THEATRE: Extra polish brings encore

IF at first you don’t succeed, try again. That’s a saying Newcastle writer Tristram Baumber took to heart when making a short television comedy series about a house-cleaning team. And the second time, it worked.

Baumber’s series, The Cleanists, has been picked up by Britain’s Showcase TV, with all 10 episodes, each around 4 minutes, being screened in a one-hour slot last night (British time).

The appetite of the station’s viewers was whetted with screenings of selected episodes at different times from last Tuesday, the day the series went onto YouTube in Australia. The show’s first episode had 1400 local YouTube hits by yesterday morning.

Tristram Baumber came up with the idea of a show about a cleaning team at work while watching in September last year a program of short plays featuring first-year acting students at Hunter TAFE’s Regional Institute of Performing Arts.

Impressed by their performances, he recruited four of the actors to appear in a pilot for a series called Ultra Clean as an always-arguing cleaning team.

The pilot was filmed in November last year and distributed to television agencies.

The general response was that the pilot, while well-made, was too long at just under eight minutes. Television companies said they had found that audiences began turning off comedies of that type if they ran for more than five minutes.

So Baumber shelved Ultra Clean and began developing a new series, again with four bickering cleaners who are supposedly equal partners in their company.

He adopted the name The Cleanists after research revealed that there were many companies worldwide called Ultra Clean and that the name was applied to many different types of enterprises.

As most of the original actors had moved on, he held auditions for the new series in March that attracted actors from as far away as western Sydney.

One member of the Ultra Clean team, James Chapman, is in The Cleanists, with the roles of the other cleaners played by Shanon Kulupach, Gabriella Stevens and Craig Lindeman. 

James Chapman is Gregg, the voice of sanity in the team, who is repeatedly picked on by Magda (Gabriella Stevens), who sees herself as the boss, despite the fact that all four have contributed the same amount of money to set up the business, and by Philip (Craig Lindeman), who is continually trying to undermine Gregg’s confidence so that he won’t be a threat in such areas as romance.

Gregg only stays with the company because he is attracted to its fourth member, Shanon Kulupach’s Libby, who is initially the sweet girl next door. But as the series develops, Libby springs a few surprises.

That is one of the strengths of The Cleanists. While each episode runs for less than five minutes, the characters develop during the series, so that watchers know a lot more about them by the time the end credits come up for a final time.

While the cleaning team generally work in houses when the occupants are absent, several have other Hunter actors in guest roles.

Peter Oliver is the title character in an episode called Mr Aspen, as a home-owner whose habits irritate the cleaning team, Anne Rzechowicz is an officious tax office employee, and Duncan Gordon is a weird ghoul, though there is a reason for his attire and make-up. West Sydney actors Owen Sparnon and Diley Alanea are two police officers who come to inspect a crime scene, unaware that the area they need to see has been cleaned before their arrival.

The series was filmed in and around Newcastle, with houses as varied as a Cooks Hill Federation home and a contemporary outer-suburban dwelling complete with a swimming pool used. The cast and crew worked 13- and 14-hour days, with two episodes shot each day.

The total cash expenditure was just $500, for some costumes, props and catering, that came from Tristram Baumber’s pocket. He directed, as well as writing, and the actors and crew have deferred taking payment until money hopefully comes in from sales like that to the British TV station.

All involved are eagerly planning the shooting of a second series in 2014.

Tristram Baumber said there were interesting things happening in Australian television that could see The Cleanists on household TV screens.

The ABC, for example, has a new comedy initiative called Fresh Blood that will offer up to $10,000 towards the making of three program episodes of five minutes or less. The assisted works will be shown on I-View.

Tristram Baumber, who was one of the writers on the recent ABC television comedy series Wednesday Night Fever, is working with a Sydney company on a new series called Timothy that they hope will be picked up by an Australian TV network.

Baumber’s success as a writer is shown by the fact that one of his short plays, The Spaceman and Executioner, about an astronaut landing on an all-female planet, has been staged in Short+Sweet festivals in India and Melbourne this year, and will be in the Sydney Short+Sweet season early in 2014 and after that in a Short+Sweet festival in Dubai.

His writing, too, seems to influence the real lives of actors.

Gabriella Stevens, who plays the controlling Magda, recently had a colleague complain to the head of the company where she works about her bossiness.

Stevens shrugs off the complaint, but notes that it has made her careful not to become like Magda away from the cameras.

The complete series of The Cleanists can be seen at youtube.com/thecleanists.     

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