Thursday, April 20, 2006

Linda Herrick: Stiff out of luck on One

One of the best lines in Murray Whelan: Stiff, which screened on TV One a couple of weeks back, went like this. Victorian Labor Party hack and amateur sleuth Whelan, played in a typically understated way by David Wenham, is separated from his Canberra-based wife or, as he prefers to put it, he hasn't had his "end away" for quite some time.

When Murray's erstwhile roofer, a story in himself, told him his wife seemed very nice, Murray replied, "Yes, she does impressions".

Stiff and its successor Murray Whelan: The Brush-Off, were two fine products made by a loose circle of Melbourne friends with a lot of talent and not much time or money to get the job done.

Inspired by the Murray Whelan comic thrillers written by Shane Maloney, the production team included Sam Neill and John Clarke, who each directed an episode.

Both were huge ratings winners for Channel Seven in 2004. Here, they were sunk into a late-night Saturday slot, with little fanfare. TV One's promo department certainly did nothing to make sure they had an audience.

A shame. It's always nice to see Sam Neill on screen in a non-Merlin, non-blockbuster role and in the Clarke-directed Stiff, he had a small but pivotal part as Lionel Merricks, captain of industry and a pompous prick.

Good as Stiff was, as Murray demonstrated his flair for accidents and nose for corruption, this time within the meat industry, The Brush-Off was even better, with its delicious satire of the Melbourne art scene and misuse of government funds to line private pockets. Joel Tobeck was particularly effective as a sinister black-clad chauffeur who turned out to be an undercover cop.

The Brush-Off was Neill's debut as a drama director - and what an assured job he did. While there was plenty to snigger at in Stiff, The Brush-Off delivered a much broader sweep of humour.

The scene when Murray was locked in the basement of the art collective then electrocuted himself while trying to escape via a ladder, and ended up catapulting himself into a huge inflatable woman, sounds puerile but was one of the most hysterical, perfectly executed pratfalls I've seen on the telly for ages.

Neill, the cunning old fox, has created a persona of ironic self-deprecation, seeking privacy in his little vineyard in Central Otago. But the same weekend Stiff screened, he seemed to be all over the screen, playing himself.

He was on BBC World's Peschardt's People, a half-hour interview with Michael Peschardt as they strolled around the grapes discussing race relations, politics, his accidental career and going for a tootle in his vintage truck.

Lo and behold, half an hour later, there he was again on the Living Channel's Great Outdoors programme - same location, same truck, same wry chit-chat about his accidental career.

Come on Sam! Admit it: you've been a terrific actor since the mid-70s, although I far prefer the Sam Neill of the Death in Brunswick genre rather than the Sam Neill of the Jurassic Park- Merlin-Bicentennial Man schools. But those big Hollywood movies pay the bills for the vineyards, the privacy, the access to low-budget work like the Murray Whelan projects.

Let's hope Clarke and Neill will be able to make more telefilms from the Whelan series, with remaining novels Nice Try, The Big Ask and Something Fishy just begging for small-screen adaptation. In the meantime, on Easter Sunday on TV2, Neill was back again in Merlin's Apprentice. Awful ... but it would have paid some bills.

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