By Kerrie O'Brien
How long should you wait before having sex with your ex’s friend? It was the sort of topic often discussed by the creative team behind award-winning noughties TV sensation The Secret Life of Us.
Actor Claudia Karvan was nervous about signing up for The Secret Life of Us, but then adored it.Credit:Janie Barrett
In light of tighter COVID-19 restrictions around parts of the country, Claudia Karvan, who played Dr Alex Christensen, has been getting lots of messages saying, ‘Thank god for Secret Life, it’s getting us through lockdown’. It prompted her to sit down and watch the groundbreaking show for the first time in years.
“One of my first scenes was my character being teased by her best friend about using an applicator tampon,” Karvan says. “That you could talk about using tampons on free-to-air, or smoking joints, or talking about whether guys care if you have an orgasm… What struck me about the scripts was that everyone spoke in such a candid and unfiltered way.”
The action centred on a beachside apartment, home to Alex, Evan (Samuel Johnson) and Kelly (Deborah Mailman). Other key characters over the 86 episodes – an extraordinary feat in today’s terms – included Joel Edgerton, Abi Tucker, David Tredinnick, Vince Colosimo, Sibylla Budd, Spencer McLaren and Damian de Montemas.
All aspects of 20- and 30-something drama were explored in raw and compelling storylines around friendship, falling in and out of love, sexuality, sexism, secrets, affairs, money, parties, responsibility and careers; it also tackled big issues such as mental health, drug-taking and abortion. It was funny, heartfelt and honest and showed many young Australians a slice of their own world.
From left to right, Evan (Samuel Johnson), Alex (Claudia Karvan) and Kelly (Deborah Mailman) in The Secret Life of Us.Credit:Network Ten
All the storylines were based on real life, a big part of why the show struck such a chord with audiences – and why it stands the test of time.
“I’ve been inundated with people messaging about their kids watching it and younger people I know who are watching it for the first time,” says Judi McCrossin, who wrote the first three seasons along with Christopher Lee, adding that teens as young as 14 are also tuning in.
Co-producer Higgs says, “We were just a great combination of finding what felt real in life. We were listening to stories, using our own experiences”.
Writer Judi McCrossin and co-producer Amanda Higgs at the Logies in 2003, after receiving a Logie for the show.
“Honestly I don’t think there is a moment of Judi’s and my life that is not on that screen. We used to make a joke when people would tell us stories that we might take it down and use it in a TV show,” she says. “We were just incredibly curious and kept on interrogating that experience. It also felt like we were trying to push women to the fore as well and recognise that stories about women could have real meaning, where they didn’t have to die or have a gun in their hand.”
When offered the role, Karvan admits to a degree of trepidation. “I was a bit of a feature film snob then really and that was a fairly common attitude to TV in those days… I didn’t even sign up for the whole series,” she says. “I said, look, I’ll do four and I’ll see how it goes. They just took a gamble and, of course, I loved it – the quality of the scripts, the nuanced characters, the cast they pulled together, the extraordinary directors we worked with.”
Season four saw major changes to the cast of the Secret Life of UsCredit:Channel Ten
Those directors included Kate Dennis (Offspring, Handmaid’s Tale), Cate Shortland (Marvel’s Black Widow, Somersault) and Daina Reid (Handmaid’s Tale), while Oscar-nominated Tony McNamara (The Great, Cruella and The Favourite) contributed to the writing.
Claudia Karvan went on to make Love My Way with producer John Edwards.Credit:Janie Barrett
Dennis directed eight episodes of the show. “It was speaking to our generation at the time. That stage of life when your friends are your family and everyone knows everyone,” she says. “Amanda, John and Judi were brave enough to do a show that dramatised those everyday, quotidian moments, but it was also a show that was very happy to live in the morally grey zones, at that point there weren’t many of those shows around. It was really nuanced in that respect.”
Karvan says the producers took a punt on a lot of first-timers and launched many careers. “Sam was like a young Ben Mendelsohn and Deb has got that warmth, sincerity, intelligence and fierceness and has obviously gone on to do extraordinary things.
“One of my favourite things is watching Joel Edgerton limber up to be an international superstar.”
Also known for The Wrong Girl and The Time of Our Lives, McCrossin says Higgs and Edwards nurtured her voice, and the show was the safest writing environment she has ever worked in. Producers pushed back against the network when issues arose around the at-times graphic content, and worked with the writers, discussing plotlines, ideas and casting. “[The cast] were really likeable and real, they had lots of fun together. The three-way love story between Claudia, Sam and Vince, worked… that’s not just writing, that’s casting and producing.”
“On top of all of that, there has to be a little bit of magic dust thrown on it at the time,” McCrossin says. “I don’t think the human condition has changed all that much – we need someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to. And that’s across every culture and every time period.”
Karvan agrees. “It’s very much about personal values and love and relationships, and that stuff absolutely doesn’t change. It’s nice to see a landline ringing, though.”
The Secret Life original cast: where are they now
Sibylla Budd After her breakout role as Gabrielle, Budd appeared in All Saints and Sea Patrol. More recently, she’s had roles on Winners and Losers and Tommorow, When the War Began.
Damian de Montemas After two seasons playing Jason, de Montemas had roles in Rake, The Commons, Hounds of Love, Wolf Creek, Underbelly and Somersault.
Spencer McLaren played Ritchie, and later appeared in theatre in Melbourne, and on screen in Ali’s Wedding, Tomorrow, When the War Began and Surviving Georgia, more recently working as a producer on movie Sit. Stay. Love.
Abi Tucker, who often sang as her character Miranda, is a singer/songwriter and appeared in McLeod’s Daughters and voiced Hootabelle in Giggle and Hoot.
Joel Edgerton played Will, a scaffolder, and went on to star in Animal Kingdom, Zero Dark Thirty, and Star Wars, and directed Boy Erased and was a producer and writer of The King.
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