They've wound the clock back on Outrageous Fortune all the way to the 1970s for a new show. Lydia Jenkin reports
It opens at Mt Eden Prison, January 24, 1974, with Ted West walking out of the gate, finally free. He's all sideburns and leather jacket, mixed with a cheeky grin and sidelong glance. It turns out he's been inside for three years, having copped the sentence for the bungled burglary of a safe at Smith & Caughey's.
Yes, Ted West, criminal mastermind, is back. But it's not Outrageous Fortune, season seven. The original show's creators Rachel Lang and James Griffin have turned back the clock to find Ted in his prime. He's a charismatic 30-something, with a firecracker of a wife in Rita, and an 11-year-old son,Wolf, who's already showing signs of following in his father's footsteps.
There are lamingtons and screwdrivers, sausage rolls and crates of beer, lots of orange, lots of brown, vintage Holdens and Fords. This is Westside, the tale of Ted, his family and his gang, cruising and bruising through the 1970s.
Lang and Griffin never expected to return to the notorious West family - as Lang says, after they finished Outrageous Fortune in 2010, they were "really quite shagged". But though she was looking for a local historical criminal event to base a new series on, the idea for Westside popped up.
"While I was googling, a picture of Frank (Whitten, the late actor who played Ted in Outrageous Fortune) came up, and I thought, 'Oh, that'd be cool, a show about Ted when he was young'. So James and I started riffing on that idea, and it came together quite easily actually."
Of course it meant going back to Outrageous, and working out what sort of history they'd already laid out for Ted, his late wife Rita, and his son Wolf, trying to figure whether it could all be squared in a new show. But they always wanted to treat Westside as a new proposition, with its own strengths, and its own characters.
"When we met Ted in Outrageous, he was crusty and curmudgeonly and disappointed, but when we meet him in Westside, he's young, he's still king of his world, and so he is a different person."
And of course, this time he's played by a different man, David de Lautour, last seen on local screens playing All Black Stephen Donald in The Kick.
His wife Rita is played by Antonia Prebble, who played Loretta West in Outrageous Fortune, but also played Rita in the flashbacks of season four.
They both see the show as a different beast to the well-loved original.
"Outrageous was a bit more tongue-in-cheek, and went for the melodrama a bit more, whereas Westside is slightly darker in tone, and the humour is more contained" Prebble explains, bubbling with enthusiasm.
"So I think people who go into it expecting to see Outrageous Fortune set in the 70s might be surprised, but I think that's a good thing."
"I agree, I think it definitely stands on its own," says de Lautour. "I think it will get new fans, so people who haven't seen Outrageous will dig it, but people who were big fans will love this too. There are so many little Easter eggs in Westside for the fans of Outrageous, but at the same time it's darker and grittier."
Westside is six one-hour episodes, each set in a separate year, so the programme takes us from 1974 through to 1979, and packs plenty of local events into the storylines.
"We wanted to do a bold historical miniseries, and since it wasn't about anyone famous, part of the way to do that was to jump through the years, and every year really had some significant event that we could use for storytelling purposes, like the dawn raids or the Muldoon election," Lang explains. "It was great fun to tie the fictional into the historical."
There's the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, the birth of the punk scene in Auckland, and carless days from the 1970s oil shocks which the Wests find a way to profit from.
But the biggest ongoing theme is the gender politics of the period.
"I think episode 3, set in 1976, features some of the most cheerfully racist and sexist dialogue I've ever written" Lang laughs. "We really enjoyed exploring those social attitudes of the time."
"The worst thing we could do would be to put our current take on the world back into those times, because they really were different. So we had to enjoy it, the freedom to say some of those things," Griffin adds.
Griffin and Lang, along with Prebble and de Lautour, and much of the art department, all watched a local documentary called The Street, which followed a series of families who moved into a new subdivision in Meadowbank in the 70s, to shed extra light on the subject.
"It's a real expose about the gender politics of the time, and incredibly relevant for what's happening between Ted and Rita," Prebble explains.
"It was amazing," de Lautour agrees. "Really illuminating, and really weird, because it's such a stark contrast to the world that we live in, and not even that long ago.
"There were a lot of challenges to this role and this show, but one of them was definitely the fact that the mentality around men and women is so different nowadays. It seems so foreign, almost outlawed, that idea that women would always stay at home, and the men would go out and provide. It's quite strange to try to sink yourself back into that mentality."
They managed to embrace some aspects of it though, enjoying the camaraderie of their respective male and female gangs on the show.
"Oh we had a lot of fun," laughs de Lautour. "I mean us guys had a lot of times out on the various heists, like it's in the script - you're just camping out in the van waiting for the right moment, except you're actually waiting for the lighting or whatever, and so we had game after game after game. And we sang so many 80s pop tunes, it was like a jukebox - one person would start and then the rest of us would go.
"And then doing those big group scenes in the backyard, they were a blast too. It was interesting getting into that mindset though, where everyone comes over for a party, and it's like an automatic split, you know, you girls stay in the kitchen and get the food ready, and we'll go out the back and chat; that was weird, but we did get into it."
"Yeah it was basically like a form two social the whole time, no interaction at all," Prebble jokes.
One aspect that clearly helped everyone to find that 70s mindset was the clothes. Finding the right leather jacket for Ted was pivotal, and finding the jeans for Rita was a "watershed moment" for Prebble, helping her to realise who Rita was.
"For me, becoming Rita felt like a real transformation, more so than any other parts I've done. Everything was different, and getting into those 70s outfits, and the 70s makeup and 70s hair really informed how I behaved, how I felt."
"I think Antonia did a wonderful job finding a different physicality for Rita," Lang explains. "Because where Loretta was a very closed-off person, Rita was very sensuous and at home with her body, so I think it was fun for Antonia to be part of the same family, but also be someone completely different."
"Yeah, one thing that James and Rachel had realised during the writing process was that Rita had been mythologised during Outrageous through the words of Cheryl," Prebble adds. "And that mythology wasn't actually who Rita was because Cheryl didn't like Rita at all, so you were getting a skewed version. And they worked out that Rita was a lot warmer, and loving, and more interesting than Cheryl gave her credit for."
Of course the set and props were key as well -- going back to shoot at the same iconic West house (yep, turns out it was Ted and Rita's house long before it ever became home to Cheryl, Loretta, Van, Jethro, and Pascalle) brought back a lot of memories, even though it's much newer and shinier in Westside. And from the cars to the food, the attention to detail is impressive.
"I remember an argument that raged on for quite a while about episode one, and whether the hedgehog would be a melon or a pineapple or a grapefruit," laughs Griffin. "Everyone remembered the hedgehog on the table as a centrepiece of catering, with toothpicks and pickled onions and cheese, but when it came to the base, everyone had different opinions.
"I also stole a couple of funny bits from my own life. In episode two, we see Lefty [Ted's right hand man] in a portable home sauna, which was this kind of Scandinavian thing that my mother had, and I had to spend a long time trying to explain it to the art department so they could build it from scratch."
Then there are lines like "Go warm up the television," that really complete the effect.
A few special skills were learnt - driving old cars with no power steering provided some good on-set entertainment, while Prebble had to spend a fair bit of time smoking herbal cigarettes on her balcony at home to try to perfect Rita's chain smoking nonchalance, - and De Lautour watched a lot of YouTube videos about safe-cracking.
"I needed to see where they put the stethoscope, and where they put their head when they're doing it, and then there's a couple of videos of Frank doing it, so I watched those as well. I haven't actually tried to crack a real safe as of yet -- but I always like learning new skills for roles."
Indeed both Prebble and de Lautour talk about how thankful they feel to have been granted these roles, and how exciting it's been to return to the world of the Wests without going back to Outrageous Fortune.
"It's been the best balance between what was so reassuringly familiar and nostalgic, but also really novel and exciting. I feel so lucky the writers made the somewhat arbitrary decision at the time that Rita looked like Loretta, that was a real gift for me," Prebble laughs. "It had its own challenges because obviously we didn't want any vague resemblance to Loretta. Rita had to be her own distinct character. But it's great seeing the genesis of all these things that appear in Outrageous - it's like you've already heard the punchline, but now you're hearing the joke."
de Lautour felt equally challenged, but in a different way, stepping into the role of a much-loved character who lives large in the minds of so many Outrageous Fortune fans.
"It was really intimidating because Frank had done such an amazing beautiful job with Ted. So I was excited about being part of the family, but it did seem like a big mountain to climb to portray Ted in his prime.
"It was a challenge. It was great to have the same crew there that knew Frank and knew Ted though, and it was amazing to have Antonia there to get any guidance. It felt like we went into battle together to find these characters."
The writers think Prebble and de Lautour have done a wonderful job, and any concerns they had about bringing these characters back to life in another decade have been well quashed.
"The moment they started getting up and walking around as characters in their own right, I mean, those concerns melted away, because it's not Outrageous Fortune, it's its own beast, even though there's still the shagging and the shouting and the drinking and the bad behaviour," Griffin laughs.
And though they're keen for Westside to continue beyond these six episodes (and hopeful that viewers will agree), Griffin would like to remind viewers of one thing: "Please remember that Cheryl would have been about 8 years old when this series starts, so even if we take it further, it'll be a while before we see Cheryl."
Who: Actors Antonia Prebble and David de Lautour, plus show creators Rachel Lang and James Griffin
What: New TV series Westside
Where and when: Screening on TV3 from Sunday May 31 at 8.30pm