Grass Roots: articles

Local TV's power surge

With Sunday's night's screening of the eighth and final chapter in the first series of Geoffrey Atherden's inspired localcouncil comedydrama, Grass Roots, a year in the life of Arcadia Waters draws to a close.

And what a fine time it's been. With subtlety, intelligence and fine craftsmanship, Atherden has taken us on an eventful ride, a guided tour of life in the workplace and survival in politics.

Like its equally accomplished ABC stablemate, The Games, Grass Roots aims to expose how organisations operate, how people work together: the alliances, the scheming, and the multifarious agendas. We've seen characters with vision, commitment and ambition and others whose motives are a lot less honorable. We been privy to the sort of compromises that fuel all levels of politics and the incessant jockeying for position at gatherings in cafes and Chinese restaurants and in council meetings and toilets. We've witnessed the machinations of minds driven by burning ambition and the effects of egodriven decisionmaking. All of this has been framed with a wry eye, a sharp perspective that finds both tragedy and comedy in the situation.

Like The Games, Grass Roots isn't haha funny (though it has had its riotous moments). Those expecting sitcomstyle humor may have been disappointed, though what the series has offered is richly rewarding.

At the heart of the action has been the beautifully conceived character of TAFE teacher and Mayor Col Dunkley, played with just the right mix of caginess and humanity by Geoff Morrell. The dichotomies in Col's character exemplify the intelligence Atherden has brought to the entire ensemble. A pragmatic political animal, Col isn't short on ego and his dream is to be hailed as a milestone mayor, a towering man of vision who dragged his shire into the new millennium and placed it prominently on the world map.

But, at the most unexpected times in the merrygoround of wheeling and dealing, Col's integrity can shine through and part of the genius of the writing is the fact that he can emerge from eight hours of scheming still seeming like an everyman. Col's a player, but he's also a good bloke.

In vivid contrast is the Teflon man, the council's general manager, the odious Greg “leave it with me” Dominelli. With his sharp suits, everpresent mobile phone and endless talk of costcutting and outsourcing, Greg is the bland and slippery face of modern management.

Rhys Muldoon has done a superb job conveying the dark depths and the blithe superficiality of his character, how dangerous and sly he can be and what a dunce he is.

And then, of course, there's councillor and brazenly aspiring mayor Biddy Marchant (Sophie Heathcote), a steamroller in a short, pastelcolored power suit whose steely blue eyes are firmly fixed on higher office in Canberra. Council communications manager Helen Mansoufis (Sacha Horler) described Biddy as “a funnelweb in a frock”. Dynamic and predatory, Biddy is a naturalborn stirrer and a gift to storytelling: wherever she goes, friction follows.

Atherden's ensemble has been built on fullblooded characters great and small. Even those who have briefly flitted in and out like event organiser Max Werring (Mitchell Butel) and standup comedian Sandy Maxwell (Aaron Blabey) were conceived with nuance and complexity.

The core group is equally vibrant, with members such as deputy mayor Harry Bond (John Clayton), who looks like an angry parrot as he squawks out his halffinished sentences (and manages to rise to the occasion, most unexpectedly, in the final episode); and Janice Corniglio (Judi Farr), the secretary with a taste for Tia Maria who's constantly forced to make excuses for her bosses while noting with a certain resigned bitterness that she's woefully underappreciated.

With the help of series director Peter Andrikidis, who fluidly moved the action along, Atherden threaded his lively ensemble into an expertly woven tapestry of storylines. He's covered the debate over privatised child care and the progress of the Cemetery Point development, the illfated plans for a worldbeating festival and the case of the deaf old lady with the barking dog. And he's followed the simmering saga of Mike Le Moignon's wall, which comes to a surprising resolution this week.

By not confining himself to linear chronological structure and adopting an elliptical approach, Atherden has slipped back and forth across the calendar, revisiting events and exposing hidden conversations, continually offering fresh perspectives on their outcomes.

Happily, when the curtain comes down on Arcadia Waters on Sunday night, we can say farewell to Col and Biddy, their factions and their staff, comforted by the knowledge that Geoffrey Atherden isn't letting the grass grow under his keyboard: he's working on a second series.

Can't wait.

By Debi Enker
August 17, 2000
The Age