Tele­vi­sion Graeme Blundell hails an Aus­tralian ac­tion hero

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blundell

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.