Australian series In Our Blood dramatises how the country’s government and LGBT community uniquely came together to tackle the emergence of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s. Star Tim Draxl and producer Nathan Mayfield discuss telling this story against a backdrop of politics, music and a Greek chorus.
More than 40 years after Australia recorded its first cases of AIDS, a four-part musical drama takes its inspiration from the country’s radical response to the crisis, when politicians, health officials and the very communities affected by the disease united.
In Our Blood blends musical performances and the anthems that came to define the early 1980s with political drama and elements, such as the use of a Greek chorus, that lean into the show’s theatrical roots.
That the series is launching down under on March 19, just weeks after Sydney WorldPride, is no coincidence; Australian broadcaster the ABC commissioned the show little more than a year ago with this air date in mind.
Since the trailer first aired, star Tim Draxl (A Place to Call Home) says there has been a huge buzz around the drama within the LGBTQIA+ community. “I got a lot of messages from people, thanking me for telling this story and thanking us as a cast for telling this story,” he tells DQ. “It’s such an incredible part of Australian history I really didn’t know a lot about. Certainly when I read the scripts, I was so fascinated by the story itself.
“It’s a time in Australia’s history when we got it right. We listened to the LGBTQI+ community, and the government really did something revolutionary, extraordinary, and set the example for the rest of the world. It’s a fascinating story that more people should know about, and it is a time that Australia can be proud of.”
“I don’t know if this show would have had a life if it hadn’t been for the fact that we had WorldPride here this year,” says Hoodlum Entertainment producer Nathan Mayfield. “It’s about how Australia led the way in its response to the AIDS crisis and how both the community and government actually spoke to each other and got things happening. You pair that with coming out of a pandemic and you realise there’s just something in this story that was just so compelling. It’s also got a really uplifting component and I think the stars aligned.”
Series creator Adriano Cappelletta first approached Mayfield 18 months ago with the idea of making a feature film about the subject, based on his own play. However, the producer couldn’t see where it might find a home. Cappelletta then reinvented the project and returned to Hoodlum with a pilot script for a TV series. “It meant it was something I could then take to the ABC,” Mayfield says, “and to be completely honest, it was bought overnight.”
Cappelletta had undertaken years of research to inform his play, called Never Let Me Go, and Mayfield was immediately drawn to the material thanks to the drama’s infusion with songs such as Walking on Sunshine by Katrina & The Waves and Tears for Fears track Shout, which both feature in the series.
Those songs are also sung by a Greek chorus, who appear in the show to introduce and then shepherd viewers through the story.
“A lot of the stuff we incorporated into the show are things that both Adriano and I had been told about by people in the community at that time,” Mayfield says. “The queer community was grieving and their church or the place they would go to convalesce was their clubs, so a lot of that was about these songs becoming anthems for them. Despite tragedy, they still were there to support each other, have that time and enjoy each other.
“What emerged were the beginnings of an amazing grassroots campaign to raise awareness [of AIDS]. For me, this project’s important. I look around now and go, ‘I wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for them preventing and raising that awareness around AIDS. There are people like me who just wouldn’t be here today.’ And for that, I’m forever indebted to those people we meet in the show.”
The music also lets viewers lean into the character elements of the story and take a break from the political process that drives the series, which is written by Cappelleta, Jane Allen and Jonathan Gavin. Fremantle is distributing the show worldwide.
“AIDS was referred to as the gay cancer. But inside those halls of parliament, it was like, ‘What can we do to just save our population?’ It didn’t have that bias, which I thought was really interesting,” Mayfield says of the government response. “The press did, and the average person probably had their own views on that. But at government level, it was quite scientific.
“One of the other things I thought was really interesting was being able to acknowledge the lesbian community and how they showed their support, whether it was in healthcare, fundraising or just general family support. This story honours that as well. It really acknowledges their part in this whole ordeal.”
Draxl hadn’t seen Cappelletta’s play but describes reading the series script as “one of those moments where I felt like I wasn’t going to let anyone else have this role. This was my role – and there have not been a lot of times where I’ve felt that connection to a piece,” he says. “There’s a big conversation about authentic representation and, as an out, gay actor, I really felt this role had to be played by a gay man. It needed authentic representation.”
It was a sentiment shared by the producers, who informed Draxl that all the queer roles would be played by queer actors. “That’s such an important thing for our community, to be able to see ourselves on screen represented authentically,” he continues. “It was a massive step forward. It’s a really bold thing that casting and the producers did to cast queer actors in all the queer roles. It was a really beautiful experience, and it was the first time in my career where I wasn’t part of the minority on set. It was a really exciting, bonding, beautiful moment for us all to be able to tell our own story.”
But while the series is a “celebration” of the collaborative work government agencies and individuals did together to inform the public about AIDS, it was also a very dark time in history, not just in Australia but around the world.
“We lost a lot of incredible people, so we were hyper-aware of doing this story justice and making sure we served the people whose story we’re telling,” Draxl says. “But it wasn’t a heavy burden. Because we all were a part of the community, a part of the LGBTQ community, we felt empowered to tell this story.”
His character, David Westford, is a senior advisor to the health minister and is involved in early talks inside government as officials begin to realise the scale and danger of the emerging crisis.
“He’s the link between the straight world, the government, and the gay community,” the actor explains. “He’s the one who introduces the health minister to the community through the community groups. He gives them that first-hand exposure to the community, and that’s really important. The fact that there was a gay man working in parliament in the 80s is so fortuitous. Imagine if that hadn’t happened.”
Directed by John Sheedy and Nick Verso and filmed in Brisbane, where real-life Sydney locations were replicated, the show’s cast also includes Matt Day, Jada Alberts, Nicholas Brown, Anna McGahan and Oscar Leal, who all took part in a “very intense shoot” that was completed in just two months. Draxl did his own research and prepared for the part at home before he travelled to set, where he then covered his hotel room in images from the period dramatised in the show to create a mood board.
His biggest challenge was portraying David’s “dual life” that stretched between his personal life in Sydney and his career in Canberra, home to the Australian parliament.
“It being the 80s, although he was out, I wanted to portray a specific difference between the way he behaved in parliament and the way he was among his own people,” he says. “It was a gruelling shoot, it was challenging, but we did it and it was done with love and it was a real passion project for everyone. That’s what made it.”
Throughout development and then in production, Mayfield ensured the show struck the right balance between its different pieces, which also include a love story. “Ultimately, the story is a tragedy,” he notes, though In Our Blood never leans into the “gruesomeness” and sticks closely to the government process.
“Everybody knows what took place over that period of time, the number of people who died and how people have been impacted and traumatised by that time,” he says. “So for us, it was just making sure that we can step back and look at these particular characters, their journeys, a beautiful love story, the bureaucratic process of parliament and government and how they just forged their way through and the surprises that came along with that.
“When I first read the script, I quietly enjoyed the fact we weren’t just throwing the government under the bus. Those people weren’t making decisions based on somebody’s sexuality or how they lived their lives, but were just looking at this disease. That was really powerful for us. I also love the ticking clock that we have, where these people had a sense of urgency and could see there was this thing coming.”
It’s that political process, as well as heightened elements such as the Greek chorus, that ensures In Our Blood stands apart from recent series such as It’s A Sin and Pose, which each tackled the subject of AIDS from different perspectives.
“This is actually a story about hope,” Mayfield says. “It’s got really strong characters and, at the end of this, hopefully people can step away and know a little bit more about that historical moment in time.”
tagged in: ABC, Adriano Cappelletta, Fremantle, Hoodlum Entertainment, In Our Blood, Nathan Mayfield, Tim Draxl