First watch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

COOLUM beach, sit­u­ated half­way be­tween Noosa and Mooloolaba on Queens­land’s Sun­shine Coast, is the un­likely set­ting for a new com­edy com­mis­sioned for ABC2, star­ring show­biz leg­end Barry Crocker and ris­ing comic ac­tor Toby Truslove.

Cre­ated, di­rected, pro­duced and writ­ten by Da­ley Pear­son, who made the com­edy fea­ture film $quid, based on the Tropfest short of the same name, The Strange Calls is af­fect­ing in its low-key, oddly earnest way; not laugh out loud funny but en­dear­ingly funny. The Strange Calls started last week but be­cause we were in­un­dated by a num­ber of new se­ries, it slipped un­der First Watch’s radar. It’s worth at­ten­tion from those of us who care about the lo­cal prod­uct and it’s wor­thy of a round of ap­plause for the in­no­va­tive, un­der­funded ABC2.

Re­cently dis­graced young city cop Toby Banks, played by the acer­bic Truslove (Laid), ar­rives in Coolum, Queens­land’s sur­fie paradise, to be­gin a new life on the lo­cal po­lice night duty desk. His of­fice is a derelict car­a­van on the town’s out­skirts. His job is to an­swer the late phone calls from the dis­turbed, the afraid, the stoned and the plain loony; and just maybe from be­yond Coolum’s bright stars. They are known in the town as ‘‘ the strange calls’’. Played against the great mound of Mount Coolum, an iso­lated vol­canic dome, a mas­sive boul­der 208m in heigh­tand roughly cir­cu­lar in out­line, the com­edy has a sly su­per­nat­u­ral el­e­ment, too. ‘‘ Some say she’s a strange mag­net draw­ing strange things to the town,’’ a lo­cal says of the moun­tain.

Aban­doned by his boof­head col­leagues — dis­dain­ful and lazy to a uni­form — Banks is joined at night by the town’s wide-eyed, ec­cen­tric gate­keeper, Gre­gor, played by the griz­zled, white-bearded Crocker; Gre­gor be­lieves his wife who left him 30 years ago was the vic­tim of a gi­ant squid at­tack.

The great en­ter­tainer, sprightly and still full of tricks, reprises some­thing of his Bazza McKen­zie shtick with lots of eye act­ing, those mas­sive ner­vous hands and that out­ra­geous sense of comic lit­er­al­ism. If a joke is to be had, Crocker will find it. But he also does the show’s nat­u­ral­is­tic char­ac­ter hu­mour nicely. This em­anates from Gre­gor’s en­cy­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of the lit­tle beach sub­urb and its res­i­dents, and his love of vin­tage board games and 1990s TV. And Crocker plays quite de­light­fully with the un­pre­dictable Truslove. (I know be­cause I acted with the young comedian in Marieke Hardy and Kirsty Fisher’s Laid, and al­ways felt at least three mo­ments be­hind his mer­cu­rial comic brain.)

Some­how this un­likely odd cou­ple teams up to deal with the strange calls and other mys­te­ri­ous events.

Last week, in the first episode, they in­ves­ti­gated the weird break-in at the Fre­quent Fry­ers Chicken Shop, a trail of clues lead­ing to Nick the Chicken Man who, eat­ing so much fried chook, was turn­ing into one. This week, the lo­cal ra­dio host is found dead on the beach af­ter wreak­ing havoc with a ride-on mower, and Coolum’s Tidy Towns en­try is in jeop­ardy. Then an­other ra­dio sta­tion em­ployee causes chaos with a mower. Banks sus­pects drugs but Gre­gor is con­vinced an evil ra­dio jin­gle from his child­hood that pos­sesses any­one who lis­tens to it is re­spon­si­ble. Maybe an ex­or­cism is called for.

It’s a kind of hu­mour not far re­moved from that of the late Robert G. Bar­rett who wrote the Les Nor­ton nov­els, with­out the pro­fan­ity and ex­cru­ci­at­ing sex scenes, a con­coc­tion of ur­ban myths, shaggy dog sto­ries and the street wit of the so­cially marginalised. The key­note is that kind of Aussie irony where one thing is said and the op­po­site is meant. But it’s gen­tly satirised by Pear­son and his smart young TV­maker col­leagues, who give the im­pres­sion they’ve just dis­cov­ered what a rich vein tra­di­tional Aussie com­edy is, and how much roguery there is in it. And what good value Mr Crocker pro­vides.

Bar­rett’s com­edy was a kind of pre­pos­ter­ous high farce but this se­ries is al­to­gether more ami­able, its hu­mour daggy, its mock­ery di­luted by its good man­ners. It’s sug­ges­tive and ge­nial rather than satiric or ven­omous. There is a lot of tongue in cheek here.

Pear­son places his char­ac­ters firmly in the far­ci­cal ad­ven­ture — or mis­ad­ven­ture — tradition go­ing back to Law­son, with its ab­surd sit­u­a­tions and comic char­ac­ters, even if his bu­colic gallery is a small one. At times The Strange Calls plays like a two-han­der for Truslove and Crocker — their names af­ter all do sound like a vaudeville comic team. They’re like a par­ody of the ec­cen­tric pair­ings of Hol­ly­wood buddy movies, who con­nect in this case over their mu­tual pas­sion for fan­tasy board games. The first two episodes me­an­der a bit, and there’s a touch too much shout­ing, but Pear­son has es­tab­lished his less than dy­namic duo nicely, if a lit­tle in­gen­u­ously, as yet an­other odd cou­ple who bum­blingly cope with Coolum’s bizarre noc­tur­nal emer­gen­cies in their ap­pro­pri­ately strange way.

It’s all car­ried off in a nice, slightly ram­shackle way, the per­for­mances just a lit­tle rough-edged and thor­oughly en­joy­able be­cause of it. Crocker, 77, is es­pe­cially agree­able. He has trouped the whistlestops of show busi­ness in­de­fati­ga­bly, never want­ing to leave the stage. On his tomb­stone, he says, he would like the words: ‘‘ Here lies Barry Crocker etc, etc.’’ And at the bot­tom in small writ­ing: ‘‘ I hope I didn’t miss any­thing.’’

He was there when TV started (his par­ents watched him singing in the first Tonight shows on a dis­play set through the plate-glass win­dows of a fur­ni­ture store), starred in va­ri­ety TV pro­grams (‘‘the ghosts of in­ex­pe­ri­ence sent a chill through me,’’ he wrote in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Bazza) and turned chun­der­ing Bazza McKen­zie into a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non.

That he would be blamed for per­pet­u­at­ing the ocker cul­tural cringe — a form of ob­ses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­der suf­fered by film­mak­ers who keep re­turn­ing to the same low­brow themes, pro­ject­ing a vig­or­ous and funny but oh-so-com­mon self-loathing sense of na­tional em­bar­rass­ment — was just some­thing

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