Ben Davies – The Brains Behind Bondi RescueWhere are you originally from?
I’ve only ever lived in the Eastern Suburbs. It all started way back when my great grandparents arrived from Scotland in 1912. My great grandfather came for a job as a petty officer in the freshly started Australian Navy, working on a training ship in Sydney Harbour called the HMAS Tingira (originally the Sobraon). They moved around Rose Bay and Bondi before settling at the top of Hardy Street in Dover Heights.
Are you still in Bondi now?
Yeah, I’m in Blair Street. As beautiful as it is – garden beds down the middle – it is also built above tunnels of shit running to the sewage outlet. I’ve now lived most of my life in North Bondi, but I’ve also had long stints in Dover Heights. Lately I’ve been toying with Watsons Bay, where my parents have lived for the past 20 years.
What do you love about the Eastern Suburbs?
It’s a long list. While it’s very different from when I was a kid when it had a hometown vibe, it’s also become much more exciting and dynamic. If it’s not some famous celebrity walking past, it’s a backpacker spewing out the front of your house, or better still, a famous celebrity spewing outside the front of your house. But somewhat more seriously, I relate to the history. My relatives were going to the beach when there was still a community of Aboriginals living a traditional life at Bondi. The harbour has the most incredible history. You only have to read Mark Twain’s accounts of his time on Sydney Harbour and the maritime culture back then. That said, it’s important not to become sentimental. The Eastern Suburbs’ ability to change while retaining its identity is perhaps its greatest appeal.
Do you think that Bondi Rescue has shaped that in a way, and possibly changed the suburb in some way?
A few years ago I would have said no, but I think now it’s undeniable in a way because so many people overseas have seen the show. People definitely come here having seen the show back in their home country, and with a preconceived view of what this place is like. Rescue numbers have definitely gone down, and some experts have attributed that to the show. I’m sure other things happen at Bondi, which local residents don’t like and probably blame Bondi Rescue for, like vomiting backpackers.
What gets your goat about life in the east?
Probably people like me, who whinge about what’s wrong with the place and lose sight of how good it actually is.
Do you have any favourite local haunts?
I’ve got three kids: a four year old, a two year old and a ten month old, so I’m often at home or at the beach. I’m not going out so much anymore, although we did have a cracking party last Saturday night after we (Bondi Boardriders) made the final of the National Teams Challenge Titles and won the Most Spirited Club award, which bagged us $5,000. We hit a couple of local venues and had a big party at Dirty Kev’s house on the beach at Tamarama.
How did you get started in television production?
I did a Fine Arts degree at COFA, plus I squeezed a master’s degree in at AFTRS too. My break was on the ABC as one of the racers on a show called ‘Race Around the World’.
When did the idea for Bondi Rescue come about?
I had a grant from what was Screen NSW at the time to work up a project. I was living across the road from the beach when the lifeguards said they were doing a mid-year intake. I thought it would be perfect being employed casually on the beach and still being able to work on this project. After two weeks working on the beach I realised that lifeguarding is far more interesting for TV than the project that I was writing up, so I turned my attention to a TV show about the lifeguards and it went from there. That other project has never seen the light of day.
Are you working on any other projects at the moment that you can talk about?
I’m working on a show with Jungle Boys, who are old friends of mine and the guys who made A Moody Christmas. Funnily, the subject matter has been a good opportunity to break out of the Bondi bubble. Yesterday I was out west doing research around Westfield Parramatta and I had lunch at Granville. I went to a funeral rites event with 300 people at a Maronite Church, plus got a hair cut in Auburn at this barber shop a guy had set up in his garage. Barber chairs, mirrors and even a drink machine; all in a suburban garage. Everybody in there knew each other on a first name basis, shaking hands as they walked in, saying ‘Hello Usuf, Ali, Ahmed’. It’s very different to the Eastern Suburbs.
How did you go about pitching Bondi Rescue to the networks?
I had the initial idea that I researched, then wrote up as a proposal, plus shot a sizzle reel. I got initial broadcaster interest and then partnered up with a production company. I had a lot of contacts at the networks but had never made my own show before, so I teamed up with Michael Cordell, who is one of the best factual producers in the country. I also had a long relationship with David Gyngell, who was between stints at Channel Nine. He put his weight behind the pitch and obviously people listen to him; he was the clincher. Armed with the idea, the coalface work I’d done and the right combination of people, it got across the line.
What response did you get from your mates when you talked about pitching the show?
It was all positive. It was one of those things where just about everybody got it straight away. The sizzle reel I’d done sold it straight away.
Did you have a fair idea of who was going to be the most entertaining of the lifeguards before you began shooting?
In some cases still waters do run deep and there are lifeguards who have great stories that take a while to reveal them, just as you’ve got other guys who just jump out straight away and have the razzle dazzle about them. Everybody fills a role in the personality department. Like the lifeguard service, it’s not simply about who is the best lifeguard, it’s also a balance of temperaments.
Do you think the show has improved the lifeguard service in Waverley?
Without a doubt. Anyone who thinks that the lifeguard service hasn’t become more professional as a result of the show is denying an obvious truth. The attitude now compared to ten years ago is chalk and cheese. Hoppo would be best to answer that, but it’s a seriously professional outfit these days, largely due to being part of a team that is observed by people all over the world. They’re proud of their job.
Have you ever had to tell any of the lifeguards to pull their heads in?
Not really. They’re pretty wise to it, and Council has strict policies. Some guys have lost their heads at times, but mostly they’re fine. By and large it’s all been harmonious and it’s been an absolute joy working with all the boys; I love it. As you’d expect, there have been differences of opinion and we’ve all had to sit down and work through it. I’ve had times when I’ve confronted 25 lifeguards in a room, but it’s just part and parcel of any service where you’ve got strong personalities who spend long period of time bunkered down with each other. I think the thing with the boys is that they trust that I’m always going to give them fair and reasonable depiction. I might focus on a lifeguard’s weakness, which is unflattering, but they also know that it’s only part of the story and they appreciate that I recognise their strengths as well and will represent them when they’re present. I think we move forward in good faith; they trust me to be fair.
What makes you most proud about the show?
The thing that attracted me to it in the beginning, and which I still love now, is how guys who’re doing a job in the service of the public – in a suburb which is full of celebrities and plenty of chest beaters – get their moment. The lifeguards’ job is now recognised and respected, and in turn they’ve become household names to many Australians. Giving them that recognition was a big attraction for me. Many viewers recognise themselves in these guys. They see admirable Australian traits, because the lifeguards are credible, authentic and brave, but they muck around and they joke and they don’t take themselves too seriously. The Swiss have got the alpine patrol and the Spanish have their bull fighters, but Australia, in coastal and beach terms, has got lifeguards and lifesavers. Being able to illustrate that incredible Australian institution internationally is what I love about Bondi Rescue more than anything else.
What is it about Bondi Beach that makes it so interesting?
I think there are probably as many theories as there are scholars. Everyone gets their own thing out of it and they reinvent it for their own purposes. From a strictly personal perspective and as producer of the show, I think it’s that mix of old school locals, as few as they are, and the transients who come for a brief but good time. And everyone having a good time together. My mum was a Kiwi backpacker on her way to Europe when she met my dad at a party in Fletcher Street. It was another 15 years or so before she made it to Europe. But my point is that people are still rocking out here doing the same things everyone was doing all those years ago. It’s got a wondrous energy about it, Bondi. People don’t always stay, but they have these great Bondi periods in their lives to remember forever.
Has the show made you ridiculously rich and allowed you to retire in a five bed mansion on Ben Buckler?
There were rumours of living in a mansion and things like that, but no, my wife’s still working and so I am. I think if you’re in TV to become ridiculously rich you’re probably going to be sadly disappointed; not that it’s impossible.
Did you ever in your wildest imagination think you’d be able to knock out ten seasons of Bondi Rescue?
I never expected ten years. It’s up to the viewers really. I’ve always played it year by year. I’ve played it season by season because the world changes and audiences may become more interested or less interested in this kind of show or this sort of subject matter. You just never know.
Will you continue to just produce for television or are you looking at doing stuff with more modern media?
I’m not sure. I’ve been discussing a show with a global digital broadcaster and that’s a bit of a first, but beyond that, like everybody else, I’m wondering where TV is going. Viewers will always want content, but no one is sure how they’ll get it.
Do you still pull on the lifeguard jersey from time to time?
Occasionally. I did go out this morning for a paddle. I’m going to give myself a massive rap here, but I got wave of the morning off the point at Ben Buckler, so I’m currently in the lead for the lifeguards’ $250 biggest wave of the season award. It was a good ten feet. I just need to hang on to that lead now until the end of summer and hopefully take out the $250. Big stakes.
What makes a good lifeguard?
A good set of eyes is probably the key thing, and good communication. Everybody can do the job physically, although you want to be sharp with that as well. Good eyes mean that you don’t have to use those skills. Guys being able to coordinate things through the radio and using the binoculars – that’s how you control a beach.
If you could give one piece of advice to beachgoers, what would it be?
If you’re going to get rescued, do it between 9am and 7pm; that’s when we’re filming.
Clubbies: help or hindrance?
Definitely a help, especially the old guard; they’re community lynchpins. You’ve got to be wary of people coming down and doing it for the wrong reasons, though. I think they’re becoming few and far between now. There’s less of that weekend warrior mentality and I think the lifeguards and the lifesavers work really well on Bondi, and anyone who says they’re not a help hasn’t been down here on a day when the flags are just overflowing.
Where do you keep all your Logies (Bondi Rescue has won six)?
Some are at the office and some at home. I had a tradesman nick one from the house. I don’t know which tradie, but when they were renovating our house one of them went missing.
Do you have anyone you’d like to thank for helping get Bondi Rescue to its ten year anniversary?
The backpackers from Europe and the UK; they don’t get rescued as much as they used to, but they still flout the no alcohol laws and end up in the show. The newly minted Indian and Chinese nationals, here on holidays, are making up most of the rescues nowadays, so thanks to them. Channel Ten has been great backing the series all these years as well. Hoppo has been brilliant and Waverley Council too, plus of course the lifeguards in general, past and present. My beautiful wife, Catherine, too; she’s been a trooper.
What do you get up to when you’re not working down at the beach or producing Bondi Rescue?
I went on a six week surf trip on a catamaran through Indo last year. People can contact me if they want the memo on how that’s orchestrated when you’re married with three kids. I had to renovate the house so we could get an au pair in, but I managed to pull it off and Saint Catherine of North Bondi (my wife) let me go.
What else do you get up to when you’re not working?
Lately, it’s all been Bondi Boardriders club stuff. I used to be president and am now contest director. Otherwise, just hanging out with the kids. It’s very unexciting in the re-telling. I need to start making a diary, not to plan ahead, but just to see what the hell I do.
Do you find it hard balancing work and family life?
Yeah, it’s tough. I’m lucky I’ve got a very good wife, but it is hard.
Do you have any role models in the industry?
I think a couple of guys I’m working with at the moment; Trent O’Donnell, Phil Lloyd and the Jungle Boys are great comedy people. Obviously David Gyngell, plus David Elfick as well. Even though I’m 43 shortly, no matter what age you are, you always need mentors in some shape or form. Equally, you should have apprentices that you bring through with you, because one day they’ll give you a job.
Do you have any advice for youngsters looking to get into television production?
Don’t do it, because you’re gambling with your life. The chance of your career actually being rewarding is less than it being a massive struggle, but if you insist on trying that means you really want it. Get mentors, do internships and be prepared to just about do anything to start. But don’t get exploited.
What about those wanting to join the lifeguard service?
A healthy twitter presence has become a priority of late, plus being able to swim really well is also helpful.
If Waverley Council could improve one thing about Bondi Beach, what would it be?
Don’t change it, and especially don’t put an underground car park in at the front of the beach. Maintain it. It’s good as it is, which means keeping it a little raw. Everyone complains about things like couches being left out the front of their house; I know I do. But I also think, ‘Imagine what fun they had with that couch and now someone else is going to come along and pick that thing up and enjoy it in their new place’.
In an ideal world, what does the future hold for Ben Davies?
I’ve got two shows I really want to make, plus I want to see my oldest son Jimmy surf his first wave alone. He got his first wave with me when he was one; he’s four now and standing up on the front of my board, but he’s ready to go solo soon. Finally the Davies family might have a good surfer in their clan.