Once the deck’s been painted, the garage has been cleared, and enough banana bread has been baked to put the family off it for life, what else does a Kiwi family do in lockdown? They make a TV series, of course.
This is the story of the Feeneys. The Castor Bay family of actors and writers, turned directors, set designers and production crew to bring Dad’s book to life and share some of the relatable truths of family life in suburban New Zealand in the 2020s.
Peter Feeney is a Kiwi actor who, for over 20 years, has graced our screens with television roles in The Panthers, The Brokenwood Mysteries, My Life is Murder, The Almighty Johnsons, Agent Anna, US-based Spartacus and others, including the ubiquitous Shortland Street back in 2000. Film acting credits include Kiwi hits Vermilion (alongside Jennifer Ward-Lealand) and Black Sheep.
Back in the 1990s, during a stint of house sitting for his parents, Peter wrote a book. The oxymoronically titled Blind Bitter Happiness is a story of the survival of a Kiwi childhood, charting the path of ‘a plucky, indestructible child’ from the tender age of five through to the verge of adulthood at 17.
“The central character is the type of child I wish I would have been,” says Peter. The youngest of seven siblings, he describes himself as having been ‘a sensitive, insecure boy’. His dad was a GP who, Peter says, didn’t enjoy tending to medical needs outside of his practice. “He was like the professional chef who doesn’t want to cook when he’s at home. He was 100% callous when it came to anything health-related in the family!
“I didn’t feel, growing up, that my childhood was anything other than a game of survival. I had an ordinary, banal, white, suburban upbringing but, being the youngest of seven, I watched all these various bombs drop around me. It seemed growing up was almost a battle between life and death!
“Not everyone lives through a World War or experience losing a parent in childhood, for example, but we all have these complex, high impact things that make us who we are; all these challenges, resentments and triumphs.”
Now a parent himself, with magazine art director wife Nicola, Peter decided to morph his own experiences of childhood with his experiences of parenthood and bring this to life on screen. The project provided the perfect focal point for the family over lockdown.
“In April 2020, I conceived and began to write this TV series,” says Peter. He had a producer keen to come on board, but director friends advised it would be better for him to direct and produce it, as well as act in it, himself. “I decided I wanted to do it myself,” he says. “So, we gave it a go.”
‘We’ included Peter’s three children, Tilly, 10, Frankie, 12, and 14-year-old Arlo. Tilly was new to acting yet took on the lead role of nine-year-old Scarlett. The elder siblings already had acting experience and took major roles, playing Scarlett’s siblings.
Peter used his professional network to secure other respected Kiwi actors. Birkenhead-based Lisa Harrow, Devonport’s Jodie Dorday and fellow respected North Shore acting talents, Andy Granger and Lisa Chappell were among the raft of on-screen talent enlisted in the project. Peter also managed to call in some favours from off-screen contacts as well as provide opportunities for some of his acting students from his own studio, Actor’s Lab. “It did have a North Shore mafia feel to it,” smiles Peter. Other reputable, recognisable Kiwi performers, such as Claire Chitham, Brooklyn Nathan and Abi Turner also joined the cast of 30.
Raising money via a Kickstarter campaign, filming for the first episode began in January this year, in the Feeney family’s home patch in Castor Bay. Northcote was also used as a location.
“It’s a Shore production, through and through,” says Peter, who plays the family doctor as well as directs. “Acting with the kids was great. Like most young actors, they were wound up and ready to go! Because we had a relationship already, it was so easy directing them. It was really straightforward. And they were genuinely good at the work.”
The show crosses genres, as many of the best current TV series do, blending comedy and drama, fact and fiction. “When you look at this most fertile time for TV, it is now is becoming this extraordinary art form. A show doesn’t have to be ‘a comedy’ or ‘a drama’ anymore, it can be both these things and more.
“Blind Bitter Happiness is funny, but there are a lot of full-on things happening when you are a parent that I wanted to get across. Including things like anxiety and depression and other issues people are dealing with.
“You can’t write a story about raising kids in New Zealand without being honest about our society and how it is at the moment. And some of these issues run across classes and ethnicities and some don’t.”
For the show’s IMDb.com screen industry page, 15-year-old Arlo wrote the following synopsis, “Set in New Zealand's suburban heartland, Blind Bitter Happiness is a serious comedy in which the flawed, but loveable, Faheys face everyday life head-on. Unflinching and funny, the show captures the messy awkwardness of a contemporary Kiwi family, telling the hard and hilarious truths about surviving childhood and finding the hilarity in the seemingly banal battles we all face every day.”
With filming on a second episode fortuitously wrapped up just prior to the August 17 lockdown, these past few months of Levels 4 and Level 3 restrictions have given Peter time to work on post-production and plan ahead. His Kickstarter fundraising campaign was promoted on TVNZ’s Seven Sharp, giving him the funding to complete work on both episodes Peter and his team so far have under their belts.
“What I’d like now, is for a network to get behind it to help make another four episodes to complete the series. Then, get it onto a streaming platform – that’s the goal.”
He’s hoping a trip to Australia to tout Blind Bitter Happiness to the networks over there will be on the cards before long. “It will be amazing reconnecting with the rest of the world,” he says. A family camping trip to Northland looks like being first up though this summer.
On his experience of lockdowns and the unexpected challenges of the past two years, Peter says, “Everything has just got way more real. The first lockdown was fun for a lot of people I know. People were like, ‘Oh, we can paint the deck’, and just have some time out. But then it progressed into something else entirely.
“In my family, things that we were not facing up to about ourselves came out and that’s been difficult as hell. I don’t want to diminish that. It’s been very challenging. But I think that, ultimately, it’s really, really healthy.
“I feel like I’m sitting in my own skin much more than I was 18 months ago. A lot of self-honesty has happened. Our family is closer and sadder than it was then. And I’m OK with that.”