Always Greener: articles

An actor's sea change

Now here's a piece of news: I have it on good authority that John Howard is a remorseless killer.

No, not that John Howard. The other one, the bloke who created one of Australian television's most memorable characters, Bob Jelly the entirely bonkers mayor on SeaChange.

And the way Howard tells it, he had no choice where Bob was concerned.

"I had to kill off Bob Jelly because he had a life of his own outside of the show," says the wry, slightly prickly actor by phone from Sydney.

"He was quoted in Hansard. He was running around the place telling people what to do. People were asking him to go to local government conferences. He was the darling of the Real Estate Institute. He had to be killed off, so I killed him off."

RIP Bob.

Howard however has not only survived the death of his most famous part to date but returns to our screens this week in another quirky Australian drama series, Always Greener. The Channel Seven show isn't entirely unfamiliar territory for him or for viewers.

Howard is John Taylor, a near-burnout social worker living with his family in Allanhurst, Sydney. After a boozy Christmas conversation with his sister Sandra Todd, a newly widowed mother living in the country, the two families decide to swap habitats: the Todds head to town, the Taylors to the country.

"It's a show about family aspirations, people who want to have a second go," Howard says.

"There's been a huge movement from the country to the city by people who are impoverished in the country. And likewise, there's a movement out of the city by people who are trying to get their SeaChange, as it were. I guess Always Greener is a double play on that."

A double play that's worked. It became the highest rating drama premiere in Australian television when it launched last year, an achievement made more impressive given its unexpected and rather swift birth.

In November 2000, executive producer John Holmes and script executive Bevan Lee were to do a new drama for Channel Seven with former Blue Heelers star Lisa McCune until she unexpectedly announced she was pregnant.

Good news for the star, bad news for a network keen to fill its Sunday night 7.30pm slot with something new and local.

"Bevan and I had been kicking around the idea for something like Always Greener for years," Holmes says. "It was something that he was really passionate about: a family in the city swaps with a family in the country.'

They pitched their old idea to instant network excitement, though this turned out to be the easiest part.

"We had nothing, just the idea on a couple of sheets of paper," Holmes says. "So we fast-tracked the script over Christmas 2000, had a pilot ready for screening by May-June of last year and it was on air at the end of the year. It was the fastest turn around I've ever done for a drama."

Crucial to the show's success was having the right, ordinary bloke in the role of Taylor. After careful thought, Holmes figured Howard was right for the part. Howard, after receiving a scene from the script, wasn't so sure.

"I thought it was rat shit, it was terrible. I wouldn't go and see them because I thought if the rest of it's like this, forget it.

"But eventually they took me for lunch to a place called Otto's, which I'd never been too, but apparently it's pretty flash. I had a piece of snapper, it wasn't too bad.

"This was the first time in my life, mind you, that anybody had bothered to sue for my attention although I had heard about that sort of thing happening. So I read the script after that lunch and rang them up straight away and said I was interested.

"As luck would have it, we had the Logies [Australia's television awards] that Sunday night. They gave me a Logie for SeaChange and I had to negotiate the Always Greener contract on the following day, so that was a bit of kismet."

Perfect timing, but is Taylor Howard's perfect role? No, the stage and screen actor doesn't think there is such a beast - though if there were it would come with an Aussie accent, he says.

"Some years ago I made a commitment just to do Australian stuff. I've played a lot of classical roles but if they're not in my language I can't feel them in my bones.

"The other thing is I don't want to end up on my death bed and have my son say 'what did you do for the country, dad?' and me have to say 'Oh well I played Shakespeare a lot.' Bugger that, you know what I mean?"

I'm sure Bob, god rest his soul, knows exactly what Howard means.

By Greg Dixon
July 11, 2002
New Zealand Herald