I was in the original TV series of Heartbreak High in 1994. I was dead by the end of season one but there’s nothing like knowing exactly when and how, and why you’re going to die, to make the experience of living just that more precious.
The early season’s story arc, drawn from the original film, Heartbreak Kid, was about a motherless young male student who falls in love with an older woman, his teacher. By the time the film became a series, the whole teacher-student relationship was ditched and they went instead with the son (Alex Dimitriades) losing his mother (me) as a point of dramatic departure. After I died, Peta Toppano was poised to join the series as the glamorous housekeeper who arrives soon after my death to look after my kids and my widowed husband (Nico Lathouris), whom she falls in love with. I think. I’m not sure. I couldn’t bear to watch. Clearly, I’ve not yet worked through my usurpation.
Lathouris, a second-generation Greek, and I, a second generation Italian, were, like so many of the cast, the children and grandchildren of migrants. The ethnic diversity of this show is now well-documented. It set a precedent in Australian TV land that made it a standout. The show’s gritty, harder-edged vérité aesthetic and subject matter were fresh too. It looked and sounded more “real” than the other stuff on offer for younger viewers. In the 90s Heartbreak High was appointment viewing, like Countdown was for me when I was a teenager.
So with my death-by-story-arc almost 30 years behind me, it was a bit confusing when, last week, my (real-life) 20-year-old son’s barber asked me for my autograph. What was going on?
Heartbreak High’s recent reboot on Netflix means that a new audience is going back and watching the original seven-part series, also available on Netflix.
I loved being a small part of the early days of that show, but – and this’ll sound disingenuous – last week in the barber shop did feel a bit weird. My son was demonstrably unimpressed. “You were on television? How embarrassing.”
After the barber shop moment, I went home and watched the first few episodes of the original HBH again for the first time in years and was struck, firstly, by how young I was (that’s always a shock for some reason) but mostly by how good the thing still looks and sounds and how strikingly energetic and fluent it is. The makers of this show had a strong vision and the integrity of that vision is evident in the show’s overall coherence and attention to detail. Trying to understand why a piece of art “just works” is not easy, but I suspect it was partly due to the show’s less orthodox approach to casting and to the rehearsal process, which was more Mike Leigh (extensive improvisation and rehearsal and script development) than Neighbours and Home and Away (little rehearsal, fast turnaround).
Heartbreak High was the most interesting and positive acting experience I ever had on television. I’d done small parts and guest appearances in a few things before then and although always incommensurately grateful for a gig – any gig – had never really enjoyed or fully engaged in the world of TV acting. As a late-80s drama school graduate I was a snob about television, let alone commercials (as if!) and anyway, I looked “too fat” for television and was not prepared to starve myself in preparation for every audition.
Lathouris, as well as playing my husband, was the show’s dramaturge and acting coach. Most of the young actors were relatively inexperienced; some had never been in front of a camera before. When we were not required on set, Lathouris had us in the rehearsal room improvising, playing, exploring themes and scenes, spending time immersing ourselves in the world of the series. Lathouris conducted these sessions with rigour and care and the cast were treated as an ensemble. This extended rehearsal time, highly unusual in television, bonded us as group. Those young actors learned how to “be” rather than “act”, to listen rather than recite, to affect “realness” in the service of a story.
The worst thing about revisiting the show was watching my own funeral. The keening and the crying. The bent-out-of-shape grief of my husband. My little girl’s clasping disbelief. My sister’s horror. My son (only a year younger than my real-life son today) with his grown-up denial and anger-fuelled grief. In 1994 I hadn’t lost too many people yet. Maybe I would have acted dying better if I’d known then what I know now about the whole death and dying business.
Watching the show reactivated memories of moving to Sydney from Melbourne for a few months in the summer of ’94. I got picked up every morning at 6am, stopping to collect an invariably sleepy young Dimitriades, who already had the reserve and self-assuredness of a star in the making. I stayed with an oddly defensive young married couple while in Sydney, who no doubt thought it a good idea at the time to house a visiting actor although quickly soured to the concept. But that’s another story.
I watched the first three episodes of the new Heartbreak High straight after I watched the old one. I reckon HBH mark II is funnier than HBH mark I. This is neither a good nor a bad thing. The new series is good. The acting, writing and direction are strong and assured and the production values are slick and satisfying. The first one could be funny too, but managed to also be serious without being earnest, genuine and self-aware without overdoing the irony – the province of a post-social media generation and a popular culture that is unavoidably in conversation today with shows such as Sex Education, Shameless, Glee and Never Have I Ever. All self-referential, socially switched on, irreverent and smart. Also, the writing is good and young actors are just getting better and better. Sure, thirty years ago, the teenagers in Heartbreak High were still agonising about sex and relationships, the pressures of parents and peer groups, but there was also more emphasis on the class and structural disadvantage at the heart of the first series. Teachers in the early days at Hartley High talked about needing new computers and underfunding and engaged in more realistic staffroom argy-bargy. Today’s Hartley High is cleaner and brighter, and it is identity politics rather than class politics being played out.
Fun fact, or maybe a depressing one depending on how much royal coverage you uncritically consumed last week: in 1994, “Should Australia become a republic?” was the topic question for Hartley High’s first foray into the posh, Anglo private school world of debating. After Con (Salvatore Coco) flamboyantly disposes of notes to deliver his final argument for the negative - a position none of the Hartley students believed in - he invokes Aristotle for his final gambit:
“Aristotle, you know who he was. He was a wog. Aristotle was a legend.”
Afterwards one of the girls in the team asks him how he knew all that “Greek stuff anyway”, and Con says: “Listen. When you live with my mum for seventeen years that’s all you hear every meal time. ‘Aristotle knew what was good for the world. Politicians have got soup for brains’.”
Hartley High won the debate of course.
Elly Varrenti is a Melbourne-based writer and broadcaster