Blackjack: articles

Colin Friels

Whistleblower: Colin Friels as Jack Kempson.

Dog eat dog

Colin Friels relishes his role as a despised but complex cop. Judy Adamson reports.

When Colin Friels greets me he sounds breathless—almost as though he’s run up two flights of stairs to get to the telephone. The words rush eagerly on top of each other, jostling for position: either he’s really keen to talk or interviews make him nervous.

We’re meant to be chatting about the new crop of Blackjack telemovies in which he stars as Jack Kempson, a whistleblowing cop who has been left to rot in the records section—from which he sallies forth to solve old cases—but we keep getting sidetracked. Conversation about his kids and The Lord of the Rings creeps in, along with a regular, persistent self-deprecation about his talent.

After he worries out loud that he’s “no good” in the three new episodes (the first of which screens this Sunday), I throw out the challenge: surely he’s being too modest? He admits enjoying the first Blackjack telemovie, which aired 18 months ago and reeled in about 2 million viewers nationally, but describes viewing most of his TV or film work as “not a great thing” to do. “The one advantage in the theatre is you can only imagine you’re seeing yourself,” he says, adding that he finds it “bloody awful” to hear his recorded voice.

That said, he’s enthusiastic about the series in general, and loves the way the creative team has allowed for grey areas—in policing and in life—when writing it. “That’s where everyone that’s making it wants to go: complexity,” he says. “There’s a lot of places I’d like to go with [Jack], just to make him an infinitely complicated human being, as most human beings I know are, and being prepared to let the audience in on that. It makes you feel more like you want to watch it because you wanna see what he’ll do. I’m not so concerned about what a character feels—’feely’ acting is very boring to me. With Cracker or Tony Soprano, you watch because you want to see what they’ll do.”

We already know Kempson is called a “dog” for dobbing in his colleague. His wife killed herself some years earlier, he has a physically handicapped daughter and no idea how to operate a computer.

Producer Nick Murray says Blackjack was conceived in the style of English character pieces such as Inspector Morse and Cracker. That’s partly because the makers can take more time over an occasional series, but also because it’s possible to draw together a group of actors that is “not your average weekly series-type cast”. This week’s film, for example, has a credit list that includes Vince Colosimo, Nina Landis and Chris Haywood.

One thing’s for certain: if Blackjack had been created as a weekly series, Friels would not be in it. “I couldn’t do a weekly series again; I couldn’t do it,” he says. “I did it for 20 months on the old Water Rats—or the old ‘Gerbils’, as I used to call it—but you burn out and you start to repeat yourself, and although you can stuff up on a telemovie and do a really bad job, it’s not because you didn’t have the chance to be better.

“But I like doing telly. I like having relationships with an audience, which is why I like doing theatre, too. [The audience] is able to have a conversation with a character, in a way. If you can’t have a connection with the audience you may as well stand up and do one-man shows.”

Blackjack: Sweet Science airs on Ten on Sunday at 8.30pm.

By Judy Adamson
November 04, 2004
The Sydney Morning Herald