Philip Quast and Hermione Norris in ‘Between Two Worlds’.
After creating five of Australia’s most popular dramas – Always Greener, All Saints, Packed to the Rafters, Winners & Losers and A Place to Call Home – in a stellar 37-year career, Bevan Lee felt he had reached a crossroad.
If he followed one path, he would simply rest on his laurels and be content with his legacy. The other, far more attractive and challenging option: Create a drama unlike anything he’d ever done and which breaks the traditional rules of the genre.
Hence was born Between Two Worlds, a 10-part Seven Studios production which premieres on Seven on Sunday.
The first episode depicts two disparate and seemingly disconnected worlds, typified by one family of extreme wealth and privilege, the other middleclass and suburban.
“I decided I wanted to do a twisty, turny narrative which breaks the rules,” says Lee, who created the show last year, before Amazon Prime Video commissioned the Packed to the Rafters reboot Back to the Rafters from Lee and Seven Studios.
“I would put $1 million down on the table at the end of the first hour and give that to anyone who can tell me where the show goes. I know my money is safe,” he says.
In another subversion of the genre, each episode ends with a recap and cliff-hanger, but each ensuing episode begins a few minutes before that and examines the cliff-hanger from another point of view.
“It works really well because after the first hour you assume all sorts of things and then you think, ‘Oh my God I had no idea that was going on’. That happens every week,” he continues.
Angus Ross, Seven’s director of network programming, says: “I was sold on the concept after Bevan pitched his vision and I had read the first couple of scripts. This was a real passion project for Bevan.”
The final piece of the financing came from Entertainment One, which is handling international rights.
Working with series producer Chris Martin-Jones, Lee scripted nine episodes and mentored Trent Atkinson (Home and Away, A Place to Call Home, All Saints), who wrote one. The set-up director Kriv Stenders, who collaborated with Bevan on A Place to Call Home, directed two episodes. Beck Cole, Lynn Hegarty, Michael Hurst and Caroline Bell-Booth each directed two.
Philip Quast plays Phillip Walford, the billionaire patriarch of the Walford family, who inherited his successful father’s predilection to bully and dominate. Hermione Norris (Cold Feet, Luther, Innocent) plays Cate, his bitter and lonely socialite wife, who finds solace in the arms of a succession of lovers. Tom Dalzell is their confused, disturbed and cynical son Bart, with Melanie Jarnson as his paramour Georgia Konig and Luisa Hastings Edge as Georgia’s venomous mother Rebecca.
On the other side of the fence, Sara Wiseman is Sophia Grey, a warm and decent woman who works in a pre-school day care centre. She is mourning the loss of her husband, a successful AFL player and then coach, who died from a brain tumour. Alex Cubis and Megan Hajjar play Sara’s children Danny, a promising AFL player, and Bella, a proficient pianist who is studying a masters of music degree.
The supporting cast includes Aaron Jeffery as Danny’s AFL coach David Starke, Andrew McFarlane as Rebecca’s husband Gareth, who is driven to the verge of bankruptcy and worse by Watford, Dominic Allburn as former SAS soldier Mikael Stein, Blazey Best as nurse Sandra Jones and Dalip Sondhi as cardiologist Julian Lee.
After Walford suffers a cardiac arrest he must face his own mortality, which is how his world collides with that of the Grey family. Lee wrote the part specifically for Quast after watching him in the National Theatre Live performance of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies, but he had to audition.
The renowned star of dozens of musicals and plays such as Les Misérables, Evita, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods and Macbeth, Quast was surprised to be offered the role, observing: “I’m not normally part of the television set. When I saw all the other people auditioning for it, I could understand why the network would go with them because they are well known. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done.”
He sees similarities between the self-absorbed Ben Stone, whom he played in Follies, and Walford: both are brooding, powerful men who give nothing away. Quast relished Lee’s wordy, quick witted and pacey script and heightened language, which required him to learn a wodge of often alliterative dialogue. He also enjoyed the challenge of his ailing character spending the first few episodes mostly bed-ridden.
Lee told Wiseman he was writing a character for her in an upcoming show during the filming of A Place to Call Home a couple of years ago, so she was happy when she was asked to audition. In fact, she auditioned for the roles of Sophia and Cate Walford.
“Auditions are always a nail-biting experience so to be reunited with Bevan and Chris Martin-Jones was an absolute joy,” says the Sydney-based Wiseman, who was spending the lockdown with family in New Zealand.
“Sophia is the heart of the show: As a solo mum and in her job, she is a nurturing soul. Bevan decided to take some big risks on Between Two Worlds so I am excited to see how it’s received.”
Sara also enjoyed the chance to work with Megan Hajjar – “we did a chemistry read and she knocked it out of the park” – and with Aaron Jeffery, who played her estranged husband in the Kiwi TV series Outrageous Fortune.
Casting director Ann Fay suggested Norris and the English actor readily signed on after a Skype session with Lee. While some may ask why an Aussie could not have played that role, Quast, who spent 18 years in the UK, notes: “Class is something that’s very hard for Australians to play. Hermione has class and a very light touch that those upper-class people have.”
On the line from her home in London, Norris says: “I loved my chat with Bevan. I was really struck by his passion and enthusiasm. He told me the story, that it was a labour of love and I really wanted to be a part of it.”
Another attraction for her was the chance to work with Australian crews; she first visited Australia in 2002 when an episode of Cold Feet was filmed over 10 days in Sydney. She sees Cate as a woman who is trapped in an ivory tower with a powerful man with whom she has a dark, messed-up relationship.
“Philip is a big, powerful, charismatic man. It’s always great as an actor to play against that type of muscle,” adds Hermione, who became close friends with Quast, with the two remaining in regular touch.
Seven’s head of drama Julie McGauran, who served as an executive producer, says: “Philip Quast has such presence; he just demands you watch him. So, it was amazing to find Hermione, who is a very strong woman and very much his equal, so together they are quite formidable.”
Martin-Jones, who had worked on all Bevan Lee shows starting with Always Greener, says: “It was a risky scenario because it was an expensive exercise to put the world of a spectacularly wealthy man on screen. It’s a very bold, surprising and innovative show. There are several storylines that have high dramatic intrigue and twists you would not expect.”
The producers were able to secure the use of a two-storey penthouse atop a tower in Sydney’s central business district. The DOP Henry Pierce ACS (A Place to Call Home, Call the Midwife) shot the series with a Panasonic 8K camera, the first for an Australian drama, in Ultra High Definition in the 2:1 letterbox format. That gives the show a modern, glossy, cinematic look.
Stenders says: “I grew up watching Bevan’s shows from an early age. He is almost like a genre unto himself. It was an honour and thrill to set up a Bevan Lee show. He has his own world, his own language and what I call his own music. It was great tapping into that. I learnt so much from Bevan because he is a master storyteller.”
Beck Cole enjoyed the experience of working on her first show for a commercial free-to-air broadcaster after directing episodes of Foxtel’s Wentworth, the ABC’s Mustangs FC, The Warriors and Black Comedy and NITV’s Grace Beside Me.
“It was fast and furious and very different to what I’d done before,” Beck says.
“At the outset Kriv set out a really clear guide on the look and feel of the show. What I loved about Bevan is I could call him up, tell him I wasn’t sure if I understood something, have a proper conversation and not feel intimidated. It can be intimidating when you come into new gigs and you don’t know people. He was really accessible and kind.”
Lee is so proud of the show he declares: “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. Seven gave me a great budget, they gave me my creative head and they put me together with some fantastic people. I wanted to write a show that breaks the rules of genre and structure, a rip-snorting yarn where audiences come back week after week because they want to know what happens.”
These days the creator and producers of just about every Australian drama aim for a returnable series, and that’s the case here. Lee affirms: “When I finished season one, I knew exactly where I thought the story should go. But since then we’ve had COVID-19, so every creative person who goes into a second series has to decide, ‘Do you show a world in which COVID-exists, which would totally change some of the storylines, or do you decide it’s a parallel world where COVID never happened?’”
Norris seconds that, adding: “If it is well received and it does go again, I would love to come back. I worked with a lot of lovely people and they have become my friends and I think about them all the time.”
This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #195 June-July.