Hal McElroy: Blue Heelers

Hal McElroy (co-creator and executive producer of Blue Heelers) has produced many successful shows in his long career. Including: Return to Eden, Blue Heelers, Water Rats and Murder Call. He most recently created and produced five series of Sea Patrol with his wife Di McElroy. TV Flashback sent Hal some fan submitted questions and he has provided some great insight into creating and producing Blue Heelers.

1) Where did the idea and title for Blue Heelers come from?

A guy who’d worked for us for years told us that his son (who we’d known since he was knee high) had decided to become a copper – Surprise! Then about a year later his dad told me his son had left the Force. Why? He and his best friend from the Police Academy had both gone to work, based in Sydney. One day his son called in sick and his mate went to work on his shift and was shot dead by a criminal whilst on duty. OMG! Dreadful tragedy, young man during his public duty dies needlessly. What a dramatic opportunity for a TV series. But we couldn’t tell his story, we had to look at multiple stories about young men and women facing major dangers, major social issues, major dilemmas. So I started developing an inner city cop show which I’d called Boys in Blue. As part of our research we met with an ex policeman who, upon graduation, had been posted to the country. He told us how he loved that posting as policing in the country was somehow easier, simpler, purer… often you knew well the offenders and their family. You could nip things in the bud, get a kid to wash a police car instead of facing a criminal charge. Intrigued I said, what did the locals call coppers and he said Blue Heelers. Boom!

2) Why were Castlemaine and Williamstown chosen as the location for Mt Thomas?

The Seven Network insisted we produce the series in their legendary studio on Dorcas Street South Melbourne. Our shooting schedule was one day rehearsal, two days location, two days studio. That never changed over the twelve years of production for 40 odd episodes a year. So we needed a country town that we could get to easily from South Melbourne, 40 weeks a year. Williamstown in those days (1993) wasn’t gentrified at all, it had classic old main street buildings and heaps of nice older style dwellings. Castlemaine, which is the real thing, matched well with what we could get in Williamstown. So the jigsaw puzzle came together.

3) Why didn’t we see Nell Croydon early on?

In the early years of establishing the show, we wanted to focus on the ‘A’ team of our regular cast. Trying to stay mainly focussed on their professional lives rather than their extended family. Eventually though it became inevitable/irresistible to zoom out a little and see others. But we always had to be careful to share the limelight around. So not only the key actors got central roles in turn. As a result their own particular group of fans were satisfied. Its a lot to juggle and this shifting focus becomes harder/more consequential when you had more balls in the juggling act.

4) Why do you think the show didn’t rate so well when it first started?

Shock of the new? Back then there wasn’t as much Aussie drama around and American and British shows had huge budgets and huge audiences. Before us the 2 x 1 hour per week (A Country Practice for example) kinda forced audiences to choose. Our once a week schedule meant we had to fight harder to get noticed and one way was to be less soapy and more police focussed.

5) Stories have surfaced that some casting changes happened early on, that William McInnes (Nick) and Martin Sacks (PJ) swapped characters, as did Lisa McCune (Maggie) and Ann Burbrook (Roz) are you able to clear up if any casting changes happened and the reasons behind them?

No, not true. It probably emerged because when we created the various roles we created their characters and their names all months before casting began. When we found those two fine actors William and Marty, we decided to swap their character names because they better suited the physicality of the actor chosen. But Marty was always a bit of a cowboy detective and William – well his Nick became a wonderful rich enhanced version of what we’d written to begin with. Lisa was always Maggie and the lovely Ann Burbrook was always Roz.

6) What were some of the major challenges producing Blue Heelers?

The incredibly tight schedule – 1 day rehearsals (no camera), 2 days location, 2 days studio. And those days were locked in a year ahead. Normally if its raining for example, a shooting unit can go into a studio set to keep shooting. Those sets are called wet weather ‘cover’. However because the studio was very busy, our sets had to be removed from the studio at the end of the 2nd day, stored, and then re-construced for the next week. This wonderful wise old producer I worked with said the only wet weather cover we had were rain coats! So we had to shoot regardless of rain, nothing could stop us. As our confidence grew and the audience started to love the show, we started increasing our production values. Fight scenes, car chases, gun shots, explosions, night/storm sequences. It was never easy but always fun. Wonderful crews, great actors working their guts out but somehow enjoying every minute – it was amazing to be part of it all.

7) Looking back now, would you change anything about the show or approach something differently?

Not really. It grew from a little show into a giant killer because everyone who joined the team contributed and made it better, every single day. The combined will power, application, opportunity and talent enabled us all to quickly learn from our mistakes and get better every episode. And if you look at old episodes today you’ll notice that development – our improvement was marked and I’m very proud of that.

8) The show was still very popular when it was axed, do you think it still had something to offer audiences? Or do you think it was the right time to end it?

Because of our dedication to improving ourselves, we held onto and built an audience. People grew up watching the show – often the whole family would watch it together. So our audience matured along with the show. Now we all know as we grow older and mature, our taste changes or broadens. Some loyal fans stayed (particularly the older ones) and others left. So whilst we had a strong loyal base it was getting older and advertisers want younger audiences. So for me it could still be playing but boy it’d have to be a very different show and would it still be Blue Heelers by then? Maybe – maybe not. ‘Everything happens at the exact right time and place’ is a line from Picnic at Hanging Rock which is how I live my life.

9) A lot of fans have been asking for either a reunion or reboot. Do you think either is ever likely to happen?

So a reunion or reboot is highly unlikely. The actors, writers, directors have all moved on, as has the audience. I can’t see it happening – and being successful in today’s world of peak TV.

10) Why do you think Blue Heelers was so successful?

In television there is no simple explanation for success – its always a long list (and a longer list for failure). There’s a bunch of contributing factors – in no particular order.

Timing – A Country Practice had finished and no new Aussie drama had grabbed an audience. New gunslinger comes to town.

Premise – country town made it simpler, easier to engage with combining nostalgia with contemporary, universal societal issues and strong family values.

Cast – what can I say other than what a privilege to have found and worked with that bunch! Most of whom have gone on to great success.

Writers – Led by Tony Morphett (my co-creator) we had an incredibly disciplined and creative bunch.

Directors and Crew – Some worked on virtually every episode – put their kids through school using their salaries. Great work ethic.

Seven Network – they backed it early and stayed with it till the end with massive support.

The Viewers – you saw and liked it enough to watch it again, then you became interested, committed, dare I say devoted and I think we all as program makers felt that affection. So we dedicated ourselves to repaying the compliment by putting on the best possible show we could – for every week for 510 episodes.

You can purchase Blue Heelers on DVD here.

Thanks to Hal McElroy for a very insightful interview and also thanks to fans who submitted questions.