New heights

New heights

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
March 3, 2021

In production

DQ takes off with producer Imogen Banks to discuss RFDS: Royal Flying Doctor Service, a new action-drama series based on the airborne exploits of the pilots and medics responding to life-and-death emergencies in rural Australia.

More than 30 years ago, an Australian drama called The Flying Doctors chronicled the everyday efforts of the country’s Royal Flying Doctor Service, drawing viewers around the world to the heroic rescues performed by the ensemble cast of characters in rural and remote regions of the country.

Now the spotlight is set to fall upon the service once again in Seven Network’s upcoming action-drama series RFDS: Royal Flying Doctor Service. Based on extensive research and numerous real-life stories, the show will follow the personal and professional lives of a new group of doctors, nurses, pilots and support staff as they aim to provide medical support to people living across the Australian outback.

Produced by Endemol Shine Banks and distributed by Banijay Rights, the show’s cast includes Justine Clarke (Tangle), Rob Collins (The Wrong Girl), Emma Hamilton (Fearless), Kate Mulvany (Hunters) and Stephen Peacocke (Wanted). It opens as a doctor seeks to escape her past by joining the RFDS on a day in which a catastrophic emergency retrieval hits the team personally, leaving them to deal with the fallout as they carry out highly skilled work against the clock to save people in dire need.

Production has been overseen by Imogen Banks (Sisters, Offspring), with filming taking place on location in Broken Hill, an outback mining town several hours’ drive from the nearest city and home to a working RFDS base and airport. Banks hadn’t seen much of the original Flying Doctors series. Now living in Melbourne, she says it was an eye-opening experience to witness the work of the real RFDS first-hand.

“It’s quite astonishing,” she tells DQ. “When you think about where we were shooting, it’s in New South Wales but it’s a 14-hour drive from Sydney. Adelaide, which is one of our capitals in another state, is a six-hour drive. You’re dealing with such vast distances. They were saying the territory they cover is bigger than England. There are not a lot of people there but when they get into trouble, they can wait 24 hours for help.”

While medical dramas usually see ambulances arrive on the scene within minutes of a call for help, those huge distances shaped RFDS from the very beginning as Banks and head writer Ian Meadows plotted the stories that would be told through the series.

“That was the biggest conversation that we had throughout the whole process,” she says. “For what is essentially an emergency service, they’re slow in a sense because of the waiting time. But that’s what’s extraordinary about the service, that length of time those people are with you or waiting for you.”

As a consequence, the series has some of the case-of-the-week elements that you may expect given its subject matter, but those stories are told from the perspective of the RFDS workers that populate the show. “It’s much more about our characters going about their daily lives, and the disruptions and the effect of the traumas they face in their lives,” Banks continues. “We go with them to places and to accidents, and we find the patients with them, so we have the information they have through the service, which is sometimes very sketchy. We confront what they confront as they find it.”

Producer Imogen Banks on location

Banks says that while many of the cases RFDS medics respond to include car accidents or incidents involving animals, an enormous amount of their job involves supporting mental health and carrying out preventative work such as running clinics in remote regions.

“Life out there is astonishing. We all wanted to move there,” she says. “It’s so incredibly beautiful and constantly awe-inspiring because you’re seeing this land of just horizontal landscapes. There’s nothing vertical, it’s just land and sky. You’re so aware of horizon all the time, and the sunsets and sunrises are mind blowing. But it’s incredibly hard to be at the mercy of those elements and that isolation.

“People die all the time, and people who you know die. One of the things we made central to the story is that it’s set in this vast landscape with few people, so they all know each other. When things happen to people, it’s also about the impact the service has on the community. That’s really where we decided to sit the drama.”

The concept for RFDS was brought to Banks by Mark and Carl Fennessy, co-CEOs of Endemol Shine Australia, though she admits she took a little convincing to come on board. It was only once she got to know the service and joined them on some flights to remote communities that she became “obsessed” by the possibilities offered by a series. Also part of the appeal was the opportunity to redress some of the “myths” around rural Australia and find out more about these remote communities and the people who live in them. In addition, the support of the RFDS itself has proved invaluable.

“They provided us with access to planes, pilots and their knowledge and expertise. They were incredible – we could not have done it without them,” Banks says. “The way they enhanced the series is extraordinary. I was amazed by the work they do and how they are at the forefront of a lot of work in mental health and just how active they are in prevention. The conversations were really incredibly interesting.

“Broken Hill is a beautiful, 18,000-strong community of people doing all sorts of things. It’s not Wake in Fright. It’s not terrifying, full of people trying to kill you. Australians like to joke about how terrifying everything is here to people outside Australia, but it’s not.

The show’s production base in Broken Hill

“When I first went out there, there was a sense that you don’t need external threats. All you need to do is stand in a spot for long enough and you will run out of water and you will die. It’s very simple. It’s possible that no one will come past; nothing will happen. You’ll just die, so there is something quite extraordinary about that sense of life, and it does make you feel different things and value different things.”

For the stories facing the show’s characters, the writers drew on research, real people around the service and the medical and technical advisors who supported the series from development to production.

“A lot of the detail and a lot of the story shifts came from meeting people when we were actually there. We adapted some stories, and sometimes you just pick a little moment that somebody mentioned in a story from their life,” Banks explains. “In Broken Hill, everyone had a story about the RFDS and they just admired and loved it more than any organisation that I’ve ever worked with before. Everyone loves them because they represent hope. When we got out there, we were in the middle of a five-year drought. Of course, we got there and it rained, which is just what happens with film and television crews.”

Despite the remote filming location, RFDS couldn’t escape the effects of the coronavirus pandemic when it emerged last year. The series started pre-production in February ahead of filming during the Australian autumn, but work was forced to stop two weeks before shooting had been due to begin. Banks returned to Melbourne while the producers came up with a plan that would allow them to return to set safely. But on the day the producer headed back to Broken Hill to restart pre-production, Melbourne went into lockdown and state borders were closed. Banks then spent the entire shoot on location, which hadn’t been the original plan.

“But I’m incredibly grateful I was there because it was quite an extraordinary experience,” she says. “We had the problems everyone has – the insurance and figuring out how to fund it, figuring out how to deal with things like border closures, a lack of flights and getting guest cast. We had some poor guest cast drive eight hours to get to set. But everyone was amazing and, because of that, it made the shoot this really gentle and beautiful community of people. Also, working with people who are doing something really important across that period of time also gave everyone a better sense of it.”

RFDS has been planned as a returning series

Sets were built to replicate the interiors of the planes used in real medical emergencies, while safety protocols dictated how long people could be on set at any one time.

“That sounded prohibitive when we started, but you get into a rhythm and figure it out,” Banks continues. “We were really lucky that, most of the time, we were outside in desert. If you’re going to be making a show in the middle of a pandemic, it’s not a bad place to make one, and there weren’t any cases out there. We were always terrified bringing people out there and that we’d be responsible for bringing [Covid-19) to Broken Hill, but we didn’t. That felt like a major achievement.”

Other challenges included finding suitable air strips to film planes landing, with Banks describing production as a jigsaw of practical and technical details to ensure planes could be in scenes where necessary.

“It was that and working with distance because obviously that just takes so much time out of the schedule, and you don’t get more time. You just have to pack it all in,” she says. “We were at an operational base, so planes were taking off and landing and we would have to stop for that. And then if you had a patient transitioning, being triaged, they’d take patients to other cities for treatment, sometimes from Broken Hill, so you sometimes get people coming in via ambulance and then getting loaded onto a plane.”

With RFDS designed as a returning series, Banks hopes the show will introduce characters viewers fall in love with when it debuts down under later this year. “Television is about characters you want to follow and, with this, the procedural elements aren’t front and centre,” she says. “It’s all told through character. There’s always life.”

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