All Saints: articles

All Saints stars Judith McGrath and John Howard out to lunch

JUDITH McGrath has a little intake of breath as she peers over at the plate that's been set in front of a fellow diner - spritzed green salad, seared barramundi and wedges of potato the size and thickness of bars of soap.

"They're not chips!" she declares in full theatrical mode, as she leans in, "They're settees, darling. They're lounges!"

Her All Saints co-star, John Howard, is upright in his chair, grinning, looking both grand and procacious. He's already passed comment on another diner's entree when offered a taste of their oysters kilpatrick.

"No thanks, not after they've been trashed. Frankly those oysters could have come from anywhere, with half a kilo of bacon and soy on them," he says.

"I was about to say exactly the same thing," McGrath adds. "Not in those words, of course. But darling, if you wanted bacon and eggs why didn't you just ask for them?"

The wine is repoured. It is going to be an interesting lunch. And one fears it is not only the menu that is going to be savaged by these two legends of Australian television drama.

McGrath has played All Saints matriarch nurse Yvonne "Von" Ryan for 11 years and previously was a stalwart in the main cast of Prisoner and A Country Practice.

Howard was just as much loved for his earlier roles in the ABC shows SeaChange and Always Greener.

They are in Brisbane for a promotional visit. So comfortable are they with their show and its staunchly loyal following, they are willing to tease a little of their time on the All Saints set.

Over the course of the courses at one of Fortitude Valley's finest bistros, we discuss such fodder as the Logie Awards, the state of Australian TV drama, and we visit the odd seagull or two. Don't worry, that last one — just like the Chekhov play of the same name — will make sense in time.

At this stage, though, McGrath stops and places a hand gently on my wrist. "What sort of style were you thinking of for this article, sweetheart? Would you like us to come into line?"

No, I'm quite happy with the fluid approach, I reply.

"Fluid?" McGrath jumps in and seizes the line like a seagull on a settee-sized chip. "Better open another bottle then."

To give you an example of the fluidity, consider this exchange when the topic of the Logies comes up and if, after 13 seasons, the cast and crew are a touch blase about them:

McGrath: Moi?

Howard: Hey, when did you last appear at the Logies?

McGrath: You mean that time when I was trussed up like a chook?

Howard: The only year you came down was the year you were nominated.

McGrath: (deadpans) And that was worth it. I'm sorry, but you do get over it. I was of the era of the "best time" Logies when it was like a celebration of the industry not of a bloody network. So people weren't closed out of other people's parties — well, they tried to, but there was no point — and you could still be in the ballroom at 5 or 6 o'clock in the morning until they swept you out. It's all so "designed" now. One time the women's toilets were the best fun to be had. Logies were left. Fabulous. Sheila Florence left hers — not a surprise there. But it is hard work now, isn't it?

Howard: It is, yep.

McGrath: It is more fun from an actor's point of view (to watch it at home on TV). You can go, 'aw get off'; 'what! you don't deserve that!'. I realised from one of my early Logies that every time someone did win something it was like, 'aw . . .' (she raises her glass to her mouth to hide her swear words). You ended up trashed. Every time you'd take a drink, rather than be seen, because people are caught on camera whispering things, aren't they? It is horrible.

Watching what they say is a constant battle for McGrath and Howard as they struggle with both the tedium and the fast-paced shooting that happens on the All Saints set, admitting they sometimes play it up for the cameras.

"They are scared what comes out of our mouths sometimes," McGrath says. "You really have to slip them in right under their noses."

Howard, ardently tackling his steak, adds: "You can set them up in rehearsals by doing something much worse; so when they finally hear the paraphrase you've actually got in mind they think 'oh that's fine'."

Their danger days on set are Fridays.

"Particularly on what we call 'resus (resuscitation) scenes' — that area in the hospital where the dramatically injured people come in to and there's a lot of pumping of blood," says Howard. "Resus is very technical. Lots of shots and if it's on a Friday, people can go quite mad."

McGrath puts her fork down and lifts a finger to interject. "Actually, by Wednesday evening it's touch and go. You're on the way to madness, but Friday really wipes you out."

"There comes a point about 3.30ish on Friday," Howard continues, "when nothing is going to save us if we're in resus. So resus is a five-letter word that means pain and lunacy."

I inquire how the newest addition to the All Saints cast, Queensland actor Mirrah Foulkes, is settling in. "Really well. Well, she's the fittest of the three," Howard says referring to Foulkes' character Jo and co-stars John Waters and Jack Campbell who make up the show's Medical Response Unit (MRU).

McGrath laughs wickedly. She knows where Howard is heading.

"Jack and John are so preoccupied with looking at themselves in the mirror with all their gear on, there is only Mirrah who can actually work the ropes," he says.

"I've only worked with Mirrah on camera in passing — in the resus melange . . ."

McGrath adds: "Marvellous word melange."

". . . in the mess of resus, in rabid resus. I haven't really had a scene with her," Howard continues. "They're all out in the bush jumping off things and down caves and being upside down in silos. Apparently this week they're filming a winery that explodes . . ."

McGrath tut-tuts: "That's a waste."

"The scene that they don't have which surprises me," Howard continues, "is if it's a winery and it explodes surely it is going to rain wine.

"And they don't have a scene of them all standing there with their mouths open, like this." He gapes.

The jaw drop is not unlike the moment when Howard was told by producer Bill Hughes that the MRU team was being introduced into the All Saints dynamics. "When he told me we were changing and we were going to have MRU, he spoke for a little while, very enthusiastic, and then he paused and went, 'of course it will mean less screen time for you, John' — and my immediate response was, 'well, bang goes the Gold Logie'," he says, tongue firmly in cheek. "And you can print that. But make sure it's a quote from John Wood."

McGrath laughs. "Oh, yes, do make sure. No, really make sure, that it's in."

Howard was a Gold Logie nominee in 2008, and competed alongside perennial nominee Wood in 2007. Wood won gold in 2006. Howard says he is often mistaken for Wood — or "Woodsie" as he calls him.

While he is gold-less his cheeky banter, meanwhile, is pure gold.

When we move on to what these legends of Australian acting think of the current state of television, the well-intended serious answers predictably turn into the unintended.

"At the moment there are some good dramas on," says Howard, who is married to former Sons and Daughters actor Kim Lewis. "Everything from gangsters to Packed To The Rafters, City Homicide — and Sea Patrol is coming back. In terms of TV drama it is about as healthy as I've seen it." McGrath agrees. "Last week for instance it was the busiest Channel 7 Epping's been ever. Home and Away, us with two units going, and Rafters. It was all a buzz, wasn't it?"

"They had to clean away some of the tumbleweed," Howard says. "Shows like Packed to the Rafters and Underbelly, they're rooting their . . ."

There's a pause as Howard realises what he's just said. And McGrath, always reliable, jumps in: "Well, they are darling!"

". . . I meant rating their — but now I've got a picture of Underbelly that most men really enjoy, but only happens every five minutes. That poor girl," Howard says.

"You know, there used to be an expression in show business — 'and we'll cut to the seagulls'.

"But in that show it's 'cut to the puppies', isn't it? Or am I missing something?"

His broad grin and his hands thrust at us, palms up in expectation, forces everyone into laughter.

"Call your article 'cut to the puppies'," Howard booms.

With that the dessert menu arrives.

And blessedly thankful are we that there's no blancmange.

By Geoff Shearer
April 15, 2009
The Courier-Mail