Blue Heelers: articles

Age of reason

Seven's popular cop show Blue Heelers celebrates its 300th episode this week. Dianne Butler joined the festivities on set in rural Victoria and spoke in depth to Heelers' top cop, played by veteran actor John Wood. "You get to my age and you're middle-aged and overweight and not particularly attractive but nobody really cares. Nobody really cares and it's not really important." Actor John Wood, 54, is reflecting on the hijacking of popular culture by the young as he waits on location to film Blue Heelers' 300th episode. "I find the obsession with youth is really quite irritating," he says. "Apart from the fact that I'm, well…" An old man? "An old man. I find that obsession irritating. There's a wonderful lyric from Paul Kelly where he basically says he never did anything interesting until he was 35, and I think that's true of the majority of people in the world."

Just outside where Wood sits, a television crew is setting up a shot, watched by spectators, lots of spectators, who have turned out for the day's filming. Flanking one of the main streets of Castlemaine, in rural Victoria, scores of fans kill time by singling out town landmarks—the police station, the pub, the café—places they know like the back of their hand, thanks to the durability of the Seven Network's flagship drama. As Wood points out, "Millions of people go to work every day to places they absolutely hate being at. And I go somewhere I really want to be. There are not many actors my age in full-time employment," he says. "Anywhere in the world." Anywhere else in the world, and an actor of Wood's stature would probably be treated differently. "I don't know," he shrugs. "I've never been anywhere else. I've never experienced it anywhere else, so I don't really know. What it is for me, it's my life. I've been doing a few MC-ing jobs lately and I introduce myself as an actor and depending on your perspective—a minor television celebrity or a TV star. Basically, I'm just a working actor. It's just my job. And this moment of having done 300 episodes (of Blue Heelers) and all of a sudden everyone's buzzing around like gnats, it's a bit different to what normally happens. If you walked into Channel 7, you'd hardly know we existed, really. I think there's a small photograph of us up on a wall amongst a board of, you know…"

The fact that Blue Heelers is a key plank in Seven's schedule barely registers with Wood. "If you thought about it in those terms you'd be saying, 'Come on you bastards, pay me more money'. But it's not something you really think about on a daily basis. You walk into the factory, in a sense, and you make the show and you go home." To an earlier generation, Wood was a household name because of Michael Rafferty, the magistrate he played on another Seven show, Rafferty's Rules. If anything, Blue Heelers' Senior Sergeant Tom Croydon is even more popular. "I don't feel like a celebrity 24 hours a day, or even four hours a day," he says. When I'm at work in the studio, I'm just at work. I'm thinking, Christ, I wish the air-conditioning was warmer or colder, or whatever. One of the things that you really feel if you're working in a TV studio is the world could end and you wouldn't know. You're in a closed air-conditioned space with no access to the outside at all. Whatever sunlight you see is artificial sunlight created by lights and when you come out it's lunchtime and the sun's out and it's broad daylight and you go back in and when you come out again, it's twilight."

And episodes he's in, like this one at Castlemaine, take six months to see the light of day. For an actor who's cut his teeth on stage, in front of hundreds of paying customers, it must be difficult, playing a scene without an audience to feed off. "I don't think about the viewer constantly," Wood says. But I know they're there. It's not like being on your own. You very rarely do a shot where you are alone… the group of us actually create the moment. It's not an individual effort at all."

Blue Heelers has endured—flourished, even—despite the loss of crowd pleasers such as Lisa McCune and William McInnes. Those who are baffled by its ordinariness, Wood reckons, are missing the point. "In terms of historical police shows like Homicide or shows that are around at the moment like NYPD Blue or even Water Rats, it's much less action-based than any of those," he says. "The most action you really see is in the promos, where you (might) see Paul (Bishop) leaping through the air, which, in a sense, gives a false impression. That's not the sort of show it is. It's set in a police station, one of the places people come into contact with the biggest issues of their lives. That's why I can't ever get heavily involved in something like Neighbours or Home and Away. Mind you, I guess the same could be levelled at us—that the issues we deal with aren't necessarily big enough. But I think Heelers does deal with issues fairly well, without hammering them down people's throats."

By Dianne Butler
March 25, 2001
The Sunday Mail