Water Rats: articles

Desert Rat

Desert Rat

With Colin Friels set to leave Water Rats, it will be up to Aaron Pedersen and Steve Bisley to fill a very large gap, reports RACHEL BROWNE.

When Water Rats was launched at a lavish party in 1996, the then executive producer Hal McElroy insisted on introducing every member of his ensemble cast.

Out they came, one by one, sauntering self-consciously along the balcony of the Water Police HQ on the series' set at Goat Island, in the middle of Sydney Harbour.

But it was Colin Friels the crowd was waiting to see. He was, unquestionably, the king rat, a feted film and stage star who had, at last, turned his talents to the small screen.

Three years later, the actor who anchored Water Rats had gone. After being diagnosed with cancer in late 1997 and suffering the exhausting effects of chemotherapy last year, Friels left the show in November.

Next month his final episode will air, although how his character Detective Frank Holloway will leave is being kept secret. Will the loss set Water Rats, now in its fourth series adrift?

"Losing Colin was a blow to us all," said executive producer Ted Roberts.

"Colin was like a part of the family. All the other actors and crew loved him, everybody loved him. When he said he wanted to leave we weren't entirely surprised but were saddened to lose him.

"Then, of course, there was the concern of how to replace a character as big as Frank Holloway."

Producers opted to fill the hole left by Friel's departure with two actors: Aaron Pedersen, whose character Detective Michael Reilly debuts in mid-April, followed by Steve Bisley, who reprises his role of Detective Jack Christie, the hard old-school cop who did sporadic stints at Water Police HQ last year.

Sitting in the bright sunshine, surrounded by sparkling water on Goat Island, his new home away from home, Pedersen's mood is about as bright as this perfect Sydney day. He is simply bubbling with enthusiasm about the show, the cast, the crew and especially his character, who, he proudly pointed out, was not written specifically for an Aboriginal actor. Pedersen considers winning the role a mark of achievement for indigenous people.

But, as the 28-year-old, whose screen credits include Wildside, Dead Heart, The Territorians, and, er, Gladiators, acknowledged, playing on the turf once occupied by Colin Friels is a daunting prospect.

"Oh yeah, bug shoes to fill." Pedersen said, in his detective's "uniform" of cheap, dark suit and not-quite-matching tie. "He's a big fella, Colin, and a good man.

"I thoroughly enjoyed the few weeks that I worked with him. He was very warm and encouraging.

"There was no personal threat or a question of, 'What's this guy going to do to my show?'. Col was like, 'I'm letting go of this show, I'm passing the baton.

As Michael Reilly, an energetic, easygoing detective who initially comes into contact with the Water Police as a VIP security guard, then applies for the position left vacant by Holloway, Pedersen shares most of his scenes with Bisley and Catherine McClements, as Detective Rachel "Goldie" Goldstein.

The calibre of his co-stars is not lost on Pedersen, who was raised in the Northern Territory, living briefly on Terrant Creek's streets before becoming a ward of the state and moving to Alice Springs where, 10 years ago, he won a journalism cadetship with the ABC and began his TV career.

"This has been a great opportunity for me to work alongside Colin and now Steve Bisley and Catherine McClements," he said, eyes shining. "That's a great line-up, especially for a young desert man from Alice Springs who came here to give it a go."

There are shades of good cop/bad cop to Pedersen and Bisley off screen, too. While Pedersen was charm personified when TV NOW visited the Water Rats set during their lunch break, Bisley was, to put it mildly, feeling about as dark as black water.

First he had a minor moan about having to be in a photograph, then he didn't want to wear his jacket, then it came down to his wraparound reflector sunglasses. He refused to remove them for the photo, notwithstanding the fact that people who wear sunglasses in photos–not unlike people who wear sunglasses at night–invariably look like, well, tossers.

Finally, he decided he'd had enough, said as much and stalked off with a terse goodbye, leaving a rather uncomfortable-looking Pedersen to do the honours.

Now, we've witnessed our fair share of childish dummy spits over the years but this display seemed, at best, unwarranted. Steve la diva?

It was a very apologetic Bisley who was on the phone to TV NOW a few days later: His workload, he explained, had been phenomenal for the previous fortnight (they shoot two episodes concurrently every 13 days), he was very tired and very cranky.

"I had a big emotional scene and it was split over lunch," he said. "It was a Friday, an unfortunate day, at the end of an unfortunate week. I'm sorry that it happened."

Bisley, 46, is still adjusting to the rigours of a regular role on a long-running series, the 12-14 hour days and relentless slog of reading scripts, rehearsing and shooting, all at the mercy of the weather.

"I haven't committed myself to a lot of long-term projects because I like change," said Bisley, who most recent small screen role was as Frontline's cowboy boot-clad executive producer Prowset, who spent many an hour pondering whether the women in his office were moaners or screamers.

"But I liked the work, I liked the character, I like the style of work, except for Fridays," he said. "It gets you on your toes. They shoot very fast, it's like making a feature every two weeks. it's pretty relentless."

Desert Rat

When Jack Christie returns to Water Police [sic], he comes in as a superior to Goldie, with whom he had an on again-off again affair last year, leaving her even more unlucky in love than usual.

If viewers are expecting a rekindling of the romance they won't be disappointed, but there'll be plenty of teasing first.

"The nature of their relationship is very different from the relationship Goldie had with Holloway, where there was all this bubbling sexual tension," Bisley said.

"Christie and Goldie have already been down that road and now they just niggle at each other. Catherine and I try to promote that in our performance, There is a lot of friction there which just bubbles away.

"She slaps him in the face when he tries to kiss her but she'll also knock crooks out to help him."

Like Pedersen, Bisley does not see his character as a replacement for Holloway but rather as a separate being entirely.

"It's not as if Holloway has metamorphosed into Christie," he said. "Christie is a different character from Holloway. There's no sense of trying to shoehorn this character into space left by Holloway. Now I'm just trying to develop the character myself."

Water Rats airs on Tuesdays on Channel 9 at 8.30pm

By Rachel Browne
March 14, 1999