Even after a crash course of six weeks training the 19 chosen debutantes were neophytes. Enthusiasm, ambition and a half-hour running time meant competition for airtime should have been intense, but Denton, Nehl and fellow producers Anita Jacoby and Paula Kruger – “the silverbacks”, as the newcomers called them – channelled their creativity positively.
In 2009 Denton’s then-production company, Zapruder’s Other Films, had just delivered an inventive hit to the ABC with The Gruen Transfer, so the national broadcaster gave Hungry Beast the same prominent slot of 9pm on Wednesday, straight after another ABC success story in Spicks and Specks. The network didn’t understand the deliberate chaos it was getting.
“When the ratings weren’t anywhere near Gruen there was a tense conversation with an executive who will remain nameless who basically said, ‘the numbers are terrible’, and I said, ‘which part of that did you not understand?’” Denton says. “This was not about numbers, it was about something else.”
“We were a hyperlinked show,” says Fennell, who still gets complimentary messages about Hungry Beast from people who track it down online. “The running joke was that we made a so-so TV show but a great YouTube channel.”
“Andrew struck a balance between carrot and stick and knew that we all had proxy daddy issues and were desperate for his approval. He’s so admirable that you just naturally want to please him,” says Drysdale. “He has very high standards that he holds everyone to, including himself. There were times he was difficult, but on the whole he was fantastic.”
The contradictory tone of pieces, especially in the first year, could sometimes induce whiplash, and each episode got delivered against a ticking clock that required problem-solving and inspiration and considerable stress. The staff made mistakes, although Denton is quick to point out that as executive producer, he did, too. But it also transformed his career.
“We were looking for the digital generation, because we were the analogue generation. Their conversation was totally different to ours,” Denton says. “By working with and mostly becoming friends with these people 30 years younger than me, it’s kept me in a conversation with them. It stops me from becoming ossified.”
Hungry Beast forged creative connections, marriages (the weddings become informal reunions) and now children; when Fennell drew scorn for a comment he made while guesting on The Project, it was Denton who took him for coffee and a recuperative pep talk.
When the ABC cancelled it in 2011, it created a diaspora, sending talent in all directions. Is it time for a repeat? “Totally. And more specifically, how much does the ABC need something like this now,” Denton says. “To his credit, some years later Mark Scott said this publicly, that the ABC erred massively in not giving the idea a couple of more years. The Feed, which does great work for SBS, frankly should be on the ABC five nights a week.”
“The whole experience was thrilling, but terrifying,” Drysdale says. “Now that I’ve been in the industry and have experience, I look back on it and think how on earth did this ever happen? It’s fantastic, and I wish something like that would happen for the next generation.”