Indigenous superhero series Cleverman draws a lot of inspiration from the Australian history.
In the first series, which went to air in 2016, the show tackled the issue of segregation. The second season that will air on the ABC on 29 June will take the story forward by looking at the idea of assimilation.
Goalpost Pictures Australia and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures produce the show.
“In season one, it was very much about the stolen generation. We spoke about how people treat the other,” producer from Goalpost Pictures Rosemary Blight told Mediaweek. “The attitude of the fear of the other.”
Cleverman draws reference from the reaction that English settlers had to Aboriginal people during the first colonisation.
“For a very long time in Australia’s history there was a policy to assimilate Aboriginal children into white society to make them white. That is the politic that we are investigating and exploring [in the second season]. But not in a way of we are going to give you a lesson on assimilation. That’s not entertainment.
“We just take that and think what happens if we put that into a sci-fi world where we have The Hairypeople, scientists and the world under pressure because of the fear of the unknown.”
The Hairypeople (Hairies) are identified as different species to humans in Cleverman. Hairies can walk and talk like humans but are distinguished by their appearance. They are covered in thick facial and body hair and have sharp fingernails. They are shown to be stronger than humans. Those members of this community who choose to live as they always have are confined to “The Zone” by the government.
“You need to be really cautious in how you present them,” Blight stated. This is due to the historical ties that the show has with Aboriginal Australians. “A lot of the history is documented though, so you’ve got to keep a respectful tone to what you are doing in terms of how we tell other people’s stories.
“It’s important to note that there are indigenous people making this show: indigenous writers, indigenous directors and indigenous actors. All of those people do their small part or big part in making sure that the story that we are telling has truth and respect for them.”
Mediaweek spoke to Blight just before the last weekend of the Sydney Film Festival. She was on the jury of the festival, judging the International Film Competition, where 12 films from around the world were competing to take out the ultimate prize. “I’ve seen a Thai film, a Hungarian film, and a film from Georgia. It’s really great, I never want it to end.”
For Blight the language barrier makes little difference when it comes to enjoying a series or movie: “What you are attracted to is a good story.
“Cinema knocks out the boundaries of country and culture.”
Perhaps this is the reason for Cleverman’s international success. While the show explores themes that are closely tied to Australia’s history, the ideas are relevant on a global platform. Even before the first series premiered, Cleverman was picked up by Sundance TV in the US. The show has also been sold to the UK, Germany and South Africa.
The first season of Cleverman premiered to an overnight metro audience of 452,000 in Australia. The ABC commissioned a second season while Blight and team were still in the post-production stage for the first. She was in New Zealand when she first received the news: “It’s very rare to get the momentum like that in Australian television. It’s hard because there are a lot of people and great projects for the networks to choose from. So to be the one that they go again on and get the chance to build the story world more is just like, ‘Wow!’ It’s like a gift.”
Speaking about why the ABC was the right home for Cleverman when subscription TV provider Foxtel is also investing heavily in Australian content, Blight said: “When Ryan Griffen [the creator of Cleverman] had that original idea, it was ABC who came in and supported the development of that idea. They came on very, very early.
“I don’t think pitching an Aboriginal superhero story to a commercial network would have worked. I am not saying anything about them, but I think it would have been too much of a risk for them.”
However, Blight said if she was to take the concept to market now, the reception from the networks might be different. The second season of Cleverman will air on Thursdays at 9:30pm.
“I would love it at 8:30pm,” Blight said. “But people watch television differently now. A lot of our audience watch it on iview and time shifting. The audience that we attract is much younger than who is normally attracted to the ABC.”
With the viewing scattered across different platforms, it would be wrong to judge the success of Cleverman from the overnight ratings, Blight asserted. Coming off this point, she said that the overnight ratings are becoming less relevant as audiences’ viewing habits shift.
“Our audiences are time poor. They will watch content when they choose to watch content,” Blight stated. “We have to get used to the fact that the traditional method of ratings, the overnights, are not going to be what they used to be.
“I remember making television when you had 1.2 million watching a telemovie and you were close to not getting a renewal. Now, if we get 1.2 million, we write a press release about it.
“There are still these big events that will attract big numbers. There are things that people will go to at 8:30pm on a network to watch as it airs. But these are few and far between now.”
Cleverman v Game of Thrones
Cleverman is aired on BBC in the UK. “There are big digital awards in the UK where there is a category for program acquisitions. The BBC has actually been nominated for its acquisition of Cleverman against a nomination for Game of Thrones,” Blight said. “We are feeling really good.” [Laughs]
The demand for Australian content
“We are doing a lot,” Blight said. “There was a time when people were going ‘TV is dead’ and ‘no one is going to watch television’.
“But people still have an incredible appetite for television. I do think we can still be more courageous with our storytelling and still keep taking those risks. Some of them may fail, but some of them really pay off. They are the ones that travel and they are the ones that will hopefully bring a younger audience to Australian content.”
Goalpost Pictures’ new series for Foxtel
Following the completion of Cleverman season two, Blight will turn her energy towards a new Foxtel series that was in production at the time of writing this article.
“It’s a show called Fighting Season. Our producer on it is Blake Ayshford (Barracuda, Devil’s Playground). It’s a series about Australian soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and the impact of the war. It explores the stories of a group of men who come back in between deployment.”
The main cast for the series includes Jay Ryan (Beauty and the Beast, Top of the Lake), Ewen Leslie (Top of the Lake, The Daughter) and Kate Mulvany (Secret City, The Great Gatsby).