s work, and has the capacity to boost careers. Profiles were raised by Packed to the Rafters (Hugh Sheridan) and A Place to Call Home (Marta Dusseldorp).

“My attitude is that the show makes the star, not the star makes the show,” says Lee. “I think it’s good to put people in who aren’t that well known, then the character is a character, not the actor playing the character. I always wanted Philip [Quast], who hasn’t had a huge television profile. We were getting a three-time West End Olivier award winner and the acting chops, but without the face that makes you go, ‘Oh, him again’. Hermione [Norris] is known to people through Cold Feet but she’s not an overexposed local name.”

Along with the “gasps” that Lee hopes Between Two Worlds will induce, there are deeper messages to the narrative: Money doesn’t buy happiness. Things are not what they seem. Everyone wears a facade. Most of all, Lee hopes to reward his viewers by pushing the boundaries of Australian television drama.

“I’m guilty of underestimating the audience in some stages of my career. With the passage of time, I’ve been braver at saying, ‘Well, I want to hope that if I don’t underestimate them, that they won’t let me down’.”

Between Two Worlds airs on Sunday, July 26 at 8.30pm, on Seven.

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