MDA: articles

Shane Bourne

Producers were concerned audiences may not believe a comic could play a character actor says Bourne.

Shane Bourne reinvents himself on MDA

After years being recognised for his comic wit, Shane Bourne's career has taken a serious turn, writes Dan Silkstone.

As Shane Bourne sips a macchiato outside his local bayside cafe, the universe decides to make him eat his words. It's a moment of anarchic brilliance that could be lifted from a surrealist collage. Best known for his standup comedy and regular spot on Nine's Hey Hey, It's Saturday, the 52-year-old Bourne is talking about the transition he has made to serious actor in the ABC's medico-legal drama MDA.

He says that comedy is a "young man's game", requiring a fresh take on reality that diminishes with age and experience.

"For me now, with comedy, you're not wrestling with the creative puzzle, you've actually nailed it," he says. "There's just something funny and anarchic about the way you see the world when you're 28."

And then comes a strange intervention, if not from the gods then certainly from their representative on Earth.

The cafe speakers are blaring out Henry Mancini's Baby Elephant Walk when, as if on cue, a bright yellow motor scooter zips past, and pulls onto the kerb. A priest, complete with dog-collar and crucifix, performs a nimble dismount, rushes over to grab Bourne's hand and begins shaking it furiously.

"I've got a case for ya, will you defend me?" he says, before donning his helmet and riding away.

It's a bizarre moment and Bourne laughs heartily, "It's dial-a-reverend," he says, pointing in amusement at the fast-disappearing stranger.

The world can still amaze Bourne, and he continues to find humour in its strangeness.

But such recognition is also confirmation of the degree to which he has inhabited the role of MDA's sardonic lawyer Bill 'Happy' Henderson. Bourne says the show's producers took a courageous gamble in casting a man better known for playing the fool than for his ability as a character actor.

"There was, understandably from the ABC and the producers, a concern over a person such as myself who is highly associated with the comic world - would the audience buy that?" he says.

But the veteran performer says he is amazed at how people have accepted and reacted to his character.

"Back in the Hey Hey days they'd come up to you on the street and it was like 'How's Daryl? How's Ossie?"' he says. "But it's amazing the conversations you have with people because you're working on a show that's intelligent and that people are interested in."

For decades Bourne has earned a living as an entertainer. He has played in bands, had guest roles in dramas such as Cop Shop and Prisoner , and worked with some of Australia's leading theatre companies.

In the early 1980s he moved to the UK to try his hand at comedy, lobbing into London at a time when a fresh band of comics, including Alexei Sayle, Adrian Edmundson and Ben Elton were strutting their stuff.

Now, after years of commercial television, Bourne says the ABC feels like home. He is clearly enjoying the challenge of playing the blustery but loveable Happy.

Current episodes of MDA see his dramatic skills tested by a gut-wrenching storyline involving Happy's troubled relationship with his son Jason, played by Simon Stone.

"I was absolutely blown away by the truth of the moments € It was pretty upsetting," he says of the scenes he shared with 19-year-old Stone.

"When I met Simon … it was kind of like looking at the son I never had, or looking at me at that age. There was some secret men's business going on and I can't actually articulate it."

As Jason goes off the rails in spectacular fashion, Happy is riven by feelings of anger, guilt and frustration - feelings that threaten to interfere with his work.

"It's about cutting the strings," Bourne says. "Guys and their dads often have that tug'o'war, that tussle. You can see in Happy that powerful unbridled love but also an obstruction in being able to express it."

These scenes called for some of the most difficult acting of Bourne's career. He admits the bare emotion behind his performance was underpinned by some very personal feelings.

"I suppose I drew upon my own experience of growing up in a single parent family where my father was an absent idol. He was a highly regarded entertainer, musician, comedian, who I loved dearly (but) I have vivid memories of the pain of separation when you said goodbye," he says.

Bourne's father was 'King of the Gold Coast' Stan: a singer musician and comedian who would leave his children for up to a year at a time while touring.

"It was his life and I don't deny him that … but we idolised him, he was an amazingly gifted performer," he says.

Though Stan died when Bourne was 21, he says he spent much of his early career striving to live up to his old man's legend.

"When you get a little older you can be reflective and I can see now that for the first 10 years what was propelling me into all these areas was my father," he says.

Filming has recently wrapped on MDA's 22-episode first season and Bourne, like the rest of the cast, is hopeful of getting the nod for a second.

As the cafe owner clears the table he tells his famous local, "Your picture's up on the wall of fame, above the stairs on the way to the sh-thouse."

Bourne chuckles and makes a characteristic crack about how it represents his career. Thankfully, he couldn't be further from the truth.

MDA screens on Tuesdays at 9.30pm on the ABC.

By Dan Silkstone
November 07, 2002
The Age