How the wests won

By James Griffin

Not The Sopranos - James Griffin. Photo / NZ Herald
Not The Sopranos - James Griffin. Photo / NZ Herald

So how do you explain the success of Outrageous Fortune?

I've been asked that question many times over the last few years. In response, I usually waffle on for a bit about whatever comes into my head and then end with something along the lines of "... and then the television fairy sprinkles magic pixie dust all over it".

And when I get asked that question, there's usually a lilt to it that suggests, at best, an element of surprise and, at worst, outright suspended disbelief. This reminds me, over and over again, that, in New Zealand, when your job is to be a writer of television comedy and drama, you work in an industry that is expected to fail. Every new series is greeted with (at best) the hope that this one won't suck. At worst there is the expectation that it will suck because, you know, it's a New Zealand drama-comedy.

Okay, sure, this is me being my usual Eeyore self. Before the first series of Outrageous went to air, a very wise man in this industry sat me down and told me they fully expected the show not to live past the first series.

And I agreed with him. Because that is the reality of the show pony industry I work in - most of your children will get killed off before they get the chance to run. That's just the way it goes, so you arm yourself to deal with the fallout on those terms.

And I'm still that Eeyore guy. With every series of OF, before it goes to air I'm the one predicting a critical and audience backlash - like they'll suddenly see through the tissue of lies we have constructed, past the magical pixie dust, and realise that, hey, it is just another Kiwi drama-comedy and what the hell is all the fuss about? Even now, on the eve of the final series going to air, I'm still waiting for that axe to fall.

But maybe I need to get over myself. Maybe I need to stop being that typical Kiwi, who thinks that if you publicly acknowledge that something you've been intrinsically involved in is actually good, is actually a success, that you're somehow "up yourself". Because the fact is, Outrageous Fortune has been a success unlike anything we've seen on our screen.

When this all comes to an end, sometime in November, 108 hours of the potty-mouthed, sex-obsessed West family will have gone to air - more than any other hour-long drama we've ever made. The Poms and the Yanks will have had a crack at making their version of the beast. Heaps of DVDs of the show will have been sold, along with a couple of soundtrack CDs and a book - all unheard of, until now, for a Kiwi drama series. And then there's the thing that means more to me than any of this: when the Wests have packed up and moved on there will be many people out there who will genuinely miss them.

"So, come on, answer the bloody question, how do you explain the success of Outrageous Fortune?"

Okay, I'll give it a proper crack then, starting with the first ever mention of Outrageous Fortune in the news media, in the Sunday Star-Times, on September 26, 2004: "Green light for Kiwi version of Sopranos'."

I love that headline. I love the way the headline uses speech marks to give legitimacy to the assumption made in the body of the article - that because it is made here, it must be like something else from overseas. Every country has families, every country has criminals, but when you put the two things together here, you're obviously trying to mimic something American. You start to see now why I think I'm in an industry set up to fail?

Outrageous Fortune was never going to be The Sopranos. It was always its own beast, which is, I think, Reason Number One it worked: it was unlike anything we'd ever made here before. It had cops, but it wasn't a cop show; it had lawyers, but it wasn't a legal show. For years we'd been told by network people and the like that you could never write a show where criminals were the central characters because the audience wouldn't accept that bad people could be good people. The fact that we not only ignored this wisdom but deliberately turned the moral universe on its head is the reason why wise men were scared that it would never last past series one but also, I reckon, a big reason why people sat up and took notice.

Reason Number Two: if you're going to be Outrageous, be outrageous. This is down to the gifted and awesome queen of OF, Rachel Lang, who put the word "outrageous" in the title to send a message about what to expect. Naturally it very nearly didn't end up being called Outrageous Fortune because another of the rules of working in TV drama-comedy is that the network will always want to change the working title. It's like a rite of passage. West; West 16; White Trash; Honest; Once Upon a Time in the West; and hundreds of other possibilities were kicked around, via email and in meetings and over bottles of wine. My personal favourite, Not the Sopranos, was eliminated pretty early on, before it was decided - because no one could decide otherwise - to stick with the working title. Good non-decision, I reckon.

So outrageousness was always to the fore when we wrote OF. Try, if we possibly could, to get the characters having sex before the first commercial break. Begone the staple diet of old New Zealand drama, where everyone sits down and sorts things out over a cup of tea. Put them in bed instead, trying to seduce each other and sort their shit out. Now that is dramatic tension. Okay, yeah, sometimes this was entirely gratuitous, to deliberately push the boundaries because it was fun. But it was never done to undermine the characters; which leads to Reason Number Three: the Wests were, are and forever-will-be a family.

A mother, wanting the best for her kids while the kids want to do things their way, all overlaid with Mum and Dad fundamentally disagreeing about the way the family should be run. For all the sex and the swearing and the crime and the stupidity and the morally dodgy stuff, Outrageous Fortune was always, at heart, a very conservative show, exploring family values - in a new and unusual way, sure, but always with the idea of the defence of the family being something the audience could hook into. We were always much more The Waltons than The Sopranos.

And inside the belly of the beast, those who made OF also became a family - sometimes to a scarily intense degree. I have worked on a lot of shows in 25-odd years in this business, and I have never experienced anything like it. We were a family, with none of the distinctions between cast and crew you usually get on a shoot. We were all in this together. We were the Wests and we fell in and out of love with each other and we fought among ourselves and we abused the hell out of each other, but that was our right and if anyone from outside said bad things about our family or tried to hurt us in any way, by crikey we would put aside our differences to join forces to kick their arses.

Yes, within the walls there were fights and there were family bust-ups and occasionally things got thrown (usually food, as it turned out) but the fights were always (well, almost always) followed by hugs and tears. I think there have been more tears shed while making bloody Outrageous Fortune than on any other show in television history. But they weren't always bad tears. Sometimes they were therapeutic tears; release-the-pressure tears; and sometimes they were tears of laughter, which are always the best sort of tears. The hugs were nice too.

And I think that somehow the passion of the family who made Outrageous made it on to the screen. Don't get me wrong, every cast and crew I've ever worked with has loved and respected the work they get presented with, but with OF it went much, much further. Emotion in, emotion out. Personally, it got a bit too emotional when I hit the wall around series three and went rather John Kirwan on things. But that was nothing a spot of therapy didn't fix and was possibly a reflection on how some New Zealanders aren't too flash at dealing with success. Maybe it's a story for another time, but it's also a reflection of the nature of the show, because I know for a fact I wasn't the only one who went down that path.

But leaving the self-indulgent behind now and moving along quickly to Reason Number Four: if we did one thing truly well, it was picking the right people. Casting Outrageous Fortune, all those years ago, was a doddle (relatively speaking) because the right players all put up their hands and said "pick me". Robyn Malcolm was always going to be Cheryl. Antony Starr was always going to be Van and Jethro. Antonia Prebble auditioned for Pascalle and was totally wrong for the role but when we saw her we knew we'd found our Loretta. We had to fight the network to get Siobhan Marshall over the line as Pascalle, but we won and we were right. The only tricky bugger to cast was Wolf and the role was offered to a couple of others, who thankfully turned it down, so that Grant Bowler could walk in, take the role by the balls and make it look like we were geniuses all along.

But you can put together the best cast in the world and it means nothing without Reason Number Five: the love and support of a good network. Pulling up behind a bus or stopping at the lights and seeing your fictional family staring at you from the backs of buses and billboards was always a good feeling - even when you were currently pissed off with one of the family members looking down at you. Putting OF in a timeslot and leaving it alone, giving it a chance to do its thing was a mark of respect local shows, especially dramas and comedies, are rarely afforded. The day the TV3 programming head honcho, Kelly, told us to "go away and do whatever you want" was a personal career highlight. I guess because TV3 makes so little drama or comedy, when they do they treat it like it is something valuable, to be treasured and given every chance to succeed. This, in my experience, hasn't always been the case with other broadcasters - but that, also, is probably a story for another time.

What it does relate to here, however, is Reason Number Six: we made the show we wanted to make. When the wise man sat me down and said that Outrageous probably wouldn't live past 13 episodes and I agreed with him, I also said that I would have no regrets because I loved what we had written and made. Of course I was lying about the "no regrets" bit (because I would have been bitter and twisted, of course) but I did actually mean the bit about loving what we had made - because we had made it the way we wanted without anyone telling us what to do.

Because they live in a world of ratings and demographics, network types tend to look at me like I'm some sort of precious auteur when I tell them that first and foremost you have to create to please yourself. Outrageous Fortune started with a couple of writers, fearing unemployment, tossing around an idea in a shitty little office. Then more and more people came on board, but they all got on board with the same idea. Then we became a little army, marching raggedly in vaguely the same direction, giving the one-finger West family salute to anyone who tried to tell us to do things differently. We did what we wanted and we hoped like hell the people who count - the audience - liked what we did.

Of course sometimes we didn't know what we wanted until circumstance forced us to want it. Some of the greatest OF moments have come out of adversity forced on the production. When you realise that having Antony Starr playing two characters equals an actor dead from overwork, you have to find clever and unusual ways to rotate the characters and save Ant's life. One of OF's greatest ever cliffhanger moments came directly out of an actor contract negotiation that was threatening to go pear-shaped. The family throws up shit, the rest of the family deals with it.

And that's the bottom line really. You bring a TV family to life, then you let your characters run around being themselves, saying the things they need to say and doing the things they have to do. Meanwhile you hang on for dear life and enjoy the ride. It's television, not rocket science, so it should be fun for all concerned.

And then, if you're really lucky Reason Number Seven comes along: an audience joins in and spreads the magic pixie dust over everything.

Outrageous Fortune begins its final season 8.30pm, Tonight on TV3.

- NZ Herald

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