MDA: articles

Bourne to be serious

IF IT was stand-up comedy you wouldn't be able to hear it from the second row.

Boom mikes hover low over Shane Bourne as he peers over his spectacles for a grumpy moment as MDA's Bill "Happy" Henderson.

Between takes he's joking and clowning with the crew of the ABC medical/law drama, his tall frame giving him an authority that he undercuts with matey humour.

But once the cameras are rolling he's all business, towering over a pint-sized fellow actor and telling him off with a voice that never rises above a low growl.

That's right, he's acting. Most people know Bourne from his days cracking gags on Hey Hey It's Saturday, others may have caught him at a stand-up comedy performances or corporate gigs.

But Bourne is far from an acting novice. His stage credits include Shakespeare, and working with US comedian Steve Martin as the lead in a theatrical production of Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

His TV acting go back to the 80s, with guest roles on shows including Cop Shop, The Sullivans and Prisoner. He even won his heat on New Faces in 1972.

Now, of course, he has a series of MDA under his belt and another under way, in a role which scored him silver Logie and AFI award nominations.

Bourne is suddenly being treated like a serious actor.

"I've done a fair bit of drama over the years, but as regards public perception, and within the industry it's been a bit of a watershed for me," he says. "(The award nominations) were to me affirmation that I was in the loop. I've done so many things in 30 years over the entertainment industry that I haven't actually landed anywhere.

"I've kind of enjoyed that, but there was a sense that, especially at this time of life (53), I've arrived at some kind of settled point, and that's kind of good."

But good TV drama roles are a vanishingly rare commodity. So he has kept his hand in stand-up and corporate gigs, as much as he can.

"I wanted to concentrate on (MDA), because it's taxing and time consuming—you work 10 hour days then go home and learn lines, the last thing you want to do is dash off to the Hyatt," he says.

"But you see people come into MDA (in guest roles) who are legendary, fine actors, they're saying 'this is a gig, thank Christ', and it's just two weeks. So this year I've taken a few more (corporate gigs) on board. You just don't know… You have to be able to keep a few irons, if not right in the fire, at least in the poker stand."

Anyway, he doesn't know if he'd be able to give up comedy altogether.

"I don't feel addicted… but maybe there's a need," he says. "It's a great mode of expression. The difference is it's all up to you, that whole half hour is in your control, apart from lighting, sound, waiters and pissed people."

Acting in MDA was liberating, allowing him to relinquish a lot of that control. But occasionally he just wants to "have a rave", he says.

The MDA work hasn't affected his material, though it might have affected his delivery.

"A guy I work with a lot said my diction was a bit better," he says. "The thing I like about Happy is he has a wry and dry humour, and I'm always emphatic to make sure he doesn't become a joker.

"Sometimes the writers start to write jokes for me, but I don't think he's looking for a response, his humour is just a part of his dysfunctionality, he doesn't need anyone to hear it.

"That's been empowering in a way, because stand-up is all about keeping an ear out for the response. Maybe the character has made me a little less needy in that way."

Bourne says he feels the writing—already a strong point of the first series of MDA—has improved for the second.

Plots have been streamlined and the interweaving of the personal side of things seems to be more natural and adept, too, Bourne says.

Some of the script changes were driven by cast member Kerry Armstrong, who put noses out of joint by throwing her weight around on scripts she did not think were up to scratch.

But Bourne has nothing but praise. "She was relentless in pursuing the essence—we had some script struggles, but all for the good," he says.

Bourne's own character is being developed, as part of a story-line involving a class action that puts him in the firing line.

He's finding the going easier, but he's aware there's a danger of complacency.

"The first one was a journey of discovery… is this too much, am I coming across like some sort of grumpy cartoon character?" he says. "The challenge this time is to make sure I don't just sit back and go into cruise mode."

By Nick Miller
July 16, 2003
The West Australian