Murray Whelan Series: articles

Murray Whelan and friends

David Wenham—the one wearing the tie—lurches into all kinds of bother as Labor Party electorial officer Murray Whelan.

The Brush-Off

You would have had to be hibernating to miss the terrific promotions for The Brush-Off that the Seven Network ran incessantly through the Olympics.

Those little gems with director-actor Sam Neill being badgered by the off-screen John Clarke that managed to establish that Neill had directed the telemovie, that David Wenham would again be starring as Murray Whelan, and that the whole shebang would soon be coming to Seven.

The second in a hoped-for series of telemovies based on Shane Maloney’s books, The Brush-Off is quite a different caper fromStiff, which screened to an enthusiastic reception in June.

And it’s quite appropriate that it should be different because the books are, too.

Not that the screen adaptations are under any obligation to be slavishly faithful to the novels, but here the strategy works, just as it does with the books, transporting Murray to a brightly coloured and trouble-filled new playground.

Stiff introduced Labor Party electoral officer Whelan, the go-to guy for Ethnic Affairs Minister Angelo Agnelli (Mick Molloy).

As one of Murray’s fortes is stumbling over crimes and bodies, he’s often away from the electoral office fort, which is capably held down by the redoubtable Trish (Deborah Kennedy).

A lot of Stiff was set around Sydney Road, Coburg, and in Newport, offering a particular northern and western view of Melbourne.

The Brush-Off sees Murray’s minister reshuffled to a new portfolio: he’s now, to his frustration, Minister for Water and the Arts: “Water I understand,” Agnelli declares with annoyance to his quietly amused aid. “Water has got to be supplied. You’ve got taps and water is supplied out of them. What the f--- are the arts?”

The position in the new ministry sees Murray launched into unfamiliar precincts: the art-gallery scene south of the city, the Botanic Gardens.

Suddenly he’s sharing lifts with ballerinas and their tutus, being trapped in basements with large inflatable figures designed for theatre performances, and attending gallery functions.

Director Neill adeptly exploits the many opportunities for visual humour, and, as is appropriate to its art-world setting, The Brush-Off, shot by Ellery Ryan, is more vibrantly colourful than Stiff.

It’s also more overtly funny than its slyly comic screen predecessor and, to Seven’s palpable relief (judging by its on-air promotions), there are also better prospects for romantic entanglements for Murray.

The producers, who include Clarke and Neill, have assembled a spirited supporting cast that reads like a roll-call of terrific local actors whom we don’t get to see enough of on screen.

They include Heather Mitchell, Steve Bisley, Justine Clarke, Leah Vandenberg, Andrew S.Gilbert, Robyn Butler, Tracy Mann, Bruce Spence, Julie Forsythe, Robert Grubb, Gerard Kennedy and Alex Menglet.

John Clarke also returns the favour from Neill, who appeared in a couple of scenes in Stiff as a smug and shonky corporate captain.

Here, scriptwriter Clarke appears as a ministerial adviser and contributes a couple of delicious little interludes. Sleuth-like fans of Maloney’s books might also spot the author, decked out in a snazzy suit, briefly swanning around behind Murray at an art-galley function.

Kennedy again is spot-on as the canny, capable Trish and Wenham is the perfect Murray. It’s hard to imagine any other actor capturing the essence of Maloney’s character so well.

Appearances to the contrary, Murray is a smart cookie. His generally dishevelled countenance belies a sharp mind and regularly catches the unwary—especially the snobby, arrogant or corrupt—off-guard.

However, his shrewd sizing-up of some situations doesn’t prevent him from lurching into all kinds of bother he might have been clever enough to avoid if he’d only paused to think.

One can can only hope that Seven is busy negotiating for us to see a lot more of Murray.

It would be a crime if they let this golden opportunity for an ongoing local series die.

By Debi Enker
September 2, 2004
The Age