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