Television Graeme Blundell hails an Australian action hero
The ‘De Niro’ of Australian TV drama is back in an explosive new series
ANTHONY Hopkins once remarked that good actors are always trying to conquer their cowardice, and television, a frantic, messy medium, doesn’t always encourage them to give their best. It’s easy to cheat, sometimes necessary given the time constraints. You might find yourself with 10 or more long scenes full of repetitious dialogue and seemingly countless costume changes that have to be shot before the sun falls.
Acting in series TV is often about what you can get away with, how to survive the sheer speed of working. But about six years ago Don Hany emerged, an actor of rare integrity, in the brilliant East West 101, playing young Muslim detective Zane Malik. The series was a highly ingenious version of the traditional detective story. Directed by Peter Andrikidis, it was more cinematic than any show we had produced, characterised by the charisma of Hany, suddenly a major acting figure. He presented as a performer almost inseparable from his relentless Arab character, an actor who, like the man he played, looked as if he was testing himself with a relentless self-examination.
There was something of the old-fashioned movie star about Hany in the sense that, as the critic Richard Schickel suggested, he fulfilled some of the functions of the hero in classic drama. We grasped that his fate was predetermined, as though by the gods, in that he was limited by genetics in the roles he might take.
Hany did three seasons of East West 101 and more recently has appeared in most of our drama series, including Ten’s Offspring, playing a romantic lead opposite Asher Keddie. Often he’s looked a little ill at ease, though always technically assured and empathetic.
Hany the star is back in the ABC’s new period drama Serangoon Road and he’s terrific, as reluctant private eye Sam Callaghan in sexsuffused, nihilistic, shambolic 1964 Singapore.
And as in East West 101, he’s a kind of thinking, suffering action hero, again exhibit- ing that characteristic exquisite fastidiousness in the details of performance, as well as a kind of courteous modesty. It’s as if, even while filling the frame with such energy, he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. As Callaghan, he’s the disinclined bloke who has to do what he does because there isn’t anyone else there to do it.
Created by Paul Barron ( Kings in Grass Castles), the series is an exciting partnership between ABC TV and HBO Asia, produced by Great Western Entertainment and Infinite Studios. The experienced Sue Masters ( The Secret Life of Us, The Circuit) is on board as executive producer and story and script editor. The set-up director, establishing the production style and the cinematic aesthetic is the veteran Andrikidis, aided by his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Joe Pickering.
As always their passion and personality fill every frame; there is not a single dull shot, scene or moment. While never given the recognition they deserve these people are great artists and whenever I see Andrikidis’s work I always wonder why there is no auteur theory of TV. Michaeley O’Brien ( Underbelly, City Homicide) wrote the script but Andrikidis is really the author of each moment of this stylish-looking series and he gets the best out of Hany.
Dressed in grey pants, white singlet and open, flapping shirt, Callaghan is a rather exhausted good guy. Constantly on the move when not dreaming of the past, he’s carrying the sour taste of the war against the Japanese on his tongue — an expat childhood in a prisoner of war camp then a chequered career in military intelligence during the Malayan Emergency. He’s a hard man harbouring a terrible childhood secret and still defining his limits, establishing a code that will allow him to function effectively but in accord with his ethical values.
It’s not easy in Singapore, a city at the crossroads, a new nation, the famous Straits filled with ships from around the world, and militant union demonstrations and race riots sweeping the streets. Chinese gangs prosper; and people die as the city is hit by terrorist bombs. Spies are everywhere, the Cold War a coded conflict characterised by shades of grey and ambiguity.
Along with the city’s larger-than-life Chinese rogues, the spies mix with American soldiers fresh from Vietnam and the British and Australians checking out the prostitutes and gambling dens of infamous Bugis Street en route to their own war in Borneo. There, with a little weed and a lot of beer, they spend the days of stand-down in flat-out celebration, purely alive, the wars in another solar system.
Serangoon Road is at the centre of the action, one of the oldest streets in Singapore, linking the various and sometimes warring ethnic communities. ‘‘ It was therefore a road which is an important part of Singapore history and serves as a metaphor for the multiracial, multicultural set of characters and stories in our series," Barron says.
The Cheng Detective Agency and Callaghan’s home are set in a side street just off bustling Serangoon Road. And with all the hustlers, grifters, schemers, conmen and cun- ning intriguers this period so lavishly gave rise to, it’s a storyteller’s paradise.
Barron is fascinated by the way Singapore came into existence as a modern state, especially ‘‘ the contrasts between my (admittedly limited) knowledge of the time/place and the reality of a city that had been in a political and social crisis’’.
Enter Sam Callaghan. ‘‘ To be honest I am not quite sure where Sam came from,’’ Barron says. ‘‘ The pen just started to write the character one day and never stopped until this man, who had been a child prisoner of the Japanese in World War II, emerged from serving with the Australian Army during the Malayan Emergency and, without a real purpose in life, decides to live in the closest place he has to a home: Singapore. With his background and contacts a potential line of work for Sam is doing odd jobs for a Chinese detective who lives next door.’’
She’s Patricia Cheng (the exquisite Joan Chen) who, hired by the CIA, persuades Callaghan to investigate the murder of a US sailor in Bugis Street. Secretly, it’s part of her plan to get him to leave the dodgy import/ export business he runs with his forever-indebt young mate, the compulsive gambler Kang (hyperactive Alaric Tay), and work for her struggling detective agency.
Her real motive is to join forces with Callaghan to investigate the murder of her husband, Winston, a small-time sleuth who snooped around adulterous couples and commercial fraud, who was killed some months earlier while on the way to meet a client.
Quickly, Cheng and Callaghan are drawn into Singapore’s confusion and disorder, the murky world of Chinese secret societies and Big Power clandestine services.
The plot unfolds clearly and directly, neatly and economically establishing its cast of characters and the interconnecting stories, and should provide a good combination of series and serial narratives that bring us back to
Don Hany in Serangoon Road