By Niki Aken
When I was in primary school, the school prefect told me that all the boys had ranked the attractiveness of the Year Six girls. My best friend and I had tied first. I wasn’t flattered, but it’s not because I took issue with being objectified (at that age). I simply didn’t believe what he was telling me. And why was that?
I may have been a studious, athletic House Captain, but in so many ways I felt inferior growing up Asian in Australia. The screen stories I devoured as a kid all featured white faces. Not Asian faces like mine. Television, film (and later, magazines) taught me that blonde and brunette girls with fair skin were beautiful. The romantic leads on TV didn’t fight over a raven-haired girl with olive skin. It was never the ethnic character who went on an inspiring journey; they were only ever cast in the support role– as the sidekick or the prop. Such was the power of having only ever seen guys fall for quintessentially Australian-looking girls, that I was 100 per cent sure the school prefect was using his hot-or-not survey to mess with me.
Heartbreak High was the first Australian television drama that made multiculturalism a central feature.
Then along came a television program that included multicultural faces in lead roles: Heartbreak High. Is it corny that I credit a TV show for making me feel more visible and accepted? Maybe, but it’s also testament to the power of the television medium and the quality of Heartbreak High as a text.
Heartbreak High is a teenage drama set in a multiracial, eastern Sydney community that spanned six seasons from 1994 to 1999. Produced by Gannon Television, it was first broadcast on Network Ten in 45-minute chunks. Later the ABC picked it up and reformatted the show to 25-minutes. Set at fictional school Hartley High, the series was a spin-off of the 1993 feature film The Heartbreak Kid (which starred Claudia Karvan and then newcomer Alex Dimitriades), which was also set in an ethnically diverse inner city area. The word “gritty” has become an unwelcome adjective in Australian film and television discourse, but in the early 1990s it was a welcome change – especially in this genre. Heartbreak High was the first Australian television drama that made multiculturalism a central feature. In fact, it resembled the Canadian teen drama Degrassi Junior High more than it did our own teen programs like Neighbours and Home and Away.
We’re introduced to the world through Nick Poulos (Alex Dimitriades) who is the central character in series one. His Italian-Greek cousin Con (Salvatore Coco) picks him up, and we meet their friends when they get to school. There’s Rose (Katherine Halliday), a Lebanese girl who runs the student newspaper, sporty Danielle (Emma Roche) and her boyfriend Steve (Corey Page), and Chaka (Isabella Gutierrez) and Jack (Tai Nguyen), who are Salvadoran and Vietnamese, respectively. Rivers (Scott Major) and Bolton (Jon Pollard) play two disruptive students, and new girl Jodie is played by Abi Tucker.
Heartbreak High covers a range of themes pertinent to teenagers including racism, sexism, homophobia, drug use and sexuality. In the third episode of season one, teacher Christina Milano (Sarah Lambert) decides to create an official school soccer team. This becomes a vehicle in which to explore issues of race and gender identity. Rivers thinks Aussie rules is superior to soccer and taunts Con and Nick in class, “We don’t want wog ball, this is an Aussie school.” It’s clear that Rivers is having a go at them based on their heritage.
When Danielle says she wants to try out for the new soccer team, she cops it too. Her boyfriend Steve tries to talk her out of it on the grounds of it being a rough game– he doesn’t want her getting hurt. But the blatant message from the rest of the boys is that she’d never make the cut anyway because she’s a girl. They tell her to play netball instead. “Girls play soccer!” she exclaims. Rather than Danni being let in as the token female, she proves her chops in the tryout and becomes the team goalie. This plot strand tackles issues of racism and sexism whilst highlighting values that are typically Australian. “I want a fair go,” Danielle insists before her tryout. While putting second-generation Australians front and centre, Heartbreak High simultaneously grounded itself with Aussie values. The students are unpretentious, hard-working and irreverent.
It wasn’t just that it explored real issues; it tapped into our base teenage desires.
Heartbreak High tackled some daring topics like teen pregnancy, drug use and homophobia, but the creators were always mindful of the age of their audience. Executive producer Ben Gannon, who sadly passed away in 2007, explained in an interview, “… we tried to show how those issues can affect your life, rather than making it seem somehow glamorous or something to emulate.” But there’s always the risk of becoming too didactic. “That’s a real turn off for a younger audience. We had to continually think about that.”
Social issues were explored through multiple story strands, and while the teachers got dedicated screentime, their stories were always borne out of the students’, not the other way around. Heartbreak High may have started out trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience, but it grew into a solid teen drama.
The writers interwove teen romances with the issues at hand. In that same soccer team episode, Chaka challenges Rivers to a game of pool, and calls bullshit when he deliberately sinks the white ball instead of the black; she knows that he let her win on purpose. They have a rematch. It’s a close game, but Rivers wins. They shake hands. Chaka hasn’t proved that she’s better at Rivers at pool, but she’s happy that the game was fair this time. Meanwhile, Rivers is falling for the quietly confident Chaka.
Re-watching the show recently, it rankled me to watch a scene from series one, where Jodie desperately needs an amp to record her demo for an A & R exec. She relies on Nick to find her a replacement rather than do anything about it herself. However, in the same episode, Danielle fights for her place on the soccer team. So it’s not like the boys are constantly swooping in to save the day for the girls, it’s more that the characters who are “activated” varies from one episode to the next. The writers did a good job of spreading the hero stories across the cast. It might be Nick and Danielle in one episode and Con and Rose in another.
Stylistically, it’s shot fast and messily, conveying a sense of youthful exuberance– especially so in earlier seasons. Before any heroes are in shot, a boy chases another through a crowded hallway, knocking a stack of papers out of a girl’s arms. You feel like you’re being told that the world can be loud and shambolic, and that’s normal. Heartbreak High used a staggering amount of extras, and that sole element adds so much authenticity; it grounds the show heavily in realism.
The sets aren’t polished and ordered. I longed to be one of the gang at Ruby’s (and later, The Sharkpool), but it wasn’t because it looked like a privileged hangout. There are no grandstands on the oval, just a view of community housing. The students don’t wear expensive-looking sports gear– one kid wears cut-off denim shorts to soccer practice. Not ideal for exercise, but whether it was by accident or design, it sells the idea that he doesn’t have any dedicated sports wear, something many teenagers aren’t often given the opportunity to relate to.
I recently uploaded a photo of the cast ensemble of series one to Facebook. There was an immediate response, friends far and wide revelling in nostalgia. My friend subsequently added a photo of Rel Hunt, who played Ryan from series four onwards. “Seriously thought I was going to marry him,” was her caption. I handed the DVD case to one of my mates, just to gauge his reaction. “Anita…” he said longingly, his one-word response speaking volumes about why ordinary Aussie kids tuned in to Heartbreak High. It wasn’t just that it explored real issues; it tapped into our base teenage desires. After they were introduced in series four, Drazic (Callan Mulvey), Anita (Lara Cox) and Ryan were popular heartthrobs, but every character on the show was in a relationship at some point. They were all portrayed as desirable by virtue of their personalities (notwithstanding the fact that Drazic did for eyebrow rings what Don Draper has done for pomade and cuff links).
It’s true that by the time Heartbreak High moved from Channel 10 to the ABC a significant number of ethnic characters had left. Nick died in a tragic boxing match at the end of series one, Jack scored a scholarship to a selective school, Yola the school counsellor (Doris Younane) fell pregnant to an Australian policeman and also left. Given the premise of the show, the cast had to change lest it become too unrealistic. But it’s worth noting that the tone changed too; it somehow became a bit less raw.
You could argue that diminishing the speaking roles for ethnic characters sends a message to Australian teens as powerful as what the show purportedly set out to achieve. But despite the proportion of ethnic characters changing, Heartbreak High continued to connect with the topic of cultural diversity while it’s contemporaries simply didn’t. This is as relevant as ever today, where reality shows present a truer picture of multicultural Australia than our dramas do. A classroom full of kids who would’ve been deemed ugly ducklings in Summer Bay – kids like me – were validated and celebrated here. Heartbreak High was hugely successful and sold to eighty countries. By casting non-Anglos as normal teenagers in a contemporary setting, Heartbreak High proved that multiculturalism could work on mainstream television.
About Niki Aken: Nicola Aken is a screenwriter based in Sydney, Australia. She got her start in television researching for Underbelly: The Golden Mile, followed by Underbelly: Razor. In 2012, Nicola researched and wrote two episodes of Underbelly: Badness. Mediaweek praised her debut screenplay ‘Troubleshooting’ as “amongst the best the Underbelly franchise has delivered.” Her second script ‘Strike Force Tuno’ was the series finale. Nicola has also written and produced a short film called Poppy, which is a tribute to her university job of cinema projectionist (aka The Coolest Job Ever). It is currently on the festival circuit. Nicola is currently writing for the ABC and Screentime WW1 miniseries Anzac Girls with Felicity Packard. She tweets at @nikiaken and occasionally blogs at nicetruck.tumblr.com.
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