Geoff Morrell is frank about talking up Cloudstreet.
But in playing the role of ‘Lester Lamb’, the actor well known for Blue Heelers, Bastard Boys, Marking Time and Changi, insists he isn’t just towing the company line. He genuinely loves this miniseries.
“To be talking about something you’re in is obviously required for publicity purposes and you can briefly say, ‘Yes it’s great you should watch it.’ But I can’t wait for other people to see it because then I won’t have to say how brilliant it is, because other people can,” he says.
“It is cinematic and it is on another level to television.
“I remember talking to Peter Rose who is the head of Showtime and I said ‘So how would you judge the business success? Are there numbers, are they subscriptions?’ He said ‘No, we do these things as a form of product branding. It is to say you can see stuff on this channel that you would never see anywhere.’
“And I suppose all I can say without doing the thing that I just said that I feel a bit uncomfortable with, is that it is like something you’ve never seen before in six and half hours of cinema.”
Morrell admits he had never gotten to the end of Tim Winton’s acclaimed novel until he was cast in the project and picked up the book once again.
“The thing I remember about it is just how funny it was and I had forgotten that until I got this job,” he says.
“People say it’s a classic and moving and everything which it is, but it’s laugh-aloud funny and so I just hope that we actually get that bit of it right.
“And look it’s a very spiritual piece, it’s almost a bloody religious experience. I mean watching it works a on a kind of mesmeric level with the music and the script which Tim Winton has done. He’s not done any of his other stuff, he’s just given it to other people.
“So it does work on this rarified kind of level, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen I think.”
Winton is something of ‘product’ of Cloudstreet, with one of the roles loosely based on his father.
“It’s a bit of a love letter that he wrote to Australia when he was in Paris and kind of home sick, so the characters are drawn in love and his memories of them are obviously sort of coated in honey. So you see these two very different families, one is a family of smokers and drinkers,” explains Morrell.
“Steven Curry’s character is forever talking about the ‘shifty shadow’ and he’s always gambling all the money away. He gets left this house in a will they but they get renters in because they are broke. So they divide the house bang down the middle and they put it out to let. So the Lambs, which is myself and Kerrie Fox as a mum and dad and six kids, turn up and they are the absolute opposite to the Pickles.
“They are very religious, although they have lost a religion a bit because one of their kids nearly drowned. But they turn the place into this thriving shop and they are very industrious people, very thrifty.”
But Morrell also sees more universal themes in the miniseries with the house serving as a metaphor for modern Australia.
“On a larger level what it also deals with is the history of the house which was for young Aboriginal girls who weren’t treated all that well. So the ghost of these young Aboriginal girls still haunts their house and the one person who can sense this strongly is the little kid ‘Fish’ who is intellectually disabled. He is the one who can sense all this,” he says.
“There is a fantastic resolution and in a way for me it’s like an analogy for Australia.
“I mean the house is their home just as Australia is our home and I think the larger theme says until you deal honestly with your past then you can’t be quite comfortable in that house.
“It’s funny I never got that from the original book, but I get it very, very strongly from this version of it.
“Everyone thinks they’ve read Cloudstreet and knows it, but of course they don’t. There is a great sense of ownership but I think this it’s a great screen version for people who haven’t read the book. What Tim has done is really condensed that book, but not in a Readers Digest kind of way. He has distilled, I think, the essence of the book -a long, rambling book into six and half hours of cinema.”
Winton adapted the screenplay, his first for television, in consultation with producer Greg Haddrick from Screentime.
“At the Perth launch Tim gave this great quote where he said, ‘I am the bloke for whom the t-shirt was invented that says Does Not Play With Others.’ Because he is not a collaborator. He said, ‘The only collaboration I have done in 30 years is with my wife,'” says Morrell.
“So Greg has just done really an amazing job and then of course you’ve got the director Matt Saville who has been the one to watch for couple of years. I think this has given him the material to just shift that gear up to that next level and I think, like all of us, is really proud of the achievement.
“But the other thing that takes this out of the box is that it’s magic realism. We have a talking pig.
“It just suddenly talks and you go ‘Well okay, talking pig.’ You know it’s not over done. And the house lives, the house breathes, the house moves.
“So it also takes you onto another level of not just looking at the costumes and wondering about something’s authenticity. It does really transport you somewhere else I think.”
In addition to Cloudstreet, Morrell had a busy 2010 with roles in Rake, Small Time Gangster, Winner and Losers and a new film with Emily Watson and David Wenham called Oranges and Sunshine.
“But to tell you the truth this year I haven’t done a stitch of work and it’s kind of alright,” he admits.
“I got close to a couple of things and they didn’t happen. I knocked back a couple of plays because I thought I wasn’t as passionate about them as I should be. In some ways when you give those messages to the universe, the universe says ‘Okay so you want to be quiet for a while?’
“And you know I am fine with that. I am also an Artist so I’ve got some exhibitions that are coming up later in the year. I did a whole series of photographs on the Cloudstreet set. I’ve got them all I’ve got 30 little pieces they are all beautifully framed, and I’m just looking for the right venue.
“But at the moment just excited about everything that’s coming out.”
Cloudstreet premieres 8:30pm Sunday on Showcase.