Grass Roots: articles

Catchers of the wry

GEOFF Morrell is deeply concerned about the contribution he is making to Australia's political landscape.

For two years, Morrell has stepped into the shoes and ornate robes of Arcadia Waters Council Mayor Col Dunkley, an ego-driven but well-meaning local mayor in the ABC series Grass Roots.

Col is more than a bit naive, can't quite pin down the "wonderful, big, exciting thing" he wants to be remembered for, has myriad relationship problems and is probably not the sort of man you want heading your local council, unless you are looking for laughs.

But other politicians—real-world politicians—seem to admire Col's style.

"I did a job for the Municipal Association of Victoria after the first series of the show and Simon Crean, who was probably industrial relations minister then, said he would like to have someone like Col Dunkley on his team," Morrell says.

"Given that he's now Leader of the Opposition, I think Col could be in with a chance. I think it's a measure of Col's success."

Morrell is also slightly disturbed by the success of his fictional self in local government circles. Many even suspect Grass Roots's mayor and other characters are based on real councillors.

"In a lot of the councils the feedback is that it's required viewing," Morrell says. "It's a bit scary but it shows that it's so accurate in terms of what happens in local councils."

But Morrell is also guilty of being a Col Dunkley fan.

The veteran Australian actor, who won an AFI Award in 2000 for Best Performing Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of the mayor, jumped at the chance to revisit the role in a second series of Grass Roots.

Strangely, two years passed before a second series of the political satire was given the green light, leaving Morrell thankful he was free to sign on to do the next instalment.

Others were not so lucky. The break meant two regular characters were unable to take part in the second series: the clueless desk jockey played by Matthew Newton; and Sophie Heathcote, who played conniving councillor Biddy Marchant and was pregnant when approached about a second series, will both be absent from the Grass Roots sequel.

But Biddy was so intrinsic to the show she will not disappear. In the great tradition of soap operas, she will be replaced by another actor, in this case White Collar Blue's Jodie Dry.

Morrell says the actor-swap was a strange but necessary evil. The show's writing, he says, is so complex that Biddy would have been impossible to discard.

But after watching the first episode, Morrell says the transition is made almost seamlessly.

"For the first 10 minutes you notice it and then you realise it's the same character and there are so many other things happening you soon forget and just accept it," he says.

"I was prepared to see it objectively and Jodie Dry does such a wonderful job you take it for granted."

The show's other regulars, however, have all returned for another look at the machinations, bugbears and corrupt activities within the fictional local council.

General manager Greg Dominelli (Rhys Muldoon) is still pretending to know what he is doing, director of planning and building George Hasnakov (Chris Haywood) is still quietly scheming, and communications manager Helen (Sacha Horler) and Col's ex-wife Julie (Tara Morice) look set to compete for his affections.

Arcadia Waters Council also gets a new recruit—a media manager—in the form of Emily Bell (played by Lucy Bell) who joins the team with questionable intentions.

The first series of Grass Roots is still being re-played on the ABC, to refresh memories and stir interest before the second series premieres on March 10.

Morrell says new and old fans will not disappointed with the new series, filmed about a year ago. He says the second season is funnier than the first.

"As happens with most series, the first tends to find its feet and then the real pay-off is in the second series," he says. "Even though there's two years in between, I think in many ways it's actually better.

"It's more confident and that's what happens, especially if something is well received. It's something I'm really proud of, not just for my own work but for the team effort."

Despite the two-year break, Morrell says stepping into Col's shoes felt like coming home. It did not take the rest of the cast long to get back into the swing of things either—a fact Morrell contributes to the work of the show's writer, Mother and Son mastermind Geoffrey Atherden.

Atherden has a lot in store for the cast in the second series. The smaller, more local catastrophes include a hailstorm, garbage strike, dog poo on the beaches, young skateboarders and Christmas lights.

But there are also larger issues at stake this time. A local art competition smells corrupt and there is hell to pay when the State Government begins to investigate it and then expands its investigation to the workings of the council.

There also is a place available in State Parliament and Mayor Dunkley has his eyes on the prize.

"It's surprising that Grass Roots is the first (Australian) TV show that has really challenged the way politics operates," Morrell says.

"Obviously we're just looking at things at a local level but it would be great if Col got a chance to run for State Parliament and then Geoffrey could have a look at that."

Morrell is keen to praise the comedy and its writer. He is particularly impressed that the series has an underlying, serious theme among the laughable workings of local council.

"The beauty of Geoffrey's writing is that it shows that people go into politics with these ideals but the day-to-day grind of maintaining power means those ideals tend to get lost and compromised and I think that is the very nature of politics," he says.

"At the heart of this show is the issue that it is very hard to achieve your ideals in a two-party political system. They want to change things for the better but the political process makes some of that impossible."

Morrell, who recently filled a small role in the upcoming film Ned Kelly, is about to begin work in a new miniseries by John Doyle of Roy and HG fame.

But he says would try not to be too busy to dismiss an offer to jump into Dunkley's mayoral robes once more.

"The ABC is fairly strapped for cash but I think there's a lot of people who would like to do (another)," he says. "If there was a third, I would do everything to make myself available."

The Australian political system may never be safe.

• Grass Roots, ABC, March 19, 9.30pm

By Jennifer Dudley
February 20, 2003
The Courier Mail