'Working within an Imperfect System': A Conversation with the Circuit's Ross Hutchens: Dave Hoskin Speaks with Ross Hutchens, Co-Creator and Producer of the Latest Topical Television Drama, the Circuit (2007)

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OUR national broadcasters can't afford to produce a lot of drama, but whenever their series do make it to air they somehow provide an uncanny echo of current events. For instance, in an election year that pivots around the issue of industrial relations, the broadcast of Bastard Boys (2007) can't help but seem intensely topical. Similarly, as Dill was once more plunged into political violence, the ABC aired Answered by Fire (2006), a miniseries depicting the massacre that followed East Timor's vote for independence.

Few at SBS could have predicted that The Circuit would prove to be equally timely. Although far from the only issue raised by the series, the storyline involving the sexual abuse of children in Aboriginal communities premiered almost concurrently with the publication of Little Children are Sacred, a report by the Nor[hem Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sex Abuse. Despite the precedents set elsewhere it's still an odd turn of events. For Ross Hutchens, there were two reactions:

One is an overall sadness, because while I'm not a supporter of the way that the Howard government has intervened in that situation, it is obviously a tragedy that needed to be addressed, and that was long overdue. Just as perhaps a series like The Circuit being on television and seeing Aboriginal people on our screens is also long overdue. So initially it was just [a reaction] of sadness about the whole event.

I ask Hutchens if he thinks that the 'ripped from today's headlines' effect has made people look at the series in a different way. 'I think there were a lot of people who found the contemporary relevance to be quite strong because that was on the front pages of the paper and everything,' he says. 'But I'm also a little bit ...' He pauses, weighing up his words before proceeding:

I have a suspicion that in fact it may have hurt us in terms of ratings. In that people see all of these things in the newspaper for the whole week--do they really want to tune in, on a Sunday night when they're putting their feet up, to watch something [about it]? And it kind of promoted our show as if it was dealing with the sexual abuse issue, when in fact it was one storyline that we wanted to bubble up and [use to] kind of catch people by surprise. But suddenly we were being talked about in the media as the show that was confronting this major issue. So I guess I'm just suspicious that it might have hurt us a bit.

At one stage, The Circuit's lead character Drew Ellis (Aaron Pederson) declares that Aboriginals needs a better representation in the media. Was that one of the aims of the miniseries? 'I don't know about an aim, but a happy by-product.' Hutchens explains:

The aim really was to look at aspects of contemporary Australia and make it really entertaining and challenging. That has a lot of spin-offs, one of them being you're seeing different facets of Aboriginal life, or perhaps I should say more rounded aspects of Aboriginal fife. You're seeing it in all its complexity. And that was definitely an aim; that we wanted to almost take a cliched image and then look behind it as drama can. So if you see a news article about the travelling Magistrates Court, and all the drunk and disorderlies lined through the court each day, you could make kind of cliched assumptions about those people. And The Circuit definitely tries to go beyond that.

At the end of the day if you're choosing to do a story in a court you are going to deal with people who are either villains or ... you are dealing with that aspect. You're not making Neighbours in an Aboriginal street where you could be looking at other stories, or more positive things. By its nature there is some negativity when you end up in court. But by the same token we weren't scared of that, and it's a way into a story because that's how a lot of Australians see Aboriginal culture. …