Wakefield – streaming on ABC iview

The main thing to say about Australian TV series, Wakefield, is that you just have to watch it. It really is that good. Unfortunately in the past, local shows have tended to stick to safe (read ‘boring’) formulaic material featuring cardboard cut-out doctors, nurses, lawyers or cops but in recent years some creativity has been encouraged with things such as Glitch being made. At least it attempted to keep up with the type of more adventurous content overseas productions offer, which local viewers binge-watch en masse.

Wakefield was created by Kristen Dunphy, who’s cut her teeth on numerous TV series going back to Heartbreak High and G.P. right through to The Secret Daughter and A Place To Call Home. Here – where she’s also a Producer – she’s drawing on her own experiences battling mental health issues to bring viewers a compelling story of psychiatric nurse, Nikhil (Nik) Katira, who works at the Wakefield psychiatric facility in the stunningly picturesque Blue Mountains, N.S.W. Dunphy herself was admitted to a psychiatric ward three times and even underwent ECT so she knows what she’s writing about here. The authenticity jumps right out at you.

Central character, Nik, is the heart and soul of Wakefield – both the psyche ward and the series. English actor, Rudi Dharmalingam (Hollyoaks), sports a flawless Aussie accent as Nik and a performance sure to garner him accolades and awards. Nik’s the staff member who can always be relied on to help out in any of the numerous crises, whether it’s with the mentally fragile patients or some of the staff members who have their own issues. Nik’s always on hand to find something that’s lost, calm someone down who’s having a moment, or reassure that all will be well. It’s almost like he’s got a bit of a saviour complex, and there are signs from the get-go that perhaps Nik might be just holding it together himself.

We’re privy to some of what’s going on in Nik’s mind courtesy of flashback remnants to his childhood in India and an event that we know was incredibly traumatic and is no doubt continuing to affect Nik. As the episodes unfold, we gradually learn more about this as Nik’s sister’s wedding approaches. Some of the flashbacks involve him as a young boy tap dancing, and these are linked to tap dancing fantasies of him as an adult, along with other fantasy musical numbers, giving Wakefield some Dennis Potter-esque qualities at times.

Then there are the Wakefield staff members and patients, with a litany of prodigious acting talent on display. Mandy McIlhinney is the nursing manager you love to hate, while comedian Felicity Ward is an affable nurse, and Geraldine Hakewill is a psychiatrist who shares a past with Nik. Patients include Harry Greenwood (son of Hugo Weaving, whose acting talents have certainly been passed on), Dan Wyllie, Colin Friels, Bessie Holland and Harriet Dyer. Some of their stories are incredibly moving and heartbreaking but there’s often some gallows humour thrown in – again a nod to what life must really be like inside one of these places.

Most of the episodes are in a few sections, with each one following a particular character so that we can end up seeing parts of a scene we’ve already witnessed, but with a previously bit-part character now taking centre stage. This is yet another way that Wakefield offers viewers something a few steps up from the usual. And the final episode is both devastating and satisfying.

Other writers beside Dunphy are Sam Meikle, Joan Sauers, Cathy Strickland and Monica Kumar, while the episodes are directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and Kim Mordaunt. Jungle Entertainment took on the series which apparently took seven years to finance. It seems mental health is not an issue that networks are too keen to be involved with when it comes to drama series, but hopefully the success and acceptance of Wakefield will open more doors to have it explored. Wakefield will be a hard act to follow though.

Vicki Englund

Other reviews you might enjoy: