Prolific Film and television producer

BY JOHNNY MILNER

This month's Deep Dive highlights our November 2018 interview with Paul Barron, a key producer of Australian film and television. With credits such as Sweat (1996), Ship to Shore (1993–96), Bush Christmas (1983), Shame (1988) and Windrider (1986), Paul helped launch the careers of iconic actors like Heath Ledger and Nicole Kidman. After a screening of the first episode of the teen drama series Sweat, Paul talked about his relationship with Ledger and showcasing Western Australia on screen:

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The Rise of Teen Drama 

Looking back across Australian television history, the earliest portrayals of young people came in the form of situational comedies set in the classroom, including the live-to-air Take That (1957) and Good Morning Mr Doubleday (1969). Later the classroom took on a more serious tone and setting in soap operas like Class of '74 (1974), Class of '75 (1975) and Glenview High (1977). These series centred around the trials and tribulations of young people working their way through adolescence.

While teens featured prominently in soaps of the 1980s and 90s – for example, E Street (1989–93), Neighbours (1985–current) and Home and Away (1988–current) – they were more of an extension of the local fictional community, and the school was rarely a central site for the narrative action. These soaps also tended to depict Australia's innocence and, typically, a cultural homogeneity.

Emerging from this context in the 1990s, teen dramas such as Sweat (1996) provided a new space to map the identities of contemporary Australian teenagers. They also presented a divergence from the up-until-then white, heterosexual dominated depictions of youth on television.

Heath Ledger and Sweat

Starring Heath Ledger and Martin Henderson, Sweat aired on Network Ten in 1996 for one season of 26 episodes. The series centres around eight athletically-gifted students – runners, cyclists, swimmers and gymnasts – at the fictitious Sports West Academy (in Western Australia). While the show foregrounded the pressure-cooker world of competitive sports, it also sought to explore teens' real issues in the 90s.

In this clip, we encounter Heath Ledger as Snowy Bowles – a young, gay cyclist subjected to homophobic abuse from some school bullies. This abuse leads Snowy to reveal his secret to his friend Danny (played by Matt Castelli):

It is evident in the scene that Ledger and his fellow young actors are somewhat nervous novices – even under the guidance of the experienced director, Dan Burstall (The Flying Doctors, 1986–1992; Heartbreak High, 1994–99). However, as Paul explains, it was an extraordinary role for Ledger to take on at that time – a 17-year-old in the 90s playing a gay character – and it took much personal courage. 

Heath embraced the role, and his screen presence began to show much potential over a short few episodes. The role also provided Ledger with a robust platform to continue his career. It could also be seen as an essential precursor to his later (Oscar-nominated) work in Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, US, 2005) where he plays cowboy Ennis Del Mar, who falls in love with farmhand Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) in the mountains of Wyoming.

For more about the indelible life of Heath Ledger see Heath Ledger: A Portrait and our curated collection, Heath Ledger.

Heartbreak High

As discussed in the Q&A, influencing and predating the production of Sweat was Heartbreak High, a daring and influential teen drama loosely based on the film The Heartbreak Kid (Michael Jenkins, 1993). The series revolves around the lives of a group of students who attend the fictional, multicultural Hartley High School in Sydney.

Praised for its willingness to tackle tough issues, from drugs and sex to religion, shoplifting and homelessness, Heartbreak High presented a gritty, multi-racial, urban world. The series starred some names well-known to Australian television, including Peter Sumner and Rebecca Smart, and introduced new talent like Callan Mulvey.

View clips from the first episode of Heartbreak High on australianscreen

Showcasing WA

In the Q&A with Paul Barron, he talks about the logistics of producing children's television and teen drama in Western Australia during the 1980s and 90s.

'As an independent producer you want creative control over the project, but the critical question is how to secure financing', he says.

At the bare minimum, the producer needed to acquire investment and backing from three sources: a government funding body (in his case Screen West), a broadcast network (such as Network Ten) and an overseas distributor.

Paul also stresses it was much more challenging to produce TV in Western Australia than on the east coast. The main concern for WA productions was geographical isolation – a factor that impacted everything from communication with stakeholders to securing film personnel.

There were some advantages, however. Production costs in Western Australia were generally cheaper, and the locations were more easily accessible. The pristine, untouched coastal landscapes were also crucial selling points. Paul leveraged such attributes in his earlier production Ship to Shore (1993–96), a children's TV series revolving around kids outwitting adults and set on a fictional island near Perth.

One condition of the financing for Ship to Shore and Sweat was that each episode must feature imagery of the sun setting on the ocean – of course, such images were unachievable in east coast productions. Another condition was a willingness to use the sounds and images of distinctly Western Australian flora and fauna.

View clips from the NFSA collection featuring Perth and Western Australia in our Perth time capsule curated collection.

Paving the Way

Sweat ran for only one season. Paul explains this was mainly a result of a regime change at Network Ten, and a shift in scheduling – in which the show now aired on a Saturday night timeslot rather than the intended Sunday night timeslot, when teens were more likely to be home. Paul laments that despite the series' success overseas, it never really achieved its full potential in reaching its target teenage audience here in Australia.

Nonetheless, Sweat paved the way for later productions by introducing youth concerns and extending them to prime-time television. It also helped introduce the world to some of our great actors, such as Heath Ledger.