Murray Whelan Series: articles

David Wenham and Mick Molloy

The men of Stiff: David Wenham and Mick Molloy.

You can telemovie

Peter Craven sings the praises of bringing Shane Maloney’s work to the small screen.

It sounds a bit too good to be true: John Clarke writing and directing a telemovie from one of Shane Maloney’s comic detective stories, starring David Wenham as the deadpan catastrophe Murray Whelan, a Labor Party hack who becomes a reluctant sleuth.

The Murray Whelan series began about 10 years ago when writer Shane Maloney—a one-time manager of the Comedy Festival who had also worked on Melbourne’s doomed bid for the Olympics—decided to invent a shambling character who ends up on the trail of murder. Stiff, which introduces Murray Whelan, is mainly set in Sydney Road, Brunswick, and is replete with Turkish characters, including the beautiful Ayisha (Tamara Searle). The plot involves a murder in a meat factory that is owned by a very silky and silver-tailed Sam Neill. Neill will direct the second Maloney telemovie, The Brush-Off, from John Clarke’s script.

In Stiff, Whelan is estranged from his high-flying wife, but takes some comfort in his young son, Red, during whose visits murder ensues, houses collapse and everything is enveloped in drollery which nonetheless has time to encompass the celebration of the marvellous Melbourne, which, as Shane Maloney once remarked, is the preordained capital in this country of white-collar crime.

Maloney is not insensitive to his luck in being adapted by his friend John Clarke. “John is a man who reinvents everything he touches. He sends up politicians without ever impersonating them. He presents the organisation of the Games and makes it worse than we could ever have expected. He’s not someone who’ll settle for the relentlessly plot-driven puzzle.”

Certainly not. Clarke has directed Stiff with a deep empathy for Maloney’s free association around the detective story form in a style as minimalist as the style of his TV show The Games, and with Wenham’s luminously poker-faced Murray Whelan as the centre of the story’s consciousness (as he must be).

Clarke was conscious that, in the absence of Murray Whelan’s narrating voice, there was only the camera. “If he doesn’t say it, the camera must,” he says. Clarke likes the “socio-archaeological” aspect of the Murray Whelan stories, the social observation and the texture of society as he perceives it, and here he thinks David Wenham was his greatest asset.

“David has a terrific gift for conveying what he’s feeling by the expression on his face. He has a real gift for noticing and for putting this across. He has a wonderful understanding. And David does the comedy as if it isn’t there. This is the sort of humour where if people didn’t find it funny you’d say, ‘Well, it isn’t meant to be.’ “

Maloney is equally enthusiastic that Wenham’s skills as an actor fit the character. “He’s one of those actors who has the capacity to make you see the wheels turning.”

Maloney appreciates that the man who became famous as Diver Dan in SeaChange is a hot star, but he thinks the casting of the telemovies was terrific, and he admired Wenham’s performance in Gettin’ Square.

Clarke was delighted by the sensitivity and generosity that Wenham, an admirer of the Murray Whelan books, showed in the scenes with the first-rate ensemble cast Clarke assembled.

There’s the marvellous Deborah Kennedy as Trish, the woman who keeps Murray from falling apart in the office, and there are seasoned Melbourne actors like Alan Hopgood and Dennis Moore in crucial roles.

It’s enterprising of Channel Seven to put these telemovies on in the traditional Sunday night movie slot, now that movies are mainly watched on DVD and pay TV.

Both Clarke and Maloney like the idea of Australia’s literary heritage as something that can be translated, vibrantly, to make first-rate television. Clarke muses that novelist Charles Dickens in his earlier work was essentially an improvising entertainer working for a popular medium. Clarke believes quite passionately that the best things in our culture, popular or artistic, are not there for the few.

He agrees with Lord Reith, the visionary head of the BBC, that Dickens, say, should not exist simply for people who would automatically read Dickens, but that a book can become something that isn’t a book but is just as powerful.

Clarke has an intense sense of cultural democracy that is at the same time opposed to any sense of dumbing down. It doesn’t worry him that the Murray Whelan books have been seen as light fiction for highbrows, nor is he worried that you might expect the natural audience for Stiff to be the ABC’s Sunday night audience.

“Look,” he says, “there’s a dumb section of me and a smart section of me and I think that is true of every person, of every audience. People who care about nothing but the football are capable of extraordinary feats of concentration and calculation. The job of a film and especially the job of a film like Stiff is to teach you how to watch it.”

In his characteristically ruminative way, Clarke starts talking about the way we all visualise novels in terms of our own experience and then, with a lightning jump, he talks about how Hilary Mantel, the English writer, in her powerful memoir Giving Up the Ghost, ensures that her book plays on several levels at once: she invokes her childhood experience, that she is a middle-aged woman remembering it now, and then the expectation that the reader will project his own experience onto hers because childhood is a shared predicament.

One of the exhilarating things about Clarke both as a man who makes television and as a conversationalist is that you know how much complexity is contributing to the mix.

He says he likes the idea of adapting books like Maloney’s: first, because they work, and second, because most people have never heard of them so that, as raw material, they are at once tried and true and fresh.

Film and television, he says, should not be frightened of their own literary tradition because it is one of the richest resources they have. Nor should they be put off by apparent difficulty.

“They made a film of The English Patient, for heaven’s sake.” He’s referring to the way Michael Ondaatje’s enshrouded novel became the Anthony Minghella/Ralph Fiennes epic.

With Clarke the moodiness and the range of interests feed the central focus. “Comedy doesn’t have have a better friend than drama,” he says, and then goes on to talk about the literary critic George Steiner explaining why the work of Kafka is funny. It can be funny without being jocular.

Clarke is as equipped as anyone possibly could be to make comedy drama out of those woebegone Murray Whelan stories that soothe the mind like a drug even as they insinuate that politics is a nightmare and family life can be a sad thing. He’s a man who likes to contemplate the cusp between the realistic and the fanciful. He also has the greatest respect for the common person’s sophistication in the face of artistic work.

When The Games was first shown it was a mystery to a lot of people and Clarke and his team found it something of a mystery to themselves, so they went to Red Hill to do some filming and to contemplate the enigma of what it was they were doing. Only a few shows had gone to air, but one day he met a man in the town who thought he had cottoned on to what was happening in The Games.

“I like that show of yours,” he said. “And I’ll tell you what it’s like: your show is a secret between the people who are making it and the people who are watching it.”

John Clarke and his team were delighted. They could never have put it as well themselves.

And Shane Maloney? Well, he’s sitting pretty. He likes what’s happening with Stiff and The Brush-Off as telemovies and he can contemplate the day when he could franchise Murray Whelan out. Perhaps there’d be a role for his sometime creator as a script editor, fiddling with a plot-line, looking at a snatch of dialogue. His feet up and laughing.

Stiff screens tomorrow night at 8.30pm on Channel Seven. The Brush-Off will screen later in the year.

By Peter Craven
June 19, 2004
The Age