News in Brief: ABC and SBS reveal 2021 drama slates, AACTA Awards gear up and more

Wringing blood from the budget stone the public broadcasters lay out their wares for the year ahead. Our fortnightly round-up of news, interviews and opinions from Australian film, TV and games.


Yesterday the ABC announced its 2021 programming slate. There were cute and awkward pieces to camera by ABC talent and management, and despite comedian Wil Anderson’s quips about wringing ‘blood from a stone’, and Sean Micallef’s estimation that each episode of Mad as Hell costs ‘about $40 to make’, the public broadcaster is managing to look pretty good for the year ahead.

ABC Comedy is being relaunched as ABC TV Plus from 1 January 2021, and will encompass Australian comedy, religion, science, natural history documentaries, and the arts.

The ABC’s 2021 drama and comedy highlights include:

  • A new 6×60 minute series The Newsreader from Werner Films Production, created and written by Michael Lucas and starring Anna Torv and Sam Reid. Currently filming in Melbourne the drama is described thus: ‘In the maelstrom of a commercial television newsroom in 1986, Dale Jennings (Reid) is a diligent young reporter, desperate to become a newsreader. Helen Norville (Torv) is a notoriously ‘difficult’ star newsreader determined to build credibility. Paired together over three months, Dale and Helen will cover an extraordinary chain of news events— from the shock of the Challenger explosion, to the hype of Halley’s Comet, to the complexities of the AIDS crisis. From messy beginnings, a deep bond is formed that will upend their lives and transform the very fabric of the nightly news bulletin. This is a story of a grand, unconventional relationship in a world on the cusp of change.’
  • Aftertaste, Closer Productions’ 6×30 minute Adelaide hills comedy about a disgraced angry white chef (Erik Thompson) forced to team up with his outspoken young pastry cook niece (Natalie Abbott). Produced by Rebecca Summerton, Matthew Bate and Erik Thomson, this one looks like a lot of delicious fun.
  • Jungle Entertainment’s Wakefield is set to premiere around Easter. It’s an eight-part drama set in the Blue Mountains exploring mental illness and starring Rudi Dharmalingam (Split) as a gifted psychiatric nurse alongside Geraldine Hakewilll, Ryan Corr, Harriet Dyer, Wayne Blair and Mandy McElhinney. Written by Kristen Dunphy, Sam Meikle, Joan Sauers and Cathy Strickland, Wakefield is directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and Kim Mordaunt. 
  • Fires, created by Tony Ayres and Belinda Chayko, is a six-part anthology drama series drawn from true stories of Australia’s recent megafire bushfire survivors, with Chayko writing alongside Jacquelin Perske, Mirrah Foulkes, Steven McGregor and Anya Beyersdorf.
  • Ioan Gruffudd will be back for more Harrow, while Guy Pearce will be back as Jack Irish.
  • A second series of Blackfella Films’ political drama Total Control, starring Rachel Griffiths and Deborah Mailman.
  • A second series of Sarah Kendall’s excellent Newcastle comedy series Frayed will be filmed later in the year.
  • There’s Indigenous web series All My Friends are Racist as well as Nakkiah Lui’s 6×30 minute comedy, Preppers from Porchlight Films, about a young Aboriginal woman finding herself in a community of doomsday preppers.
  • Fisk, Kitty Flanagan’s 6×30 minute comedy series set in a suburban law firm, from Porchlight Films.

In documentary, highlights include the TV premieres of films Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra and Brazen Hussies, as well as series Strong Women and Women in Parliament. There are also a couple of COVID docs, Cracking Covid and The Invisible War. Here’s the trailer for a taste of the factual and arts programming:


Last week SBS announced its slate with five new commissioned drama series coming in 2021. There’s a fair bit of murder and mayhem in small towns or local communities from the looks of the synopses, but lots of diversity in the casts and characters. (Note that two of these are short form for SBS On Demand): 

  • Copping it Black, a Bunya and CAAMA production directed by Erica Glynn and Steven McGregor is a 4x1hr series about an Indigenous detective assigned to investigate a suspicious car accident in the community she left as a child. 
  • The Unusual Suspects, from Aquarius Films, is set in Sydney’s glamorous Eastern suburbs and is a four-part heist caper series about four women from very different walks of life. This marks the first major representation of Filipino-Australians on our screens and stars Aina Dumlao (Sanzaru, Ballers), Miranda Otto and Michelle Vergara Moore. The series is directed by Natalie Bailey and Melvin Montalban.
  • New Gold Mountain is set in the Bendigo goldfields in 1855. It’s directed by Corrie Chen and produced by Kylie du Fresne for Goalpost. ‘The charismatic headman of the Chinese mining camp suddenly finds himself struggling to maintain the fragile harmony between Chinese and European diggers and authorities when a murdered European woman is discovered to have links with the Chinese community.’ It stars Yoson An (Mulan) alongside Vikings’ Alyssa Sutherland, Christopher James Baker, Dan Spielman and local breakout talent Mabel Li (The Tailings).
  • The Tailings (SBS On Demand) is a 6x10mins murder mystery series filmed in Tasmania, directed by Stevie Cruz-Martin and produced by Liz Doran in association with 2Jons and Roar Films for SBS, and stars emerging actors Mabel Li and Tegan Stimson. ‘When a man is found face down in the lake outside a remote tight-knit mining town, an inquest finds that the death was an accident – a verdict many people in town are happy to accept. However, the man’s daughter and a new school teacher start an investigation of their own, revealing more than they could ever have imagined.’
  • Iggy & Ace (SBS on Demand) is a 6x10mins WA series about two young, gay alcoholics who live, work and play together and are inseparable until one of them joins Alcoholics Anonymous determined to get sober. It’s written by AB Morrison, produced by Hannah Ngo, and directed by Monica Zannetti and is A Lazy Susan Pictures production for SBS.

In documentary and factual, highlights include Jay Laga’aia’s Lost for Words exploring Australia’s staggeringly low adult literacy rates (for Endemol Shine); an adaptation of Jess Hill’s book about domestic abuse, See What You Made Me Do, and Jack Charles in Who Do You Think You Are?. There’s also a second series of archival documentary Australia in Colour and the 90-minute doc The Bowraville Murders.

AACTA AWARDS: Screenfest, Byron Kennedy goes to a whole film, and Nicole and Russell become Leaders of Academy

  • 2020 AACTA Awards. The Industry Awards (previously known as the Industry Luncheon) will be broadcast for the first time via AACTA ScreenFest website and Foxtel Arts at 6.30pm on Friday 27 November. The 2020 AACTA Awards Ceremony will proceed across two sittings on Monday 30 November at the Star Sydney, and will be broadcast on Channel 7 on Wednesday 2 December.
  • This year the AACTA is also running a free online festival dubbed Screenfest with various screenings and forums. It runs from November 27 to December 2, with the full program here.
  • Our take on the AACTA drama nominations for TV, short films and online fiction. As times change against the culture warriors, a very different Australia is crowding into our stories. It can be funny, scary, whimsical, challenging, mystical and plain shame-making – but always part of us.
  • This year AACTA and Kennedy Miller have made the unusual decision to give the $10,000 Byron Kennedy Award to a screen production rather than an individual. Twelve feature films seen to embody the spirit of low budget independent local filmmaking are in the running: The Babadook, Beast, Cargo, Girl Asleep, I Am Mother, The Infinite Man, Mad Bastards, Mystery Road, Red Hill, That’s Not Me, These Final Hours and Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead.
  • AACTA also announced this week that Russell Crowe will be President and Nicole Kidman will be Vice President of the Australian Academy. Both Kidman and Crowe have long been regulars at the AFI/AACTA Awards.

Old People’s Home for 4-year-olds wins International Emmy

Originally commissioned by the ABC, Endemol Shine Australia’s Old People’s Home For 4 Year Olds has won the International Emmy Award for non-scripted entertainment. Based on a UK format and narrated by Annabel Crabb, the social experiment series is executive produced by Debbie Cuell and produced by Brooke Hulsman and already won the 2019 AACTA Award for Best Documentary or Factual Program, and two awards at the 2020 New York Festival’s TV and Film Awards.

Apply Now for SPA Ones to Watch program

Applications for SPA’s much loved Ones To Watch program are closing this Sunday 29 November at midnight AEDT. An opportunity to establish ongoing industry touch points and unparalleled career opportunities, including the $15,000 SBS First Look Grant, a Silver Pass to SCREEN FOREVER, a Screen Business Essentials workshop, a series of skills focused webinars one-on-one mentoring with a leading producer. 

Read: Madeline Miller: From Screen Australia to production attorney on new Bond film

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Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram