New Australasian show to counter-balance dark TV

Melina Vidler, Erik Thomson and Benson Jack Anthony play the Turner family in 800 Words.
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Melina Vidler, Erik Thomson and Benson Jack Anthony play the Turner family in 800 Words.

By March, the crowds have gone from Piha, but the sun remains.

Picturesque and soaked in summer vibes, the Auckland beach is so beautiful it has a group of Australians literally screaming with delight.

They're here to film a new Aussie-Kiwi television co-production, 800 Words, which follows a father and his kids trying to get on with life after his wife has passed away.

Melina and Benson are as good as real-life siblings off-camera.
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Melina and Benson are as good as real-life siblings off-camera.

Unlike most film sets, where things get stressful and tense, the cast and crew here stop every now and again to breathe deep, and not one of them passes by without commenting on how lucky they are to be working here.

None feel that as much as the lead, Erik Thomson. While his character George moves to New Zealand for a fresh start, for Thomson filming here is a trip home.

Though he was originally born in Scotland and now lives in Australia, Thomson was raised in the Bay of Plenty, completed university here and calls himself a New Zealander, despite his Australian citizenship. "The Aussies that came over were all very sad to leave, they had a great time, we had great weather, some awesome days out at Piha," says Thomson. "For me personally, it was an opportunity for me to come home and I know what that emotion is, so I certainly fully identify with [my character] George. And that's good, I try to keep things a little closer, especially on what will hopefully be an ongoing drama series, to have that to dig into easily."

Michelle Langstone plays Fiona - a busy woman with a heart of gold.
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Michelle Langstone plays Fiona - a busy woman with a heart of gold.

There's a campground feel to the set: crew lounge in fold-out camp chairs and nap beneath trees; catering spreads on long tables beneath the trees, while cast lounge in dressing gowns and kimonos to protect their costumes.

Aussie actors Benson Jack Anthony (17) and Melina Vidler (22) play 16-year-old Arlo and 17-year-old Shay in the show, and they're not hard to imagine as siblings off-camera either with a light-hearted chemistry between them. But when it comes to work, they focus quickly, speaking thoughtfully and articulately about tackling their roles. "Arlo is hard to pin because when you're a 16-year-old boy who's gone through something like he has - he doesn't really know who he is, so trying to play someone whose emotions are so frazzled, it's hard to know how to do that," muses Anthony. "I just kind of let initial instincts take over because there's not really any consistency to any teenage boy ever, they're just finding themselves as they go."

Anthony flicks a toothpick between his teeth as he gestures for Vidler to go next, in a playful kind of "beat that" fashion. Vidler describes her character as being like most teenaged girls; strong "but also hiding a lot".

"She's trying to be strong for everyone else as well as herself, but she has this sensitive side," says Vidler. "One thing I admire is that she's a little bit more rebellious than I am and I like that oomph she has. For a 17-year-old, I think she's matured quite quickly."

And while her character may be struggling to adjust to her new environment, Vidler is thriving. "In the car on the way here, [Benson and I] just screamed at the beauty of it - it's surprising how beautiful [New Zealand] is," she says.

And borrowing that Piha vibe goes a long way to keeping the show light.

Kiwi actress Michelle Langstone plays Fiona - a character who "pops up everywhere" and has had a "really difficult past", but unlike George, Fiona stayed put in the town she grew up in. "She and George are both finding ways to start again after difficult things have happened in their lives, it's like; how do you build a world again?" says Langstone.

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And while that has the potential to turn dark, Langstone says the characters and setting help provide a counterbalance. "There is a vein of storytelling at the moment that's pretty dark - from Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones...I see 800 Words as the counterbalance to that, it's got this warm heart in the middle of it, so amongst all these despicable characters and outrageous storylines, it's nice to have that kind of balm, a thing that makes you feel better.

"I do find modern life to be quite aggressive, so immediate and distracting and busy, so a show like this - I feel like time bends and stretches here. I hope it provides that to viewers too."

Thomson says the grief never overpowers the hope - the audience aware of the family's loss but the people in the town aren't.

"And he's not particularly happy to talk about it either. There is a traditional way of coping - you reach for the bottle. We don't do that here," he says.

"The tone of the show's really upbeat, there's a really strong element of hope. It's the kind of TV that at the end of an hour of it you'll feel better than you did than when you started."

800 Words starts November 5, TV1.

 - Stuff

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