His resume is as long as your arm, full of hits and acclaimed productions.
Early successes frequently involved spirit gum and period costumes. But it’s been a while since John Waters has played a period character in an Australian telemovie. On Sunday night he appears as Mark Frettlby, a wealthy patriarch in ABC1′s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.
“There’s a trend worldwide going back to these period pieces which I’m really pleased about, because it’s what I was doing in the 70s when I first started working in this country,” he recalls.
“Years have gone by and we’ve completely neglected the Australian historical stuff, so it’s nice to get back to it, I believe.
“Telemovies and miniseries were my bread and butter in the 1980s and a bit of the 70s too. It’s strange that we’ve neglected them but it’s dictated I suppose by a style of viewing that people have.”
The drama is based on a best-selling 1886 novel by writer Fergus Hume in which a man takes a horse-driven hansom cab from Melbourne to St. Kilda but winds up dead before journey’s end. Waters admits he didn’t read the book, preferring to work with the script by writer Glen Dolman.
“We were playing a concept by the scriptwriter who made the adaptation, and the director. You can throw yourself if you read the source material, because it’s actually not what you’re doing, and in case they’ve made changes,” he says.
“So I just read the script thoroughly and worked from there.
“I think the story was pretty much unchanged, so it was just the way the writer captured it, with a bit of flashing forward and backwards in time.
“What I liked about it when I saw it was the way the director Shawn Seet has used modern techniques with the camera work for a period piece rather than just having the usual big, wide, sweeping shots with a camera mounted on smooth tracks or the camera on a tripod a lot of the time.
“It’s modern, it’s hand-held, because Shawn has done a lot of directing on Underbelly.
“My overall impression of the telemovie is that it sits comfortably in its own period. It doesn’t scream ‘Period’ at you. You just accept the period and then get interested in the story.”
Joining him on screen are Shane Jacobson, Helen Morse, Oliver Ackland, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Brett Climo, Felix Williamson, Charles Cousins, Marco Chiappi and Gerry Connolly.
Set in 1886, the telemovie adds CGI to actual locations to recreate colonial Melbourne town. Italianate Werribee Mansion, 30km west of the city, serves as the family estate to Mark Threttlby, bringing a touch of Downton Abbey to the saga.
“The amazing thing we’re talking about is it’s only just over 100 years since the First Fleet arrived in this period of the 1880s,” Waters explains.
“I’m astonished by the historic fact that Australia was massive in terms of its urban life by then. Melbourne was one of the richest towns in the world in its day, having been made rich by the gold rush and wool.
“I was told by one of the historians at Werribee House wool overtook gold by far and the wealthy graziers, such as the fictional one that I play named Mark Frettlby, were seriously rich by anybody’s standards. They had massive tracts of land and made a lot of money.
“I’m told it was essential to be a member of the Melbourne boys’ club in those days.”
For one who is such a fan of telemovies, I have to ask about the challenges of marketing such a format in the current TV landscape. Are they a single bullet in the magazine? One shot for a broadcaster to make their mark, with no chance at building from word of mouth?
“Everybody knows that a telemovie will probably have a longer life on DVD than it will have on a Free to Air station. But that’s fine, that’s just the way things are today. If you’ve got a good product you can sell it over and over worldwide. It’s good to have something uniquely Australian like this, because you look at the society and you see that it’s modelled on English society and yet it comes across to me very strongly that this is the beginning of modern Australia,” he says.
“You have a lawyer who was an ex-convict who has made his way through an elevated position in Australia despite his beginnings. That’s part of the egalitarianism of Australian society which I believe has continued to this day.
“You see a feisty young woman who’s not afraid to voice her own opinions, despite her father, and that again is a sign of the beginnings of modern Australia.”
But for fear of giving away key spoilers in the whodunnit, he withholds too much detail on his character’s background.
“Just say what I normally say in these circumstances, which is that there are things in his past which wouldn’t be as meaningful today as they were then!”
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab 8:30pm Sunday on ABC1.