Paula Bycroft is the executive producer of ‘Shaun Micallef’s On the Sauce’, a three part documentary TV series following the much-loved comedian on ‘a pub crawl through the Australian psyche’, as he examines our relationship with alcohol. The first episode airs on the ABC on Tuesday July 21st at 8.30 pm.
Paula Bycroft with Jack Thompson and Shaun Micallef
Could there be a tougher TV gig than telling Australians about the downside of drinking alcohol? Especially after we’ve all been locked in isolation for months, with nothing better to do than ponder life, often with a pinot in hand. Let’s face it, drinking has been hard-wired into our national psyche – from convicts being paid in rum barrels to the chaos of the ‘six o’clock swill’. When the person burrowing into that drinking psyche is the formidable Shaun Micallef, a teetotaller who doesn’t really ‘get’ alcohol – well, it could have been a turn-off for many viewers!
That’s exactly what attracted me to making this television series. As executive producer, I have a passion for compelling human stories which paint a bigger picture of society. Initially, distilling such a broad and controversial topic into just three episodes felt insurmountable. Should we cover alcohol laws? Advertising regulations? Alcopop tax? Our challenge was to hone this behemoth into a palatable snapshot of our relationship with alcohol in 2020.
So we decided to tap into very raw and individual tales of Australians relishing or battling the bottle. Shaun’s journey became a personal, rather than a political, one. I didn’t want the series to appear ‘judgy’ or off-putting for the many Aussies who love a drink. We set out to find joyous celebrations of alcohol around Australia – retirees, country folk, a suburban women’s book club. We threw Shaun into uncomfortable situations – shoulder-to-shoulder with rowdy revellers at a Bachelor & Spinsters ball in regional Victoria, and on a party bus with a bunch of hard-drinking footy girls. Shaun took it all in his stride and was at times surprised, shocked and even swayed in his views about alcohol. He came to understand why many retirees feel they deserve a drink at the end of each day, why young country folk might need alcohol to socialise and why women have a glass of wine to de-stress.
We also wanted Shaun to be confronted by the terrible lows that drinking can cause. We sent him to witness the ‘human conveyor belt’ of alcohol-related injuries at St Vincent’s Hospital emergency room. And to the Flinders University Liver Unit, where he met Donna, a third-generation alcoholic who told the very poignant story of her decline into alcoholism and how a liver transplant gave her a fresh start in life. This encounter encouraged Shaun to show a very personal side, which he rarely reveals. He opened up about his sister-in-law’s battle with alcohol, and her death just a few weeks before our filming began. Shaun’s intimate admissions about his former drinking days and the concern for his own children’s future also added a real honesty to this series.
What surprised us all during our research for the show, were the very sobering (excuse the pun) health dangers around drinking alcohol. Every health expert we interviewed told us that ‘a glass of wine a day is NOT good for you’. We were shocked that alcohol is actually a Group 1 carcinogen. And I was amazed that very few Australians know of the links between alcohol and cancer, so we created a mock wine label with a warning ‘Alcohol causes cancer’ to graphically illustrate this point. Shaun even agreed to get drunk for the first time in thirty years, to show how alcohol seriously affects your brain, body, co-ordination and motor skills.
Despite all the health concerns, one thing that sadly hasn’t changed is that many Aussies struggle to relate to someone who doesn’t drink. The stigma of sobriety is still a very real part of our culture. Our crew even had a catchcry – ‘Alcohol – the only drug where people judge you if you’re NOT doing it.’ We encountered a real ‘beer group pressure’ when filming many of our scenes in pubs around Australia. Shaun was quite astonished at this distrust of non-drinkers. We decided to enlist the help of an advertising agency to create a commercial that made sobriety as sexy as drinking – in the hope we can create a more moderate nation.
The biggest takeaway the production crew and I had after making this series was that binge drinking is what damages Australians the most. If we can just move towards moderation, rather than celebrating and championing ‘a bender’, Australia might have a chance of cleaning up its act.
The good news is, we did discover a real groundswell of moderation and sobriety around Australia. As well as Hello Sunday Morning, we worked with Shanna Whan, founder and CEO of Sober in the Country, a charity which helps country people say ‘no’ to alcohol. Shaun had a heavy-metal jam session with a boisterous bunch of young ‘Straight Edge’ rock bands, who believe you have to be sober to start a revolution. We were heartened by the indigenous people of Norseman, on the edge of the Nullarbor, who’ve introduced voluntary alcohol restrictions to successfully combat drinking problems in their community. And I was personally astounded at the rapid rise of non-alcoholic beverages now on the market in Australia. And they taste pretty good!
We couldn’t have made the show without the people who allowed us to invade their lives and dissect their drinking habits. It was a privilege to tell their stories and I’m humbled by their bravery. This is not an easy topic, and there are no easy answers. I’m sure the audience will see their own behaviour reflected in the tales we tell. Alcohol IS a crucial part of our culture, a wonderful way to celebrate, commiserate, socialise and stay connected. But if this series also prompts people to pull back a little, have a few alcohol-free days every week and move just a little closer to moderation, then we’ve made a difference.