CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

INTERVIEW:
JOHN WOOD

 


Copyright 2005 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


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This interview originally appeared in TV EYE No. 6, September 1995.

John Wood is known to many as Sgt. Tom Croydon in the successful police series Blue Heelers.  John's other credits include the role of Sugar in the ABC adaptation of Frank Hardy's novel Power Without Glory, and the title role in the courtroom series Rafferty's Rules.  And, of course, he also hosted the Homicide 30th anniversary special.  John found time in his busy Blue Heelers schedule to talk to TV Eye about his career:

 

What was your first television role?

Barrier Reef was my first professional gig. I just came out of NIDA and negotiated a contract to go into the Old Tote theatre in Sydney, and over that Christmas period I was offered this job. It was my first television job so I was fairly naive, and at that time Actors Equity went on strike - it was extraordinary. I wasn't even a fully fledged member of Equity at that stage, and already I was having phone calls from the producer, Joy Cavill, and I was terrified of this apparent ogre on the other end of the phone saying, "You're @#$%^&* working here and you better get on that @#$%^& plane!" And I thought, 'Oh no, who is this tyrant?!', and I had visions of a giant. When I got to location and met her for the first time I found she was about 4 foot 3, and she turned out to be rather nice. But I was terrified, I didn't know what to do, whether to do what Equity said or to get on the plane. It was also my first aeroplane flight.

You worked on that episode with Tristan Rogers.

Yes, he's very famous now, but back then he was as young and inexperienced as I was.

The 'Catwalk' episode of Dynasty would have been your next role?

That's very possible, I don't really remember, although the chronology sounds right. That would have been my first year in the business, which isn't bad to do two TV things in one year. I don't know how I fitted it in as I was pretty busy with The Old Tote.

When you did that Dynasty episode were they already planning the Catwalk spin-off?

It came about during the course of shooting that episode, I think. But again I was pretty inexperienced and I was only on the periphery of it. I saw this real giant, Tony Morphett, wandering around, and people were talking about how great this episode was and how it would make a wonderful spin-off, and most of the time I had no idea what they were talking about. But when it did come up it seemed like a great idea, and you started to think, 'Fancy only doing two jobs and then they offer you a series - gee, I'm already a TV star!'. I don't really think of myself as being a TV star even now - it's an accidental career in a sense, in that I never had any intention of working in television. I didn't even know television would be a by-product of what I wanted to do, which was be a stage actor - it never occurred to me that stage actors also did radio plays and television stuff.  Generally speaking, in many ways stage is more satisfying than television, partly because you get that instantaneous response from the audience. Theatre's the love and television was, in those days, the bread and butter.

Did your part in the Catwalk series come about simply because you happened to be in the Dynasty episode?

Yes it did, although not everybody from that episode went on to Catwalk. I have to say I didn't enjoy Catwalk much. I resigned after seven episodes; I just wasn't enjoying it, I didn't like the process of working on television constantly, I didn't really get on with the director, and I found John Forgeham a pain at times - he had amazing arrogance. I saw him as a baddie recently in Pie In The Sky, a show I love, and thought he was terribly good - very good work. (John Forgeham played the lead role of Saxon Wells in Catwalk). One of the great things about doing Catwalk was meeting Michael Lattimer, who asked me to play Hamlet which we did together at the Playbox in Sydney. He's back in the UK and we keep in touch.

Tony Harrison's book 'The Australian Film And Television Companion' states that you did an episode of Boney, but our research suggests you didn't.

No, I'm sure I didn't. I was around when Boney was being made - I was doing 'Taming Of The Shrew' at the Old Tote with John Bell and James Laurenson's wife Carole. She was playing the shrew while Jim was out here doing Boney, but I never did an episode of it.

You had many guest appearances in various productions at that time, including obscure series such as A Nice Day At The Office, which are never seen now.

Television before the advent of video was a bit like theatre - it was sort of ephemeral, it happened, and it was gone. I was amazed at seeing that list of Australian stuff in your magazine, it was mind boggling, I had no idea that we had made so much stuff, and then I look at it and realise I was in so much of it too!

You did a fair amount of work for Crawfords on their police series.

Yes, as did everybody. At that stage, and I'm sure everybody you've ever interviewed has said it, if they flew you down from Sydney to do a Homicide, they'd try and get you to do a Divvy 4 at the same time so they wouldn't have to pay for two air fares.

What about Matlock Police?

My recollection of Matlock is very hazy. I remember doing an episode in which Danny Adcock and I raped Sally Conabere, and there was another one too, but I can't remember what that would have been. But I do remember shooting a scene at the abattoir in Ferntree Gully - Michael Pate had to chase me across a paddock and arrest me and, of course, he couldn't catch me! He'd be able to catch me today I think! But I'll never forget, we did a take and we were about to do another take, and Michael said to me out of breath, "Johnny, (wheeze) when we do this run across the paddock here (wheeze), could you slow down?" So I slowed down so he could catch me. It stands to reason of course, but it's not the sort of thing you think about when you are young.

Do you think it's valid that people compare Blue Heelers to Matlock?

It's valid in as much as they're both cop shows in a rural town. Matlock did a lot of filming around Lilydale, which is a different sort of town now, whereas we use Castlemaine as a setting. I don't know how they compare really - Matlock had Michael Pate as a Sergeant, but he was plain clothes, wasn't he?

Yes - they had two detectives, and Paul Cronin as the motorcycle cop. Vic Gordon as the desk Sergeant would probably be the closest to your character.

Yes, I suppose he would. We had Vic on Blue Heelers recently. I remember meeting Vic on Matlock and watching him on telly as a kid in The Happy Show and stuff like that. It makes you really proud to know these guys are still able to work in the business, and are prepared to come on the show. They are treated with respect, and it's great to have people like him in the show.

You were obviously asked to do the Homicide special because of the Blue Heelers connection.

Yes, because we are the modern police show, I guess. But it was a great thing to do, I really loved doing it and it was tremendous to be identified with it. And apart from that I'm probably one of the few actors around working constantly at the moment who was actually in it. I only did a couple of episodes, but I was there, and I do have really fond recollections of people like Alwyn Kurts. Alwyn hasn't been in this show (Blue Heelers) but he was in Rafferty's Rules and he was fantastic, just fantastic, he gave a great performance.

When we made that Homicide documentary and I saw myself up on the screen as a young man, it was quite a shock to the system to see that I actually used to be quite thin! I was surprised at the footage we used for the 30th anniversary, it was much better than my recollection of it. Howard Griffiths, who was a writer on Homicide and script editor on Power Without Glory and The Truckies, and in fact set up Rafferty's Rules, he believed that as the scripts on Homicide got better and better, the more sharply the audience fell away!

You did Power Without Glory in 1976.

That was a fantastic thing to be involved with. At that stage I was working for the Melbourne Theatre Company, and I'd applied for a Literature Board grant because I wanted to concentrate on writing for a while. I got the grant and resigned from the MTC and I was going to sit down and write for a year. About two months later they offered me Power Without Glory. The original character they offered me was Fred, the politician which Barry Hill ended up playing alongside Rowena Wallace, and I thought that sounded good. I read the book and I liked the character, then they rang back and offered me Barney, who George Mallaby ended up playing. Then a few weeks after that they said, "We still want you to be in it, but we want you to play Sugar". And I said, "No thanks, forget it", because I had visions of next week being offered something else then something else. So I thought I'd just go back to writing, but they talked me into it and I'm glad they did because Sugar was a great role.

That was the role you won a Logie for.

Yes. Barney was a great role too, and so was Piggy which Michael Aitken played. Piggy was particularly memorable because of the hanging scene, apart from the fact that Michael was terrific playing Piggy all the way through.

Was it the most demanding job you had?

It was certainly the hardest in terms of the amount of time spent in the make-up chair. I'm really not mad about sitting in the make-up chair, and as we grew older we started to wear a lot of latex and stuff like that. I was 28 at the time, and I aged from 18 to 72 during the course of the thing. It would be interesting to see again the middle years, where Sugar got to the age I am now, to see how close we got to the physicality and weight and all that stuff.

Did you get to meet Frank Hardy?

Yes, I was a big fan of Frank's, I thought he was a great guy. He was around, not all the time, but he was around. He actually bought the series several years later because he felt the ABC should show it again, and for some reason they had decided they weren't going to. So he negotiated to buy it and Channel Ten replayed it. I heard that someone had negotiated recently to buy the film rights, and the terms included shelving the television series so there would be no competition if they made the movie, but whether there is any truth in that I don't know.

You wrote for The Truckies as well as appearing in it?

An episode, yes, I wrote one episode of it. The Truckies was fantastic. It was from basically the same team that did Power Without Glory; Howard Griffiths and Oscar Whitbread. Keith Thompson was the scriptwriter and Howard was the editor, and I think Howard actually wrote or co-wrote several of the episodes. I thought it was a tremendously innovative show, but it came aground on the reef of ABC internal politics. Obviously there were things wrong with it, and I guess by going for truthfulness they stuffed up in a sense, because one of the problems in driving along in a truck and doing different angles and two shots and reverses is that it's totally impossible to match the engine revs at any time. But apart from that problem of not being able to match the soundtrack, I thought it was a wonderful show.

Unfortunately it caused a lot of havoc, because the guy who took over as head of drama in Sydney had been an ex-sound recordist, and he regarded it as beneath his 'golden standard', so he was very willing to sabotage it. And it was a great excuse for the Sydney mob to say you stuffed up down there. They did it all the time - there was a series called Catspaw that I thought was just garbage. I could be wrong, but my impression was that it was foisted on the ABC Melbourne drama department because it was believed it would fail, and it would make them look bad. Of course, up to this point they had been turning out stuff that was pretty good. Catspaw had been commissioned in Sydney, and looked like it was going to be made in Sydney, and then it was realised that it was just a bag of garbage and they decided not to do it, and then all of a sudden it was sent to Melbourne. And the Melbourne people said it was rubbish, they don't want to do it, and Sydney said 'well, tough, you're doing it, that's it'. They tried to salvage it, but it was pretty hopeless.

Did you write The Truckies episode because you were in the show, or had you been previously involved in the creation of the series?

No, it just sort of happened. Basically we did it as an experiment. Howard encouraged me to do it because he read a play I'd written which had been performed in a few places, and he thought I could write, and I had an idea for an episode. It was the first thing I ever wrote for television, it ended up being called 'Rear Vision' which was Howard's idea, it was his title.

Did you find it challenging turning to writing after acting?

It was a challenge. We also did a scene in that episode, and I don't think anyone would even attempt it now, which ran for 23 minutes. It was set in a house during a birthday party - it started at the front door, went into the kid's bedroom, then came out and went down the hallway into the kitchen and back into the room where the party was. Mike Lovebrook, who directed it, decided that because it had a really nice build to it, and people went from one room to another and the story just kept going, it would have been almost impossible to maintain a continuity without shooting it in one hit. We rehearsed it several times of course, but we did it in two takes. As I said, I don't think anyone would even attempt it now; they'd change the nature of the writing. They'd say, 'No, you can't do that, so we'll make a cut here, and it will be a hard cut to something else in the other room'. But it worked. I think the show was really interesting, it had a lot of really good stuff going for it

Did you ever write for Rafferty's Rules?

I did actually. I wrote an episode of Rafferty's Rules which was about a bus driver under enormous stress who loses the plot. It was written in the first year of the show and was released and given to the actors to do, and was regarded as possibly the best episode written up until then. The day before we were to start rehearsal it was withdrawn. No explanation was ever really given: I was told that the managing director of Channel Seven in Sydney read it and thought I had made Rafferty into a buffoon, and he didn't want it to be made. I personally have my doubts about that - I can't imagine the head of Seven today reading Blue Heelers scripts, and I'm sure he didn't read Rafferty's Rules scripts then.

That excuse seems somewhat incredulous - surely you of all people would have known the character of Rafferty well enough.

Yes, I would be the last person in Australia to make him into a buffoon, so I don't know what the politics of it actually were, but it certainly smacked of a political decision to me.

What other series did you write for?

I wrote for Cop Shop, Prisoner, The Sullivans... I wrote about 45 episodes all up.

That's an aspect of your career most people aren't aware of.

Television, as I said earlier, is an avenue of work I never really expected to be in. I never wanted to be a star of any kind, I just believed I had things I could contribute to this society. There are all sorts of other things I probably should have worked at harder, like painting or music or writing. But painting and writing are such solo activities, and I came to music too late and therefore I never got skilled enough at it. Acting has a nice camaraderie about it, and I just love that aspect of the life. Working in the amateur theatre in the early days, you had absolutely no energy left by the time you had finished because you'd been helping with sets, painting or erecting them or whatever, as well as learning the show and getting it on. When you finished that you'd be really spent, but you felt like you'd really done something tremendous.

So the reason I became an actor was because I felt I had something I could contribute. I suddenly got to a period after an episode of Cop Shop I was working on, in which I did very little, said two or three lines, ran around looking like a baddie and got arrested by John Orcsik. I thought this is not why I want to be an actor, I'm hardly contributing to the show I'm in let alone to society in general. So I thought I would go back to writing, which gave me an element of anonymity because you could write all sorts of rubbish and nobody knew it was you.

Was there any favourite script that you wrote, or one that particularly stands out?

There was one episode of Prisoner that I really liked. Lizzie Birdsworth and the others were going to have a pantomime or show of some kind, and I somehow got the idea of them doing 'Hamlet'. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, and I got an awful lot of gags. I never saw it - who knows what it was like when it got to air!

When we were filming Coast Town Kids down at Lorne I was in a hamburger joint one night, standing waiting for some chips or something, and I suddenly heard this voice saying something. And I thought, 'I recognise that - I wrote that, I wrote that!' There was a television on in the shop, and an episode of Prisoner was being screened, and it was the first time I'd ever actually seen anything I'd written. It was extraordinary. My youngest daughter used to watch Prisoner avidly, and I remember walking through the house one night and I said, "What are you watching garbage like this for?" She was about 8 and I thought she had no business to be watching it, and she said, "Well, you write it!" So I had nothing I could say to that.

I personally feel that soaps like Home And Away and Neighbours are just appallingly dreary. That sort of stuff is heightened reality to a degree, like, who cares how many cups of tea people drink or how many girlfriends one of those young boys has got. But obviously it has enormous appeal to young people, and it's quite ludicrous. I walk through the room sometimes when one of my daughters will be watching it, and somebody will be going through all the motions of a Greek tragedy over the fact they've broken a fingernail or their acne is a bit on the nose.

Have you ever wanted to write for Blue Heelers?

I've actually written an episode of Blue Heelers which we start making in a couple of weeks (mid-June 1995) and it's turned out OK. I hadn't written anything for quite a while, I basically got burned out during that period I was writing all that other stuff. Television just chews up all your ideas, really chews them up really quickly, they're on air for 42 minutes and they're gone, so I stopped writing for quite a while. I wanted to write for the theatre again, but in a sense I've lost interest in it because the chances of actually getting anything on are so minimal. Compared to the amount of time it takes to write a play, it's just not worth it.

So for now it's Blue Heelers?

For now it's Blue Heelers and I've got no regrets there. I love Blue Heelers, I think it's fantastic. I think it's getting the sorts of audiences it deserves - I think it could get more, a lot of people obviously haven't had a look at it, but I think once they do they'll probably stay with it for a while. Someone wrote not that long ago that we can't keep blaming the fact that we don't have enough money to make shows, we can't keep saying that's the excuse for why Australian television is not brilliant, but, I'm afraid we can. The amount of money that we spend on a programme, and the quality of the programme that we come up with given that amount of money is just phenomenal. When you think of some of the lead actors in American shows, like for instance the guy who plays Superman, his salary would probably pay to make Blue Heelers for six months.

Then they say Australians can't do action, well of course we can't do action when you've only got two hours to shoot it. The budgets of some American shows are astronomical - fine, the stuff they make makes money, but the thing that amount of money creates is time. It gives them time to do stuff, they don't have to make their programme in five days, they can take six days or even a couple of weeks, and that's a big advantage. They've got time to do stuff properly, they can say, "No, that wasn't good enough, let's do it again", whereas we have to say, "Yeah, we can get away with that, we haven't got time to shoot it again". That happens less on Blue Heelers than on most things, but it happens. We've got one of the best cameramen I've ever come across working on it, we've got good directors, the scripts are basically pretty good, and the main cast are phenomenally good actors.

Do you get much feedback from the police at all?

Basically the police like it, and so they should - it actually paints them in a very nice light.

With your roles in Barrier Reef, Dynasty and Catwalk, you'd be one of the few actors who didn't get their start at Crawfords.

I suppose so - it never occurred to me. I certainly worked there though, I did a couple of Matlocks and a couple of Homicides. In one Homicide I played a cameraman (ep. 480 'Who Saw Them Die'). George Miller directed that, and it was very silly because I had a TV camera on my shoulder and I was filming, zooming up this bank, and there's a body. I turned to the guy beside me, and he looked, and we looked at each other, and I said to George Miller, "Unless he looks through the lens, there is no way he is going to be able to see this body because we've zoomed in on this little speck up the riverbank!" George disappeared for about ten minutes and came back and said, "About that ad lib - do it with acting!" I'm sure my jaw dropped! I thought everything I was doing was with acting!

Do you have a favourite role?

It's hard to say. Power Without Glory was fantastic because it was so diverse, and it was a character that grew and grew and grew over thirteen months and 26 episodes. The actual character development was phenomenal, it's something you don't get in weekly TV. I really enjoy playing Tom Croydon, but, although there are things that happen to him that change him, Tom's essentially the same as he was at episode 1, whereas Sugar aged 50 odd years in a short time.

I really loved Rafferty's Rules because Rafferty was so bright and the show was so whimsical, I really loved the whimsicality of the show, I thought it was fantastic. The scripts were constantly good, and I particularly loved working in that original quartet of actors: Simon, Arky, Kate and myself. I really think that we actually created a television style that was quite different in terms of drama than anything that had been done on Australian television before. It sounds pompous I guess to say it like this, but we were all theatre actors basically, the four of us, so there's a sense of real theatricality about that stuff that you don't often get in television. Gestures and facial reactions would be big, sometimes too big and over the top, but most of the time it works fairly well and people responded to it in a really positive way.

It didn't reflect in the ratings unfortunately, but I think it was really unlucky to go to air at a time when the Network was being subsumed by the Skase organisation, and then you get a situation where HSV Melbourne starts to feel threatened by ATN in Sydney. The Network as such, the broad network, didn't get behind Rafferty's Rules in the way they've gotten behind Blue Heelers. There are people within the network who would have thought it was too intellectual or too this or too that, all those sorts of things really go against it. But I personally think it was the best thing I've done in terms of creating - oh, maybe I don't think it was the best thing I've done, who knows? I mean, I wouldn't have a clue.