I was in the original Heartbreak High TV series in 1994. I was dead by the end of the first season, but there’s nothing better than knowing exactly when and how, and Why you are going to die, to make the experience of life even more valuable.
The story arc at the start of the season, taken from the original film, Heartbreak Kid, was about a young, motherless college student who falls in love with an older woman, his teacher. By the time the movie became a series, the whole teacher-student relationship was dropped and they went instead with the son (Alex Dimitriades) losing his mother (me) as the dramatic starting point. After my death, Peta Toppano was set to join the series as a glamorous housekeeper who arrives shortly after my death to care for my children and my widowed husband (Nico Lathouris), whom she falls in love with. I think. I am not sure. I couldn’t bear to watch. Obviously, I haven’t worked on my impersonation yet.
Lathouris, a second-generation Greek, and I, a second-generation Italian, were, like so many other actors, the children and grandchildren of migrants. The ethnic diversity of this show is now well documented. This set a precedent in the Australian television country that made her a star. The show’s gritty, grittier truth aesthetic and subject matter was also fresh. It looked and sounded more “real” than other things offered to younger viewers. In the 90s, Heartbreak High was viewing by appointment, like Countdown was for me when I was a teenager.
So, with my nearly 30-year death-by-story arc behind me, it was a little confusing when, last week, my (real) 20-year-old son’s barber asked for my autograph. What was happening?
The recent reboot of Heartbreak High on Netflix means new audiences are coming back and watching the seven-part original series, also available on Netflix.
I loved being part of the early days of this show, but – and this will sound hypocritical – last week at the hairdresser, I felt a little weird. My son was obviously not impressed. “Were you on TV? How embarrassing.”
After the barber shop moment, I went home and watched the first episodes of the original HBH again for the first time in years and was struck, first, by how young I was (it’s always a shock for some reason) but mostly by how good the thing still looks and sounds and how energetic and fluid it is. The creators of this show had a strong vision and the integrity of that vision is evident in the show’s overall consistency and attention to detail. Trying to figure out why a work of art “just works” isn’t easy, but I suspect that was partly due to the less orthodox approach to casting and the rehearsal process, which was more Mike Leigh ( extensive improvisation and rehearsal and script development) than Neighbors and Home and Away (few rehearsals, fast execution).
Heartbreak High has been the most interesting and positive acting experience I have ever had on television. I had done small roles and guest appearances in a few things before and while always immeasurably grateful for a gig – any gig – I had never really enjoyed or fully engaged in the world of television. As a graduate of drama school in the late 80s, I was a TV snob, not to mention commercials (as if!) And anyway, I looked “too big” for TV and I wasn’t about to starve myself in preparation for every audition.
Lathouris, in addition to playing my husband, was the show’s playwright and acting coach. Most of the young actors were relatively inexperienced; some had never been in front of a camera before. When we weren’t needed on set, Lathouris had us in the rehearsal room to improvise, act, explore themes and scenes, spend time immersing ourselves in the universe of the series. Lathouris conducted these sessions with rigor and care and the actors were treated as a whole. This extended rehearsal time, very unusual on television, bonded us as a band. These young actors have learned to “be” rather than “act”, to listen rather than recite, to affect “reality” in the service of a story.
The worst thing about revisiting the show was watching my own funeral. The screams and the cries. The distorted grief of my husband. My little girl’s disbelief. The horror of my sister. My son (only a year younger than my real son today) with his adult denial and his anger fueled grief. In 1994, I had not yet lost too many people. Perhaps I would have done better in dying if I had known then what I know now about the whole business of death and dying.
Watching the show reactivated memories of moving from Melbourne to Sydney for a few months in the summer of 1994. I was picked up every morning at 6am, stopping to pick up an invariably sleeping young Dimitriades, who already had the reserve and the assurance of a star in the making. I stayed with a strangely defensive young married couple during my stay in Sydney, who no doubt thought it was a good idea at the time to host a visiting actor, although they quickly soured at the concept . But this is another story.
I watched the first three episodes of the new Heartbreak High right after watching the old one. I think HBH Mark II is funnier than HBH Mark I. That’s neither good nor bad. The new series is good. The acting, writing and directing are strong and assured and the production values are smooth and satisfying. The former could also be funny, but also managed to be serious without being serious, authentic and self-aware without overdoing the irony – the domain of a post-social media generation and popular culture that is inevitably in conversation today with shows such as Sex Education, Shameless, Glee and Never Have I Ever. All self-referential, socially connected, irreverent and intelligent. Also, the writing is good and the young actors are getting better and better. Of course, thirty years ago, teenagers at Heartbreak High were still anxious about sex and relationships, pressures from parents and peer groups, but there was also a greater emphasis on class and structural disadvantage at the heart of the first series. At first, teachers at Hartley High talked about the need for new computers and underfunding and engaged in more realistic argy-bargy in the staff room. Today’s Hartley High is cleaner and brighter, and it’s identity politics rather than class politics at play.
Fun fact, or maybe depressing depending on how much uncritical royal coverage you’ve consumed in the past week: 1994’s ‘Should Australia Become a Republic?’ was the subject of Hartley High’s first foray into the chic, English-speaking world of private schools. After Con (Salvatore Coco) flamboyantly disposes of notes to deliver his final argument for the negative – a position none of Hartley’s students believed in – he invokes Aristotle for his final bet:
“Aristotle, you know who it was. He was a bugger. Aristotle was a legend.
Then, one of the girls on the team asks him how he knew all that “Greek stuff anyway”, and Con says, “Look. When you’ve been living with my mom for seventeen years, that’s all you hear at every meal. “Aristotle knew what was good for the world. Politicians have soup for brains”.
Hartley High of course won the debate.