Ode to SeaChange

July 12, 2017

It’s no secret that I love SeaChange, an Australian TV show that aired in the late 90s and early 2000s on the ABC. After my teaching article was published in The Age, I was reminiscing about the first time I saw my name in print.

When the last episode of SeaChange aired, I furiously wrote a poem called ‘Ode to SeaChange’ and sent it to the Green Guide (which is the TV lift-out section of The Age, if you’re not a Melbourne person). They published it as Letter of the Week and I was a bit thrilled. I was 16 years old.

I don’t remember the entire thing, it was long, but it started out as follows:

Each Sunday night at half past seven

We’ve been taken to Pearl Bay

A kind of funny, offbeat heaven

Our troubles drift away

It went on and on, describing the characters and what we’d miss about them. It was pretty obsessional, but hey, obsession is good.

Anyway, I tried to find the poem in The Age archives online. I couldn’t find it, but I did find this article by Corrie Perkin, a journalist who writes about how the break-up of her own marriage coincided with that of Laura Gibson, SeaChange’s neurotic magistrate, and why the show connected with the national mood at the time. For a nation of (mostly) urban dwellers, many of us dream of escaping to the little town by the sea and all that that might mean. I will leave you in Corrie’s capable hands.

(And by the way, if you’ve never seen SeaChange, do yourself a favour – watch it on Stan or Netflix or get your hands on some good ole DVDs, and do so knowing that I’m incredibly jealous of you, SeaChange virgin, watching it for the first time…)

And so it ends

Corrie Perkin
December 10, 2000
The Age

The year after my marriage broke up, Laura Gibson came into my life. As she tried to reconstruct her life, so did I. Her fears were my fears. Her kids’ confusion as they moved back and forth between houses was the same kind of confusion I saw in my own three children. And each time she lashed out at her husband, Jack, I reminded myself that there must be a better way to talk things over with the man you once adored.

SeaChange premiered on May 10, 1998. Six weeks later, the kids and I had our own coastal journey. We joined a syndicate that was renting a beach house at Lorne. Every second weekend, we’d pack the car (dog included) and head over the West Gate Bridge. Usually, it was a Friday, late afternoon, and the sun had already set. But its glow, all hazy and wintry, lit up a flat suburban Yarraville landscape and we felt we were on holiday, albeit a brief one.

The Lorne house was nothing like Laura’s. Originally the holiday home of famous Footscray coach, Charlie Sutton, it had passed into the hands of another well-known football family, the Richmonds. Graeme Richmond was one of the great Tigerland administrators. I would often think about the Big Picture football issues that might have been discussed over a glass of wine on that deck. The great grand finals (in Charlie’s case, only one) that were relived. And how strange it must have been to talk winter footy when such a breathtaking view of Bass Strait beckoned from across the row of agapathus.

A lot of pain washed away on that beach at Lorne. It’s very handy having such a vast and private space outside your front door. And as I would pick my way over the rocks, bare-footed and carrying everyone else’s shoes as they ran along the sand, I’d congratulate myself for having moved off the psychologist’s couch and on to the beach. Because on that beach, you could talk and no one would hear. You could cry, and the nearest people who might see your tears were too busy throwing sticks into the sea for their labradors to chase.

How many times in SeaChange have the characters turned to the sea? Laura and Max, on their respective balconies, watching the waves and waiting for love. Angus, while deciding whether to run a surfboard empire, stood on the sand in a business suit and found his answer. And Meredith, whose Earth Motherly influence on those around her seems as natural and uncompromising as the tides.

For Laura, the sea represented a new beginning. Did she hope to change? Oh, yes. In the first episode, having decided to take a magistrate’s job at Pearl Bay, Laura is clearly a woman seeking to reinvent herself.

She doesn’t, of course, and her attempts and subsequent failures to do so fuel much of the show’s plot. Laura’s journey is one of self-discovery, brought about by the people with whom she connects. And that’s how it has been for us, the SeaChange viewers. Around the country, people have connected with Pearl Bay’s characters in a profound way. Listening to Meredith or Max, or even Kevin and Trev as they sit on the cliff and discuss life at the end of each Sunday’s episode, we have been moved. We’ve thought about our own tragedies — ailing parents, spouses who die suddenly, stillborn babies, and marriage break-ups. These misfortunes never make sense, and SeaChange never tried to find answers. It just told the story. And we were welcome to share it.

Miranda: “So, you and my mum?”

Max (looking embarrassed): “Y…eah.”

Miranda: “It’s about time.”

(From tonight’s episode)

“I have always felt seriously sorry for people who get so involved in a television show that they have to discuss it, ad nauseum, with their friends. And yet you can’t help it with SeaChange.” My friend, Jenny Smith, was cutting tomatoes in her Ocean Grove kitchen. While preparing dinner, she told me of her trip to the doctor’s the previous week. At the end of the consultation, the doctor had asked whether Jenny had seen SeaChange the night before.

Jenny said no, she’d missed it, and was hoping to borrow a friend’s videotape. “Oh,” said the doctor, “what a shame. It was the best of the lot.”

“He then told me all about Laura at her hens’ night, trying to say nice things about Warwick,” said Jenny. “And then the doctor’s face lit up. `Suddenly,’ he said, `Laura ran down the beach to Max’s house and they spent the night together!’

“He was so excited telling me this. By this stage, we were probably well over time.”

Two months ago, Jenny had her own SeaChange. A successful garden designer, writer and broadcaster, she moved from her country property just west of Geelong in the Barrabool Hills, to Ocean Grove. Like Laura, the house she bought was a bit of a bomb; like Laura, Jenny has painted it white inside and created a cosy home.

I had arrived at Jenny’s late Monday afternoon and before dinner, we drove to the ocean beach to take Mo and Betty, her two dogs, for a walk. As we ploughed through the sand, we talked about SeaChange.

“I didn’t watch the first series because Laura irritated me,” Jenny explained. “I thought she (Sigrid Thornton) over-acted and I didn’t get into it. But it has matured tremendously. And I have grown to really love Laura.

“Unlike Ballykissangel and Hamish Macbeth where they kept bringing in new characters to move the story along, SeaChange has just relied on its characters and allowed them to grow — like the little policewoman (Karen Miller, played by Kate Atkinson) and Angus (Tom Long) and Laura’s daughter who is now working for Max (Cassandra Magrath).”

Over the past few days, I’ve been told about several SeaChange parties, being held tonight to mark the final episode. Jenny Smith has invited a friend over for dinner, and on Wednesday at a primary school Christmas drinks, I met a man — an engineer — who admitted that he had delayed his business trip to London. “I’m leaving on Monday instead of on the weekend, I couldn’t miss it.” What did your boss say? I asked. He looked embarrassed. “Well, I am the boss, actually.”

Phrani (to Bob Jelly): “The strife you have unleashed on this town! You are lucky to get anything in my shop.”

“Charred eye fillet on parsnip and turnip mash,” is on the menu at the new restaurant they built at Diver Dan’s boatshed. So are chilli mussels and organic sourdough bread. The shed has been gutted and renovated, and as the afternoon sun blasts through the ceiling-to-floor glass windows, staff are setting up for the evening sitting.

But the jetty still stands. And over to the right, Laura Gibson’s house can be seen on the hill. The house is part of the caravan park, and for a modest fee, holidaymakers can rent it out. (Don’t expect the SeaChange interiors, though. They are sitting in a storage room at ABC’s Ripponlea studios.)

“Welcome to the Barwon Coast, the home of SeaChange,” says the sign at the entrance to the Barwon Heads Park. The “SeaChange” is even written in the same 1960s-inspired pop typeface as is used in the show’s opening credits. There is no doubting the town’s ability to make the most of its five minutes of fame.

Apart from the river mouth, the boatsheds and the walk to Laura’s cottage, Barwon Heads bears little resemblance to Pearl Bay. The courthouse is actually in Williamstown. Meredith’s pub is in the main street of St Leonard’s, further north toward Melbourne.

But as happens at all beach towns along the Australian coast — towns like Barwon Heads and Ocean Grove and Lorne — the sea is the governing force, in the same way that mountains rule Thredbo or rivers dominate Echuca.

After running a South Yarra bookshop for 21 years, Meryl Bartak and her husband, David, moved to Lorne in March last year. Their house has a view of the ocean, and their new shop, Lorne Beach Books, overlooks the blue Laguna Bay water.

The Bartaks SeaChange is complete. Each morning, they wake to the sounds of bush birdlife. They look out their bedroom window to see if their “pet” kangaroo is grazing on the grass. “And then I walk to work, along Mountjoy Parade and the Great Ocean Road, with the ocean in front of me, and it’s really tough!” says Meryl.

Meryl is not surprised by SeaChange‘s popularity. “Most people are aware that often the life they are living is dictated to them, rather than the one they would chose to live.”

Having decided to sell up their Melbourne business, “we knew we wanted to live at the beach, and we wanted to have a shop, and it had to be in a town where we could do both. We loved Lorne, just loved it.”

Why? “The sea,” she said. “Because it provides a space and a freedom, and you’re not closed in. To me, the beach is like the desert. You get the same kind of exuberance of freedom.”

“A lot of people dream of retiring to the seaside,” Jenny Smith remarked. “It is often a place that reminds them of happy memories and holidays, sometimes going right back to childhood. Here in SeaChange, is someone who has actually done it.”

“When I see that opening — the blue water and the beach and the Great Ocean Road — it sets me up for the week ahead,” said television reviewer Brian Courtis. “It makes me very happy, and it’s a happiness that stays with me.

Bob: “You’ve got to be in contact with Mother Earth to really understand.”

Pearl Bay lives. Its characters live. For anyone who is connected with a community — a local school, a neighborhood church, a pub or a suburban football club — people like Bob, Kevin, Meredith, Laura, Heather are a dime-a-dozen. Often they are as eccentric, and frequently as funny.

Just as I have bonded to Laura and her children, Jenny Smith has also found connections. Twenty years ago, her marriage fell apart and, like Laura, she had to rebuild her life.

“I was 42, I thought my life was coming to an end. I thought, `I have 40 more years to live on this Earth. How am I going to live, what am I going to do?’

“No matter who watches, there’s someone people can identify with — whether it’s Kevin in the caravan park, or Meredith who takes her clothes off to remind us that growing old is just a state of mind, or someone fighting their husband in an effort to be recognised as a businesswoman in her own right.

“I just love Laura. And when she gets furious with her husband, and screams at him, and all that rage comes out, I think how gratifying it is to see someone else doing it, too!”

Thursday’s Age ran a story titled “Farewell, SeaChange, it is truly time to go”. Columnist Ross Warneke wrote, “It has transformed from a charming, gentle and reasonably plausible fable into something so fantastical, so totally unbelievable and sometimes so downright silly that it resembles a live-action cartoon.”

I read this paragraph over the phone to Sydney-based actor John Howard, who plays Bob Jelly. There was a deep laugh. “Ross, get out and live a little,” he said good-naturedly, “and you’ll find that what we did on SeaChange was not so fantastical at all.

“There are the most extraordinary people around us, and they all have their own stories. Maybe it’s more of a comment about the other stuff that’s on television, rather than on life itself.”

John Howard is passionate about Australian storytelling; SeaChange, he believes, is a fine example of this craft. “It comes from a long line of tradition of storytelling, starting with Blue Hills and it continued with Bellbird, which was on the ABC for so many years … I don’t find it surprising that people enjoy their own Australian stories, providing the story is good enough.”

This week’s turmoil at the ABC worries him greatly. “I think it would be wise if the ABC, and the management at the ABC, reminds itself that as our independent broadcaster, it has a commitment to only doing Australian stories.”

SeaChange creator and writer Andrew Knight said the state of the Australian television industry suggested “a gravitational pull toward lunacy at the moment. It’s so hard to finance something now, it’s almost impossible. You’re chasing funding that is 10,000 miles away.”

Knight had just returned from London where there was much discussion regarding the future of Australian production. “The difficulty is because we have a capped population,” he said. “Unless they can get a national water policy and we can open up the country a bit more and grow the population, we are just not going to have the money to make anything.”

Knight believes the Australian Government should “take a look” at Ireland, where there has been an economic resurgence due to heavy cultural branding. “You have to set up a market that says, `We will take on board shows from other places’. But you also have to quarantine something and say `this is peculiarly Australian, and it’s significant, and we have to protect it’.

“I think it’s one of things we got right with SeaChange. It’s culturally specific, it’s what people recognise as something they know.”

Harold (talking about Meredith): “The whole history of this town lives in that beautiful head.”

“You can have lots of big things in television drama, like car chases, but often it’s the minutiae in life that people really enjoy.”

The new head of ABC drama, Tony Virgo, is a big SeaChange fan — not simply because of its ratings success and the praise it earns from industry colleagues, but because as a television viewer, he loves a good show.

He praised Andrew Knight, with whom he has worked in the past, and Deb Cox, for their talent and their attention to detail. “I know Andrew and Deb don’t want to say goodbye to it completely, I don’t think the door is closed.”

Tony Virgo is right — Andrew Knight and Deb Cox are deeply attached to SeaChange‘s characters, and the actors who play them. While another ABC series would seem unlikely in the near future (especially considering the present budget constraints), it may be that one day, the community of Pearl Bay comes back into our lives.

“I will miss them (the characters),” Knight said. “And I will miss the actors, too. You can write something really good, and you can really sod it up with your casting. Thankfully, we got it right.”

Knight said no to the spin-offs idea, but “there are other forms it can have, too. I have got some ideas in my head …”

Tonight is the show’s final episode – for this series, and possibly forever. The ABC anticipates it will win its timeslot. And then tomorrow morning, we’ll wake up feeling the way we always do when a truly brilliant television series finishes.

If you’re wondering what the SeaChange actors are up to now, this article written in 2016 sheds some light. Quite a few are no longer acting anymore: Trevor works for Telstra, Bob Jelly moved to the country, and Kevin runs a Quest hotel in Werribee…

*Blog feature image of Diver Dan’s boat shed is a painting by Geoff Hook, whose work can be found here

More about isabelrobinson

Isabel is a writer from Melbourne. She loves long train journeys, Vegemite toast and cryptic crosswords, preferably all at once.