» Forensic Magic
by Kylie Miller
Thursday 18, October 2001
Rebecca Gibney as Jane Halifax: "I learn so much while we are shooting this because I do my own research as well..."
Impeccably dressed in a dark designer suit with square-framed glasses propped on her nose, Rebecca Gibney peers into a crackly black and white monitor.
A seedy-looking soul is being grilled by police in a nearby room, and Gibney, as forensic psychiatrist Jane Halifax, and actor Matthew Dyktynski, dressed more sharply than the average TV detective, watch for cracks in his yarn.
It's a scene from Halifax f.p.: Scorpion's Kiss, but could have been taken from any of the telemovies filmed in the series so far.
Australia's longest-running telemovie series, Halifax f.p. has been a boon for the Nine Network, for creators Simpson Le Mesurier and for Gibney, as its star.
Dr Jane Halifax was born in 1994, the product of an earlier working liaison between Gibney and "the two Rogers", producers Roger Simpson and Roger Le Mesurier, on the drama series, Snowy.
Gibney says she had joked with the pair about creating a series for her. When it happened, she didn't believe them.
"And I just burst out laughing and said, 'Oh yeah, who turned this down before me? Sigrid Thornton's not interested?' I just had no idea. I was incredibly flattered," she recalls.
Simpson and Le Mesurier pitched a simple formula: a likeable character in an interesting job (the forensic psychiatrist was new to Australian drama), well-written murder mysteries and movie-quality production values.
Throw in Rebecca Gibney, an actor with broad appeal, and Channel Nine was sold.
It's an early spring day in Melbourne and Gibney is chatting in her "green room", a bus replete with sofa, bathroom and snapshots of her beloved dogs. She looks tired, having just completed a run of night shoots during filming for the 21st - and possibly last - Halifax f.p. telemovie.
Gibney is negotiating to star in a Halifax television series, quitting the telemovie format for 22 hour-long episodes to screen on Nine as early as next year.
Although Gibney switches between actor and character, sliding between "I" and "she" as she talks about her alter ego, the two are clearly different.
Clad in faded blue jeans, runners and a T-shirt, her familiar face free of make-up, it is easy to believe the actor when she describes herself as more casual than the bound-up Dr Halifax.
"She's got exquisite taste and exquisite things and she always dresses in Armani ... I can't imagine Jane Halifax rolling on the floor with two labrador puppies, which is what I do every single day," Gibney says.
There are other differences. Halifax is tougher than the "cream puff" actress and more controlled in her emotions. "I'll cry at the drop of a hat!" And in the emotional stakes, Halifax is pretty stuffed up, failing to hold down a relationship for more than an hour and a half, although this is mostly a scheduling issue since Nine screens the telemovies out of order.
But Jane Halifax is engaging: single-minded, work-focused, independent, likeable and funny when she's drunk. The sort of person you'd want as a friend.
Gibney thinks audiences connect with this, a key to the character's triumph.
"I like the fact that she doesn't necessarily need anything or anybody to live her life. It's a signal to women out there who are single and who are very focused on their jobs that they can do it and lead fulfilling lives."
She also has frailties - "There's a scene (in this episode) where I lose it, I get to play psychotic. And you actually go, 'Jane Halifax has gone mad!' I got to scream and yell and swing a baseball bat and be a bit nutty" - and the occasional moral lapse.
It's a reality Gibney admires in the series. The plots aren't neatly tied up with "ribbons and bows", Halifax doesn't always make the right decisions and the endings aren't always happy.
Le Mesurier credits much of the series' longevity to Gibney's charm as its star.
"The show would never have worked without Rebecca," he says from Beyond Simpson Le Mesurier's boardroom in the bowels of the old North Melbourne police station.
"I think she is a magical element in the show. She's got that thing where she's accessible to the audience. There's a part of Jane Halifax that is Rebecca Gibney, which an audience can lock in to and I think that's so important with television."
It's a trait shared by a rare breed of actor, he says, Lisa McCune among them, that makes an audience feel comfortable. "You can be a great actor but not quite have that whatever it is, that X factor, which an audience can relate to."
Nine's director of drama and executive producer of Halifax f.p., Kris Noble, agrees.
"I think, certainly, Rebecca carries most of the appeal. She's one of those stars that people trust and like. She's a good actor, she performs a very believable character in this role."
But it's more than that, he says. People love a good whodunit and Halifax f.p. delivers. Although the scripts dip into her private life, they never lose sight of the genre - each time the audience sees a movie they get a cracking murder mystery.
Views also relate to the quality: clean scripts, high production values and acting standards - a who's who of guest cast includes Hugh Jackman, Colin Friels, Frances O'Connor, Robyn Nevin, William McInnes and Jacqueline McKenzie, who won an AFI award for her spine-tingling performance as a psychotic killer in Halifax f.p.: Lies of the Mind.
The plots, too, are solid, with enough scattered clues to enable astute viewers to solve the mysteries as the stories unfolds.
"A lot of stories are convenient, especially at the end, they pull a rabbit out of a hat," Noble says, and viewers feel cheated. "I think with the Halifaxes, if you go back and try and unravel the story, all the clues are there ... Quite often we don't want you to pick them up on the way through, but then something happens and all the moments just click together."
For Channel Nine, the telemovies have been a winner, launched to coincide with the arrival of pay TV and the resulting delay in access to box-office blockbusters, the demise of expensive miniseries and the tightening of network belts.
"When he came up with this new idea of making a series of TV movies it seemed like a really good idea," Noble says of Roger Simpson's approach.
"The film financer, the FFC (Film Finance Corporation), had only just recently been formed, so we had access to finances to allow us to make a mini feature."
The movies are shot on film, entirely on location, and produced in blocks of three to reduce overheads. The format has allowed Gibney to accept projects including telemovies Finding Hope and Ihaka, both for Channel Ten.
"It's been a terrific success for all of us," Noble says. "From the network's point of view it's been very popular. There have been times when we've played it in Melbourne against big AFL games and it's beaten the AFL games."
Over the years the scripts have dealt with all manner of crimes, including a murderous bond between incestuous twins, crimes of passion, multiple personality disorder and recently, the sticky question of why children kill.
A battery of researchers ensures accuracy in the scripts, which are all based on fact or real-life events.
Gibney says the role turned her into something of an armchair therapist and gave her a new take on humanity, delving, as it does, into the darkest corners of the human mind.
"I learn so much while we are shooting this because I do my own research as well ...
"For the first couple of years of shooting the show I started analysing everybody I met: 'Oh, you are are a bit of a sociopath, oh you're a bit of a borderline personality, oh, I think he's a psychopath.'"
But there are stories you won't see in a Halifax f.p. script.
"We have to be very mindful especially of sexual violence," Noble says. "Everything gets run by the censor now."
Public opinion, he says, has grown stricter as the years have passed and people are less tolerant of violence. Recent plots reflect that.
"There are no hard-and-fast rules but I don't really want to make a story about violence against kids or sexual violence, paedophiles. I don't like those stories. I don't find it entertaining."
In the end, making a Halifax movie is about making drama and drama must be entertaining.
Although Simpson and Le Mesurier teamed up long before Halifax started, the show has been integral to their company's achievement. The 21st telemovie coincides with the producers' 21st year in partnership and led to a continuing relationship with Beyond.
The Halifax f.p. movies have been sold around the world, including to the United States, Britain, Japan, Germany, Canada.
"Someone the other day said they had been in China and seen it," Le Mesurier says, chuckling. Odd to think of Jane Halifax speaking Cantonese.
Beyond Simpson Le Mesurier also makes Stingers for Nine, has recently wound up Something in the Air for the ABC and has a pilot drama for Channel Ten in production.
There have been disappointments. Le Mesurier thinks industry jealousies have robbed his star of awards for which she is repeatedly nominated.
Gibney concedes an occasional let-down but notes the series' nature provides the meatiest roles for guest cast.
"Unfortunately my character is not the maddy. I'm the one asking the questions and doing the probing and really it's a show about psychotic people, so you get these fantastic roles for other people to come in and play and sometimes I go, 'Gee I wish it was me'," she says.
Over the past couple of years the parties have "tossed around" the idea of spinning off into a series, a decision largely driven by cost.
"It's become harder and harder for us to finance telemovies," Le Mesurier says. "Money is tighter, markets are tighter and although it sells very very well you still don't get a lot of money. That's a reality of television. Particularly when they cost so much to make."
Although everyone hopes a spin-off will eventuate, Gibney is fighting to maintain the quality that comes from shooting an hour-and-a-half of television in four weeks at a cost of $1.75 million a movie.
Most Australian dramas have less than half that time and a quarter of the budget.
"So much television these days is churned out in five or six days," she explains. "I don't want to make that sort of television. Nothing against those shows, I think they are very good for what they are, but we have set such a high standard, to not honor that would be a tragedy for the show.
"That's what I'm fighting for and I'm not going to budge on it, even if it means being out of work for the next year."
So how will it all end? Will Jane Halifax gracefully age into the next Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher?
Le Mesurier laughs. "You never know. We are all getting older. But whether it will still be going that long I don't know!"
Gibney has other ideas. "I joke about that sometimes," she says. "No, it will end how it always ends, with her putting on a brave face and going off into the world alone, because that's what people expect."