Murray Whelan Series: articles

David Wenham

Savvy sleuth… David Wenham as Murray Whelan.

Clever dicks

John Clarke has a simple recipe for intelligent drama: witty dialogue, intriguing characters and a twisting plot. Richard Jinman reports.

‘Why would you make TV that appeals to the thick side of people?” asks John Clarke. “There’s already plenty of that.” The New Zealand-born actor and author would probably sound incredulous if his flat, nasal voice were given to expressing such emotions. It’s left to his eyes to punctuate his conversation and the idea of making dumb TV enlarges them into exclamation marks.

Like many of us, the creator of the ABC’s wickedly funny Olympics satire The Games has had a gutful of reality TV. The good news is that Clarke, 55, is taking a shot at raising TV’s IQ via two telemovies that positively bristle with wit, intrigue and great acting.

He’s adapted Stiff and The Brush-Off—crime novels by the Melbourne writer Shane Maloney—into two 90-minute telemovies. Starring David Wenham as Murray Whelan, the slightly dishevelled adviser to a minister in a Victorian Labor government, the films are a savvy cocktail of well-drawn characters, smart dialogue and twisting plotlines.

On paper, it sounds like classic ABC fare, but the movies won’t be shown on the national broadcaster. Channel Seven, in search of a telemovie franchise that was “a little offbeat”, stumped up $5.6 million to make the movies. They were filmed on location in Melbourne during two fast-paced 20-day shoots.

Clarke, who is a familiar face on the ABC’s The 7.30 Report due to his satirical “interviews” with Bryan Dawe, has no concerns about his foray into commercial TV.

“It mustn’t be assumed that commercial TV lurks in some kind of underworld,” he says. “I think people are much smarter than they’re given credit for. People have been watching TV for 50 years and they’re very, very good at critiquing and understanding it.”

Wenham signed on to play Whelan from the outset. The Sydney actor, now an international movie star thanks to roles in Lord of the Rings and Van Helsing, loved the books. He’d also had a taste of the political world that forms the backdrop to Maloney’s stories. As a child, he licked envelopes in the electoral office of Labor Party stalwart Fred Daly, a friend of his father.

Having Wenham attached to the project made the movies an easy sell. As Clarke puts it: “A TV station that doesn’t want David Wenham being brilliant on their channel would require a bus ticket home.”

Wenham’s performance is a subtle triumph. Faced with a collapsed marriage, a disintegrating house, shared custody of his young son and an uncertain employment future (not to mention several dead bodies), Whelan emerges as a sardonic but charming everyman, a fundamentally decent bloke who has retained his principles in the face of grubby party politics.

John Clarke

Familiar face… John Clarke.

Clarke is clearly in awe of his leading man. “Murray is not a cool dude,” he says. “He’s a sensitive, stumbling human being—a mixture of goodwill, intelligence and incompetence. But there’s nothing malevolent about him. David’s performance is a delicious study of so many little things. It’s very subtle and it’s completely seamless.”

Wenham invested many of his own idiosyncracies into the character. Murray’s preference for carrying his things in a plastic bag rather than a briefcase is just one example.

The role is particularly important, Clarke says, because a good whodunit requires the audience to see the world through the hero’s eyes. “In some ways, the central character is the plot,” he says. “The Maltese Falcon doesn’t work as a plot. It works because of the central character. The audience knows the hero is the one they need to warm their hands on. So if Murray doesn’t like someone, we don’t like them. If he’s cold, we put on a jumper.”

Wenham anchors both telemovies, but he’s supported by an illustrious cast. Sam Neill, Clarke’s co-producer and longtime friend (they met as university students in Wellington), plays a shifty captain of industry in Stiff. Mick Molloy turns political expediency into an artform as Labor MP Angelo Agnelli and Deborah Kennedy—who played Clarke’s wife in the 1991 movie Death in Brunswick—is Trish, the tough-as-boots office manager who holds the fort while Murray goes sleuthing. Clarke himself has a small role in The Brush-Off as Ken Sproule, a wickedly cynical ministerial adviser.

Clarke says it was a thrill watching Wenham, Neill and Molloy going head-to-head in one of Stiff’s early scenes. “Sam has a delicious way of turning and looking at David,” he says. “His character is clearly horrified by the idea of having this skunk, who used to work at a union, in his office. He’s going to have a shower as soon as this guy leaves.”

Was Molloy, a relative newcomer to movie acting, intimidated by his co-stars? “Mick said he was very conscious he was getting into the ring with some serious heavyweights,” Clarke says. “But he’s very intelligent.

Their different styles worked together.”

The two telemovies share the same core cast but look quite different. Stiff, directed by Clarke, is the first chapter. It introduces us to Murray and plunges him into a mystery sparked by the discovery of a dead body at a meat-packing plant. Shot on and around Sydney Road in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, the drab tapestry of tatty offices and mundane streetscapes provides a look Clarke calls “grungy”.

Neill directed The Brush-Off. Set in Melbourne’s art world and populated by the city’s movers and shakers, it’s a hard-edged, glossy-looking film shot at locations such as the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and the National Gallery of Victoria.

Different as they are, both films provide a powerful sense of place. Melbourne emerges as distinct and atmospheric as Raymond Chandler’s San Francisco, a phenomenon Clarke attributes to Maloney’s vivid writing. “To read [one of his novels] is to go on a kind of archeological dig of the social history of Melbourne,” he says.

Both telemovies have their fair share of action. Like any good gumshoe, Whelan gets chased, roughed up and almost killed. But fans of The Games will also relish the intricate and very funny representations of petty bureaucracy, party politics and power games at the big end of town.

Clarke insists his fascination with the mechanics of power does not stem from an interest in politics per se. “Shane’s [Maloney] knowledge of politics is rich and deep; mine is skittish and shallow,” he says. “The Games was about the organising of the Olympics but on another level it’s an office comedy about human affairs and how we manage them. It’s not an attempt to be forensically accurate—it’s a venue for writing about human psychology and behaviour.”

In the end, it’s all about good characters, Clarke says. It’s why the BBC’s adaptations of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens work so well. The same could be said of The Sopranos, the series he nominates when asked which contemporary TV programs he admires.

Clarke doesn’t know if he’ll get to make more Murray Whelan telemovies. There are five books in the series and at least two more can be adapted, he says. John Holmes, Seven’s head of drama, says the network will need to gauge the audience response to Stiff and The Brush-Off before it makes a decision, but it is keen to establish a franchise.

Clarke doesn’t have much time for commercial TV’s obsession with defining its audience. The notion that only a certain type of person will watch his movies clearly appals him.

“I’m a typical viewer and I’m both smart and stupid,” says the bibliophile, who once wrote a book imagining the world’s great thinkers as tennis players. “I think 20 per cent of me is smart, 20 per cent is dumb and the rest is somewhere in between.”

By Richard Jinman
June 15, 2004
Sydney Morning Herald