Garry Mcdonald's Role Reversal

Sydney Morning Herald

Monday January 27, 1997

JENNY TABAKOFF

Garry McDonald has left the bumbling Norman Gunston behind him and moved on. He talks to JENNY TABAKOFF about his changed attitude towards TV scripts and his role in the ABC's new drama series, Fallen Angels

IT is as hot as Hades in Hornsby and Garry McDonald doesn't like the heat. Every now and then he springs to his feet and gazes restlessly out the window.

"Shhhhlp, shhhhlp," he says. "Starting to come up!"

McDonald does a good impression of a bass rising to the bait - and he would much rather be reeling in fish than reeling off self-revelations to a journalist. Particularly on a day when the air is hot and thick and the white ants have just hatched and the bass will be going mad ...

Reluctantly he drags himself back to the sofa. Is he tired after five months at an old council depot in Hornsby filming Fallen Angels, his new ABC drama series?

"Five months? No!" he says. "Oh yes, I suppose it is ... Five months! God almighty! It's a big drive out here."

It seems as if it is going to be one of those interviews.

McDonald reveals that he turned 48 the other day. "Wow," I say, idiotically, brain frying in the heat.

"Thank you," he says. "Wow that I admitted to it, or wow that I've lasted this long?"

A few years ago, some mightn't have predicted McDonald would last this long. In 1993, when he broke down during the last Norman Gunston series, suffering from depression and anxiety, people wondered whether he would ever act again.

But a few months later he emerged to film another series of Mother and Son for the ABC, and has never looked back. There was a stage play, Hotspur, the pantomime of Aladdin and a long tour with his wife, Diane Craig, in Double Act, as well as television work. The recovery, he says, is complete. McDonald is genial, thoughtful and self-effacing, even at high temperatures. Still, we decide it's too hot to think and resolve to try again another day.

Which is how, a couple of weeks later and about 10 degrees cooler, we come to be sitting once again in the laughably unglamorous "green room" at the Hornsby set of Fallen Angels. The series revolves around a fictitious legal centre in Sydney's western suburbs; after 22 weeks' filming, the sign outside the "Endeavour Park community legal centre" has become such a fixture that passers-by occasionally drift on to the set, asking to see a lawyer.

The long shoot is almost finished and McDonald is looking forward to going on three fishing holidays: "There's light at the end of the tunnel. It's a long haul, it really is."

McDonald plays the legal centre's founder, Malcolm Lucas, a man who has sacrificed his personal life for a career that increasingly brings him little happiness. The action revolves around the six lawyers (Celia de Burgh and newcomer Jeremy Ball loom largest), and the drama is leavened with copious doses of humour.

Fallen Angels is a long way from LA Law. The courtroom scenes, McDonald says, contain "none of this Perry Mason s----". The law, as practised in Endeavour Park, is pragmatic and unglamorous: disillusioned, underpaid solicitors doing what little they can for clients who are often shifty, at the bottom of the social heap and reluctant to help themselves.

Much is riding on the success of the 20-part series, which goes to air on February 7. If the recommendations of the Mansfield report are adopted, the ABC is likely to contract out most of its drama. Certainly we are unlikely to see such a big in-house production as Fallen Angels again.

McDONALD says 1996 was the year he decided to let go. In recent years he has worked with familiar directors, writers, actors. "For so long I've tried to control so much in my life, control the quality of the scripts, everything had to be just right ... It's not so much artistic concern, it's more concern for myself."

He decided he had to "break that thing about control" - if only because over the years, he had rejected scripts, then seen reworked versions become successful shows. "I didn't have the faith that the people producing it would do that ... So I decided to take whatever came along."

"Whatever came along" has included the rather surprising combination of Fallen Angels and RipSnorters, a celebrity panel show for Channel Seven which will air in late February.

A panel show? McDonald is unrepentant: "It'll be interesting. It'll be good fun," he insists.

"You just don't go from something that's wonderful to something (equally) wonderful the next day. You've got to be realistic. Not that I'm saying the game show will not be wonderful but ... to go from one powerful drama and say, 'I'm only doing powerful drama from now on' is not realistic. It's like if I only did sitcoms - I'd only be in sitcoms seven episodes a year. You can't live on that."

And anyway, he adds, as panel shows go, RipSnorters will be funny, and relatively intellectual: three celebrity panellists each spin an amusing yarn to a contestant, who stands to win up to $10,000 by guessing which story is true.

McDonald takes comfort that there will be no carry-over champs, and no cars or recliner rockers among the prizes.

"It's purely money," he says. "Cash! Cash! And just sort of fun."

He adds mysteriously: "I'm also talking to them (Seven) about other programs."

But isn't McDonald abandoning his spiritual home in leaving the ABC? He rubs his beard.

"I suppose ... whatever I've done that has been innovative for me, that has been like a watershed for me, has always been at the ABC. From The Aunty Jack Show, the Norman Gunston Show, Mother and Son, Jimmy Dancer ... They've all been ABC. At Seven I'll be doing something fresh, so it'll be hopefully ..." His voice trails off.

Right now, however, McDonald's thoughts are more on Fallen Angels, and two long speeches he has to make in the last episode. Between takes, he vanishes to rehearse his lines on a bench outside.

When he read the script for the last episode, he cried. "That last episode is really beautiful. Malcolm is probably at his lowest. Everything's gone wrong." The character has reached crisis point, "but out of that comes hope".

"Deep down he knows that he needs a change, but he can't let go. Most of us have to be forced into a change, something drastic has to happen."

He adds: "I can empathise with that."

Becoming emotionally involved with his characters is often a problem. The cliche is that comedy is harder than drama but, McDonald says: "(Drama) knocks you around a bit more emotionally. You just find yourself suddenly crying like that." He snaps his fingers. "I've noticed that a lot ... Because you're fiddling with your emotions so much, really playing on your emotions to make yourself feel certain things, it takes it out of you."

That is why he is looking forward to RipSnorters. Not much emotional trauma there, it would seem. "One would hope not ..." he says, "except at that terribly moving moment when the contestant didn't win the $10,000."

When you think of McDonald, you often think of his characters rather than the man. Quiet and unassuming, the actor often seems subsumed by his creations. After Gunston, Arthur Beare and Jimmy Dancer, is Malcolm Lucas another monster in the making?

"I have that trouble with all the roles I play," McDonald says. "I always start to identify with all the worst aspects of them."

Then he emits one of his characteristic "ha ha ha" laughs, while his brown eyes crinkle up and his jaw drops like a Muppet's.

McDONALD was brought up in Sydney's eastern suburbs. His father was a clothing manufacturer, and both parents were dismayed when their Cranbrook schoolboy son caught the acting bug at 14 or 15 and professed a desire to study at NIDA. "Or Von Nida's, as my grandmother called it," muses McDonald. "Norman Von Nida was a golfer, so I don't know what the hell she thought I was doing ..."

Acting was the only profession that appealed to him, and he never doubted that he would be accepted into NIDA. "It was just the cockiness of youth," he says.

Even then, he wanted to do comedy. "I wasn't interested in the straight stuff."

Nothing has changed. "I still like doing comedy the best. It's the most fun ... Fallen Angels has got a lot of humour ... They've tried to put humour in every scene, actually. Even in a scene where a relationship is breaking up, there's still sort of humour in it. Just like real life."

There is a price, though, for being a comic actor: people expect you to be funny all the time.

"It's like Roy Rene would get upset when people would laugh at him when he wasn't being funny. It happens to me too. People will laugh at me when I'm not intentionally being funny. I just can't help it."

McDonald talks openly about his breakdown (usually referred to as "when I was sick"). Does he mind discussing it? "Oh no, I just get sick of reading about it ... I seem to run off at the mouth about it all the time. It gets a bit tedious."

Does he ever regret that his breakdown was such a public event? "Not really, because it actually highlighted, I think, anxiety disorders."

He talks passionately about the extent of misdiagnosis and mistreatment, and the way governments pour millions of dollars down the drain on medication when "they should be shoving the money into self-help programs ... The only way you get better is to work on your thinking and change your way of thinking. That can't be done with any pill."

But are people who have got rid of their neuroses as funny? "It probably does make you a bit sort of boring, but you know ..." McDonald begins, then recalls a conversation with an actor friend who had taken up transcendental meditation to help him through a stressful time.

"I said, 'It's great, isn't it? How did you find it?' He said, 'Oh, I had to give it up. It made me so relaxed, it ruined my comedy.'"

McDonald is hopeful that it has not ruined his comedy. In fact, if there is one thing he hankers for, it is one more great comic character.

And will we ever see Norman Gunston again? McDonald shakes his head and says that, at 48, he cannot play the gauche ingenue reporter forever.

"I can't imagine I'll ever put him to bed for good and all, but I can't imagine him being a mainstay in my career. I mean, I've done that. I love it, but you move on."

CHANGE IS HARD TO BEARE

THIS month the BBC started production in Bristol of its own version of Mother and Son, something which irks Garry McDonald, who played Arthur Beare for 11 years.

Geoffrey Atherden, who wrote Mother and Son, has modified some of the early scripts for the new series. The British show (working title Keeping Mum) stars Stephanie Cole (of Waiting for God) as the mother and Martin Ball as the son (who, incidentally, is called Andrew, not Arthur).

McDonald says he does not mind the idea of the son being played by someone else. After all, Mother and Son has already been made into a series in South America. "That was very different," he says. "Mum was a bit young, actually ... a bit glam."

What hurts him is that the BBC never bought the original series (although it was aired on Britain's Channel 4) yet liked the scripts enough to make its own version. McDonald thinks that is symptomatic of a larger British disdain for good Australian television.

"That annoys me ..." he says. "They only want to buy stuff like soaps. Anything else they think they make better."

McDonald says Atherden has told him he is making Arthur "a little bit more feisty" than he was in the early Australian episodes.

"It is strange, I suppose," McDonald muses. "It's not mine, though. He (Atherden) wrote it. I haven't spoken to Ruth (Cracknell) about it ... I wonder how she feels ... I just can't imagine anyone else doing (Maggie)."

WATCHING BRIEF

SHOW: Fallen Angels

DAY: Friday February 7

TIME: 8.30 pm on ABC

© 1997 Sydney Morning Herald

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