Behind the Scenes of Shaun Micallef’s ‘On the Sauce’

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.

17 Comments

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  • This is so welcomed
    Absolutely Brilliant Television
    This programme will help change so many lives ..
    It’s very thought provoking and puts a spotlight on what goes on for so many who struggle with Alcohol addiction and abuse
    Thank-you ABC
    At a time when so many are struggling and reaching out for help

    By Leonie
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    July 23, 2020
  • Fantastic.

    By Tim
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    July 23, 2020
  • Excellent article. I’m going to watch to series now.

    By Teresa Bulmer
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    July 23, 2020
  • Love the article and really enjoyed Shaun’s first episode. It was a privilege to see his vulnerability, thank you mate.
    I’m towards the end of dry July mostly successful, only two occasions where I enjoyed a wine with dinner out. But the big win has been no nightly glass of red (or 3) and the benefits were realised immediately in better sleep, more energy, and sharper wit, why would I trade that?

    By Pete
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    July 23, 2020
    • I am watching this on catch up tonight. I can’t wait!Being over 100 days sober now minus 2 days, I feel my brain has rewired and I agree that more energy and better sleep are the great motivators! Sobriety suits me well!

      By Nat
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      July 23, 2020
    • Thanks Shaun, Paula and the team behind this important program. I watched episode one last night : it’s excellent BRAVO!
      Ten months AF after fifty years of drinking I can so appreciate the content and am more motivated and inspired. Cheers!

      Huge thanks also to HSM and Daybreak.

      By Leigh
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      July 23, 2020
  • Amazing show that has come just at the right time for myself and our Nation. Just questioning your drinking is a step in the right direction.

    By Erin
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    July 23, 2020
    • Shaun managed to fit in with each scenario and be respectful of people but seemed quietly horrified by what he was witnessing including me. Good to be off the sauce.

      By Janet
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      July 29, 2020
  • Sounds awsome! Need the same for New Zealand. We’re just starting to become aware as a country about fetal alcohol effects, even though the knowledge has been around for the last 30yrs or more. This type of program is so important. We need to break out of our false reality about alcohol. The sooner it happens the better.

    By Maria
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    July 23, 2020
  • I would love the link for those that are in the USA could watch please!!!

    By Aimee
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    July 23, 2020
  • I enjoyed part 1 and looking forward to 2 and 3. I’m a 53yr old female who grew up the the 80s “getting blind”. 102 days ago I quit drinking and I found the supportive Day Break app community 4 weeks in. A light certainly needs to be shone on the detrimental health effects of alcohol. I only discovered recently it’s carcinogenic. At my age group people around me are getting cancer. I lost a friend to pancreatic cancer and her loss spurs me on to live the rest of my life alcohol free. Your program makes me feel very on trend!

    By Donna Bennett
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    July 23, 2020
  • This was fabulous! So good to bring attention to a topic that affects the health and lives of so many people but is dismissed as normal behaviour. Great job all concerned!

    By Cindy
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    July 23, 2020
  • A great show and I commend the team for making it. I am watching With my 15 and 17yo sons just hoping some of these messages will sink in before they develop alcohol habits. My 17yo said straight after “I want to see what happens next week”.

    By Carm
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    July 25, 2020
  • I’m so glad this documentary has been made as I believe binge drinking is a massive issue in Australian society across all demographics. I was a teenager in the 80s and dangerously binged on and off for over 30 years. I stopped drinking just over 12 months ago and was diagnosed with breast cancer during this time. There is a strong link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer which I’m keen to generate more awareness around so I’m very glad this was brought up in the documentary. Thanks again, I’m looking forward to the next two episodes.

    By Kathryn Elliott
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    July 26, 2020
  • Excellent program
    Congratulations to Shaun Paula and the team.
    Thanks so much,
    Rob

    By Robert M Stephen
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    July 30, 2020
  • Fantastic series!
    I have been alcohol free for two years now, for many different reasons, and my biggest issue has been the persistent, slightly drunk person at a social event who decides that it’s their right to find out “WHY?” I don’t drink alcohol. Even though it’s a very personal question, it’s almost like they feel my choice is judging their choice to do the opposite, and they need to get to the bottom of it. Uncomfortable memories.

    By Teresa Golin
    |
    July 30, 2020
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