Sex, scandal and sprogs

By Sarah Lang

Framing your father for burglary, sleeping with his missus while impersonating your twin, getting yourself beaten up to make your enemy look bad, trying to sell your baby ... Very little is out on bounds on aptly titled local series Outrageous Fortune, and that's just a few of last season's highlights.

Already the country's longest-running drama, Outrageous will break more New Zealand telly ground when fervently awaited season five starts on June 2. Chock-full of cleavage, ciggies, rum, rows, scuffles, swearing, love triangles and those notorious sex scenes, the show orbits around the working-class West Auckland West family, their lovers, haters and associates.

Leopard skin-loving, chain-smoking matriarch Cheryl, played by Robyn Malcolm, has her hands full trying to keep her errant family together and out of trouble – or at least to stop her adult kids (ditzy Pascalle, cunning Loretta, lawyer Jethro and his perpetually-stoned twin Van) from fitting up and fighting each other.

While the family screws things up for each other more often than not, when the chips are down the Wests stick together. And these eternal underdogs take us along on their rollercoaster ride. That family heart, Kiwi-battler characters, perfectly pitched storylines, and a clever mesh of drama and comedy are some of the reasons Outrageous Fortune has been dubbed the best television New Zealand has ever made.

Since its first season in 2005, the South Pacific Pictures show has been a hit with viewers. In 2007, it was TV3's top local show, and last year it rated even better, pulling in an average 777,000 viewers per episode. That made it the second-highest-rating peak-time series across all channels, second only to Desperate Housewives. Our most-decorated drama, Outrageous took home a trolley-full of trophies from last year's Qantas Film and Television Awards, with eight wins, including best drama, and all three directing nominations.

Continuing its Midas touch, Outrageous has screened in Australia, Canada, Serbia, UK, Italy, Greece, Ireland and across Europe and Asia on cable networks. Picking up on a winning formula, localised versions have been made in the UK (Honest), and US (Good Behavior).

Meanwhile, all four DVDs have hurtled into the top 10, the soundtrack Westie Rules has gone platinum, and on, diehard fans buy the T-shirts, soak up quizzes, quotes and Q&As, discuss topics such as "Cheryl's wine glasses" and speculate on storylines. So great is the fans' appetite that a book The West Family Album will be published in August. This "ultimate guide" to Outrageous Fortune details everything from the contents of Pascalle's handbag to Van and Munter's Tool Guy code, plus a drinking game, quiz, photos and interviews.

Recently, there has been media speculation that, given the show's financial success, cast members had pushed for more pay and that South Pacific Pictures had responded by threatening to pull the plug. Asked to respond, a SSP spokesperson says: "There was no issue about pay rates and we don't wish to comment further on this as it relates to confidential contractual details. However, we would like to note the story in the Sunday Star-Times was incorrect." Whatever the actors' pay rates, they're earning every penny in season five (catch the trailer on YouTube).

Expect the Wests to set the outrageous bar even higher this season, as they defend themselves against outside forces, particularly scheming siblings Sheree and Nicky Greegan. In last season's emotional finale, Grandpa got married, a contrite Loretta moved back home, wealthy widow Pascalle announced a shock engagement to Nicky, and viewers were left hanging on various scores. How much more will Nicky scam out of Pascalle, and will they tie the knot? Has Wolf left for good? Will Sheree find out her twins are Jethro's, not Van's? Will Loretta reform or perhaps get back in bed with her baby's father, Hayden? With Cheryl and Sheree up the duff, and Kasey trying, season five will up the baby count.

We can also reveal the peal of wedding bells, and that popular crim Eric is back in town. Meanwhile, new trouble-in-the-works character Detective Sergeant Gerard, played by easy-on-the-eye Charles Mesure, arrives to shake things up. The first episode begins with a raid on the West house. Is the smooth-talking cop out to get the Wests or has he got bigger fish to fry?

On, writer/co-creator/executive producer James Griffin dangles this teaser: Crooked property tycoon Gary won't be back but expect a new character called Angel; natural-glow queen Suzanne Paul makes an appearance as herself; there's some "very traumatic moments"; and "it's highly likely that someone will end up in prison". An undisclosed West Auckland house is used for exterior scenes, but the West house interior is a set at the sprawling maze of SPP's Henderson HQ. It's as though a rudimentary house has been lifted up Wizard of Oz-style by a tornado, had its roof torn off, and been deposited inside another, gigantic building. Walking into the familiar lounge with its faded carpet and retro wallpaper, feels a bit like Alice in Wonderland suddenly dropping into the rabbit hole.

Off the hall, the bedrooms look tiny, with two fake babies on Cheryl's bed. The cavernous ceiling with industrial-size beams and overhanging set lights seems incongruous. Doors open to nowhere and a huge screen-like painting of West Auckland suburbia serves as the window's view.

Further along is watering hole The Rusty Nail, almost eerily quiet with its faded booths and fridges of beer untouched. (Yes, the actors do eat the fries – sometimes too many in the first take.) Next we pass the prison entrance, Jethro's and Loretta's, plus Nicky's and Judd's offices. Nothing's been overdone. The West's basement feels particularly authentic, dusty and crammed with tools, boxes and other odds-and-ends.

Grandpa's caravan, a tight squeeze for the filming crew, is on its lonesome at SPP's furthest-flung end. Back at the West "house", Cheryl, in trademark tight jeans, heels and clingy top, is putting away groceries and launching into an F-word-studded argument. (Malcolm, who says she's "much more middle-class and not as comfortable with conflict", adores her character's flesh-hugging outfits. "I never wear that stuff in real life so I lap it up!")

In a nearby enclave, director Simon Bennett and other kingpins hunch over TV screens which display what's being shot. With two cameras rolling at once, it takes all day to shoot an episode – a lot longer than it does next door at Shortland Street.

Drama's more of a perfectionist art, here requiring at least three rehearsals then at least two takes of each shot set-up, from wide establishing shots to close-ups. Between takes, makeup artists dart on-and-off and smiling 1-year-old Stella King, who plays Baby Jane, is passed to dad for a cuddle. An hour later, the two-minute scene finally wraps. After a coffee break, the men-of-the-house rehearse a whisky-and-joint-sharing scene in the lounge.

Anthony Starr (Van/Jethro) gives Bennett his 2 cents-worth on where the actors could be positioned. Then a bouquet of flowers, a lemon cake and a throng of people trail through the door singing Happy Birthday. It's Siobhan Marshall's 26th. In pink crocs, a tight dress, cropped black jacket with that very-Kiwi rising inflection, she seems less ditzy than character Pascalle, though you can believe she used to be a Westie. "We're quite different. I'm not as ballsy as Pascalle but I'm getting better."

Beside her, screen sister Antonia Prebble lounges in a slimline black outfit, in line with Loretta's new glam, china-doll look. Friendly, funny and a self-confessed swot, "Toni" is a lot more personable than defensive Loretta, though she says they're similarly "cerebral" rather than emotional. After nearly five years working together, the cast has become close to the point where Prebble and Marshall have travelled overseas together, and Malcolm sometimes feels "like a proud mum".

When the last scene of season five wraps, they head home not knowing if they'll ever be back. The question on everyone's lips is: Will there be a sixth season? Will Outrageous become our first drama to pass the 100-show mark? With the actors, writers and TV3 all in, the decision rests, as Bennett puts it, "in the lap of the funding gods".

While NZ On Air is waiting to see season five before making the final funding call, CEO Jane Wrightson says that, as long as the other major players are keen: "I'm sure we'll look favourably on a series renewal." And with Griffin confirming a sixth season will be the last, we'd better lap up the leopardskin while we can. Outrageous Fortune returns to TV3, Tuesday, June 2.

- Herald on Sunday

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