Writing confronting new comedy-drama series The End took Samantha Strauss back to her own beginnings.
Back to Queensland’s Gold Coast and its shimmering light; back to her childhood home with E Street actor Marcus Graham smouldering from posters on her bedroom walls; back to her ballet shoes, tied with pink ribbon, and back to a family story that has whispered in her ear for decades.
The End — produced for Foxtel by See Saw Films, the team behind award-winning films The King’s Speech and Lion, plus television series Top of The Lake — is an exploration of how we live, die, and all the messy business that goes on in between.
It centres on young palliative care doctor Kate Brennan (Frances O’Connor), a woman devoted to prolonging her patients’ lives as long as possible.
Kate’s mother Edie Henley (Dame Harriet Walter), however, has other ideas. Following decades of unhappiness, and an unwelcome discovery about her late husband’s fidelity, Edie decides to take her own life.
The attempt is unsuccessful, messy and distressing so Kate — living on the Gold Coast, having long ago fled the small pocket of England where Edie still resides — decides to bring her mother to Australia.
Moving Edie to a five star, Gold Coast retirement village, despite its manicured gardens and aqua aerobics classes proves, not unlike Edie’s unsuccessful suicide attempt, both messy and distressing for both women.
But like the light that dances over the Gold Coast’s sweeping beaches just before dawn and dusk — a light locals know as the “magic hour” — it is also the start of something equally magical.
For Strauss, increasingly in demand as a scriptwriter and producer, and the co-creator of the hit Australian teen drama series Dance Academy, writing The End, was, in part, her own family’s story. It was also a springboard to the ongoing debate about the right to live – and die – as we want to.
“I grew up in Southport on the Gold Coast,” Strauss, now 40, says from her home in Sydney.
“So filming there was a homecoming of sorts for me.
“I moved back in with my parents for a time, it was great, I got my washing done and food cooked, it was heaven,” Strauss laughs.
“I loved filming there. It’s been a mission of mine to show the Gold Coast in its true beauty, I don’t think there’s ever been a show that’s done that, stripped away all the glitz, to go into its Hinterland, and its quieter places, and of course its beautiful light, that magic hour.
“We did one incredible scene with 100 nude extras at dawn at Currumbin Beach,” Strauss laughs, “and I think what we all really enjoyed was filming at a retirement village in Hope Island, where we used the residents as cast members, and they were absolutely wonderful.”
Strauss’s love letter to the Gold Coast opens with a harrowing scene of Edie’s botched suicide attempt thousands of kilometres away at her home in England, a scene that has its origins in Strauss’s own family history.
“I had a grandmother whose husband died by suicide and she had also gone through cancer and all sorts of things.
“She had been living in New South Wales, and my family were on the Gold Coast, so she moved there to live in a retirement village.
“She was 80, and she had this incredible brain, and artist’s soul, and when she first arrived she was not happy, she wore brown dresses and was sort of all hunched over.
“I remember my mother and father were worried about her, and my mother said, ‘We need to treat this place like high school and get her into the cool group’,” Strauss laughs.
“Not the Queen Bee set, no, but the naughty ones, the rebels. Mum bought a round of drinks for everyone, there was a great restaurant there and quite a party scene, and away she went.”
Six months after her arrival, Strauss chuckles, her grandmother had swapped her shapeless, brown shifts for bright red dresses, was dancing on table tops, and had acquired both a zippy new car and a best friend named Pamela.
Pamela is delightfully played in the series by beloved Australian actress Noni Hazelhurst, who viewers first meet when she greets Edie with a Welcome basket and a cheeky “We’ve got champagne, we’ve got gin, we’ve got Xanax …”
Strauss shows a nuanced understanding of the rhythm of retirement homes like Emerald Fields; beneath the table top dancing there are stories of loves lost and longing; of lives well lived and otherwise, and raw, honest exchanges on declining health and approaching death.
This is because Strauss herself became a part of that rhythm, moving in with her grandmother at her retirement village, where the kindling for The End was first found among its Zimmer frames and zumba classes.
“ I was in that strange place where I was a bit lost,” Strauss remembers.
“I had just finished my film degree (at the Gold Coast’s Bond University) and she had a spare bedroom, so I moved in with her for a while.
“I really liked all the conversations I had there, one 80-year-old woman told me how she had worn out her vibrator, and I liked the idea that you can change your attitude at the very end.
“I liked the idea that you can grow old in a way that is fun and not depressing.
“Obviously where my grandmother lived was a very nice place, but I like that it felt like a time of not withering away, but growing.
“There’s a scene where Edie puts a torch under her chin and says ‘I’m a glow worm, watch me glow,’ and that’s what it felt like for us watching our grandmother just sort of blossom again there.”
Strauss says it was also a time of reflection among the residents, including her grandmother, on dying.
“Some of them went to workshops on how to end their lives, they followed (euthanasia advocate) Philip Nitschke, and they were very clear on what they wanted, as was my grandmother.
“When it was the time of her choosing to go, she wanted a glass of whiskey and a Nembutal and that was her plan.”
Instead Strauss’s grandmother’s cancer returned and she died soon after the diagnosis.
“I always had that discussion with her on how she wanted it to be.
“My father is a doctor and death and the right to have a say in your own death has always been a very open discussion in my family. Dying with dignity is something many people believe in and want to happen, as is palliative care, and I have enormous respect for palliative care nurses and doctors.
“I wanted to show both points of view with The End, and a lot of it is about this hard stuff, but I hope it’s done with a lens that finds the humanity in it, in the idea that whenever things seem impossible, there is light as well.”
Strauss has had experience with that too, turning a very dark time in her own life into light when at just 18 years old, and a promising ballet dancer, she broke her back.
“I had danced all my life, and was pretty determined to make it my career.
“I danced for about 50 hours a week in a hot tin shed in Bundall (a Gold Coast Suburb) with these truly terrifying teachers who would just yell at you.
“There was no nurturing and it was hard for my sensitive, writer’s soul, but I loved it.”
Then, Strauss says, one day during an outdoors training session, an instructor “pushed me too hard” and she broke a vertebrae in her back, shattering both her movement and her dreams.
“Basically I lay on a couch for a year, in between X Rays and treatment, and I can see now I was probably depressed, while my parents looked after me. They were totally there for me, and it can’t have been easy.”
But Strauss’s couch time was not wasted; she read obsessively, escaping to other worlds when her own seemed so hopeless.
“I read this book called Alex, the story of an Olympic swimmer by the New Zealand author called Tessa Duder. Because I could relate to it, that book saved me,” Strauss says emphatically.
In the book the title character is an athlete who must rise above personal tragedy to achieve her dreams; and somewhere in its pages, Strauss too found the strength to get off the couch and chase hers.
“My mum made me get off the couch, actually,” Strauss laughs, “but reading all those stories made me realise I wanted to be a part of that, to be someone who told stories too, and so I enrolled at Bond to do a film degree.”
One of Strauss’s first assignments at university was to write a short film. She set hers in a retirement village, and so the first flickers of what would become The End were born.
Like the series she would one day create about it, Strauss too, has come full circle.
The End debuts on Foxtel on February 2
Sunday, only in The Binge Guide: exclusive interview with The End’s Harriet Walters and Frances O’Connor.
STELLAR CAST: EIGHT KEY CHARACTERS IN THE END
1. Kate Brennan (Frances O’ Connor), a doctor struggling to bring up her own troubled teens and settle her reluctant mother, newly-arrived from England, into a retirement home.
2. Edie Henley (Dame Harriet Walter), Kate’s mother who finds new life and light in spite of herself.
3. Christopher Brennan (Brendan Cowell) is Kate’s husband, a man of big dreams — currently in jail for embezzlement.
4. Pamela Hardy (Noni Hazlehurst), a free-spirited woman who new arrival Edie finds both suspicious and intriguing.
5. Nikos Naoumidis (Alex Dimitriades). Kate’s former med school classmate, now her boss — and her occasional romantic interest.
6. Art Weinberg (Roy Billing). A widower and retired university ethics professor with myriad hobbies, facing a frightening realisation.
7. Beth Carlisle (Brooke Satchwell). One of Kate’s patients, who wants to euthanase herself as she grapples with motor neurone disease.
8. Josh Carlisle (Luke Arnold) is Beth’s husband. A musician and right-to-die advocate with a tragic family secret, on a mission to get hold of lethal drug Nembutal.