The West

Office the new frontline
Kitty Flanagan and Rob Sitch. Picture: Hwa Goh

Government bureaucracy and the absurdity of office life collide in Utopia, the latest comedy from Working Dog, the brains trust behind hit series including Frontline, The Panel, Thank God You're Here and The Hollowmen.

The satirical comedy with the logline (brief summary) "nation building - one white elephant at a time" is set in the fictional offices of the newly created Nation Building Authority, where major infrastructure projects seem to hit hurdle after hurdle and get bogged down in endless meetings, IT problems, working parties and feasibility studies before being pushed aside for the next project to get under way.

Caught in the middle of changing priorities and political mumbo jumbo is hapless boss Tony (Rob Sitch), a former private-sector project manager whose attempts to do even simple things such as get into his office or hand over a business card at a meeting with Chinese business leaders are hampered by the ineptitude of his own staff.

Domineering PR manager Rhonda (stand-up comedian Kitty Flanagan in her first narrative comedy role) is obsessed with slogans and wants a new NBA logo and website that "speaks" and "gets people involved". Rhonda loves dragging Tony into meetings with time-wasting graphic designer Karsten (Perth's Toby Truslove). Described as "artistic, passionate and verging on pointless", Karsten's involvement guarantees any project will be delayed for at least two months.

In a league of her own is Tony's befuddled PA Katie (Emma Louise-Wilson), who messes up simple phone messages and gets confused when Tony instructs her to call him away from a pointless meeting for an "important" (that is, fake) phone call. Manning the front desk is office manager Amy (WAAPA graduate Michelle Lim Davidson); that's assuming the front doors actually open.

Utopia was written by Sitch with Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy was in charge of casting, bringing on board some of Australia's best-known comedians in Celia Pacquola, Dave Lawson, Anthony "Lehmo" Lehmann and Luke McGregor. Sitch, who also directed the series, said the original concept was driven by Working Dog's love of official absurdity.

"There's so much turnover in professional offices we started mucking around with the idea that the head of the office didn't know who half the people were and that everyone these days is in marketing or PR or media," he said.

"We came up with this idea; what if there was this office that was full of people redesigning websites, redesigning stationery and logos but in actual fact nothing actually got done.

"That was the original idea and it developed from there.

"Then we noticed all the major projects in Australia get imbued with European lifestyle words like piazzas and precincts and hubs and all of these sorts of things.

"We realised marketing is more important than the actual project and sometimes the project gets forgotten."

A WA road project features in one episode and in another Tony is forced to evaluate plans for expanding the Ord River irrigation scheme.

"We came up with the idea they were going to do another expansion; when we shot the episode it was during the last election campaign and we woke up one day to find out Kevin Rudd had stolen our episode," Sitch laughed, proving that the Working Dog team still have their fingers on the pulse of Australian news and politics.

"We weren't as favourable as he was to it."

Sitch cites the Victorian Desalination Plant as an example of the type of government project that inspired Utopia. The plant was green-lit amid controversy and public protest, completed in December 2012 but has been in standby mode ever since because the State's dams have been at 80 per cent capacity.

Most amusing to Sitch was that the plant, which sounded like a good idea during a drought, was delayed due to flooding.

"The drought broke literally on the first day that the construction of the desal plant started and it didn't stop raining for about four months and the whole site got waterlogged," he said.

"The water from the desal plant is actually more expensive than the water you get at a nightclub; we are still paying for it even thought we don't use it.

"That in a way sums up what we looked at, an idea that sounds really good but it's short-term gain for long-term pain, which is the reverse of the normal."

Sitch said Tony was a character "beseiged" by the absurdity not just of his job but all the little things that happen to and around him.

"Someone decides to do healthy choices month and all the chocolate treats leave the office kitchen," he said.

"Basically people are doing things without really thinking through the logic of why they are done, just that they are done.

"And also the gradual accretion of office titles; slowly over the last 30 years your office title doesn't bear any resemblance to something you can understand.

"People stop being office managers and become personal liaison management. A bit of word inflation that has crept in to all public life."

Heaven forbid that anyone actually uses the term secretary.

"No! Oh my God, maybe in Mad Men series two. I don't think they are even personal assistants. Word inflation has hit everything. Everything has a marketing term now."

Utopia starts on Wednesday, August 13, at 8.30pm on ABC.

The West Australian

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