ABC Upfronts: Anna Torv and Sam Reid to topline ‘The Newsreader’, more ‘Total Control’, ‘Frayed’

Anna Torv and Sam Reid will lead the cast of 'The Newsreader'.

So hefty is the ABC’s slate in 2021, director entertainment and specialist Michael Carrington is confident audiences won’t even realise that many of the broadcaster’s productions faced shutdowns and delays during the pandemic.

As announced at the ABC’s upfronts this afternoon, the line-up for the new year includes new dramas Fires and The Newsreader, new comedies Fisk and Preppers, as well as the return of Total Control, Frayed, Jack Irish, Harrow and Superwog.

2021 will also see the premiere of Jungle Entertainment’s mental health drama Wakefield, with all eps planned to drop on ABC iview.

Also on the line-up is Closer Productions’ chef comedy Aftertaste, starring Erik Thomson, Natalie Abbott and Rachel Griffiths, and feature anthology Here Out West, penned by a group of emerging writers from Western Sydney.

“Seven or eight months ago we were in full production and overnight we stopped production all around Australia,” Carrington tells IF.

“I started to get worried a few months ago when we were putting the slate together. But we were fortunate that just as the pandemic hit, that a number of our big drama shows were in post-production.

“The slate is extraordinarily rich and diverse. I’m incredibly proud of the depth of the content, from five major drama series across next year to major high-end documentaries.”

Carrington flags there is the potential for the ABC to announce new commissions during 2021, as shows that were delayed get into production, and projects backed via the Fresh Start Fund, a $5 million development stream which the ABC launched in April due to COVID, come to fruition.

Anna Torv and Sam Reid will headline the cast of Werner Film Productions’ The Newsreader, currently shooting in Melbourne.

Set in 1986, it follows the unlikely bond between a young TV reporter (Reid) and a ‘difficult’ female newsreader (Torv), as they cover events such as the shock of the Challenger explosion, the hype of Halley’s Comet and complexities of the AIDS crisis.

The supporting cast includes Robert Taylor, William McInnes, Chum Ehelepola, Michelle Lim Davidson, Stephen Peacocke, Chai Hansen and Marg Downey.

Emma Freeman helms the series, produced by Joanna Werner and created by Michael Lucas, with writers Jonathan Gavin, Niki Aken and Kim Ho.

The ABC has taken to order Tony Ayres Productions’ (TAP) bushfire drama Fires, which it announced as in development mid this year.

The series is planned as a serialised anthology, inspired by the stories of the people who survived the catastrophe of last summer and continue to endure its aftermath.

Working with Ayres as EPs are Andrea Denholm and Liz Watts, while the writing team is led by co-creator Belinda Chayko, collaborating with Jacquelin Perske, Mirrah Foulkes, Steven McGregor and Anya Beyersdorf.

Both Deborah Mailman and Rachel Griffiths will return for the new season of Blackfella Films’ Total Control, which will follow Mailman’s Alex as the nation goes to the polls and she has to face the judgement of the people.

Wayne Blair will helm the new season, written by Stuart Page, Larissa Behrendt, Angela Betzien, Pip Karmel and Nakkiah Lui.

Lui will also front her series Preppers, playing Charlie a young Aboriginal woman, who experiences her own personal, cataclysmic event when her life crumbles around her. Escaping the fallout, she finds herself at the centre of a hilariously mismatched community of doomsday preppers. Lui created the Porchlight Films series with husband Gabe Dowrick, produced by Sylvia Warmer and EP’d by Liz Watts.

The first season of Frayed saw star and creator Sarah Kendall nominated for a BAFTA. She’s back, with her character of Sammy Cooper finally back in London, though as secrets unravel further her Australian past insists on catching up with her and her family.

As previously announced, Kitty Flanagan stars in, writes and directs Fisk, which follows a contract lawyer forced to take a gig in a shabby suburban law firm specialising in wills and probate.

There is no word as yet as to whether serial drama The Heights will return for a third season.

On January 1, ABC will launch of new channel ABC TV Plus, which replaces ABC Comedy. As flagged in June, the the channel expands to encompass arts, science, education and religion programming.

Carrington explains that this will give the ABC more flexibility to air such genres in prime-time, and there will be a particular focus on Australian culture.

To air 7.30pm to 2am daily, the line-up will include live performances, premiere documentaries, stand-up comedy and a new weekly arts show, which is still in development.

Carrington is pleased the channel will also allow it run more feature docs, something the ABC has struggled to do on the main channel given schedules were so tight. Friday nights will be centred on performances – think a night at the opera, theatre or cinema. Comedy will continue to be a focus, with ABC TV Plus to be the home of new series Why Are You Like This?.

‘Why Are You LIke This?’

In June, the ABC announced it would be cutting approximately $5 million from the commissioning of independent production per year going forward.

A majority of this was anticipated to fall on the factual slate and to a lesser extent entertainment, as the broadcaster prioritised investment in drama and children’s programming.

However, Carrington tells IF the impact of this has not been felt in the 2021 line-up, in part due to the pandemic.

“I envisage that probably won’t impact us until the end of next year. And between now and then, hopefully we will be able to work around it,” he says.

One positive, he states, is that the creation of ABC TV Plus has allowed it to reinvest money that may have been used outside of prime-time on the main channel into new programming, allowing it continue to with volume as planned.

Holly Ringland and Aaron Pedersen in ‘Back to Nature’.

Among the projects to lead the factual slate is the previously announced Back to Nature, hosted by Aaron Pedersen and Holly Ringland, which will guide viewers through the Australian landscape.

In The As Yet Unnamed Democracy Project (working title), directed by Craig Reucassel, Christiaan Van Vuuren will examine the state of democracy in Australia.

Annabel Crabb will front Women In Parliament, a four-part in-house doco which talks to politicians such as Julia Gillard, Julie Bishop, Penny Wong, Carmen Lawrence, Bronwyn Bishop, Quentin Bryce, Natasha Stott Despoja and Nova Peris about their experiences.

Four-part series Muster Dogs, from Ambience Entertainment, will follow five graziers from across rural Australia who have been tasked with turning a kelpie puppy into a working dog.

Wildbear Entertainment will explore the legacy of 9/11 in four-part series Beyond the Towers, and humanity’s battle with deadly microbes in The Invisible War.

In Laura’s Choice, filmmakers Cathy Henkel and Sam Lara will follows their mother and grandmother, Laura, as she decides to end her life on her terms.

Tim Ross will host Designing a Legacy, which will travel across Australia to meet families whose lives have been shaped by the designs of their homes.

Northern Pictures’ Love on the Spectrum will return, along with season one favourite Michael. Endemol Shine Australia’s Old People’s Home For 4 Year Olds, which won an International Emmy yesterday, has also been renewed.

‘Finding the Archibald’.

The slate also includes a range of feature and single docs including The Quoll Farm; Brazen Hussies; Firestarter – The Story of Bangarra, Step into Paradise (formerly Jenny & Linda), My Name is Gulpilil, Palazzo Di Cozzo – The Australian Dream, I’m Wanita, and Cracking Covid.

The arts line-up will include a three-part show on Australian literature, hosted by Claudia Karvan; Going Country, which follows Justine Clarke on a road-trip to uncover Australian music, and Finding the Archibald, which will see Rachel Griffith explore her passion for portraiture.

New in children’s is in-house production The Wonder Gang. Aimed at pre-schools it will feature kids Willow, Whyla and Wes and quokka pals Quidget, Quinton and Quest, answering questions about Australian animals and nature.

As IF has reported, Australia’s most popular series, Bluey, will back for a third season, and Itch and Hardball for second rounds. Kangaroo Beach will premiere January 25, while Brindle Films’ motocross series MaveriX, a co-order with Netflix, is expected later in the year, as is Nine co-commission Space Nova, from SLR Productions.

Play School will celebrate its 55th year with a series of specials, including one on reconciliation and emergency service workers.

ABC production Mikki Vs. The World will follow Mikki, aka M, a newly qualified psychologist that’s just recently set up her own practice, as she answers mental health questions for a teenage audience.

New for ABC iview will be documentary Strong Women, which follows four competitors as they strive to be Australia’s strongest women; Chopsticks or Fork? which explores regional Australia’s love affair with Chinese restaurants, and That Pacific Sports Show, which celebrates the sporting achievements of Pacific Island athletes.

Also premiering on the service will be short-form comedy All My Friends are Racist, created by Enoch Malangi.

In entertainment, both Spicks and Specks and Tomorrow Tonight will return.

Similarly ABC staples Gardening Australia, Gruen, Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell, The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, Anh’s Brush with Fame, Hard Quiz, The Set, Dream Gardens, Catalyst, You Can’t Ask That and Landline will all be back.