Blue Heelers: rewatching the classic Australian small-town police procedural

Eschewing high-octane crime fighting for the mundanity of local law and order, Blue Heelers’ charm was in its everyday relatability

An 18-year-old kid deciding to become a cop sparked what would become Australia’s most successful program of the 1990s, Blue Heelers. The producer Hal McElroy, who found success with the film Picnic at Hanging Rock, was intrigued by this kid, the son of a friend. It struck him as an odd career choice for a teenager of that era. McElroy soon learned that more than 60% of Australian police at the time were under 26. This also seemed strange. When his son’s friend was posted to Yass, a small town north of Canberra, the idea of a show focused on a young cop in a country town started to germinate.

The opening scene of the pilot shows Constable Maggie Doyle (Lisa McCune) being pulled over as she drives into Mount Thomas, the town where she is to be posted. A flirtation between her and knockaround detective PJ Hasham (Martin Sacks) is hinted at and, by the end of the episode, it was apparent that Channel Seven had struck dramatic gold once again, after the successes of A Country Practice and Home and Away – warm-hearted shows set in small, tight-knit communities, high on human drama and sudsy, as soaps should be.

Much like the UK’s The Bill, Blue Heelers aims to show the human aspect of policing, eschewing gritty high-octane crime fighting (such as that seen on the ABC’s Wildside) for the mundanity of maintenance; of keeping law and order in a town where you know most of the locals, where cops and criminals end every working day at the same pub. Being a procedural drama, there is a “case of the week”, along with season-long arcs to draw in long-term viewers.

Lisa McCune in the first episode
Blue Heelers made a star of Lisa McCune. Photograph: 7Plus

But the real “action” is character-driven; romances bloom and disagreements turn personal. Watched through a modern lens, some of the station’s sexual politics may grate – even when played for laughs, and more so when it isn’t. But social issues are dealt with deftly: the dark truths of country Australia are never shied away from nor fetishised – incest, rape, racism and domestic violence come up alongside traffic infringements and stolen power tools. Good cops can quickly become corrupt ones.

John Wood shines as grumpy, good-hearted Senior Sergeant Tom Croyden, while William McInnes brings his larrikin charm to everyman cop Nick Schultz. Julie Nihill plays cheery publican Chris Riley, who provides the beers and keeps an ear to the ground – a more reliable news source for the cops than the Mount Thomas Gazette (the press is dealt with quite dismissively in this show).

In season three Tasma Walton comes on board as the fiery Constable Dash McKinley. By season four Blue Heelers had become the most-watched television show in the country, attracting an average of 2.5 million viewers each week in 1997.

William McInnes and Martin Sacks in the first episode
William McInnes and Martin Sacks in the first episode. Photograph: 7Plus

It ran for 14 seasons and 510 hour-long episodes, so if you plan on watching it while also maintaining the important relationships in your life it may be prudent to dip into the show at certain points.

Popularity-wise, and quality-wise, the glory years were seasons two to six. It’s impossible to overstate how beloved in Australia McCune was at the time; Maggie’s slow-burning love affair with Sacks’ PJ made magazine cover stars of them both. McCune won four straight Gold Logies, and her final episode in season seven made ratings history for the show.

From this point, interest in Blue Heelers slowly waned, although well over a million Australians tuned in for the final season. These years contain a lot of gold, and some wonderful performances by expert cast additions Rupert Reid, Caroline Craig and Danny Raco – but the main players drip away, with just Wood and Nihill from the original cast hanging in until the end.

As is befitting of its slow fade, Blue Heelers doesn’t have much of a finale: there are no explosions or revelations; the moments are small and personal, and there is no real sense of closure. Perhaps that’s how we should leave the Mount Thomas police – maintaining order while leading small and dignified lives.

• Blue Heelers is streaming in Australia on 7Plus. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here


Nathan Jolly

The GuardianTramp

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