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November 12, 2012

Stringer, the ABC-TV dramedy series from the 1980s still reigns as the only Australian drama series devised and written by AFTRS students, while they were students, which was subsequently sold to and screened on a major Australian television network.

The series was conceived and written by Chris Lee, Steve Wright and myself, Billy Marshall Stoneking, working under the mentorship of Thames television exec and script editor, Linda Agran (Minder, Widows, etc). 

The brief we were given was to devise a character-based television drama series to be shot on film, on location in and around Sydney, that highlighted the multi-cultural nature of the city. Linda suggested we familiarise ourselves with the “outline” that the U.K. writer, Leon Griffiths, had written for his series idea, entitled Minder, and if need be use it as a model for what we wanted to write. Once we had finished writing it, Linda’s idea was to take our treatment around to all the networks and when each of them rejected – which was what she expected would happen – she would sit us down and show us where we’d screwed up. To her surprise ALL of the networks wanted it. One of them even sent a representative over to the school with contract in hand, urging us to sign. We didn’t and… the rest – as they say – is history.

The series ended up with three directors, John Edwards producing, and a soundtrack put together by Martin Armiger that went double platinum before the series had completed screening. It also garnered a number of AFI awards, including best cinematography, and was screened on ABC-TV in prime time, opposite the State of Origin matches in 1988 unfortunately, and later in the UK and elsewhere.

The treatment itself took us 11 weeks to write and re-write, and re-write  – most of the discussion was about character – who are they? what do they want? what are the key relationships? And then a whole lot of “what if…” situations to see if we were all working with the SAME characters. In the end we let the characters write their own stories.

None of us had written for television before. I’d made a short 30 minute film in the States when I was about 19 – apart from that – nothing. Chris Lee had been a journalist with AAP; Steve Wright had written a few stage plays, and I was a performance poet who had written a mighty, unproduced feature about Lasseter’s Lost Reef.

As we got to know the Stringer characters better, we all became rather obsessive about the project. We ended up meeting seven days a week during the last fortnight or so, anywhere between eight to 15 hours a day, frequently punctuated by forgettably long lunches – forgettable owing to the vast amounts of ale that irrigated our manic enthusiasm. Chris usually manned the typewriter, when we had one, (yes, we were still using typewriters back then) and Steve would generally stretch out on a couch or a floor.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing either. At times things would become quite heated with arguments raging over things like whether Frank – the lead character – would refer to the police as cops or wallopers. Fortunately, we all had a pretty good sense of humour.

Decisions were based on minority rule. If we call agreed, fine. But if one of us held out, then the other two would either have to find a way of convincing the hold-out why the idea was good, or else the idea would be jettisoned and a new idea introduced. It seemed to worked pretty good. We found that working as three was useful because there would always be at least one member of the team that was LISTENING. All of us, in our different ways, became extraoridinary listeners – something I cant recommend too highly if you wanna write for television or do anything at all, really, in the screen storytelling business. 

By the way, the soundtrack album from the television series, featuring Kate Cerebrano and Wendy Matthews, produced by Martin Armiger, was one of the fastest and best selling soundtrack albums ever produced by ABC Enterprises. It’s still selling strong. If you would like a copy, check out  YOU’VE ALWAYS GOT THE BLUES

Anyway, here is the document that started the whole thing rolling: 


FRANK BUCHANAN is a “stringer” – a freelance journalist who works for news organisations in both London and New York. For the past fourteen years he has worked for some of the world’s most important newspapers (including the Sunday Times’ ‘Insight’ team) covering  stories in Vietnam, Northern Ireland and the Middle East, gaining a reputation among his readers and editors as the man who’d go anywhere, no matter how dangerous. He got an even bigger reputation as the man who raised the claiming of expenses to an art form, charging bills from hotels that hadn’t been built, and from bars that had already been blown up. Now he’s home. He’s had enough of trouble spots, and figures Sydney will be a breeze for a couple of years.

STRINGER is a drama series with a sense of humour. Shot entirely on film, on location, in and around Sydney, it is not a copy of something that has already been done somewhere else better. It is an Australian series without an inferiority complex that will show domestic audiences a no-bullshit view of a remarkable metropolis and overseas audiences a city they never knew existed. Sydney is an exciting place, right? It’s time to use it.

STRINGER takes Sydney in through the pores. As film drama it’s out there in the streets, the pubs, the playgrounds, among the people that make up the multicultural flavour of this city. That is not to say STRINGER is a travelogue full of Harbor Bridges and Opera Houses. It looks nothing like the “Streets of San Francisco”, nor is it full of gun-happy cowboys working for nameless security organisations.

FRANK drinks too much, smokes too much, takes little or no exercise and avoids the company of people who do. He has a natural and individual style in his life as well as in his writing, and knows the difference between real news and crap. Behind the hard-bitten, cynical exterior there is a genuine craftsman at work.

FRANK’s years of living in Europe and America have had an effect on him because, unlike most of his Australian contemporaries, he actually enjoys the company of women. His list of credits, in terms of his relationships, reads like the passenger list on the Titanic – he doesn’t trust his own judgment and therefore never ‘comes on’ with women. As a result his humour, easy charm and lack of aggression make him extraordinarily attractive to them. Younger women se4e him as the experienced father figure; older women see him as the lover and companion they never found.

His rented house, in stark contrast t the rattling pace of his life, is in a quiet, boring street in Chatswood. In a row of manicured lawns, fresh paint and prizewinning azaleas, FRANK’s house is Patterson’s Curse. His neighbour, MRS GLOVER, is the sort of person who goes to bed at ten o’clock with one eyes on the window. When she’s not complaining about the state of his property she is watching him like a soapie.

FRANK’s house is in a continual state of chaos, mainly because of his relationship with machines; they turn off when they see him coming. FRANK accepts that machines are conspiring against him and he’s equal to the challenge. From the halls of the Italo-Australian Club to the shores of Botany Bay, FRANK fights his own technological revolution.

Why a journalist?

1.     The last thing Australian television needs is another cop show. Unrealistic punch-ups, ballistically fictional shootouts and granite-jawed superheroes have become the same the world over. STRINGER avoids the good-versus-evil formula. If there’s a hero in STRINGER he’s quite unaware of it.

2.     A gangland killing in Dixon Street; a corporation’s involvement in drug-trafficking; or a suitcase full of cockatoos heading for California; FRANK wants to find out what the hell’s going on. When he sits down at his old Olivetti, his writing shows that he cares more about the way people feel than the statistics they create. His profession is ideal for exploring the multicultural facets of Sydney.

Given FRANK’s excessive drinking habits and his natural aversion to machinery, he needs an offsider who’s a damn good driver. YANNIS MOUSAKIS is that man.

YANNIS, a first-generation Australian/Greek from Newtown, is a smart, street-wise cabdriver in his mid-twenties who knows every SP bookie in town, every spruiker in every cheap dive, and is not averse to taking a rich American tourist from Macquarie Street to the Cross via Bondi Junction. He knows where almost everyone of “no fixed address” lives. The wharves, the markets, the massage parlours – YANNIS’ contacts are seemingly endless. You want a secondhand video recorder or a dozen ripe avocadoes? YANNIS’ cousin knows the bloke whose lorry they fell off.

YANNIS has cultivated the John Travolta strut and spends every spare dollar on clothes, cologne and workouts. He works hard at attracting women – often with reasonable success – and he can’t understand how FRANK manages to draw them so effortlessly. YANNIS has seen Flashdance ten times. FRANK saw it by mistake one night and fell asleep before the end of the opening credits.

YANNIS’ cab is ankle-deep in cassettes, but the rock’n’roll music he plays is more than a sound – it’s a movement. FRANK finds all this mildly amusing when he’s not finding it mildly irritating. YANNIS would be in the rock’n’roll business if he could find a band. He writes his own lyrics and FRANK is forced to listen to the stuff, often to his distaste: “Yanni, put your foot on the accelerator, not in your mouth!”

FRANK is attracted to YANNIS’ reckless exuberance and enthusiasm. You might say YANNIS is the son he wished he had instead of the one he got.

Which brings us to FRANK’s son… and FRANK’s ex-wife. FRANK has a “family” – which for sound reasons he has successfully avoided for 14 years.

FRANK’s son, GORDON, is a trendy’s trendy. He’s in second-year Med at Sydney University, and has just the right amounts of conformity, pomposity and ideologically correct viewpoints to send FRANK bananas at the very mention of his name. But inspite of all this, FRANK maintains a glimmer of hope that one day his son may end up a human being.

GORDON’s mother, VALERIE, has remarried, lost weight and now has that early-forties beauty that only money can buy. She aspires to the black and white committee, drives a BMW, and has commissioned a Double Bay genealogist to prepare a family tree showing that there’s at least one convict on her family. Walk into VALERIE’s decorator-designed lounge room and it feels like a fifteen-inch collar on a sixteen-inch neck. From FRANK’s point of view his ex-wife is a lost cause.

VALERIE, for her part, would be embarrassed for people to know that she’s ever been married to someone like “him”, and the last thing she wants to see is FRANK’s convex face through the peephole lens in her burglar-proof door. VALERIE’s husband, a Macquarie Street psychiatrist, is the one who’s interested in FRANK, having learned about FRANK from VALERIE during treatments for her post-marital depression. If he wanted to, MARTIN could write a textbook on “The Frank Syndrome”; in short, he finds him fascinating.

The most important woman in FRANK’s life is LAURA CHANDLER, 36, editor of one of the most influential news magazines in Australia; a major outlet for FRANK’s stories. LAURA is partly responsible for FRANK’s return to Sydney. She has offered him top money for any stories that interest him, and though she’s willing to wear a lot of the pressure she cops from her publisher she’s not averse to telling FRANK to stick it when his stories come to too close to libel. FRANK and LAURA both know where to draw the line in investigative journalism, but where LAURA’s line is invariably straight, FRANK’s line bends a little.

She is the sort of woman who could take three colleagues out to dinner on her American Express card without anyone being embarrassed about it, and would sooner eat Chinese with someone who is charming, amusing and poor, than go to the Opera with someone who wears “La Grande Pomme” T-shirts on the weekends.

When she was twenty-two she was engaged to a bloke at the Duntroon Royal Military Academy but out maneuvered him when she discovered his plans included 4 kids, 2 cars and a government-issued house on a base in Western Australia.

Since then she has enjoyed the company of men without wanting to spend the rest of her life with any one of them.

Her various love affairs all have beginning, middles and ends – but not necessarily in that order.

LAURA wears make-up, perfume and is a stylish-dresser; she achieved through the seventies what most feminists aspired to. She is, simply, a successful woman.

LAURA is tougher and more interesting than FRANK remembers, but then so is Sydney. FRANK lands in the city not quite knowing what to expect. He’s seen a picture of Centrepoint Tower; he’s read about the Eastern suburbs railway; and he’s heard they’ve torn down Jim Buckley’s Newcastle pub… but no one warned him about YANNI…

IN “Fastest Cab in the Southern Hemisphere”, the taxi FRANK catches from Kingsford Smith airport is driven by YANNIS who immediately slips into his “rip off the tourist” routine. FRANK gives an address in Point Piper and when they finally arrive FRANK tells YANNIS to wait. He knocks on the door, gets no reply and disappears round the side of the house. Minutes later, the front door opens and there’s FRANK, loaded with gear: portable TV, typewriter, toaster, vacuum cleaner, etc.

YANNIS is impressed by what he thinks is the smoothest daylight B & E he’s ever seen. FRANK rejects YANNIS’ offer to find a fence for the stuff and they head for FRANK’s motel. FRANK has partly unloaded the taxi when YANNIS spots a green Holden and shoots through with FRANK’s luggage still in the boot, hotly pursued by the green Holden.

Next morning, FRANK wakes up in the motel having dreamed of Greek taxi drivers all night. At his door is YANNIS, grinning and politely returning his suitcases. YANNIS offers FRANK a free fare and on the way to LAURA’s inner-city office he bolts through a red-light, cuts a harp left turn and heads for the back streets of Chippendale, after sighting the same green Holden in his rear-vision mirror.

FRANK is under the shower when there’s a knock on the door, and he’s confronted by two swarthy types who obviously aren’t there to sell bibles. They barge in and accuse FRANK of having sold their papa a dud car. Eventually FRANK discovers that YANNIS sold the old man the car, but has told them that he was acting for FRANK. YANNIS turns up to warn FRANK that he’s had to put these two guys onto him – in order to save himself – and walks straight into it. FRANK screams for silence and suggests a solution (he’ll pay anything to shut them up): he’ll pay the old man for the value of the car, providing they all get the hell out of his room.

Later, YANNIS thanks FRANK for getting him off the hook, but FRANK grins and says he’s not quite off it. FRANK now has $1,200. worth of credit on YANNIS’ meter… and 

a partnership is born…

The fact that FRANK’s ex-wife, VALERIE, has reported a burglary from her Point Piper residence beings police after the two partners. At the station, VALERIE confronts FRANK for the first time in 14 years and her reaction proves that absence and time don’t necessarily make the heart grow fonder. VALERIE doesn’t press charges; after all, she’s now free of most of the stuff he had stored there.

For a man who’s spent most of his life living out of a suitcase, FRANK is happy to finally find his own house. His Chatswood home, he figures, is perfect for the peace and quiet he’s looking for. In the episode, “Fishy Chips”, he’s in the throes of moving into his new house… when he goes to an illegal gambling casino on a large yacht on the harbour as part of a larger story for LAURA. FRANK notices a punter losing a great deal of money he doesn’t have, and the gambling staff seem only too willing to extend the man credit.

A few days later, FRANK reads that the punter – a prominent member of sigh society Sydney – has leapt to his death from a fifteen-story window. He visits the detective investigating the death – an old friend – who tells him they’re treating it as a simple suicide.

Unconvinced, FRANK tracks down someone else who lost heavily on the same night, but the man is too frightened to talk. FRANK starts to smell a different story; he takes LAURA out to an expensive restaurant for “a feed and a quiet chat”. LAURA knows that FRANK’s quiet chats mean one thing: he needs money. So she’s only mildly surprised when he asks her for $20,000 to lose at a gambling casino.

FRANK sets himself up as bait. He returns to the casino with YANNIS. After dropping five thousand dollars, he starts playing on credit and loses a further five. He’s treated politely by the casino staff and leaves after having signed an acknowledgement of his debt.

FRANK’s investigations reveal that the owner of the yacht is a well-know French businessman from New Caledonia with a wide range of business connections in Sydney. FRANK starts to write his story at home when he’s visited by a couple of the casino heavies who advise him that soaring interest rates have doubled his debt. FRANK tells them where to stick their debt and they rough him up a bit. Before leaving they discover his story in the typewriter and realise he’s a journalist. FRANK tells them that his editor already has all the facts and the heavies split, passing YANNIS on the way out.

FRANK now has the story he was after, He writes it, takes it to LAURA and the police are called. They descend on the marina where the yacht is berthed but the boat is gone. Water police investigations reveal that the yacht never left New Caledonia.

FRANK doesn’t like machines, but if there’s one thing he dislikes more it’s people who act like them. Or write like them… The front-page knee-jerk reaction to a story leaves him cold. YANNIS, however, is sold on front pages and can’t understand why FRANK doesn’t go for the big headlines.

YANNIS: That news you wrote on those Vietnamese blokes didn’t even get on the front page.

FRANK: Yanni, lemme tell you something. Newspapers are like Christmas presents; the front page is just the wrapping. The good stuff is on the inside. A good story starts there and moves forward. By the time it gets to the front page everyone knows about it – it’s snuck up on ‘em. They come from nowhere and just take over… like the Visigoths invading Europe.

YANNIS: Visigoths? When’d they invade Europe?

FRANK: They didn’t. But it would’ve made a helluva story.

In “The Squealer”, an IRA informer – BARRY O’ROURKE – is given a completely new identity in Australia after having turned Queen’s evidence in Northern Ireland and shopping 33 of his colleagues. His wife and family start to be harassed in their new Sydney home after extensive media coverage and FRANK becomes interested in the case. He can’t understand why all the hullabaloo if these people’s existence is supposed to be so secret.

FRANK, looking for the real story, discovers that the British/Australian governments have set up the Irishman and his family. They are being used to flush out IRA sympathisers in this country, and the media are unwitting partners in the job.

When O’ROURKE is murdered, FRANK sets out to track down the killers and actually exposes the government’s involvement in using O’ROURKE as bait. The whole business of  “setting a thief to catch a thief” leaves him disgusted, especially when the killers manage to flee the country.

FRANK is just as likely to look into the life and times of ex-circus performers or the illicit Slivovitz stills of Yugoslav immigrants. FRANK knows there’s a story in every nook and cranny.

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