The Strange Calls
Barry Crocker, Toby Truslove, Patrick Brammall, Katherine Hicks, Peter Marshall
Daley Pearson liked making short films. He made some with his friends, including one called $quid that expanded to a feature length film. He had lots of ideas. He pitched one to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and soon after bringing production company Hoodlum on board, the comedy series The Strange Calls was born.
In it, Officer Toby Banks (Toby Truslove), despite his desire to help people, has just been relegated. He’s been sent to Coolum to take over as night shift officer, a post which doesn’t even warrant an office or desk. He works and lives in a caravan that doesn’t lock and comes with a pretty bad possum problem. His job is to answer the phone. That’s it: just answer the phone.
He meets the town’s night security guard, Gregor (Barry Crocker) who confirms that they’ll have plenty of work to do. What Toby describes as prank calls, Gregor has named “The Strange Calls”, promising that some of the cries for help are more real than Toby can possibly imagine. Examples include “It rains when I cry”, a man who woke up to a change in shoe size, and a woman who mourns the death of one cat and worries another one is mad at her. Toby’s response: “Siamese cats look angry by default, they have very angular features.” This was not the kind of difference Toby hoped he’d be making.
However, a real case soon pops up, and each of the six episodes focuses on an event that Toby thinks logic can solve but Gregor insists can only be paranormally explained. Has the vandalism been caused by kids on drugs or kids who have been brainwashed by a commercial jingle? Is the cat that’s killing local birds the same one Gregor buried years ago? Are people being poisoned or are they turning into trees? It’s hard to tell. After all, Gregor reminds Toby, “This is a strange town, son, you’d better get used to it.”
The scenarios are part of the humour, obviously, but one beautiful thing about the comedy is the way little jokes pepper each episode. There’s a silliness to it that slips in throughout. Admittedly, some of this comes from the initial shock of hearing the language of the elderly Gregor (he embarrasses Toby in front of a love interest by talking about his “stiffy” and later threatens that things are going to get “cray-cray”). Crocker, one of Australia’s most respected entertainers, delivers with perfection, but more importantly, the characterisation has been so strongly developed by both the writer and performer, Gregor’s antics, as ridiculous as they are, are true to who he is, as real as Toby’s frustration.
In the “Napoleon” episode, a body has been found in the woods. Toby excitedly heads out; Gregor is annoyed because he had just “put fish fingers in the microwave.” The dead body turns out to be a bird. Banks loses interest fast, but now Gregor’s curiosity is piqued. He questions the birdwatchers (who vomit at the sight of the deceased):
ELAINE: We stayed up all night last night watching the breeding ritual.
TOBY: Stop, Gregor, stop it.
ELAINE: And then this morning, Clem found the male of the pair.
CLEM: It was a cat.
ELAINE: I can come down to the station and make a statement.
CLEM: It was a blur.
GREGOR: You said it was a cat.
CLEM: No, it all happened so fast, it looked like a blur.
GREGOR: It was either a blur or a cat!
For most of the scene, Crocker stands with an open mouth, using the rest of his face to convey the disdain and intrigue his character feels. It’s silly, but it’s done so well, it’s laugh out loud funny.
Like most good television, the show focuses on the characters’ relationship as much as it does the plot lines. Pearson first imagined Gregor and Banks as “mother and son but in The X-Files” (“Behind the Scenes: The Odd Couple”, 25. Oct. 2012). While The X-Files comparison works because of the paranormal circumstances (Truslove describes Gregor as a “silver Fox Mulder”), there’s also a Sherlockian feel to it: it’s a best friend romance between two lonely people who, according to Pearson, love each other but will never say it (though unlike in Sherlock, they do share a kiss).
Another similarity to Sherlock is the way The Strange Calls incorporates new media both into the show and into its promotion. Gregor is a social media addict, constantly snapping photos with his mobile (each time he does, the phone announces “Say cheese”, leading to some awkward moments at crime scenes) and then posting them on Twitter. He battles Internet trolls and seduces women online. Toby complains, “You should be ashamed of yourself, a man of your age, stripping for a web cam.” Although there is a gentle teasing with the older character the one who embraces technology (yes, some of it would be at home on the Why Parents Shouldn’t Text website), social media actually ends up occasionally saving the day.
When the show initially premiered in late 2012, it used Facebook for publicity and created its own Twitter account and website (apparently run by Gregor) to engage fans. Vlogs, background info, reviews of his favourite restaurants and television (Roseanne and Blossom top his list) were posted, and the website invited the public to leave voicemail messages about possible cases. Pearson acknowledges that he wanted the website and Twitter to be as real as possible, “to step into or attack the narrative” so that viewers “can come at it any way” (“Interview with Daley Pearson”, Molks TV Talk, 8 Oct. 2012). The effective use of the Internet broadened the show’s accessibility and appeal.
In what was called “the fastest turnaround in Australian TV history,” a put-pilot was commissioned by the ABC network in the US before The Strange Calls’ first television broadcast in Australia (“Daley Pearson”, RGM Artists). The show became available to a wider audience on Hulu in October 2013. This brought new online fans, with Pearson himself personally responding to comments on the Facebook page.
Not content with achieving international success before he even turned 30, Pearson and his Ludo Studio, in autumn of 2013, began work on #7DaysLater, which took the multi-platform concept even further.
At the beginning of each #7DaysLater episode, a notice states, “The following programme was created in 7 days. The story, characters and dialogue were developed by our audience. May contain traces of nuts.” Pearson and his crew, including Nick Boshier, Luke Tierney, and John McGeachin, invited the audience, via social media, to create an episode idea, which they then used to produce a short show, broadcast on television and online a week later.
Each episode featured YouTube personalities with one role for a more traditionally famous star (Truslove makes an appearance as do Australians John Jarratt, Sigrid Thornton, and Megan Washington, and Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement, Whose Line Is It Anyway?‘s Colin Mochrie, and the inimitable Corey Feldman). Even once the show began production, Pearson et al would take to the web for further suggestions of dialogue and music choices, and calls for extras.
The stories vary nicely—a hapless acting troupe in a robbery, a shootout with a blind gunslinger, an art heist—and each episode’s design has its own unique vibe. The tightness of the schedule may have caused chaos for the cast and crew (they also released many behind-the-scenes videos on their YouTube channel, which reveal the heavy reliance on Red Bull to make it through), but it led to tightly funny episodes that were well-received. The last episode in particular—where Catholic priests, astral projectionists, and ghost hunters compete to exorcise a room in a paranormal reality show—is nicely written and acted (spoiler alert: the priests’ attempt is derailed by their bickering over one using the other’s deodorant without permission).
In the final diary video, the crew expressed how much they’d learned through the process and their keenness to do it again. The makers of #7DaysLater announced (via their Twitter feed, of course) in Dec. 2013 that they were “working on the green light for Season 2” in 2014.
But Pearson hasn’t stopped yet. He and his Ludo Studio partner Charlie Aspinwall developed an animated kids’ series called The Strange Chores, which they’ve just taken to the Asian Animation Summit in Thailand. There it received the praise of multiple producers and broadcasters, including Daniel Wineman, the Disney Channel’s US Director of International Series and Co-productions (Jeremy Dickson, “Asian Animation Summit: Broadcasters make their top project picks”, Kidscreen, 12 December 2013).
Hopefully, Daley Pearson has not run out of ideas. His modern approach to comedy should continue to bring him success and viewers entertainment with whatever platform and genre he takes on next.