Always Greener: articles


Born October 22, 1952
Where Corowa
Films 15
TV series 3 (SeaChange, Always Greener, The Girl From Tomorrow)
Schooled At Knox College ("I did school plays, was a member of the school film club, but was constantly told that, for a person of my ability, there were far more important things to do and that acting was definitely not a vocation worth considering. And then it just happened, quite by luck.")
Dropped out of Medicine and law studies before turning to acting.

Dear John

The John Howard we can all agree about is back in another fish-out-of-water drama, writes Debi Enker.

A few things that you might not know about the actor who shares his name with the Prime Minister:

He likes to cook Thai food and is especially proud of his chilli crab;

During script read-throughs with the cast of Always Greener, a new Channel 7 series, he helpfully supplies the sound effects (doors squeaking, dogs barking, cows farting, etc);

A long-time Aboriginal-rights activist, he's outspoken about the need for reconciliation. The week before he filmed his famous "I'm sorry" speech on The Games, he'd been in Byron Bay addressing a reconciliation rally;

When he was a student at NIDA in the late '70s, he was advised to change his name. "I'm not going to," he responded. "It's my uncle's name, and the other guy won't last"

He reads the unexpurgated Hansard online to get a clearer picture of what happens in Parliament;

In the early '90s he made a pact with himself to work only on Australian productions and, in a profession with a 90 per cent unemployment rate, he's managed to keep to it;

He is nothing at all like his best-known character, SeaChange's shonky mayor, Bob Jelly.

Out in the sunshine on a winter's day in Camden, a town that provides a key location for Always Greener, Howard seems the antithesis of his best-known creation. He certainly doesn't have the Jelly swagger, though his stiff walk is mostly due to the fact he pulled a muscle in his back shooting a promo for the series in which he had to crack a whip.

Yes, actor and character are both physically imposing: big, tall, square-faced men. But Jelly was as loud as his trademark red blazer; Howard speaks quietly and deliberately, spiking his thoughtfully delivered responses with the occasional incendiary aside. Some describe Howard as "a lamb", others find him a bit intimidating. Neither of these descriptions would have suited Jelly.

Of course, there's no reason to expect this actor should be anything like one of his characters. He's been working in theatre for more than two decades. He's done Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and Williamson, and played Nicholas Nickleby, Coriolanus, Iago and Galileo. His television and film credits include Wildside, Joh's Jury and Blackrock. Since SeaChange, he has worked on the forthcoming feature film The Man Who Sued God, the ABC mini-series Changi and the telemovie The Road From Coorain.

Yet the Jelly shadow still trails him. The 48-year-old Howard is only slightly less enamoured of the character than the rest of us, and says that the thing that made Jelly bearable was the fact that "he consistently shot himself in the foot". What Howard brought to the audition, says SeaChange co-creator Andrew Knight (Deb Cox was his partner in crime), was "humanity".

"You liked him," Knight says simply. "People were playing Bob as arch, people were playing him as a villain. John never for a moment thought he was a villain. John is a highly intelligent man, scarily bright. It was the easiest thing in the world writing for him because you knew he could do something with it."

In less adroit hands, the Jellys (lest we forget Kerry Armstrong's work as Bob's equally headstrong wife, Heather) could have been loathsome: gaudy, pitiful, grotesque. Yet the affection that was invested in them proved their salvation.

"In the very first improvisation that we did," Armstrong says, "the Jellys were appearing to be this dreadful family that everyone loved to hate. They may have even disliked each other. But we realised that there was this enormous love between them, that they adored their children and each other. That's where the delight of the Jellys was: no-one would have had faith in Robert Jelly, or Heather, and yet they were an example of what you can do when you actually decide to commit to someone. And I think that John and I did that with each other as well."

Armstrong recalls with amusement that the more explicit displays of Jelly sensuality ended up on the cutting-room floor: "Laura's and Max's and Diver Dan's were going on to the screen, but ours were apparently way too bawdy," she chuckles. "At one stage, Johnny grabbed me around the waist and I said, 'C'mon darl, you can pop me up onto the kitchen bench,' and a lot of the crew groaned and turned away."

The actress says working with Howard was exhilarating: "You know when you're a kid and you go to the park and you see those old-fashioned seesaws made out of a plank? And you never get someone on the other end who's the right weight? Well, whenever I put my full weight down on one end of the board, he never flew off the other end. In fact, it took everything that I could muster to bring enough weight and, at times, energy, to stay on the board with him."

These days, Howard insists, Bob has gone to that great auction room in the sky, though he did have a long goodbye. After the series ended, Bob spoke at a local government conference on the Gold Coast, attended a Tidy Town ceremony, officiated at the Keep Australia Beautiful awards and became the No 1 ticket holder for the Barwon Heads Seagulls (the local Aussie rules team in the Victorian town which was the setting for much of the series).

"He started to have a life of his own outside the show," says Howard. "There can be a trap if a character is reasonably popular. If you carry it on, like an Effie or like a [Norman] Gunston, you can get stuck with it. So that's why he was given a little while. And it was very handy: while I was waiting for [an acting] job, people were paying me to do these speaking gigs for five grand, which is no mean thing. But in the end it was pretty obvious that there wasn't much future in it for someone who wants to play lots of different roles. So I've killed him off: he's gone."

Bob came to a fitting end. "About two months ago, Marcellin College had an auction to raise money for a woman who lives in our district and they asked me to be the auctioneer as Bob. I'd been given the red coat, by [SeaChange producer] Sally Ayre-Smith, "to use wisely", and so the last thing that I auctioned off was that coat, and with it went the character. It raised $1,200; the greengrocer up the road bought it."

Howard, who lives in Clovelly with his partner, actor Kim Lewis, nine-year-old son, Max, and four-year-old daughter, Morgan, says all he had in common with Jelly was his clothes size and a lack of business acumen. However, he sees more similarities with his latest TV character, Always Greener's burnt-out social worker and father of three, John Taylor.

The set-up for the new show, which has echoes of Pearl Bay, is this: despairing of their situation in the city—pressures of work, problems with kids—Taylor and his wife, Liz (Anne Tenney), pack up their family and move to the country, swapping houses with John's sister. Everyone is looking for a fresh start: the show's producers were looking for a man who could embody the Aussie bloke at the crossroads.

"John Taylor's a bit of an airhead and so am I," says Howard. "I think of myself as being well-meaning but I often fall over life, get tripped up by it. I don't know how many times I've buggered up my computer by trying to improve it. In terms of faults, I sweat the little things: I get cranky about not being able to find the keys. But I don't have problems with bigger things. I found the birth of both of my children really wonderful.

"Mind you," he adds, "I wasn't the one passing the pineapple."

Howard says he was "interested in the notion of a character who's burnt-out, who's good-willed but not especially talented and not especially lucky, except in love. He's in danger of breaking his funny bone and yet he still has a sense of humour. He's not especially practical, but he has a good heart."

As Howard found his character, the writers and producers found an anchor for their show. "That age group of Australian male actor is very hard to find," says Always Greener's executive producer and Seven's head of drama, John Holmes. "What we were looking for was a good strong bloke that all the blokes would identify with and all the women would go, 'Oh, isn't he lovely?'"

The notion of Howard having sex appeal might seem unduly optimistic but, notes Knight, "he can do anything. He's got it. And given that he's fat and doesn't give a shit about how he looks, he's got sex appeal. The women in the office seem to really go for him. He's a man who's comfortable with himself."

Always Greener creator Bevan Lee is another admirer. "He's prepared to laugh at himself. As the father of the family, he doesn't come in and try to play Dudley Square Jaw: he plays all the flaws, all the strengths. And the fabulous thing about John is that he can give you three, four, five layers in one look: it'll be there in the eyes.

"To be honest, I had heard a few people say that he was difficult. I've had no indication of that. I think that he's a perfectionist and he's highly demanding of the script, which is great. It keeps us on the ball. But he's also very text respectful: everything that he's come up with has helped rather than hindered us. It all comes from character, it doesn't come from ego."

If Always Greener becomes the SeaChange-sized crowd-pleaser Seven is hoping for, Howard will be tied to his second TV series. But he's not pining for the bright lights of the stage. "Obviously, I really enjoy playing to an audience," he says, "But do I miss it? No, I don't miss it, because I find that the culture within theatre companies is extremely conservative and elitist. There seem to be greater opportunities to do the sorts of things that I want to do, not period stuff but Australian stories, in film and TV.

"Is it a good idea to be gainfully employed in my home town, so that my children can eat and I can pay the rent, doing a show that I enjoy?" he asks, mocking the suggestion that he might be wary of committing to a long role. "My career has been a case of finding work. I know precious few actors who sit there and go, 'Ah, hmm, I wonder if this'll be good for my career.' The only ones that do that have usually got very rich spouses."

Always Greener premieres on September 9 at 7.30 pm on Seven.

Debi Enker
September 04, 2001