CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN TELEVISION

INTERVIEW:
NORMAN YEMM

 


Copyright 2005 Don Storey.  All rights reserved.


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This interview originally appeared in TV EYE No. 2, May 1994.

Norman Yemm is an all-round entertainer - singer, cabaret performer and actor. He is well-known for his role of Norm Baker in The Sullivans, but he is best remembered as Senior Detective Jim Patterson in episodes 211 - 333 of that classic Australian drama series Homicide. TV EYE caught up with Norman for a brief talk about those days:

 

Let's start with Homicide ep. 249, 'The Superintendent', which featured your twin brother Gordon playing Eddie, the twin brother of Detective Jim Patterson. It was a comedy - how did such an unusual episode come into being?

One day we were doing a Homicide episode and Luis Bayonas was on the set because it was one of his scripts. While we were filming my twin brother Gordon arrived, and Luis started talking to him thinking it was me. When he realised there were two of us, he said "You guys are like peas in a pod. I'd love to write a story around that". And because I am a bit of a practical joker and cracked a couple of gags, he came up with a comedy episode.

Early on they were worried that Gordon couldn't act - he was a musician, but he'd never acted before - so to cover themselves they dressed us in the same clothes, and I actually played the guest part, which was the most difficult role. After the episode went to air, friends told Gordon they thought he was terrific in the show. Gordon said "I'll bet you didn't know which one was me", and they said "Yes we did, we could tell by your voice", and Gordon said "Well, Norman dubbed both voices!" What actually happened was when there was a difficult scene Gordon played the detective in two-shots while I played Eddie, and in close-up I played both roles and I did all the dialogue.

Other Homicide episodes have featured some comedy segments, but that was the only totally comedy episode made of what is otherwise a straight drama series.

There may have been other ones, but as far as I know it was. Homicide was always about murder cases, and it's not easy to get a comedy murder case.

Did Gordon do any other Homicide episodes?

The only other time was when I had my leg in plaster, and now that I come to think of it that was the time Luis saw us. I did all the close-ups, then I'd fall out of the close-up shot and it would cut to the two-shot with Gordon standing there. He also did all the running and fighting, but he didn't do any dialogue - I dubbed the voice over. I'm actually one of the few actors who has an immediate stand-in.

How did you get the part of Detective Patterson in Homicide?

I'm a very poor auditionee. I've hardly got any work at all from auditions - I get too nervous, I get withdrawn and I don't give my best. My first part was in 'The Hook' (Homicide ep. 10), in which I was hiding behind a foreign accent, and then I went from one episode to another. 'Flashpoint' (ep. 56) and 'The Hero' (ep. 186) were my two favourite roles, and it was basically from those two roles that I got the part of Detective Patterson. I was considered for the part of Kragg in Hunter, but Gerard Kennedy got that role - the final choice was between the two of us, as Gerard and I were their favourite baddies. Later I thought I had a good chance for Division 4 because of my previous work, so I thought my nerves had shot me again, but then they approached me to take over from Lionel Long who was leaving Homicide. So nearly all my work I've got on the strength of my previous work. Nowadays it's a lot tougher because you have to audition, and I have a habit of blowing auditions.

Were you doing any acting before 'The Hook'?

I was an opera singer until I was in my thirties and I did a lot of musicals. I had a singing scholarship, studied for two years, and went to Tasmania to play the lead in 'Oklahoma'. Later I went back there to teach for the theatre, and did all the musicals like 'South Pacific', 'Paint Your Wagon' and a few plays. I went back to Melbourne and did 'Sound Of Music'. When I was 29 or 30 I became one of the principal baritones for the Australian Opera Company, playing the title role in 'Don Pasquali' and others. I was there for four and a half years, when I decided to leave and study acting. I did 'Man Of La Mancha', and within a year I was doing TV guest roles, the first being 'The Hook'.

Was 'Flashpoint', the all-film episode, very different to work on?

Yes. Normally, one week we film the exteriors, and then later do the interiors, which were on video. 'Flashpoint' was all on location and all-film. It was pioneering stuff, it was magic. We were up in the hills, and that was great because it was just like doing a film. But the risks we took doing those early Homicides were unbelievable. In 'Flashpoint' I remember Terry McDermott dug his feet in and said "I'm not going around that edge there, what if I slip!" It was a hundred feet fall, and there were no safety nets or anything like that.

You were critically acclaimed for your guest role in the Riptide episode 'Black Friday'.

I enjoyed that, because it was a good part, the nutcase role. The interiors were done at Artransa with just one camera, and I love the one camera thing because you can cover yourself in close-up, whereas with three cameras you do a take and just do it. The ability to work in close-up is the magic of film, and once you're in close-up and you know you're in close-up you can hold it till the cows come home.

Why did you decide to leave Homicide?

Stupidity probably. I felt I needed to get out and develop my acting more and do other things. Big mistake. I intended within 12 months to go overseas and I never went. That was a very big blue on my part. Then I went into Number 96 for a while, and I did the cabaret circuit for five years, and while I was doing that I was still doing guest roles until The Sullivans came up. That was one audition I did get, and the reason was that the audition scene was teaching Tom to slope arms with a rifle, and as I did six months National Service I was the only one who could slope arms.

So if they picked a different scene for you to audition, you might not have got The Sullivans?

Correct. And I didn't want to do the audition in the first place, I couldn't see the point because Crawfords already had 500 miles of film of me.

How did they write you out in your last Homicide episode?

They left my part open in case I wanted to come back, which is one reason my character wasn't killed off. The episode had Patterson obsessed with finding this boy that was missing, and I think a guy was trying to get money for him, saying he was quite safe, and then Patterson finds his body in the garbage tip, and he literally went berserk. He looked and looked until he got the guy and then he chased him onto the beach, with Barnes behind him. Patterson got him in the water and kept beating him and beating him and putting him under water and would've killed him if Barnes hadn't come along. Then he said "This job's getting too much for me - I've got to get out" and left. I wrote a song called 'Patterson Walks Alone' and I never got it published - and I should have.

You obviously look back on those days with some affection.

Homicide really was my first big break, I loved it. In those days we used to get a lot of fan mail sent to Russell Street police station. It just shows that people were convinced our roles were authentic. When I was doing Homicide, which was the first time I was on the right side of the law, I can honestly say after that I didn't get a speeding ticket for ten years. That's the sort of recognition you get: I was walking along the street one day and next minute I hear "Hey!" I turned around and said "Yes?" and a fellow was standing there and he said "Aren't you one of the detectives in Homicide?" I said "Yeah, that's right." He said "Oh look, that's my favourite show - can I shake your hand?" So I shook his hand and he said "I can't wait till I get home and tell my wife I've met Leonard Teale at last!"