Bryan Brown and Sam Neill are out to prove there’s no crime in grow­ing old

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OLD school. It’s not a bad de­scrip­tion of Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, bona fide an­tipodean act­ing leg­ends. The two men, born 12 weeks apart in 1947, have known each other a long time. They have worked to­gether, but not as of­ten as you might think, and so their dou­ble act in the new crime dra­ma­com­edy Old School is some­thing of a coup for the ABC. It’s also some­thing worth stay­ing home for.

Sam and Bryan. Hav­ing spent a few hours with them on lo­ca­tion, and lis­tened to them spar like an old cou­ple, it seems right to use their first names. They first met, Bryan thinks, at a party in Syd­ney, not long af­ter Sam made the film that brought him to in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion, Gil­lian Arm­strong’s 1979 adap­ta­tion of Miles Franklin’s My Bril­liant Ca­reer. A year later, Bryan would have a leading role in a film cred­ited, like Arm­strong’s, with putting Aus­tralian moviemak­ing on the map: Bruce Beres­ford’s Breaker Mo­rant.

“Yes,’’ con­firms Sam about meet­ing at the party, “and you were im­pressed be­cause I left with three girls.” “Yeah,’’ Bryan says, “and I just couldn’t get a look-in, which you know has al­ways been my prob­lem com­pared to Sam. I mean, he’s such a ladies’ man.’’

Sam, who has been mar­ried to his sec­ond wife, Noriko Watan­abe, since 1989, takes cover be­hind a greater leg­end: “Do you know the first time I met Jack Thomp­son?’’ he asks Bryan.

“It was a lunch in Dou­ble Bay for a film we were do­ing, The Jour­nal­ist, and we were all there and had just fin­ished our first course when Jack ex­cused him­self and headed to­wards the bar. There were a cou­ple of good-look­ing sorts there … Next thing, Jack dis­ap­peared and never came back. He just evap­o­rated with these two girls.’’

Bryan of­fers: “He was prob­a­bly just try­ing to get out of lunch with you.’’ Sam thinks about this. “He never saw his main course …’’

It’s lunchtime on the Old School set, too, and we are sit­ting in the shade of aged trees on the fringe of a rugby league ground in Lit­tle Bay, in Syd­ney’s south­east. Both ac­tors are in char­ac­ter: Sam in muted slacks, shirt and sports jacket as re­tired de­tec­tive Ted McCabe; Bryan in a checked lum­ber jacket, T-shirt and track­suit pants as ex-crim (al­though ex­actly how ex is part of the drama) Len­nie Cahill. “He never wears any­thing else,’’ one of the ex­tras had said ear­lier of Bryan, an ob­ser­va­tion that more or less holds up through­out the eight-part se­ries.

Bryan re­marks that, since sign­ing on for the project, he has no­ticed when people use the words old school. “I’ve seen the term come up so of­ten in ref­er­ence to pol­i­tics, foot­ball … ei­ther you start to see it be­cause you’re in­volved with the words or it’s a time when those words are start­ing to be used.’’

Sam looks at him for a lit­tle while. “Do you think there’s a con­nec­tion, since you’re af­fected, be­tween Asperger’s and as­per­sions?”

“Sorry,’’ Bryan quizzes, “Asperger’s and as­per­sions?”

“People with Asperger’s just throw­ing as­per­sions willy nilly.’’ “You are say­ing that’s what I do?” Sam smiles and says noth­ing. “So have I got Asperger’s or as­per­sions?” It’s a good-na­tured ex­change that sug­gests the per­son­al­i­ties of the two. They both are la­conic but Sam, who had a se­ri­ous stam­mer­ing prob­lem in his youth, is smooth and re­served, while Bryan is rougher around the edges and more an­i­mated. It’s a com­bi­na­tion that works well on the screen, though both char­ac­ters are al­lowed lots of room to sur­prise. For this, the ac­tors thank di­rec­tor Gre­gor Jordan, who Bryan worked with along­side Heath Ledger in the pop­u­lar 1999 crime ca­per Two Hands.

Old School has its ori­gins in Paul Oliver’s 2003 short crime com­edy Len­nie Cahill Shoots Through, with the great Tony Barry in the ti­tle role. Oliver is co-cre­ator of the new se­ries, with Steve Wright. Their idea was sim­ple but tricky to ex­e­cute: an ex-cop and ex-crim work to­gether to try to solve one of NSW’s great­est un­solved crimes: a $5 mil­lion ar­moured car rob­bery, in which both men were in­volved.

The se­ries opens with a flash­back to the heist, which turns into a shoot-out be­tween the rob­bers and the po­lice. Ted is shot but sur­vives; Len­nie, who does not fire a shot, is the only mem­ber of the gang ar­rested.

A dozen years later, Len­nie is re­leased from prison, and pen­sioned-off Ted is wait­ing for him. The men are not friends, but agree to co­op­er­ate in their mu­tual in­ter­ests. Ted wants to find out who shot him; Len­nie, seem­ingly the only gang mem­ber not to have died in sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances in the in­ter­ven­ing years, wants to find out what re­ally hap­pened that day, and just maybe still col­lect his never-de­liv­ered share of the loot, a crisp $300,000.

It’s an odd-cou­ple set-up that could turn into a buddy movie cliche, but Jordan, the writ­ers and the two stars deliver some­thing more pro­found. Like the BBC crime-com­edy se­ries New Tricks, Old School is at least in part a les­son, in our youth-cen­tric cul­ture, about el­derly dogs hav­ing life in them yet. It’s also en­ter­tain­ing and funny. When Len­nie queries be­ing charged $1000 for an il­le­gal gun de­liv­ered in a brown paper bag — “It’s a ba­sic sand­wich, not even a gourmet one” — the re­ply is: “That’s Syd­ney.’’

The sup­port­ing cast is strong: Sarah Pierse as Ted’s wife, Mar­garet; Hanna Man­gan-Lawrence as Len­nie’s grand­daugh­ter Shannon; Damian Wal­she-Howl­ing as the hand­some chancer who woos her; Mark Coles Smith as the de­cent bloke who pro­tects her; and Peter Phelps an am­bigu­ous pres­ence as the boss of Ted’s old cop shop. And Harry Green­wood is ex­cel­lent as com­puter nerd Zac, who helps Ted and Mar­garet af­ter their bank ac­count is hacked.

“I think once Gre­gor came on board that helped a lot in mak­ing us feel com­fort­able about it, Bryan says. “Enor­mously,’’ Sam agrees.

Bryan elab­o­rates: “He had a vi­sion for how the piece should be and he’s very good with crime and very good with crime com­edy.’’

“I think it shifted a bit,’’ Sam adds. “It is a bit more nu­anced that it was orig­i­nally thought of — Bryan the lar­rikin, me the pine-cone-up-your-arse ac­coun­tant-type.’’



Neill in My Bril­liant Ca­reer, the film that brought him to in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion, and Juras­sic Park, above

“You’ve just made all the ac­coun­tants turn off!’’ Bryan near-shouts, be­fore con­tin­u­ing: “It’s ac­tu­ally about a re­la­tion­ship be­tween two people who are very dif­fer­ent, and how that de­vel­ops. One of the things that Gre­gor al­ways wants — al­ways — is that it must be real; you’re not play­ing into it, you’re not be­ing hammy, you’re not be­ing corny, you’re not com­ment­ing on yourself or the other per­son, it has to be real. Within that, how they be­have al­lows com­edy to come through and al­lows their re­la­tion­ship to de­velop.’’

Not that Ted and Len­nie are likely to be­come mates, their al­ter-egos agree. Even so, part of the charm of the se­ries is watch­ing two men who are nat­u­ral ad­ver­saries come close to some­thing like friend­ship be­cause they’ve both lived long enough, and seen enough, to know that nei­ther of them are among the world’s real bad guys. There’s a scene half­way through

where Len­nie is hav­ing a tough time emo­tion­ally. Ted says, with ob­vi­ous dis­com­fort: “Do you want to talk about it?” Len­nie is aghast. “No!” “That’s good,’’ Ted replies. Old school in­deed.

So, what about Sam and Bryan’s re­la­tion­ship? We are talk­ing on the fi­nal day of an in­tense 10-week shoot that saw the 66-year-olds spend a lot of time to­gether, of­ten in un­pleas­ant cir­cum­stances. “Yes,’’ Sam says, “you do have that anx­i­ety on a long job like this — given we end up in f..king skips cov­ered in in­dus­trial waste and in the sew­ers of Syd­ney in close quar­ters — that a long and close friend­ship could be un­der duress. Will it snap? We’ve got a day to go and it still seems to be rea­son­ably …’’

Bryan in­ter­rupts: “I still think ex­actly the same about him as I thought be­fore.’’ Sam laughs up­roar­i­ously: “That’s very good.’’ Sam Neill was born in North­ern Ire­land and raised in New Zealand, where he lives most of the time and runs a hobby vine­yard, Two Pad­docks. Hol­ly­wood called af­ter My Bril­liant Ca­reer and in 1981 he landed the lead role as the son of Satan in Omen III: The Fi­nal Con­flict. He’s made about 70 films, many in Aus­tralia, but it’s Hol­ly­wood block­busters such as Juras­sic Park (re­leased in 1993, the same year he starred in Jane Cam­pion’s The Piano) that al­low him to in­dulge his taste for wine.

Bryan Brown was born in Syd­ney and raised in the south­west­ern sub­urb of Panania. His first film role was in the 1977 Stephen Wal­lace short,

The Love Letters from Ter­alba Road. Less in­ter­na­tional than Neill, his is the fa­mil­iar rugged face of Aus­tralian film and TV minis­eries, from The Chant of Jim­mie Black­smith, The Odd An­gry Shot, News­front, The Thorn Birds and A Town Like Alice to Win­ter of our Dreams, Dirty Deeds (along­side Neill) and, manda­to­rily, Baz Luhrmann’s Aus­tralia. He met his wife, ac­tress and film­maker Rachel Ward, on the set of The

Thorn Birds in 1983.

When it’s sug­gested that, of the two, Bryan is more likely to be cast as the bad guy, Sam, the one with the mati­nee-idol looks, seems a bit dis­ap­pointed. “No, I’ve played lots of bad guys and I think that’s been a use­ful thing. You can’t go on play­ing good blokes all the time and it would be very dull to do so.’’

Bryan chips in to of­fer sup­port: “Put a gun in Sam’s hand and he be­comes Clint East­wood or some­one: he just goes ba­nanas and a whole other per­son emerges. Or put him be­hind the wheel of a car and he thinks he’s some great V8 driver or some bloody thing.’’ Sam has noth­ing to say to this. Bryan agrees he has played a lot of crooks and what’s more he likes it. “What at­tracts me is there’s usu­ally more to them that just the stereo­typ­i­cal thing of be­ing a crim. Ei­ther they’re hon­ourable within that or they’re fight­ing for some­thing they be­lieve in, rightly or wrongly. So they’ve usu­ally got a bit of steel in them.’’

Both ac­tors ac­knowl­edge and ap­plaud the cul­tural as­cen­dance of long-form tele­vi­sion, thanks largely to Amer­i­can ca­ble se­ries such as

The Wire, Break­ing Bad and Mad Men, and the in­flu­ence this is hav­ing on lo­cal film­mak­ers and their fi­nan­cial back­ers.

“They’re def­i­nitely tack­ling sto­ries they weren’t tack­ling years ago, par­tic­u­larly when re­al­ity TV was so huge,’’ Bryan says. “You take a thing like The Slap (the ABC se­ries based on Chris­tos Tsi­olkas’s novel). I don’t know if any­one would have dared to have both­ered telling that. But now people are pre­pared to take on good sto­ries that are hap­pen­ing in our con­tem­po­rary world, and that’s great for ac­tors, great for writ­ers, great for di­rec­tors.’’ (The ABC’s pro­duc­tion part­ner on Old

School is Matchbox Pic­tures, which made The Slap for the broad­caster in 2011.) Sam of­fers that he’s ad­dicted to Break­ing Bad. “Just great char­ac­ters.’’ Bryan nom­i­nates Mad Men and “all those Nor­we­gian ones”, The Kill

ing, Bor­gen and The Bridge. “I reckon one of the good things about watch­ing shows as an ac­tor,’’ Bryan goes on, “is when you like a show it’s usu­ally be­cause you go, f..k, I’d like to play a char­ac­ter in that, I want to be in that story.

“I al­ways look at Mad Men and go, ‘I want to be in there, I could bull­shit my­self in there, I could play a real good bull­shit­ting char­ac­ter’. I look at the Roger Ster­ling char­ac­ter and I go, ‘I wouldn’t mind do­ing that, let me tell you’.’’

Sam, who has been lis­ten­ing pa­tiently, looks Bryan up and down. “I don’t think you could pull off the suit. I mean, look at what you’re wear­ing now, look at it. You couldn’t pull off the suit.’’ “I’ve worn suits,’’ Bryan says.

Sam and Bryan have been earn­ing their keep as ac­tors for al­most 40 years, and as far as they are con­cerned the push to work un­til at least 70 suits them fine. There’s no crime in grow­ing old, af­ter all. “I like do­ing it, I like act­ing, I’m re­ally lucky to be able to do it for a liv­ing,’’ Bryan says.

Sam makes a rare in­ter­rup­tion. “What’s the al­ter­na­tive? Golf? F..k!’’ Bryan continues: “The game we’re in, it’s re­ally a game of the imag­i­na­tion, it’s play. I mean we’re lit­tle kids when we’re out there. It’s like be­ing at school and some­one says, let’s go play cops and rob­bers. It’s play­time, how could you not like it?”

Old School pre­mieres on ABC1 on Fri­day. Read Graeme Blun­dell’s re­view next week.

Sam Neill, as re­tired de­tec­tive Ted McCabe, and Bryan Brown as ex-crim Len­nie Cahill, in far left; Brown in his break­through role in

above, with Lewis Fitz-Ger­ald, Ed­ward Wood­ward and Jack Thomp­son; in which Brown met his wife, Rachel Ward


Old School,


The Thorn Birds,

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