Total Control: Australia’s finest shine bright in new Blackfella Films drama

• High stakes drama of ambition and betrayal might be year’s best TV

A chance meeting with Rachel Griffiths in Melbourne with Darren Dale from Blackfella Films was the genesis of what was originally called Black Bitch.

“I have had an idea for a show,” Griffiths said to Dale. “And I think you are the only one who could make it. Fourteen months later we were filming the series in Parliament House and Central West Queensland.”

Dale said Black Bitch was used all the way through production, but was changed to Total Control just prior to delivery to the ABC.

After watching two episodes the show is as every bit as compelling as last year’s Mystery Road. Total Control could very well be the best TV drama of 2019.

Deborah Mailman was ultimately cast as the lead, and she explained to Mediaweek she had a long relationship with the production house. “Redfern Now and Mabo, so it has always been a no-brainer for me to work with Blackfella films and Darren and [director] Rachel Perkins.

When the script fell into my lap it was pretty amazing to have been given such an incredible complex role.

Darren Dale and Deborah Mailman were talking during a Mediaweek Total Control podcast.

Listen to the 30-minute interview here.

Deborah Mailman and Darren Dale with Mediaweek’s James Manning

When Dale started to develop the idea about a political outsider who was an aboriginal woman, there was a lot of work to fill it out to a TV series.

“We often do politics a satire, like Rake. We wanted this to be in the tradition of great American shows and to help people make sense of politics in this country and the world happening around them.

“The writers then did the heavy lifting, creating fully dimensional characters, making sure the central character of Deb’s wasn’t a cardboard cut-out, to give her real range for someone with extraordinary talent like Deb. To see a Deb Mailman as we hadn’t seen before. Her role is certainly complex and not one you would expect.”

Talking about her process before she accepts a new role, Mailman said: “I read the early drafts of the script. With this, the first scene in the first episode knocked my socks off. I thought to myself that if this is how it is starting I can’t wait to see where it’s going.

“My character, Alex Irving, is from Winton and she goes out into the community where one of her jobs is handing out medications to people. As the episode starts a horrific event takes place, which puts her in the national headlines. A video of that goes viral and grabs the attention of the prime minister, played by Rachel Griffiths.

“She subsequently picks me to come into the senate. While what some may see as a publicity stunt, Alex sees as an opportunity to make a real difference for her people.”

When it came to casting the series, Dale said the producers had to convince Rachel Griffiths to play the prime minister. “As much as she had been involved in the conception and the authoring of the work, she hadn’t assumed she would play that role.

“We were mostly focussed on Deb’s character. As that character grew through the story, according to Rachel, I bullied her into doing it! At the end of the shoot, she said ‘I wish there was more for the prime minister to do.’

We are so lucky to have two great actresses headlining the show. It was pretty easy for the producers after we secured them. We were able to go to other great actors like William McInnes, Tony Hayes, Harry Richardson, Celia Ireland and Aaron Pedersen. The breadth of acting in this show is extraordinary.”

Aaron Pedersen with Deborah Mailman

Another great get for the producers was securing Harry Richardson as Jonathan Cosgrove, senior advisor to Mailman’s character. Richardson is a WAAPA graduate best known for his work in the UK in Dunkirk and the TV series Poldark where he plays Drake Carne, Demelza’s brother.

“This is his first real Australian series,” noted Mailman.

There is never any identification early on which party Griffiths is prime minister of. “We were careful at the beginning not to define who was in government. But you do get a sense that the government that Alex becomes a member of is definitely conservative.”

Dale said the first place the producers offered the project was the ABC. “They have been such champions of indigenous content and putting it front and centre on the main channel and in primetime. We know there was a loyal audience who has come to us before.

“They embraced it as we would have hoped. Sally Riley, the head of scripted took us in immediately. We had one meeting and then we were in development the next week.

“Our next step might be to look at a project that is wholly international,” added Dale.

Deborah Mailman with Darren Dale

Keshet, an Israeli producer and distributor invested what Dale “called a lot of money” to be involved. He said the amount was in the millions of dollars.

The scenes shot in Winton were the last part of the shoot, with Mailman telling Mediaweek they were there for over three weeks. “We started shooting in Sydney and then went to Canberra where we filmed in both the new and old Parliament House.

“When we got to Winton the locals were incredibly supportive and generous in having us. A few of the locals had parts to. We thought it was very important to show the opposing worlds that Alex lives in – from the outback with her family to the corridors of Parliament House.”

Total Control is coming to ABC TV and iview from Sunday October 13.

Top Photo: Deborah Mailman and Rachel Griffiths

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